(Photo: Alicia Bailey)

Katie Rife: My musical tastes have always leaned on the “middle-aged record store clerk” side (thus my undying affection for The Replacements), but for some reason it took me until recently to get into Cheap Trick. Now that they’re being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, they’ve got a little more cachet. But they always struck me as an odd combination of mainstream classic rock and hipster cult band, kind of like how Fleetwood Mac has become cool again in the past couple of years.

The crowd at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame show at the Metro (a mid-sized club here in Chicago) on April 1 reflected that, I thought. There was the older local crowd who remembered seeing them in the ’70s, the diehard fans who traveled from across the country—one woman I talked to from Virginia said she had seen them 75 times that she could remember—and a smattering of young people who seemed to really dig them musically. Mike, you’ve seen Cheap Trick more than a dozen times. Has the demographic changed over the years? And why do you think people are so devoted to this particular band?

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Mike Vanderbilt: I probably first heard Cheap Trick on a VHS copy of Up The Creek, or maybe on MTV or VH1 when “Don’t Be Cruel” was in perpetual rotation. Then, when I was 14, I heard them on the Heavy Metal soundtrack. And “Surrender” and “I Want You To Want Me” were always staples of classic rock radio. Most of my friends at that point were into what I saw as dull, plodding classic rock, like Led Zeppelin and The Doors, or the grunge and post-grunge that was on the radio in the mid-’90s. Cheap Trick split the difference between the Ramones and the ’70s AM pop that I loved; I was attracted to the big hooks and tempo, but I also liked things that were kind of weird and cultish. So they really felt like “my band,” since nobody in my high school was that into them.

However, unlike other “classic rock” bands, Cheap Trick retained its personality over the years. It wasn’t like Chicago, still cranking out records even though the only original member may have been one of the trombone players. I have certainly seen a change—and maybe it’s from my circle expanding, or from playing in bands—in the perception of Cheap Trick, from a dorky AOR act to effortlessly cool. It certainly helps that even 20 years or so after their heyday, their live shows were (and still are) exciting visually and aurally. I’ve seen them plenty of times over the years, but this was your first. What’d you think of the show?

(Photo: Alicia Bailey)

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Katie Rife: It surprised me in some ways, but not really in others. As I expected from listening to their records, Rick Nielsen’s guitar playing really stood out. He’s an incredible guitarist, and I found it delightful that he brought out a different guitar for every single song, including that massive five-headed guitar he brought out during the encore. You could tell that thing was heavy.

Robin Zander’s vocals and stage presence came across more heavy metal live, which was a surprise to me; I get the “hair metal” comparisons now, which is something I never understood just from listening to the records. I was also surprised at the amount of time Tom Petersson had in the spotlight—a long bass solo, and then singing a cover of “I’m Waiting For The Man.” It made me wonder: In a lot of bands, all these big personalities would lead to a clash of egos, and the band would break up, or keep going with just one or two original members. But the whole thing came across as fun instead of pompous “rock star” posturing, and with one big exception—drummer Bun E. Carlos—Cheap Trick is still together. Does each member always get their time to shine at the shows you’ve been at? If so, do you think that’s helped the band stay together so long?

Mike Vanderbilt: Perhaps it’s their “Midwestern-ness.” Two other bands that I love, The Replacements and Guided By Voices, have the same fervent following that I’ve noticed in Cheap Trick fans. Perhaps I just notice this because I’m in the midst of it, but there’s a “fuck L.A., and fuck New York, too” attitude among these bands’ Midwestern fan bases.

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I think it may be Robin Zander’s look that brings that “hair metal” vibe. Record companies in the ’80s didn’t know how to market Cheap Trick: With two long-haired sex symbols and two goofballs—which, the more I think about it, was a look they probably cultivated on purpose—and big rock sound, they appeared to fit in better with Poison than The Clash. That personality is one of the big things that has always made Cheap Trick stand out: In a lot of bands, particularly from that era, each member is replaceable. How many members has Foreigner gone through? Could you pick any of them out of a lineup? As far as egos go, I once asked Petersson why he doesn’t sing more, as it’s always a treat when he does the Velvet Underground medley or “I Know What I Want” off of Dream Police. He replied that “it’s hard to compete with Robin.” There’s certainly some ego, but I think each member respects what the other guys bring to the party.

And yeah, Carlos is gone now, but Petersson left for a brief time in the ’80s. And the band never necessarily held auditions for their replacements. After Petersson’s departure in ’80, Pete Comita stepped in, and after him Jon Brandt; both of them had played around Chicago in the ’70s in the oft-forgotten d’Thumbs and were from the same “scene” as Cheap Trick. And—going back to the way the band always marketed themselves—both Comita and Brandt could be described as “a Tom Petersson type.” Comita, despite his brief tenure, even made it to the Cheap Trick Viewmaster slides. As far as drummers go, Daxx is literally keeping it in the family, being Rick Nielsen’s kid; he also sings harmonies (perhaps covering some of Rick’s parts).

As a newer member to the cult of Cheap Trick, what did you think of the set list?

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Katie Rife: Well, considering I really only know Cheap Trick’s ’70s output and the singles off the new album—I may have put on All Shook Up or Next Position Please a few times, but I’m not intimately familiar with the track listing or anything—I was glad that so much of the setlist was from those records. “Stiff Competition” from Heaven Tonight was a highlight for me, as were “Hot Love” and “ELO Kiddies” from the ’77 self-titled album. I think I like the weird, syncopated, off-kilter Cheap Trick more than the “hard rock Beatles” Cheap Trick. Another thing I noticed was that they definitely seemed more energized playing material off of their new album. They played “Surrender” and “I Want You To Want Me,” of course, but they just didn’t seem that excited about them; “I Want You To Want Me” was one of the weakest songs of the night for me, actually. Considering Rick said on stage their official tally has been at 5,000 shows for a decade now, I can see how the novelty of playing the hits could wear off.

All that being said, even as a first-timer and an admittedly casual fan, there was still a lot I recognized in the show. For me, it was fun because aside from the obvious hits they’re all album cuts to me—like, “Oh, I know this, but I’m not sick to death of it yet.” And the whole thing had the feel of a family reunion, so maybe they wanted to stick with the classics. Still, I wonder if that could have been boring or predictable for someone who’s got a deeper knowledge of their catalog. What were highlights for you, Mike?

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Mike Vanderbilt: The coolest thing about the Metro show, and the whole day in general, is that it was a sort of victory lap for the band. While born of Rockford, Chicago always liked to call Cheap Trick one of its own. There was a record signing at Reckless Records earlier that day and [local burger joint] Kuma’s Corner ran a Cheap Trick burger special—no bun, get it? And the Metro show sold out. As a “connoisseur,” it would be easy for me to whine about the lack of any real surprises in the set list: An appearance by Carlos on “Who D’King,” Pete Comita being brought on stage to perform “Reach Out,” or Jon Brandt stepping in on bass for “If You Want My Love (Extra Bridge Version)” would have all been cool.

But as it stands, much like pizza, there’s no such thing as a bad Cheap Trick show. I’ve seen some that were by the numbers, though, where the band appeared bored and were going through the motions—The Riviera in November of ’99 or their 2006 appearance at Taste Of Chicago spring to mind—although that may have been more on me than the band.This show all but ignored 2003’s Special One and 1997’s self-titled release, but on the other hand, they did play “The Ballad Of TV Violence,” “Taxman, Mr. Thief,” and “Hot Love” off of their debut, as well as a run of “Hello There,” “Come On, Come On,” and “ELO Kiddies” right off of Cheap Trick At Budakon: The Complete Concert. They can’t play everything.

I suppose it’s fitting that there was a concentration on ’70s material, as this show really was a love letter to the fans who saw these guys do four sets a night at suburban clubs like the Night Gallery in Waukegan or Humpin’ Hannah’s in Milwaukee back in the day. At this show, they called back to those club days with “The In Crowd,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” and The Move’s “California Man,” all from when they would pepper their sets with obscure covers (although the extended “Brontosaurus” tease broke my heart a bit because I’d love to see them cover that live, the single they recorded with Albini is a corker).

The band really did look energized playing their new material. “Heart On The Line” (which Rick wrote for and played on House Of Lords’ Sahara album in 1990) will probably end up being the band’s go-to opener for the next year or so, and “No Direction Home” recalls something off of Standing On The Edge. Unlike a lot of their contemporaries, a new Cheap Trick song is not the time for a bathroom break, and they’ve never really relied on a greatest-hits set. Hell, this is the band that rarely plays their single No. 1 hit. Personally, I like when they play “The Flame” live; Rick really rocks up the guitar solo, and Robin can still hit all of those notes. Everyone in the band is a pretty good singer, but Robin Zander can seriously do anything. They don’t call him “the man of a thousand voices” for nothing.

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Katie Rife: Speaking of still being able to hit those notes, do you think Cheap Trick will ever retire? I mean, I heard that Rick’s grandkids were at the show. Sometimes a band obviously doesn’t have it anymore and they should retire, or they hate each other and break up, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. They appear comfortable, and don’t have the hunger they did as a younger band. But they can still play. So will Cheap Trick keep gigging until they’re in their 80s? Should they?

Mike Vanderbilt: It seems like they don’t know any other way. These guys haven’t had day jobs since the early ’70s. I know that they have enough songs in the can for another record, and there’s even been talk of releasing another record this year like they did in ’77. On the other hand, that sense that this show was a victory lap does lend some credence to the notion that they may be ready to call it quits. Personally, I can’t see them simply becoming a studio band, I think that they have too much fun going out on tour. And the tour appears to be never ending.

Katie Rife: I guess when Rick can’t pick up that five-headed guitar anymore, then we’ll know it’s over. I do want to go to their show with Joan Jett and Heart this summer, though.

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Photo by Alicia Bailey