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Cheap Trick

America’s favourite post-punk power-pop combo, CHEAP TRICK embraced a raft of influences from The BEATLES and The MOVE, to BADFINGER, SPLIT ENZ and MOTT THE HOOPLE. As equally important to the Japanese market (but weirdly enough not in Britain), the quartet were a tougher and tighter live prospect, as their rip-roaring LP `At Budokan’ more than suggested; their most gleefully-glam, `I Want You To Want Me’ (their breakthrough Top 10 hit in ‘79), a time-capsule testament to their pop prowess under the glare of the spotlight.
Popping back to the late 60s, guitarist Rick Nielsen and bassist Tom Petersson were part of The Grim Reapers, an outfit from Rockford, Illinois, who, after one independent single in summer ’68 (a cover of ELVIS’s `Hound Dog’) switched to FUSE; the line-up – who re-issued the said 45 – also included singer Joe Sundberg, lead guitarist Craig Myers (ex-Toast And Jam) and sticksman Chip Greenman (also ex-Toast And Jam).
This embryonic showing only turned out one self-titled album in January 1970 (for Epic Records), before enlisting the help of Thom Mooney and Robert “Stewkey” Antoni (both fresh from TODD RUNDGREN’s NAZZ), to respectively supersede Greenman and Sundberg. The following year, the group changed their moniker yet again; this time to The Sick Man Of Europe, recruiting drummer Brad/Bun E. Carlos (ex-PAGANS) in place of the departing Mooney, when they briefly upped sticks to Philadelphia. This primitive incarnation of the ‘Trick also saw the inclusion of a replacement lead vocalist Randy “Xeno” Hogan, although after two years of steady touring he was superseded by singer/rhythm guitarist Robin Zander; note that Petersson was substituted by Rick Szeluga for a short while, until, in October 1974, they became CHEAP TRICK.
With the classic line-up of Zander, Nielsen, Petersson and Carlos now in place, the workhorse quartet played to bowling green alleys, pubs, clubs and colleges, while they fleshed out a deal at Epic Records through A&R man Tom Werman; mainly on the word of producer Jack Douglas. Piling up enough tracks to fill three LPs, they instead opted sensibly to pluck out ten of them for their eponymous debut, CHEAP TRICK (1977) {*9}.
Appearing at a time of musical turbulence (punk/new wave had just arrived), the album initially failed to extract interest from either critics or rock fans. More marketable was the band’s highly original image: Zander and Petersson the good-lookers, Carlos the balding, bespectacled businessman, and songsmith Nielsen the joker in the pack with his Tweedle-Dee/Dum attire (i.e. baseball cap, bow-tie and all-round eccentricity). The thought that they never issued the glam-addled `ELO Kiddies’ as a single was probably paramount to the set’s failure to launch. Instead, The BEATLES-ish `Oh, Candy’ (in homage to their friend Marshall Mintz who took his own life) was the casual choice. Whereas `Speak No Or Forever Hold Your Peace’ was picked up in awe of British blues balladeer TERRY REID, others such as `He’s A Whore’, `Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School’ and `The Ballad Of T.V. Violence (I’m Not The Only Boy)’, had a more sinister slant; the chord-changing `Mandocello’ was one that TORTOISE could well’ve copied if they’d not took a different diversion.
Tours supporting KISS, SANTANA and QUEEN, respectively, helped conjure up CHEAP TRICK’s kooky, off-the-wall appeal to a wider audience, whilst the quick-fire follow-up IN COLOR (also 1977) {*8}, garnered healthy sales and a place within the Top 75 – and in Japan. The Tom Werman-produced set featured the excellent `I Want You To Want Me’, a flop 45 first time around with its light-headed bubblegum-pop agenda. Almost schizoid in their attempt not to fit under one umbrella (especially punk), there were bits of glam, new wave, rock’n’roll and, of course, power pop, in among the playful pieces like `Downed’, `You’re All Talk’, `Clock Strikes Ten’ and `Southern Girls’.
Their third album in the space of 15 months, the Top 50 HEAVEN TONIGHT (1978) {*8}, hosted their inaugural breakthrough into the Hot 100 with `Surrender’. Slicker production values by Werman (and a tad hard and heavier), this time they touched on psychedelia and a potpourri of rich textures for `High Roller’, `Auf Wiedersehen’ (a B-side!), `Stiff Competition’ (very AC/DC) and a brave re-vamp of The MOVE’s `California Man’.
Harder still was their aforementioned live set, AT BUDOKAN (1979) {*9} – cut at Nippon Budokan, Tokyo, April 28 & 30, 1978 – a record that turned their popularity in Japan into even greater commercial heights in America. The head-spinning LP struck platinum, hitting Top 5 in the process (Top 30 in Britain), and giving them the success they craved, despite all the hootin’ and hollerin’. Sounding as if they’d been listening to The BEATLES’ `Helter Skelter’ on repeat plays, several of their best pieces were on show, including the aforesaid `I Want You…’ and a Top 40 rockin’ rendition of FATS DOMINO’s `Ain’t That A Shame’.
Studio set number four, the Top 10 DREAM POLICE (1979) {*7}, consolidated their newfound fame, albeit with a slide into more pop-orientated territory for the paranoiac title track and `Voices’ hits. At an epic 7:40 and 9:20 minutes respectively, Nielsen and Co were willing to forsake a bit of gloss for swirling-dervish mind games on `Need Your Love’ and `Gonna Raise Hell’.
Hooking up with legendary BEATLES producer George Martin, after `Everything Works If You Let It’ chalked up another Top 50 entry for its film, Roadie, it was not all a bed of roses for 1980’s ALL SHOOK UP {*4}. Whether it was down to fatigue after constant touring, or more likely their fixation with cloning LENNON or McCARTNEY, the Top 30 record – featuring modest hit `Stop This Game’ – was a huge disappointment to everybody but their most staunch fans; examples `World’s Greatest Lover’ and `Baby Loves To Rock’; `I Love You Honey But I Hate Your Friends’ was simply ROD STEWART’s “Hot Legs” with a few twists and turns.
Things came to head in John & Yoko fashion when Tom Peterson (his birth-name) jumped ship to form a new wave act alongside his wife Dagmar. With Italian-born bassist Pete Comita arriving just in time to record `Reach Out’ (b/w `I Must Be Dreamin’) for the Heavy Metal soundtrack. Comita then made way for the more permanent Jon Brant when the group – with producer Roy Thomas Baker – reconvened for ONE ON ONE (1982) {*5}. Nothing startling if one doesn’t count minor hits, `If You Want My Love’ and the risque `She’s Tight’, arena rockers CHEAP TRICK looked to be dealing from the bottom of the pack.
Worst still was to come when workhorse producer TODD RUNDGREN was roped in to save the band from further chart fall-out on NEXT POSITION PLEASE (1983) {*6}. Sadly, although critical appraisal was dealt from some quarters, the lack of chart exposure for an awful cover of The MOTORS’ `Dancing The Night Away’ and `I Can’t Take It’, its only position was an unpleasing #61. Sounding closer to Todd’s UTOPIA than the Fab Four, the man with the Midas touch sneaked in his own, but exclusive piece, `Heaven’s Falling’.
Two years down the line on studio set number eight, STANDING ON THE EDGE (1985) {*4}, there were signs that a rock’n’rolling CHEAP TRICK were finding a commercial niche with producer Jack Douglas at the desks. However, with only the equally-feted Top 50 spawn, `Tonight It’s You’ coming close to the good old days, it was difficult to see the quartet getting out of the mire; the title track and `She’s Got Motion’ aside.
The cure was definitely not in the hands of THE DOCTOR (1986) {*4} album, a trashy trawl into a creative and commercial trough. A hard pill to swallow when it failed to book an appointment in the Top 100, Tony Platt’s production was tinny and synthetic for the most part, although pop-pickers just might’ve been hooked on to `Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)’ and the concluding `It’s Only Love’.
Drastic measures were needed, and when Petersson returned to fill Brant’s berth, the group drafted in outside writers to make 1988’s LAP OF LUXURY {*6} their most successful album of the decade. Of course, this was due in no small part to CHEAP TRICK achieving their first singles chart-topper, `The Flame’ (penned by Nick Graham & Robert Mitchell). Securing other top-to-tail hits by way of ELVIS’s `Don’t Be Cruel’ (#4), `Ghost Town’ (#33) and `Never Had A Lot To Lose’ (#75), a catchy CHEAP TRICK pulled out the cards with hope of a high pair.
Their AOR formula was utilised once more on BUSTED (1990) {*4}, a Top 50 record that promised so much, but went OTT after `Can’t Stop Fallin’ Into Love’ and `Wherever Would I Be?’ (authored by Diane Warren) petered out from the charts. It was typical of the rollercoaster ride taken by the band – their energy and exuberance never in question, just their tendency to appeal to the “ELO kiddies”.
After ROBIN ZANDER delivered his eponymous solo set in ’93, Warner Brothers were now to take a gamble on CHEAP TRICK, although in the dismal showing of No.123 for WOKE UP WITH A MONSTER (1994) {*6}, their faith was lost somewhere in transition. Produced by Ted Templeman in an attempt to recapture their hard-and-heady 70s sound, it mattered not that `You’re All I Wanna Do’, `Girlfriends’ and the title track were chart-worthy, just that Nielsen and his gang were coming up with a reinvigorated power pop/rock sustenance.
Three years on, after a one-off 45, `Baby Talk’ (b/w The MOVE’s `Brontosaurus’) for the seminal cult-indie label, Sub Pop, the quartet released another eponymous set, CHEAP TRICK {*6} – referred to as “Cheap Trick ‘97” – which took them back into Top 100. Cooler and crunchier than anything they’d put their name to several years ago (and more), and inviting BEATLES-styled motifs back into their melodious mind-sets, group compositions such as `You Let A Lotta People Down’, `Hard To Tell’, `Yeah Yeah’ and `Say Goodbye’ gave fans something to shout about.
Come the end of the decade, the band were in retrospective mood for a small series of residencies in various cities, airing one of their first three albums, in whole, each night. A novel idea, and one which provided the material for 1999’s MUSIC FOR HANGOVERS {*6} – a spirited live effort which offered few surprises – it revealed an enthusiasm undimmed by the passing years. Long-time fans also lapped up SILVER (2001) {*7}, this time a double-CD live affair recorded at a special 25th anniversary homecoming show in ‘99. In contrast to its predecessor, the record featured more obscure treats, although not with the SMASHING PUMPKINS’ Billy Corgan (a guest from the previous outing), but SLASH who added a dash of celebrity appeal. The band covered JOHN LENNON’s `I’m Losin’ You’, The BEATLES’ `Day Tripper’, although there was no room for other Fab Four delights, `Magical Mystery Tour’ and Barrett Strong’s `Money’.
The power-pop deities released their first new studio material in six years with SPECIAL ONE (2003) {*5}, essentially one for the fans, although many of them decided to boycott the lovelorn yearning of the pop-fuelled `Scent Of A Woman’ and `Hummer’; even their mind-blowing Steve Albini collaboration `Sorry Boy’.
Going right back to basics (the set title referring to their hometown), ROCKFORD (2006) {*7}, was hailed as the group’s best work since the late 70s. Just missing a place inside the Top 100 and produced by Jack Douglas, CHEAP TRICK did what they knew best, and that was how to re-imagine the Fab Four as if they were still here as pensioner power-poppers. But for the disco-funk, RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS-meet-BEE GEES `One More’, there was certainly evidence a-plenty on `Welcome To The World’, `Come On Come On Come On’ and `Dream The Night Away’, among others.
Still a force to be reckoned with in 2009, CHEAP TRICK took a retrospective, kaleidoscopic view of their life’s so far in THE LATEST {*6}. Over 30 years and counting since their dream debut, but seemingly not a day older but certainly wiser, they took the listener via `Sick Man Of Europe’, through `These Days’ and SLADE’s `When The Lights Are Out’. Yes, if The BEATLES had lasted to the glam-pop of the early 70s, maybe they’d have sounded like CHEAP TRICK. Or maybe not.
Touring as support to DEF LEPPARD (a slightly harder and hairier take on the ‘Trick!), it was inevitable that the group would present a CD/DVD of their December 2007 concert tribute to the Fab Four’s SGT. PEPPER LIVE (2009) {*6}. The cheek of it? – no! CHEAP TRICK had probably done The BEATLES a service over the years, and with all and sundry (including JOAN OSBORNE on `Lovely Rita’), the 40th anniversary of the album was a fitting nod to both parties concerned.
Over the ensuing several years, CHEAP TRICK were embroiled in lawsuits concerning the band and their, still, “official” member Carlos, who’d since launched a supergroup project, Tinted Windows. A Delaware judge threw out the case in the fall of 2013, while differences were settled upon later in the day. Replaced by Rick’s son Daxx Nielsen, the Carlos-less CHEAP TRICK released `No Direction Home’, a track previewing their spring 2016 “comeback” set, BANG, ZOOM, CRAZY… HELLO {*6}, for Big Machine Records (a country label!). Typically ‘Trick-y in all its glam glory, producer Julian Raymond would help polish up the harder edges of `When I Wake Up Tomorrow’, `Roll Me’, `Long Time No See Ya’ and a cover of a BRYAN FERRY hit, `The In Crowd’. Unsurprisingly, anticipation for the set, just about led the album into the Top 30.
That couldn’t be said for quick-fire follow-up, WE’RE ALL ALRIGHT! (2017) {*7}, which only managed to hit the Top 75 for one week. Harder edged than its predecessor, though maintaining that brash BEATLES bombast (via The WHO), CHEAP TRICK held an ace or two in the pack – though not a full house – on best bits, `You Going It Going On’, `Listen To Me’ and `Nowhere’. On the other side of the spectrum, the band’s seasonal set, CHRISTMAS CHRISTMAS (2017) {*5}, kept their retrograde motor running by way of Yuletide yawns once the property of usual suspects SLADE, WIZZARD, NILSSON, RAMONES, The KINKS, old Uncle Tom Cobley and all; the exception to the rule was their own composition, `Merry Christmas Darlings’.
© MC Strong 1996-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Apr2016-Dec2017

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