Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Guitar god Rick Nielsen talks about Cheap Trick’s earliest hits

Cheap Trick: Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson, Robin Zander
Cheap Trick: Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson, Robin Zander

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.


The artist: Perennial rock band Cheap Trick has now entered its fourth full decade of performing for appreciative fans and releasing record after record. Rockford, Illinois natives Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander, Tom Petersson, and Bun E. Carlos got discovered in a Wisconsin bowling alley in the mid-1970s, due to their superior musicianship turning out catchy, pop-edged rock songs. Their surprise breakthrough hit album, 1979’s Live At Budokan, featured live versions of songs now more famous than the originals (“Surrender,” “I Want You To Want Me”), and is a contender for the greatest live album ever made. Ever since, give or take a few lineup changes, Cheap Trick has continually toured and kept releasing albums, influencing and playing with loads of other bands along the way (outfits like the Foo Fighters and The Smashing Pumpkins cite the Trick as a necessary influence). After years of protest by impassioned fans, Cheap Trick is finally about to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame next month, at a performance that will reunite Nielsen, Zander, and Petersson with drummer Carlos. The band has a new record (their 17th: Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello) ready to drop as well. Five-necked guitar god and songwriter Rick Nielsen took some time to talk to The A.V. Club about Cheap Trick’s earliest hits, why “Surrender” still resonates, and why the band members look kind of surprised in those Live At Budokan videos.

“He’s A Whore” (from 1977’s Cheap Trick)

The A.V. Club: Let’s start by going all the way back to “He’s A Whore,” because that was kind of the first song that got you guys on the map, right?

Rick Nielsen: Well, I don’t know about getting us on the map. It’s always been kind of, not underground, but it’s always been kind of like hipsters who liked it. When I wrote it, I think I liked the idea of the title. You know, “He’s A Whore,” as opposed to everybody’s, “Oh, she’s such a whore.” This was like 40 years ago, so I was writing that before American Gigolo ever came out. I was the Richard Gere non-lookalike in Illinois.

AVC: What did you think of the Big Black cover?

RN: I thought that was the best cover I’d ever seen. It’s like, holy god, where are these guys from? Plus they also had the Kraftwerk cover and then the Cheap Trick cover, it was like these guys are my favorite band even though I’d never heard of them before.

AVC: And at that point you guys were still playing Rockford, local clubs, Wisconsin.

RN: We played all over. We pooled our money. We went to California on our own money, and we played three nights at the Starwood, which was like way in advance of what anybody else was up to. Just because we played all over the place in Illinois and Wisconsin and Indiana and Iowa and all over, Minnesota… It was like, God, we got to get out of here. We have to get out of here so we can come back here! And that’s the way we feel today.


AVC: Yeah, you guys don’t take many breaks.

RN: No.

“Downed” (from 1978’s In Color)

RN: Well, I wrote it—with some truisms along with some songwriting liberties. I actually did try to emigrate to Australia a long time ago. This predates Cheap Trick, but I couldn’t go there because at that time before I had any kids, I had a dog, and the dogs were not allowed because of quarantine. You couldn’t bring animals into the country. So that’s why I didn’t move there. I actually did my research and tried to get kind of like a working visa for Australia. It always seemed like it was a land of opportunities. The same size as the United States with one-tenth of the population. To this day I say if I weren’t as tall as I am, I would’ve been a member of AC/DC.


“Hello There” (from In Color)

AVC: There was a rumor that you wrote “Hello There” because it functioned as kind of a sound check at places where you wouldn’t get a sound check.


RN: Yeah. I mean we toured on our first album and that was fine, but it’s like, when you’re doing shows, what do you start with? With people who have never heard of us. So what’s our intro song? “He’s A Whore”? Then what do you do? So the song starts out with drums and it starts out with one instrument at a time, so it is like a sound check. Plus it’s like, it’s two minutes. It’s just like the whistle-blowing at noon and letting everybody know it’s time for lunch or something. “Da-da-da-da-da-da-da!” Oh, gee, wake up!

“Southern Girls” (from In Color)

AVC: Your bassist Tom Petersson also has a songwriting credit on “Southern Girls.” Did you guys write together often?


RN: No. We never really wrote together per se, sitting in a room, but coming up with a part or whatever, “This would be good here.” I remember kind of writing it, but then I don’t know exactly what his part was. I think the song kind of stands on its own, and I always thought I wrote good bridges. I was a bit more impressed with the bridges I wrote than maybe the songs I wrote.

“I Want You To Want Me” (from In Color)

AVC: The studio version of “I Want You To Want Me” is so different from the live version.


RN: It is, isn’t it?

AVC: It’s like two different songs.

RN: One of the reasons why that was, I think that was one of the reasons why most complained about In Color, which we ended up doing with [producer] Steve Albini again later, which we never released. When we did “I Want You To Want Me,” it was always much heavier; you know, it’s a pop song, but it’s still kind of heavy in a way with bashing chords. And after we’d left the studio, Tom Werman, who produced this, added the honky-tonk piano and all that. Because originally the way that song “I Want You To Want Me” was written… the middle part we would have this swing clarinet, because it was sort of hokey pop, or whatever. That’s what we ended up doing when we did it with Albini. Boy, Albini can really play the clarinet.


AVC: How long ago did you re-record it with Albini?

RN: About 10 years ago, something like that.

AVC: Did you re-record it or re-mix it?

RN: No, we re-recorded the whole album.

AVC: Oh, man. You’ve got to release that!

RN: We actually knew the songs by then! You’re from Chicago, so go to Albini. Ask him.


“Surrender” (from 1978’s Heaven Tonight)

AVC: So this all segued into the explosion that was Budokan after Heaven Tonight. “Surrender” especially has become such an anthem. It always seemed like it was about a a kid trying to be cool, but his parents are also into KISS records, so you can just try to rock out at any age.


RN: Yeah, every person I’ve ever met always thinks their parents are weird. Today, yesterday, 50 years ago, 20 years from now. You see the ads on TV where the girl doesn’t want to get dropped off at school because her dad’s going to see her boyfriend, or… You know when you’re growing up you need your parents, but you don’t want to be associated with them because you’re trying to have your own life. Then the worst thing your parents can do is try to emulate you. And here’s something that’s like, you got my KISS records out. Oh my god! New lows. So it’s like when I was growing up, you didn’t want to play the music your parents did. Oh my god, that’s just awful.

AVC: The key change on that song is so effective, how it just keeps elevating.

RN: Yeah well it starts off in B flat, intro, and then it goes to B for two verses, and then it modulates to C. I always thought that was better than the songs that had, “na-na-na-na-na, na-na, na-na-na-na…” [Sings end of “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” by Journey.] It’s like, come on, you can’t come up with any lyrics? So us, we just modulated, so it made it sound like we were doing more than we were. [Laughs.]


AVC: You performed this album at Riot Fest a couple years ago, and it was an amazing show. What was that like from your end?

RN: Well, for one, we played for a lot of people that I don’t think… You know, we’ve been around for so long, they just dismiss us as being an oldies band or something. I don’t know the perception that we actually have. But they’re always surprised that we actually know how to play and it’s a real band. But unless we’re on tour with somebody, we rarely see other bands, so it was cool because I got to see Andrew W.K. because I always liked him, I thought he was cool, and he was shocked that I wanted to meet him. And Patti Smith was there, and Fred “Sonic” Smith, her ex-husband, used to come see Cheap Trick—he was a Cheap Trick fan—and we were fans of the MC5, and here’s MC5, fans of ours.


Some bands they’re too snooty or they think they’re too this or that, and wouldn’t talk to us. And some other bands are afraid to talk to us. It was kind of fun. Then all the people that showed up to see us play, and playing an older album, because I think Riot Fest asked us to do that. The fact that the songs hold up: It’s not like you’re listening to some old crap. It’s not just old crap; it’s new crap. What did you think of the show?

AVC: I always love seeing you guys. It was the same as when I saw you at Wrigley Field last summer with the Foo Fighters: You always bring it. You know the crowd is going to go crazy when you bring out the five-necked guitar. And I don’t know how Robin still sounds so amazing after all these years, how his vocal chords aren’t completely shredded. It just astounds me. Seeing Cheap Trick live is what a great rock show is all about.


RN: Oh. Well, thanks!

“Dream Police” (from 1979’s Dream Police)

AVC: Dream Police seemed so much more orchestral than you had been on the previous records. It was like you kicked everything up a notch with the songs on that. What about that title track?


RN: When I wrote it, it needed more instrumentation, I thought, than just guitar, bass, and drums. So it had that keyboard arpeggiator like we had in “Surrender,” but hey if you can use an orchestra to do it… especially since the middle part kind of lent itself to that. It’s like, the middle part, “da da da da da da, da da da da da da…” You know, it’s not a guitar solo. It’s an orchestral part that I wrote, so it was like, let’s book an orchestra. And we’d never worked with one before, but they existed before we ever did it and we thought it was a good idea and I still think it is.

AVC: Oh, it’s great. Those angry violins in the middle.

RN: Yeah. Yeah, they are angry. And it just fit with the mood of the song and the lyrics.


“Voices” (from 1979’s Dream Police)

AVC: “Voices” is another one that was kind of a departure, because it’s almost like more of an epic. It might’ve been your first slow song. Like one of your first ballads.


RN: Yeah, kind of. Plus we started off with the chorus as opposed to building up to the chorus. Because it’s like you know “Voices,” okay, and that’s the same thing with “Dream Police,” you know, you hear voices in your head or somebody’s just messing with your brain and hears voices. You hear something, it’s like you didn’t know what you were listening for until you heard the voices. Somebody, your mind’s eye, has some talking to do to you.

AVC: Was that all related to the stress of post-Budokan? It was the most success you’d had up until that point, but it must have brought a lot of issues with it—


RN: No, because Dream Police was recorded before. That was ready to go when Budokan came out. So we’d already done it.

AVC: Oh! I didn’t know that.

RN: Well, now you do. [Laughs.] We held back Dream Police because Budokan was so successful.


AVC: So that Budokan success was a huge surprise to everybody?

RN: Yeah, of course.

AVC: It was through the roof. Did you know you were big in Japan going in?

RN: We knew we were big there, but we were big only there, and we didn’t know that we were as big there until we got there. It’s like, we were going to play this place and that place; we’d never really heard of any of them, so we didn’t really know what to expect.


AVC: Like it could’ve been a club and then it turned out to be an arena?

RN: Yeah. Basically. We went from playing Haymakers in Wheeling to the Budokan. So it was quite a change. I mean, we’d done big shows, too. By the time we went there, we’d done a tour with KISS, we opened for Queen in 1977, a couple shows. But these shows that we did over there, they were there to see us, not to see the headliner and we just happened to be there.


AVC: So that first wall of screaming sound, you guys must have just been blown away.

RN: Finally, an audience that liked us.

AVC: Your crowds now, are they people who have been following your career for years? Or are you also seeing younger fans too who are like, “Oh, this is what everybody’s talking about”?


RN: We get some of each. Obviously they’re not making any older fans, so yeah we have a lot of young fans and we have a lot of people that have followed our career the whole time. And people that are just like, wonder if we’re any good or… I get a Google alert or something like that, for Rick Nielsen or Cheap Trick, and I look at it every day. I mean we’re name-checked by all these different bands all the time. I think that’s one of the reasons we got into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, was because of the influence or supposed influence to others as opposed to selling. Most of the other groups have sold way more records than we have, so it wasn’t because of record sales or anything like that.

AVC: There was actually a band called Why Isn’t Cheap Trick In The Rock ’N’ Roll Hall Of Fame? They were doing gigs outside of last year’s ceremony protesting the fact that you guys weren’t in yet.


RN: [Laughs.] Well yeah we had a lot of fans doing that, but I didn’t know about a band doing that.

AVC: People like Billy Corgan were really making a push for you guys. And Dave Grohl including you in that big Wrigley lineup last summer.

RN: Yeah. Well yeah, they like us, and they’ve stolen stuff from us and never paid us for it, so they feel obligated.


“She’s Tight” (from 1982’s One On One)

AVC: “She’s Tight” has such a catchy hook, it’s almost impossible to get out of your head once it’s in there.


RN: Yeah, I wrote that and we actually recorded that at Pierce Arrow Studios. That’s where we did that record, with Roy Thomas Baker. Right in Evanston.

AVC: It seems like most of the songs you wrote yourself.

RN: Yeah. I used to write 95 percent of everything. And now we kind of share it all. It helps keep the band interesting.


AVC: So, before, you’d come to the studio, and be like “Here’s what I wrote,” lyrics and music both?

RN: Yeah. That’s what I did.

AVC: And the band would have some input? Or were the songs all pretty much set?

RN: No, that’s Billy Corgan. That’s not me. I’m in a band. I have the basic idea, but when you surround yourself with really good players, why would I tell anyone what to play, because they’re that good. They don’t tell me what to play. They might encourage me, so that’s what I do. I encourage them. We’re always trying to get something good done.