If you’ve been lucky enough to see Cheap Trick within the past few years, at Riot Fest, or South By Southwest, or opening for the Foo Fighters, or even their recent sold-out show at Chicago’s legendary Metro, you have been greeted with a sultry yet robotic female voice who announces: “Please welcome the best fucking rock band you’ve ever seen… Cheap Trick!”
It sounds like hyperbole, but it is not. The recent Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductee is coming up on the 40th anniversary of its first album, and shows no signs of slowing down. The foursome from Rockford, Illinois has just released its 17th studio album and its stage shows are as vibrant as when Cheap Trick hit the stage in Budokan in 1978, setting the high bar for live albums forever. Somehow, Robin Zander’s pure-rock vocal remains untainted. Rick Nielsen still pulls out that old five-necker and makes it sound like the band has three guitar players instead of just one. After a brief sojourn in the ’80s, bass player Tom Petersson has returned for the long haul, now offering a live cover of Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For My Man.” Sadly, veteran drummer Bun E. Carlos is on the outs with the group over a legal dispute (although he did re-join his old bandmates briefly for the HOF induction). In the meantime, Nielsen’s son Daxx is rounding out the quartet on drums.
It’s not often that you can still go out and see a band that’s a walking monument to rock history. Many ’70s and ’80s acts still on the circuit contain too few original members even to still count as the band itself (as in last year’s Dennis DeYoung-less Styx tour, alongside Foreigner without Lou Gramm), and haven’t released any new material in years. Cheap Trick is as solid as ever. Yes, they may not play every song you want them to, and you may not like their more recent albums as much as their older ones. But at this point they have such a wide volume, who could blame them for wanting to change it up, or to skew toward their newer songs they’re not sick of yet? Don’t worry, they’re still going to close with “Surrender.” They’ve been crowd-pleasers for decades for a reason.
These 60 minutes offer some of the band’s best but slightly under-the-radar high points since 1977. For example, the Budokan version of “Surrender” is not on here, because if that’s not seared into your DNA yet, then why are you reading this? It’s a list for diehard fans, or for people who are bound to become diehard fans after hearing songs like:
All right, we’ll start with something else from Budokan to kick this off. We’re not monsters. “Surrender” takes its deserved place in the rock history ranks, but it’s kind of confounding that “Lookout” is such a harder track to find, available on the extended Budokan version or the Epic box set. A vibrant cautionary tale (back when “little girl” was a frequent condescending moniker used in rock songs), the soaring guitar and vocals depict the scary wide world out there, so the “one boy in a thousand” is really one to hang onto.
Only a few years after Budokan, the Trick kicked it up a few orchestral notches with some actual strings to add James Bond-theme weight to this breakup song. There’s a reason why Rick Nielsen calls Robin Zander his “favorite lead singer in the whole wide world” nearly every show. Check out the way he bravely leads the song off solo, then stands up against an army of violins as he tries to wrestle his way out of this relationship.
If we point to one enduring factor to Cheap Trick’s long success, let’s point to this: Rick Nielsen can write a hook as easily as you can nuke a Hot Pocket. He makes it look that effortless, but the hook is like the unicorn horn of popular music: Almost completely elusive, but reportedly out there somewhere. Nielsen has an absolute knack for it, and has the wherewithal to back up these insane earworms with the most solid musicianship around. This is a long rationale for the infectiousness of “She’s Tight,” a simplistic “let’s have sex” song that you can’t get out of your head for days. It doesn’t even have a bridge, because nobody in their right mind would break that melody up.
The exuberance in “Come On, Come On” can not be denied, but it also offers a fun and rare interplay between Zander and Nielsen. From the band’s inception, the hierarchy was set: Pretty boys Zander and Petersson were on the front of the early album covers, with Nielsen and Carlos relegated to the flip side. Nielsen, although clearly a wannabe rock superstar, wisely let the charisma-laden Zander take center stage. Nielsen’s own nasally vocals make the occasional appearance, like his diatribe in “Dream Police,” but he probably puts them to best effect here, with his “Come on, come on”s and “Yeah yeah”s sounding like threats next to Zander’s honeyed requests.
Leave it to Cheap Trick to celebrate their HOF induction with the unusual step of a brand-new album, their first in five years, and their initial outing without Carlos. Their 17th release sounds more solid than it has a right to, with the first three tracks, especially, leading off the record in high gear. “No Direction Home” shows the band’s pop sensibilities fully intact, while the slower “When I Wake Up Tomorrow” veers into an odd but winning English goth sensibility. But appropriately titled kickoff “Heart On The Line” surges right out of the gate, with a hilarious on-the-nose tagline of “try to remember,” with Nielsen’s guitar-god performance that will force you to do so. There’s a reason the band wisely added this song to its latest live set.
Those twangy guitar riffs at the beginning would have fit right into a Ramones song, but a Ramone could only dream of vocals as sweet as Robin Zander’s. His despair over his situation (“She’s got a face that could stop a clock / But her money’s green”) transcends the song from punk to hooky rock, with guitars that are about as cacophonous as Nielsen ever got.
Absolutely steered by Bun E. Carlos, “Just Got Back” is one of the most successful tracks off of 1980’s All Shook Up—a post-Dream Police misfire, even though the band finally got to work with fifth Beatle George Martin as producer. “Just Got Back” resonates because it focuses on Carlos’ stellar drumwork, for once in the spotlight showing just how much he brought to the band. The lyrics describe an unnerving condition—the guy may or may not actually be back, mentally, at least (“Is it really what it seems?”)—but Robin Zander proves that he can pull off starstruck lover and raving lunatic with equal aplomb.
“Mandocello,” from the band’s debut, was one of the first times Cheap Trick turned it down a notch (and went over three minutes), for an atmospheric, Spanish-flavored ode to long-distance love. Tom Petersson’s bass takes the front seat here in an atmospheric epic that would have fit right in on ’70s AOR FM radio-station playlists. The lyrics are so poetic and love-washed, it’s hard to believe they showed up on the same album as “He’s A Whore.”
Classic story song off of Heaven Tonight, with unlikely keys for backup. Nielsen throws nearly all his effects pedals into play and into the stratosphere, staking his claim alongside other guitar gods, while the “can’t get any higher” part of the song appears to be a parable about drug addiction: “Then he got religion and she got a god / It’s on her back and it’s in his job / And it costs lots of money, honey.”
Next Position Please had few high points, but this leadoff track shows a band doing a decent job of fitting in with the upbeat MTV hits of the early ’80s. To do so, Nielsen’s guitar is restrained, and the overall sounds sways over to the pop side of rock, but the sweet sentiment and Zander’s sincerity sail the song across.
If you’re looking for your Cheap Trick gateway album (who isn’t?) and aren’t a particular fan of live recordings, may we suggest the splendors of 1977’s In Color, which includes a slew of great songs like this one. Inspired by Nielsen’s brief desire to “wanna live on a mountain / Way out in Australia,” “Downed” literally rocks you out of your momentary depression with at least three hooks at last count and some jetstream guitar thrown in for good measure.
Scoff at the band’s latter-day rock ballads like “The Flame” all you like; a quick rendition of the better slow song “Voices” should set everything straight again soon enough. Has there ever been a more plaintive rock plea than Zander’s “Please can I see you every day”? The song then quickly turns sinister as it wrestles with those internal needling voices, even after Nielsen offers a straight-up rock guitar solo to try to shut them up.
This song proves maybe more than any other what a simply great rock band Cheap Trick is. Breaking down to pure vocal lines surrounded by guitar and bass solos, with Bun E.’s massive drum kit, it’s a bluesy song that would have fit into Led Zeppelin’s closet, until the Trick of course revs it up again for the chorus. The video above was taken from a 1981 SNL performance, with a baby Slash filling in, as the band was between bass players.
A ’70s band covering another ’70s band for a ’70s Show: Cheap Trick was an excellent choice to re-do Big Star’s “In The Street” for the That ’70s Show theme song. The song captures the beauty of idly hanging out, perfect for the timeframe of the teens depicted in the series. The original track has the line “Wish we had a joint so bad,” removed for the TV version, yet obviously the unspoken theme of That ’70s Show. Yes, the video has unfortunate Friends allusions as the cast members jump onto various instruments. There’s still a poetic logic in Cheap Trick adding “We’re all rocking in Wisconsin,” as the Midwestern-based band was actually discovered in a Wisconsin bowling alley, and piling on the line “We’re all all right,” the anthem for “Surrender.”
Post-Flame life, Cheap Trick essentially never stopped touring, and continued to crank out album after album. Some of these were more successful than others, and none were ever going to sell as well as Budokan, but the late-breaking band still showed signs and songs of life. For example, the 2006 release Rockford (an ode to the band’s hometown) offered the childlike exuberant “Welcome To The World,” and the lovely “Oh Claire,” a fairly straight-up McCartney sendup as well as a nod to an earlier cut. Somewhere in between those two, was “Come On Come On Come On,” another ’70s song reference with an unbridled energy perfectly designed to spit in the eye of anyone who dared to suggest that the band was slowing down.
One of the band’s few covers not Beatles-related, “California Man” sounds so Trick-like, it’s hard to believe it’s not an original. Or a cover of a blues song, frankly, but the band borrowed it from the Birmingham, England outfit The Move, doing it better than The Move ever did. Again we have dueling spare Zander vocals and Nielsen guitar lines outlining the song, until full-fledged guitar and Carlo’s massive drum fills pour into those open spaces.
The flip side of “Stop This Game” depicts a besotted admirer who started stalking his intended in school, is finally given the heave-ho after so many years, and the world keeps spinning anyway. A Dream Police-era epic, the song carries the listener from the revved-up days of the early relationship (Zander’s revved-up “Remember…” sounds like a taunt), to the tearing apart, to the futile acceptance of how little this broken relationship matters to anyone else in the world. The band’s complete commitment to the song helps sell this personal drama as universal.
An early sing-along, “Southern Girls” again has an undeniable hook hiding underneath Carlos’ unflagging rhythms and Zander’s 100 percent pure vocals. The cymbals propel Zander through some nonsensical, sing-song, hand-clapped lyrics (“Ooh, baby needs some brand-new shoes”), before it kicks into high gear for the darker bridge, then stripping it bare again to the end, ending up with a song that sounds as great as it did as when it was first released, and never dated. Which you could also say about every single song on this list.