Cheap Trick - Biography
Cheap Trick are a joy- a physical embodiment of all the contradictions that make rock ‘n’ roll great. In their prime, in the late 70s, they really tore it up, with an unlikely blend of Beatles-worthy tunesmithing and punk-tempo throttling. They’re partly a hard-rock band, and sort of new wave, and that sort of makes them neither, which is great. And as far as image goes, their gimmickry is world class. Robin Zander (lead vocals, rhythm guitar) and Tom Petersson (bass guitar, backing vocals) are standard-issue rock hero types: long, flaxen locks, pretty-boy looks, tight trousers, razor sharp cheekbones, the works. Then you’ve got Rick Nielsen (lead guitar, backing vocals), with a buzz cut and jacket and little boy’s bicycle cap and bow tie and weird checkered outfits, running around on stage all spastic and A.D.D with a preposterous five-necked guitar. And then there’s Bun E. Carlos (drums, percussion): stocky; mustache; thick glasses; cheap, white short-sleeve shirt; cheap tie; cheap sport coat; impassive demeanor; constant dangling cigarette. He looks like a school bus driver or a high school teacher. He’s definitely the coolest guy in rock. Oh, and you know the cliché, “They’re big in Japan?” Well, Cheap Trick are huge in Japan.
Neilsen and Petersson met in Rockford, Illinois, in the 1960s, and in 1967 they started a band called Fuse. Carlos was brought in as the drummer. They released one record, Fuse (1968 Epic), which tanked. In 1974, they replaced lead singer Randy Hogan with Robin Zander and renamed the band Cheap Trick. They spent the next couple of years gigging around Chicagoland and Southern Wisconsin, perfecting their live act. Jack Douglas, a big-name producer (Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, The Who, John Lennon), saw the band, decided to work with them, and got them signed to Epic.
The debut, Cheap Trick (1977 Epic) captures the band’s intense stage show, and deals with darker themes. "Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School" is about a pedophile; “The Ballad of T.V. Violence" is about a serial killer, Richard Speck; "Oh Candy" deals with suicide. The record didn’t do very well, but it got great reviews. Rolling Stone wrote: “Their lyrics run the gamut of lust, confusion and misogyny, growing out of rejection and antiauthoritarian sentiments about school—all with an element of wit that has distinguished the best bands since rock began. Standout songs, to my ears, are ‘Elo Kiddies,’ ‘Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace’ and the aforementioned ‘Taxman.’ Catch them before Nurse Ratched slices open their frontal lobes.” Not bad. Meanwhile, the band toured nonstop, opening for the biggest acts of the day, including Kiss, Boston, and The Kinks. They also started developing that fanbase in Japan.
In Color (1977 Epic) did slightly better, featuring great songs, but none of the singles — “I Want You To Want Me/Oh Boy,”"Southern Girls/You're All Talk," "So Good To See You/You're All Talk” — made the charts. In Japan, it was a phenomenon. It went gold, and “Clock Strikes Ten” went to #1. The album was poppier, but the band was dissatisfied with Tom Werman’s production; in fact, in 1998 the band went into the studio and re-recorded In Color in its entirety with — get this — Steve Albini. However, it remains unreleased, which is a shame (yet you can stream some of it on the internet).
Heaven Tonight (1978 Epic) finally struck the right tone, nailing Cheap Trick’s poppier side, while retaining the hard-rock fury. The first single, “Surrender/Auf Wiedersehn,” was the first to chart, at #62. The second, "California Man/Stiff Competition," wasn’t so lucky. None of the bands first three LPs broke into the Top 40; in the meantime, all three LPs had gone gold in Japan. In the spring of 1978 they toured Japan for the first time. Pandemonium ensued. It was like Beatlemania — hordes of screaming girls, the whole bit. The press dubbed them “The American Beatles.” They also played two sold-out shows at Budokan, the massive arena in Tokyo, and recorded them for a Japanese-only release.
Issued in Japan at the end of 1978, copies of the LP immediately started spilling into the US as imports, selling extremely well, especially for an import. Epic noticed and issued it in the US. Cheap Trick at Budokan (1979 Epic) broke Cheap Trick wide open. It promptly went platinum, and hit #4 on the charts. The singles did well, too: “I Want You to Want Me” went to #7 (it’s their biggest hit); “Ain’t That a Shame” got to #35. The energy and the enthusiasm was contagious — when you could even hear that band over all the shrieking females. It’s a classic live album, and the band’s peak moment.
They followed with a studio effort, Dream Police (1979 Epic). The title track is a triumph, and it rivals “Surrender” as the band’s best song — a four-minute blast of galloping power chords, with a tornado of synths, Kinks-style vocals, and arch lyrics about coked-up paranoia. The LP contained more future Cheap Trick power pop classics- the rocking "Way Of The World," the KISS styled bluster of "Gonna Raise Hell," the soft balladry in "Voices," bassist Tom Petersson's lone vocal on "I Know What I Want," a pair of hook handed pop tunes in "I'll Be With You Tonight" and "Writing On the Wall"- rounding out a largely satisfying LP. It did well, and Dream Police was their biggest selling studio LP: the LP went to #6; the title track peaked at #26; the second single, “Voices,” went to #32.
For Cheap Trick, things started to commercially slowdown after 1979. They were still huge, playing arenas, but there were problems. The band managed to snag George Martin to produce All Shook Up (1980 Epic), and of course the end product sounded great, but it threw fans for a loop. There’s psychedelia, sound effects, and hard-rock rumblings; Rolling Stone described it as “Led Zeppelin gone psycho.” It reached #24; the singles, "Everything Works If You Let It" and "Stop This Game"/"Who D'King," came close, but both failed to break the top 40. Petersson left the band after All Shook Up.
The band took some time off and contributed music to some movies, until Epic sued them for a new record. They made One on One (1982 Epic) with Roy Thomas Baker, the producer for Queen and The Cars. There were two minor hits, "If You Want My Love" and "She's Tight." The next move was Next Position Please (1982 Epic) with Todd Rundgren as producer. Epic wanted bigger sales and more hits, and forced the band to record a cover of “Dancing the Night Away” by The Motors. It didn’t chart. The second single was one of the band’s favorites, “I Can’t Take It.” It didn’t chart. They recorded “Spring Break” for a trashy teen comedy of the same name, then released it as a single. It didn’t chart. They recorded “Up the Creek” for a trashy teen comedy of the same name. It barely charted, at #36. But it promptly fell off.
Standing on the Edge (1986 Epic) was supposed to be the ol’ “return to the roots,” but ended up having drum machines, though it contained one of the band's finest songs "Tonight It's You." Then it was The Doctor (1986 Epic), a middling affair that found the band fully embracing modern production techniques and effects, yet still containing some fine material- especially the hook driven greatness of "Are You Lonely Tonight?" The LP do much commercially, charting at #115 on the Hot 200.
Epic was fed up. They forced outside songwriters on the band. The result was a commercial hit, sending the band back to the top of the pop heap- a comeback similar to Aerosmith's a year before. Tom Petersson rejoined the band. They had their only number one single with “The Flame,” a song they did not write. The LP Lap of Luxury, (1988 Epic) went platinum. Though it was a massive commercial production, with outside songwriters providing much of the material, the band were involved with a few gems, namely lead track "Let Go," the Temptations steal that is "Never Had A lot To Lose," and the LP's real star ballad, the wonderfully under rated "Ghost Town."
With a new lease on pop chart life, the band recorded a follow up, Busted (1990) in a similar fashion, and it contained the Top 20 hit "Can't Stop Fallin' Into Love (Billboard #12)," this time written by Rick Neilson and Robin Zander. "Walk Away" is a great duet with The Pretenders Chrissie Hynde, a wonderful Beatles styled mid tempo rocker called "Had To Make You Mine," and a cool cover of the 1974 Wizzard classic "Rock N Roll Tonight." Epic dropped the band when Busted failed to repeat the same business as it's predecessor, and the band moved to Warner Brothers for one LP, Woke Up With A Monster. The record failed commercially, critically, and the fans did not fall in love with it at the time. The band was then dropped from Warner.
In 1996 the band came roaring back in the most brutal, exciting fashion- with a 7" record on Sub Pop. The song- "Baby Talk" recalled the golden era of the band's more bruising, hard rocking 70s creations- with thunderous, Move styled riffs and a cool hook in which Robin Zander growls and screams and wails and croons in his finest voice. The B Side is a spot on cover of The Move's "Brontosaurus." This single signaled to Cheap Trick fans that the band had rediscovered themselves as the hard rock art job and power pop gods they had abandoned in favor of a pop life no longer relevant to this juncture in their career ,influencing the next LP entirely.
1997's self titled LP, referred to also as Cheap Trick 97', hears the band as a self contained unit once again, writing and arranging and mostly producing themselves. The LP contains the slow burn classic "You Let A Lotta People Down" and the quick shock rocker "Baby No More," the entire tone showing fans the band still had a lot of spark in their step. The artwork is in black and white, the band is stripped down and sound heavy. In 2003 the band released A Special One, which contained a mixed bag of pop songs, hard rockers, and distorted dirges, continuing the band's new determination to play and record what they want, rather than follow any pop formulas for chart domination. Rockford (2006) followed in a similar fashion. in 2009 the band released The Latest, a fine collection of songs that finely tunes the Cheap Trick aesthetic for maximum effect- the rockers- "California Girl," "Sick Man Of Europe," and a cover of Slade's "When The Lights Are Out" clearly demonstarte that at this late a date, Cheap Trick can still rock your face off. The same year the band released their cover of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's LP, in it's entirety. They continue to tour and rock harder than most modern bands could ever dream to.