Cheap Trick

Lesson #34: Selling Out Can Destroy A Great Band

Strongest album: Heaven Tonight
Must to avoid: Everything they did in the '80s. The Doctor is particularly awful

You may not know it, but once Cheap Trick produced some of the greatest, rawest, catchiest, blissful pop-rock this side of Tokyo. If all you know of the Trick is "The Flame" and all those awful albums they recorded in the '80s, then you are perfectly within your rights to think I'm crazy. No band that has ever rocked so perfectly sunk so low so fast - heck, it took the Stones a good decade or so to suck as bad as the Trick did as soon as Reagan took office. Still, those early records are enough to cement Cheap Trick as one of the greatest bands of the '70s, and surprisingly influential: all you kids listening to those "alternative" bands like Nirvana and Weezer that supposedly do this revolutionary thing of wedding the Beatles with full-throttle metallic crunch oughta take a little history lesson in our founding fathers Cheap Trick. After spending years playing the Midwestern bar circuit, Cheap Trick came roaring out of Rockford, Ill. in 1977 with a sound that was equal parts Beatlemania, heavy metal, Who-like power chording, and Badfinger/Rasperries power-pop sheen. Guitarist Rick Neilsen did most of the songwriting and wrenched this messy, hooky, garbagey, completely over the top racket that you'd never believe could come out a skinny baseball cap-wearing weirdo who looked like he just rode his bicycle from his day job delivering newspapers. Drummer Bun E. Carlos, who looked like that overweight boss who always sweats a lot and makes sexist jokes all the time (you know who I'm talking about, we've all worked for him at some point), never let the thud quit pounding for a second. Bassist Tom Petersson must have listened to his old Move records daily, as he churned out this incredibly deep bass thrust that made him and Carlos a rythm section that stomped like a Brontasauras. Oh yeah, Petersson was a good-looking guy, along with lead singer Robin Zander, who sang and looked kinda like Rod Stewart on benzedrine and steroids. The combination of two goofy looking guys with two traditional handsome rock star types gave Cheap Trick an added visual appeal. Add a warped, sinister sense of humor - they sang songs about pedophiles, barbituites, suicide, and celebrity serial killers - and you've got a winning combination, as 6 out of 10 listeners agree. Somehow it all went horribly the reviews and you'll weep from the tragic senselessness of Cheap Trick's ill-fated career.

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Reader Comments

Evan Jones,

I love your review page. I agree totally with your reviews of Cheap Trick. What a wonderful power-pop band. They took pop and punk and made it perfect, especially on In Color, which is one of my all time fav's. I love the first 3 albums.

Cheap Trick (1977) ****

Loud, raw, noisy, messy: those are the adjectives that spring to mind when hearing Cheap Trick's debut. Too bad the melodies are hit and miss, and the noise kind of buries the hooks ocassionally. Other than those problems, though, this is one exciting platter; it rocks crazier and harder than they ever would again, veering close to anarchy in a few spots. I'm glad that their producer reined them in for a concentrated attack on their next two discs, but the chaotic mess here is fun in its own right - it sounds like what Nirvana were shooting for on Nevermind, but were a little too glossy to get right. Hell, Steve Albini even covered "He's A Whore" in his Big Black days. For once me and Albini meet at the same taste - that song rocks! It's probably the catchiest number on here, with Zander screaming "I'll do anything for money!", sentiments which he would unfortunately live up to during Trick's asslicking '80s tenure. Oh, but there's "Taxman, Mr. Thief", which pushes its Beatles homage far beyond any reasonable call for obviousness, but only in the title and lyrics - the Fabs would never have played music this heavy and sinister, though they would have written the melodic chorus. "The Ballad Of TV Violence" is sung from serial killer Richard Speck's point of view, as Zander keeps screaming over and over, "I'm not the only boy!". "Elo Kiddies" is a warped kind of Garry Glitter style chant that advises youngsters to ditch school for crime 'cause it's all that matters and everybody steals it anyway; for some reason the song starts off with the sound of alarm bells. The whole shebang kicks off with the driving lust ditty "Hot Love", which ends with a barely audible (put your head next to the speakers and turn it up really loud) Nielsen cackling "Hello there I'm Steven Tyler of Aerosmith" and something more that's unintelligible (they were on the same label). The album ends with "Oh Candy", an elegy for a depressed friend's suicide, and one of the great lost singles from the mid-'70s MidWest. There are some other songs on here, too, but they're not as good.

In Color (And In Black And White) (1977) *****

Cheap Trick tighten their attack and write more pop for an approach that's a couple of leagues in quality above the debut, which had lots of great noise but was kind of hit-and-miss in regards to melody. That's not a problem here; every one of these tunes is an actual tune, and they're all good and catchy. Some people prefer the debut because it's noisier, but I prefer the pop sheen of this disc. It's a tad too thinly produced, but only a tad, and that's the only complaint I'll brook about this album, 'cause otherwise it's as close to perfection as pop-metal/power-pop gets. No, I take that back - I do have one other problem: "I Want You To Want Me" is a fey twinkly piece of power-poop; you'd never guess what a great song it would turn out to be from the studio version. "Hello there, ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to rock?" - yes, we are. "Big Eyes" rests on this monstrously catchy Nielsen/Petersson riff that goes haywire in the stunning midsection, and it leads right into the album's best song, "Downed", some sort of mid-tempo quest about choosing between living on a mountain in Australia or suicide, changing the world, and a boy or a girl. "You're All Talk" crosses disco with metal with a bitchy attitude. In this context, a song as strong as "Oh Caroline" doesn't stand out as well as it should because it's next to "Clock Strikes Ten", which brings Bill Haley to the modern age. The second best song is "Southern Girls", a jaunty pop paen to the world's most beautiful and charming women, though since I'm a Southerner I'm a bit prejudiced. It took me a few dozen listens to realize what a great song "Come On, Come On" is - it's just surrounded by so much stellar material. The cover's great, too. On the front are Zander and Petersson on motorcycles, in color; on the back are Carlos and Nielsen on bicycles, in black and white.

Heaven Tonight (1978) *****

Aptly titled, 'cause songwise this is just what it is. If you had any problems with the last album's sugary production, then this one has the punch and muscle In Color lacked. It's their best produced disc, but it runs a tie with In Color because of slightly less consistent material. Some of these songs are just O.K., not great or anything ("Taking Me Back", "High Roller", etc.) - but most of these songs are pretty great. Towering above them all is "Surrender", the greatest rock'n'roll song ever, PERIOD (at least that's what I think this week), or at least the greatest song about parents ever: the kid wakes up to find his mom and dad making out on the couch, playing his Kiss records and "rolling numbers", which is '70s slang for smoking pot I guess. "Top Of The World" zooms along the highway in an equally tangled story about some 15-year old girl who busts out of a private Christian school to tag along with some guy to Hollywood - I don't know, the song can't even make up its mind whether she's dark or fair! "California Man" makes the Move's original sound like the tepid genre exercise it was. And then there's "Auf Wiedersehen", a twisted blast of heavosity that makes fun of suicide, with Zander cheerily screaming goodbye in various languages, and mocking "All Along The Watchtower" to boot: "There are many here among us who feel that life's a joke". "Stiff Competition" handily recycles some old Who riff for the arenas with a leer and a smirk. The creepy title track captures the draggy stupor of barbituites so perfectly it will scare you off for good, but since I don't know anything firsthand about drugs that's just a guess.

Live At Budokan (1979) ****

The rare live album that's actually worth your time, it's one of the three or four greatest in rock'n'roll history, and I'd rate it even higher if I were a conisseur of the live form. I ain't, and I suppose in some sense this one's expendable if you already own the studio discs - but it's not. Most of these tunes come from In Color, and while the studio versions are more realized and tighter, the live versions are raw and overpowering, delivering a noisy intensity the studio versions can't quite match. I said quite: the only live version I'll trade for the studio version is "I Want You To Want Me", which turned out to be Cheap Trick's first American hit. In Japan they were already superstars - the hysterical shrieking of the fans makes that clear. "Lookout" is a good song that didn't make it to the studio, and they gleefully pour the noise all over Fats Domino's "Ain't That A Shame". This might very well be the place to start with the Trick, and no true fan will do without it. And what about that stage patter!: "I...Want...You....To....Want....ME!" Fifteen years later they released Budokan II, the rest of the songs from the Budokan date, and last year both the original and the sequel were put together, thereby recreating the entire Budokan performance in sequence.

Dream Police (1979) ***1/2

Another stellar set of Tricktunes bogged down a bit by the overly creamy production. This is where the rot sets in, and while it's disappointing compared to their previous albums, o-boy-o does it sound like a forkin' masterpiece compared to what came later. Nielsen lays on the synthesizers like he never has before or since, and luckily the piles of synths hit the jackpot on the marvelously paranoic title track. After that, despite the snappy title "The House Is Rocking (With Domestic Problems)", Side One never takes hold for me. I should point out here that all my Cheap Trick albums are the cassette versions, which differ a tad in running order from the vinyl/CD versions. Anyway, Side Two of my tape kicks off in fine form with "I'll Be With You Tonight", which is nothing special but nothing to snooze through either - typically catchy Tricktune, would've fit fine on In Color. "Voices" is one of those icky ballads that you either puke at or get carried away by against your will, and as much as I hate to admit it, I actually sniffle at the sap. All right, I say - "Writing On The Wall" rolls with some get up and gusto! My two favorite details: a) the calling-all-airports bridge; b)Carlos' showboat drumming. Love that Petersson vocal on "I Know What I Want", too. My cassette closes with "Gonna Raise Hell", more disco-metal fusion, take it or leave it - let me say this: it goes on too long. So, in the end what we have here is a good, but not great album. Unfortunately, it was the last GOOD album they made until 1997.

Found All The Parts EP (1980)

As part of a marketing gimmick, a bunch of 10-inches called "Nu-Disks" were foisted upon the public in order to stimulate demand for that curiously most unpopular medium, the EP. This contains outtakes from the Trick, 4 in all including a cover of "Daytripper". I've never seen a copy anywhere; I guess it just faded off the planet....

All Shook Up (1980) **1/2

This should have been a match made in heaven: Cheap Trick, who never met a corny Beatles alusion they didn't put on vinyl, chose as their producer George Martin. George Martin, for those who don't know, produced all the Beatles' albums and more than anyone else has dibs on "The Fifth Beatle" tag. However, the results aren't very good. Despite "Can't Stop It But I'm Gonna Try" and the obligatory ballad "World's Greatest Lover", both of which are fairly good songs, the album as a whole blows. The rockers are loud and tuneless, wit notwithstanding (Zander's Rod Stewart parody "I Love You Honey, But I Hate Your Friends" - haw, haw, zzzzzz.....). Charming production gimmicks abound, like fading the album in on the piano chord that Sgt. Pepper faded out on, but Martin's heavy hand can't disguise weak songwriting. The low point it "Who D'King", nothing more than a shot at Trick's own "We Will Rock You", a dumb Marines chant suitable for sports arenas. Luckily for us, "Who D'King" didn't become a hit and has never been chanted during ball games - but don't tell ESPN and give 'em any bright ideas. Tom Petersson left after this album, and his bass playing would be sorely missed in the dreary days ahead.

One On One (1982)

I've only heard one song off this, but "She's Tight" rocks as hard as anything off their '70s albums, so I'm curious. A brief comeback, or yet another dud? We shall see....

Next Position Please (1983) ***

Hey, this isn't terrible. It's not great, and quite a bit of it's not good, but overall it's not bad. Now, after damning with faint praise, let me introduce you to the producer: Todd Rundgren. This is the single most important fact one must keep in mind when listening to this album, because this album doesn't sound like Cheap Trick - it sounds like Todd Rundgren! I'm not a big expert on the guy's music, but I've heard enough to say that emphatically. Todd doesn't rock out much, so this platter's very, very pop, more pop than the Trick were before, and not very rock. The only two Trick classics - yes, a couple are Trick classics, hard as that is to expect from '80s Trick: the title track, a weird rocker with cool phased choruses and bitchy lyrics about clawing your way to the top any way you can, and o'course getting down on your knees as part of the program. The other one is writ by none other than Rundgren, "Heaven's Falling", and it bespeaks largely of Cheap Trick's songwriting drought that an outsider's contribution is easily the best song in sight. However, the worst song is also a non-Trick tune: a cover of the Motors' "Dancing The Night Away" that's so bad the band was literally forced to release it on the album. The rest runs the gamut from fairly good pop ("Y.O.Y.O.Y.", "Borderline", "I Can't Take It") to awful ("3-D", "You Say Jump"). Mostly, it's just O.K. Not bad, not good, just....O.K. Comes nowhere close to the heights of '70s Trick, but at least it's listenable.

Standing On The Edge (1985) **1/2

Typical of '80s Trick, without many redeeming qualities - the only truly memorable song is "Tonight It's You," a big, glossy hit that's pretty and catchy. It hasn't aged well, though, and it wasn't written by anyone in the band; Cheap Trick's artistic bankruptcy is sealed and confirmed by employing hired hands to do the dirty work of pumping out worthless AOR/CHR fodder like this. The opener, "Little Sister," rocks, but it's still mindlessly loud and annoying, and the band no longer has any lyrical or musical personality. The songs could be Journey or Foreigner or Stryper, for all you can tell; the brief flashes of life on Next Position Please were just that, brief flashes of life. Still, it gets a reasonably okay grade because it's nowhere near as bad as the next three or four albums - for what that's worth (not much).

The Doctor (1986) *

Now this is awful. A, W, F, U, L, awful. A half hour of Survivor rejects. I'm dead serious, folks: these songs are so bad Journey wouldn't touch 'em. I've only listened to this more than once out of pure, excruciating duty, and I would be shirking my god-given duty as a concerned citizen if I didn't warn unsuspecting people to stay away, STAY VERY FAR AWAY from this product. Repeated exposure will kill brain cells. Let me give you some of the titles to these "tunes": "Man-U-Lip-U-Lator" - guess what that one's about? It's about ORAL SEX! NOT EVEN SPINAL TAP WOULD SINK THAT LOW! Exhibit #2: "Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere"). Now where have I heard that before? "Rearview Mirror Romance": you know, there's a thin line between clever and stupid. What's worse, Nielsen and Zander have no one else to blame but themselves, since they didn't bring any songdoctors in this time, but wrote all the tunes all by themselves. Medical prognosis: terminal.

Lap Of Luxury (1988) **

It gains a grand total of two whole stars 'cause it's not quite as horrid as the two albums bookending it, but that's not to say this still isn't a typical late-period Cheap Trick platter of utterly banal dogshit. Unlike The Doctor, the Tricksters evade responsibility by bringing in the song doctors by the truckload: both Mick Chapman and Diane Warren show up, plus a bunch of L.A. studio hacks you've never heard of (for good reason). On side one, Nielsen co-writes one song, "Let Go", that while no masterpiece or even very good (it's only decent and passable), is far and away the best song in sight. From there it's a steady roll downhill, and it's no coincidence that the other song on side one that a member of Cheap Trick actually wrote, Petersson-Zander's "Never Had A Lot To Lose" is also the second best song on side one. The big hit on that opening side was "The Flame", however, a dreary paint-by-numbers power-ballad of the stripe so popular in the late-'80s. Side two kicks off with a ho-hum cover of "Don't Be Cruel". I wish they'd covered the Bobby Brown tune by the same name; it might have been terrible, but at least it wouldn't have been predictable. Trick members co-write a whopping total of three tunes on side two. Gee, could these guys be running out of inspiration?

Busted (1990) *1/2

I'll take the high road and avoid any gratuitous cheap shots at the album's title. Tom Petersson is back in the saddle again, not that you'll notice; this is more bland, over-produced, formulaic radio pap that Cheap Trick have contented themselves with delivering for the better part of a miserable decade. Not even the Roy Wood cover, "Rock'n'Roll Tonight", registers. Again, Nielsen, Zander, and Petersson are penning all the material, save for the dreaded Diane Warren composition "Wherever I Would Be". "Can't Stop Falling In Love" was the hit, and it's as boring as the rest. The only tune that stands out is a cheap Beatles '65 knockoff, "Had To Make You Mine". It's not a good tune; it only stands out because it doesn't sound like the interchangeable MOR mush of the rest.

Woke Up With A Monster (1993) **1/2

I was completely prepared to hate this as much as the rest, but lo and behold, there are signs of life. The opening track, "My Gang" is a nice little chunk of hard rock, and "You're All I Wanna Do" is a pleasant slice of anthemicly gushy power-pop. Whoah - that's two good (gulp) songs. They haven't batted that high since Next Position Please. "Girlfriends", while not that great, is still encouraging because the Trick have recaptured that bitchy sinisterness of yore. In fact, this album marks a most welcome change in Cheap Trick's fortunes, as they strain to recapture the hard rockin' overkill of their glory days and ditch the glossy pap of their '80s Dark Ages. However, that's not to say that Cheap Trick still don't suck; every other song on this album is a worthless piece of horse manure, 'cause the Trick only went halfway with their transformation and threw in some trademark puke-worthy power ballads and moronic Spinal Tap drivel ("Ride the Pony" announces that Zander's got a "rocket in his pocket", give me a nasueating break). Still, at least they're writing their own songs again, and even though this is mediocre, it's a huge step up from the '80s albums. The boys sold so poorly they got kicked off big bad Warner Bros. Which actually turned out to be a positive development in the band's career, as we shall see shortly.

Cheap Trick (1997) ***1/2

Who woulda thunk it? Cheap Trick deliver A GOOD ALBUM! It's been over a decade and a half since they did that! It's not hard to guess why: after years of toiling on the majors and trying to suck up a hit, Cheap Trick find themselves on an independent label with no commercial expectations, and can finally make the album they want to make, the way they want to make it. No more glossy over-production, just stripped down, rockin' Trick. Of course, the years have taken their toll, and the rockers just don't rock as zippily as they used to - but for the most part, Cheap Trick can still rock. The festivities start off fine with the Nirvana-ish "Anytime", with Zander proving that he can still rip his throat with the best of'em. The next song is the album's highlight, "Hard To Tell", a delightful pop number with a great chorus. And right after that comes "Carnival Game" - more great pop, only more Beatlesque this time. "Shelter" and "It All Comes Back To You" are ten times better than any ballads they did in the '80s. "Yeah Yeah" has this sinister chorus that I'd thought the Trick had left behind long ago, but it turns out they were only supressing their darker, weirder side all along. In short, their best since Dream Police, and while it still doesn't scale the heights of their glory days, it comes closer than anyone has a right to expect at this juncture, and gives plenty of hope for the future.

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