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, 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, and featured some 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 that 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.
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 LP 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. 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). It’s a letdown. 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. But elsewhere, if falls flat. The songs are uninspired, the whole thing is overproduced, and the ballad, “Voices,” is turgid. There are strings, and some heavy-metal disco. 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 a slow, downhill slide 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 the single, 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. And it was a terrible song.
Standing on the Edge (1986 Epic) was supposed to be the ol’ “return to the roots” record, but ended up having drum machines. Then it was The Doctor (1986 Epic). Sometimes it becomes difficult to continue writing these entries, once a band totally falls apart: “funk”; female back-up singers; synthesizers; computer-programmed sound effects; not much guitar.
Epic was fed up. They forced outside songwriters on the band. The result was a commercial hit and a product that would stifle the band creatively throughout the 90s. Tom Petersson rejoined the band. They had a hair ballad stuffed down their throats. “The Flame” went to #1. The CD was Lap of Luxury, (1988 Epic). It went platinum. It got bad reviews. It sold.
It’s sort of pointless to blather on endlessly about all the records Cheap Trick has made since. Sales plummeted, again; they got dropped from one major, then another. It’s really all about the first four LPs, and two tracks from the fifth.
Bands — you know, they never realize they have shelf lives, that the thing that makes a band resonate with people, and vibrate, is that they strike the Zeitgeist — and the ability to do that doesn’t last forever. They think lightning will strike over and over and over again, in exactly the same spot. Cheap Trick are still together. After Lap of Luxury, they tried to make lightning strike that spot over and over again. Of course, that spot was crass, and commercial, and artificial, and it didn’t work. They’re on an indie now. They seem to have some perspective. They’re back where they started, playing clubs. The Albini/In Color move was a stroke of genius. They should release that @#$%. They toured with Guided by Voices. Also a good move. They’re taking control of the sale of their product through digital distro. Also a good move. Go buy Budokan. It’s great.