Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cheap Trick

Rockin' in Wisconsin with Cheap Trick

When I was fifteen I wanted to have Robin Zander's hair.

No one rocked a `70s-cut three piece suit like the lead singer of Cheap Trick. They cut a unique bifurcated figure in Dazed and Confused era rock, best illustrated by the second album cover, Cheap Trick In Color. Zander and bassist Tom Petersson on the front cover, on choppers, with their rock star manes. On the back, the two nerds on children's bicycles, with the subtitle "and in black and white." Drummer Bun E. Carlos looked just like my eighth grade science teacher, and it wasn't because my teacher looked like a rock star. Manic guitarist Rick Nielsen, the songwriting brains of the outfit, had his own mismatched dork fashion sense or lack thereof, complete with Wisconsincentric ephemera like a Point Beer button.

Cheap Trick In Color was near-perfect, its only flaw being its brevity. It came out maybe ten minutes after the self-titled first album, which confused DJs by labeling its sides "Side A" and "Side 1" and featured the dirty old man classic "Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School." The producers of "Dazed And Confused", a movie that gets the feel of the era right, lost a great opportunity when they failed to make that the theme song for Matthew McConaghay's character. "I'm thirty but I feel like sixteen," Rick says in Robin's voice. Sounds very different at 44.

The two albums are of a piece to me now, with short `70's running time and now home-burned onto one CD. I bought the vinyl albums together, a year after the fact, the way most of us did when "Surrender" blasted onto Midwestern radios in the summer of `78.

It wasn't a national hit but in my town it was omnipresent, with its climactic imagery of your parents doing it in the living room to the tune of your Kiss records. And the rest of that third album, Heaven Tonight, was almost as good.

There were three Midwest bands that hadn't broken out nationally that I remember from the summer of 1978. There were two decent FM rock stations in my home town, and three songs stood out: "Surrender," "Time For Me To Fly," and "Never Been Any Reason."

(If I bought those records back in 1978, is it really stealing to download them 30 years later?)

REO Speedwagon made it all the way from Champaign, Illinois, to the top, but only by getting wimpy. Singer Kevin Cronin had this way of making one-syllable words stretch, making up the difference by running other words together, as in their breakout hit "Keep On Loving You": "You played DAY-ud, butcha never fuh-LEY-ud…" Still, they had one of the great album titles of all time, with You Can Tune A Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish, and "Time For Me To Fly" is a real song. Nowadays, they play county fairs with Styx; that bill would have filled a stadium in 1981.

Head East, from St. Louis, barely made it at all, their career arc being, like their album title, Flat As A Pancake. They fizzled the same way Kansas did, when one of the guys found Jesus. But "Never Been Any Reason" is a lost classic with its dated synth solos and its unintentionally homoerotic duet male lead vocal. If I had a band (the fantasy that never dies) I'd rearrange that and sing it with a gorgeous female vocalist, with a heart of gold and a tough cigarettes and whiskey voice, since "she" has the upper hand in the lyric putting "her" faithless man down:

"You never give me no answers, you never tell me the truth
There's never been any reason for me to think about you…"

As long as we're fantasizing here, she'd have an ur-70's outfit of a fringe top and tight jeans. I'd have that Robin Zander hair, feathered and down to my shoulders, like I eventually grew and lost, and we'd sing "Never Been Any Reason" eyeball to eyeball into one mike, trading lines, duetting on the climactic "save my life I'm going down for the last time." Just singing. Sleeping with band mates is what screwed up Heart. But I'd replace at least one of the synth solos with a guitar.

How far away was that fantasy from my reality? Do the words "debate camp" mean anything to you?

So REO made the big time and Head East failed. Neither of them meant as much to me as Cheap Trick, who landed somewhere in between obscurity and true stardom.

In 1979 they had their next album in the can, ready to go. But first, just for fun, they issued a souvenir of a tour of Japan, just for the Asian market. The rest is history.

The big-in-Japan cliché at the grand finale of Spinal Tap was born with Cheap Trick At Budokan. It captured their energy better than the first three records had, became an import best seller, then got rush-released in America, in faux-import packaging. For the third time in a row, the cover had studs Robin and Tom on the front, duds Rick and Bun E. on the back.

Bob Dylan had an At Budokan album that same summer, but Cheap Trick kicked his ass. The Japanese teenage girls screamed in Beatlesque fashion that was passé by 15 years at the introduction, and didn't stop the whole album:


And we begin the ride with the indelible chords of that two chord classic that these guys have had to play to open every damn show for the last thirty years, because no more purposeful introduction is possible:

Hello there ladies and gentlemen
Hello there ladies and gents
Are you ready to rock?
Are you ready or not?

It was that introduction and those two chords that prompted this rant. My MP3 player shouted "ALL RIGHT TOKYO!" in my ears and I had to stop in my tracks. Because "Hello There" doesn't work on random play. I had to go to the controls.

Shuffle: Off.
Select artist. A… B… C.
Select Album: At Budokan.
Play All.

Four steps to set the Wayback Machine to June 1979.

Because the live version of "Hello There" has to, HAS TO, segue with that perfect drum roll into "Come On Come On," which captured my adolescent virginal frustration as perfectly as only rock and roll can.

Two "new" songs on that first side. There used to be these things called records that had two "sides." "Look Out" had been left off an album and the studio version didn't see the light of day until the box set. "Need Your Love" surfaced later in the year on Dream Police, delayed a few months by the surprise hit of Budokan. The live version was memorable for the extended jamming over nine minutes -- this is a three minute power pop band, remember -- and for Robin's monosyllabic intro. "I NEED… YOUR… luuuuuuuv," as the audience screamed. Between the two, there was "Big Eyes," harder than the In Color version, driven by that eight string bass that no one but Tom Petersson seemed to play either before or since.

The "Ain't That A Shame" arrangement that opened Side Two started with the obligatory drum solo and ended with a shameless rip from John Lennon's oldies album. No one in Japan knew or cared.

Then, the moment they became stars, as a piano ballad from Cheap Trick In Color got translated into a power pop classic.

The April `78 Tokyo audience seemed to know just two parts of English: the band member's names and the song titles, so Robin kept the intros simple, slow and articulate for everyone to understand:

"I want you… to want… ME!"

That shout was a welcome respite on the radio in the summer of 1979, the summer I got my first kiss at that same debate camp, and the summer of Summer (Donna, that is). It meant three minutes of rock and roll relief on a radio clogged with the one hit wonders of disco, Number Seven on Casey Kasem when the top six were all disco.

In retrospect, that was some great stuff. The long version of "Good Times" by Chic was one of the foundations of hip-hop. But as a teenager I was too young to catch the irony, too awkward to dance, too far out in the sticks of Wisconsin to comprehend the urban scene. And adolescent males are disproportionately guilty of homophobia, so before "YMCA" was a stadium singalong there was Disco Sucks. I just wanted the power chords. And Rick Nielsen gave them to me.

The live version of "Surrender," with Robin's anachronistic intro of "it just came out this week" to the then year old song, had a more up-front version of closing couplets that were buried in the studio mix:

Bun E.'s all right
Tommy's all right
Robin's all right
Rick's all right
We're all all right
We're all all right
We're All All Right

(Strictly speaking, this isn't FROM Budokan. But it's the same arrangement and has the bonus (?) of The Nuge introducing the band.)

"We're all all right" was a mantra in the summer of `79 for a Midwestern kid who couldn't dance. It didn't hurt that the guitarist looked like more of a dork than I was. Maybe it was crap pop culture, but it was MY culture.

A quick run through "Hello There," rewritten as "Goodnight Now," then the rock and roll ritual of cheering for the encore of "Clock Strikes Ten" that you know is coming anyway.

I wore out three -- THREE! -- vinyl copies of that record before transitioning to CDs in the late `80s.

The Dream Police album got its delayed release that fall, and for about six months Cheap Trick ruled the small part of the planet that was not under disco hegemony. John Lennon himself called the guys up to work on his tragic final album.

Rick Nielsen had accomplished two things. He'd made it to the big time, and at that same moment he'd burned through the back catalog of songs he'd honed over years on the Midwest club circuit. By the time I saw them in 1981, Tom Petersson was gone and they were touring behind the weak All Shook Up album, with less killer and more filler. Still, it was fun, as only someone's second-ever rock concert can be, and Rick's five neck guitar still sets the standard for excess. (Yes, each neck actually had a different function. There was a twelve-string, a fretless… and, uh, I can't remember the rest. Probably a contact buzz; didn't inhale on my own till college.)

As it turned out, disco, not power pop, was more in tune with the future. Breaks and beats were what mattered in the `80s. Guitars lost their primacy as the solid foundation of the music and instead became overdubbed solo instruments, placed precisely between the bridge and the final chorus. While Run, D.M.C., and the late great Jam Master Jay had it both ways, scratching Aerosmith and in that unforgettable video literally breaking down the rock/rap wall, Cheap Trick slogged on.

You could maybe scrap together a decent album out of the highlights of the next few albums and their countless one-off soundtrack throwaways. Just like Kenny Loggins, they were on every soundtrack of the decade, only Cheap Trick provided the filler between the Loggins hits.

At the end of the `80s they had a Heart-style comeback, complete with the return of Tom Petersson. Slick overproduction, outside writers, and their first Number One. I was happy for my guys when "The Flame" topped the charts, but there wasn't anything really… Cheap Trick about it. They'd already perfected the power ballad a decade earlier, on the first album's "Mandocello," and that had some life to it. "The Flame" could have been Poison or Cinderella or anyone, a universal least common denominator. Plus if you listened too close, it was kind of a creepy stalker song, like "Every Breath You Take" only more pathetic than ominous.

They followed it with a pointless cover of "Don't Be Cruel," right around the time Chuck D told us "Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me." Then they slid back into the Where Are They Now file, switching labels as often as Rick switched guitar necks on that five-neck. Green Day played “Surrender” live, and Billy Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins paid indirect tribute to the era with “1979,” but it didn't help. The `90's were a hodgepodge for Cheap Trick -- A couple different greatest hits disks, the box set, a second self-titled album just to confuse discographers, a Robin Zander solo album (why?), the live sets from the club gigs and the hometown "silver anniversary" gig.

For the 20th anniversary of Japan, they released an expanded, double CD version of Budokan. It was a dream come true: my favorite album from when I was fifteen was now suddenly twice as long.

But still, it didn't feel right. I mean, the music was still great, but after a thousand listens it felt wrong without the sequencing, the extra songs shoehorned into the original concert order. It was like the Beatles' Anthology series that had come out a few years earlier: archaeological relics of the era, without the years of intervening memories attached. I like having the long version around, but when I regress to fifteen, I usually go back to the one-disk original.

And 30 years to the week after the original shows, they went back to Japan, back to Budokan.

"We're all all right" made a re-appearance in the Cheap Trick song most people know these days, their re-write of Big Star's "In The Street" that became the theme to "That's 70s Show." Having grown up in exactly the same time and place as the show is set, they get a lot of the details right. Though there was never anyone in my high school who looked like Laura Prepon.

One of Nielsen's new lines in the TV theme sticks with me: "We're still rockin' in Wisconsin."

Yes, we were.

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