In about two weeks, a new exhibit opens up at the Burpee Museum in Rockford, Illinois. Surprisingly, the exhibit is about Rick Nielsen’s love affair with guitars and picks. Having lived in Northern Illinois most of my life, it comes as no surprise that Nielsen will be giving back to the community in some way. He and his band mates have done so often throughout their almost 40 year career. The exhibit, which runs from August 11 until April 2013, is lined with guitars and other memories of Nielsen through the years. For Nielsen, his love affair with the six string began long before Cheap Trick was formed. However, when one tends to think of Cheap Trick, the summer of 1979 comes to mind. They were everywhere that summer. Looking back for the band, it was when they exploded all because of one live album that was never meant to be.
Rick Nielsen began playing in bands at the age of 15. It was not until 1970, however, that Nielsen began his recording career. Joining up with bassist Tom Petersson, the band Fuze released its one and only record. Returning to the Midwest, Nielsen and Petersson continued to play gigs as Fuse. Joining them was drummer Bun E. Carlos (Brad Carlson). The band eventually moved to Philadelphia and renamed themselves “The Sick men of Europe.” In 1973, the band returned to Rockford. Adding vocalist Randy Hogan, the band began calling themselves Cheap Trick. The moniker stems from an off-handed remark by Petersson that the band Slade used every “cheap trick” in the band. Hogan did not stay as the vocalist very long. The band recruited Robin Zander to take over for Hogan. The lineup was set.
In 1975, the band began touring around the midwest and recorded a demo. The band would be signed to Epic Records and the first record was produced by Jack Douglas. Recorded in 1976, the record was released in 1977. The record did receive good reviews but failed to catch on in the US. Their second record, In Color, was recorded and released that same year. The band did not like the production, but something was stirring for the band. While they had failed to catch on at home. The band was quite successful in Japan. This success enabled the band to record and release their third album, Heaven Tonight in 1978. The first single, Surrender, charted albeit at #62.
In order to cash in on what were three gold records in Japan, the band took themselves across the Pacific to tour Japan in the spring of 1978. The resulting concerts, and recordings of them, would propel the band forward in their career. Nielsen said of the band’s Japanese success happened because of their association with Queen. Nielsen said,
Queen had heard our first album pre-release and asked us if we would open two shows. Japanese journalists came to see Queen, and while they loved them, of course, they thought that the opening band – us – really had something. So they started writing about us.
The recordings of two concerts at the Nippon Budokan were intended to for a future Japanese only release. Nielsen was startled when the band returned to headline in 1978 when 5000 fans greeted Cheap Trick at Haneda Airport in Tokyo.
“I thought the president of Japan was on the plane or something. We were just flying coach. There were kids everywhere trying to get to us, we were told not to look out the windows of our rooms, otherwise kids outside would faint and go crazy. We couldn’t believe it. All this for us?”
The band’s forte was live performing. In an era where bands paid their dues by touring and being great live performers, Cheap Trick did not disappoint at Budokan. The record begins with the appropriately titled, “Hello, There.”
Followed by Come On, Come On, the band’s signature power guitar and catchy melodies embodied their “power pop” style.
But Cheap Trick is more than that. It is a rock and roll band that never eschewed the melody. Next came the song, “Lookout.” Nielsen said of the song, “Lookout is fun, it’s fast, it starts and stops, it’s loud. Basically, it’s a Who pop song. We never emulated The Who, but if we ever stole anything from them, at least we changed the key.” The song “Big Eyes” came next.
Side one closes with the song, “Need Your Love.” Nielsen labels this as one of his favorite tracks because of Zander’s vocals. He said,
I think of this one, and the image is of watching a drunk guy who trashes around at a show, bangs his head against a wall, jumps into a moshpit, but then he gets out and goes to his girlfriend and asks, ‘Are you OK, honey?’ If you wanna get laid, you have to be nice occasionally.
That’s why Robin’s voice is so great: he can go from being the nasty villain to the sweet, lovable guy, and switch them back and forth. A song that’s gooey all the way through is disgusting; on the other hand, if you’re just ‘Kill your mother, kill your father, kill your dog!’ the whole time, that’s too extreme the other way. This song has the balance.
What happened on side one is not too different from most bands of the era. Influenced by The Beatles, the band walks a fine line between its own creativity and paying homage to the bands before it. As side one closes, the power pop begins to fade to display a full on rock band gracing the stage.
Side two kicks off with a cover version of the Fats Domino Song, “Ain’t That a Shame.” NIelsen said,
“We were asked to do a cover song for the show, which was fine – we’d always done some covers. One day, we were listening to John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album, and one of the songs on there is Ain’t That A Shame. ‘Hey, if it’s good enough for John Lennon…We did our own version of it, throwing in all the breaks and build-ups. It’s a simple three-chord song, so we made it way harder than it had to be. We kind of made it a cross between the ending of The Beatles’ The End and something from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.”
The band continued to head full on as a rock band with the song, “I Want You to Want Me.” Originally a single off the second album, the song had failed to chart in the US when the band played it at Budokan. The summer of 1979, it would propel the album to triple platinum.
For me, the track I loved in the summer of 1979 was Surrender. At track #8, it is filled with every “cheap trick” in songwriting. Power chords, a catchy melody, a sing-along chorus, an allusion to Kiss and VD in the same song, but not together. For a teenage boy, it was a slice of heaven! It still is having been covered by Green Day and the Foo Fighters.
The album closes with two songs, “Goodnight Now” and the live staple “Clock Strikes Ten.”
While the concerts were recorded for TV, the album did not come out until later that fall in Japan. 30,000 import copies soon made their made to the US. DJs began to play the record on Album Oriented Radio (AOR). The public began to crave what Cheap Trick had to offer. Epic relented and released the album in 1979. 3 million units later, it is still the best selling record in the Cheap Trick catalog.
While the album did launch Cheap Trick as a major act in the US, the band never quite reached those heights again. For me, I loved the next few albums: Dream Police, All Shook Up, and One on One. I had think they were the only band I had all on 8 track. But by the mid 80s, I was off on another musical tangent. But the band never stopped playing. I have seen them three times and they always deliver the goods. They are still making records and still touring. They were named by Billy Corgan and Kurt Cobain as having an influence on their careers and music. It is strange looking back how a live album recorded thousands of miles away by a band ten miles from where I live resulted in their prolonged careers.
A few years ago, I had a student did a history fair project on Cheap Trick. Bun E. was gracious enough to do a phone interview, with thanks to his mother (who I knew through my friend Dave Oberg). He came across as a very down to earth guy. I ran into Rick Nielsen two years ago at the Stone Eagle Tavern in Rockford. I walked away ironically humming, “Stop This Game.” I find them to be great guys. Strangely, I once asked my students what they wanted to be when they grew up. One student, Kara, replied in 1998, “Mrs. Robin Zander.” I don’t think her goal has ever changed and it’s all because of one album that wasn’t meant to be.
Cheap Trick has been quoted that they did not like the production on their early albums, mainly In Color. But when you look at the totality of the songs on Cheap Trick, Heaven Tonight, and In Color, what is seen and heard is quite the display of song craftsmanship. The band is never going to win any contests for its lyrics, but the melodies, the riffs, all play into their strength as a live band. What Budokan captured was that strength. I would have liked to have seen the songs “He’s a Whore” and “Southern Girls” on the record, but that is just my own personal preference. The album with its crowd screams reminiscent of the Beatles, has held up well. Despite the fact that the record was recorded in Japan, it displays why the band is still together today (minus Bun E)…they know how to rock a stage.
For track by track discussion of each song, please see the following interview: