In the wake of the Alex Chilton passing, I thought it was about time I posted something about Cheap Trick. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Cheap Trick was a force in Rock Music for over 20 years. Their 1977 LP In Color was my personal favorite. It was full of hooks and kitschy fun stuff. I only really tuned into them, give or take that killer single “Surrender” from 1978′s Heaven Tonight, when an Emerson College floor mate named Hugh started playing this record when his “turn” came up. We were fairly diplomatic on our floor; we had about six rooms on our end of the floor, separated by an elevator from the other six on the other end of the floor. Depending on who was skipping class or whatever, someone was invariably playing music louder than they probably should have been. Sometimes is it was how you learned. We had roughly six women and six men if memory serves. That guaranteed some soft rock in the form of, say, Jackson Browne, James Taylor…even Pure Prairie League and The Eagles (I never realized how polarizing The Eagles have become…so many people don’t like them at all…I’m lukewarm myself, but I think that comes from overexposure more than anything else), but we were collectively all over the dial.
On guy was big on Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan. Check and check from my point of view. Another guy liked Cheap Trick and Bruce Springsteen. Somebody else Frank Zappa and The Allman Brothers Band. Another was David Bowie and so on. We had a set of couches and end tables in the hallway for the community hang. We were a tight unit and we drew from other floors because it we were a lot of fun to hang with. We usually had plenty of party favors and we had a standing Saturday Night Live gathering in case we couldn’t locate a decent houseparty. Usually one stereo would dominate during those moments when we just hung out together and we’d take turns. One guy played his share of Cheap Trick.
The reason I mention Cheap Trick today is because if they didn’t travel far without a little Big Star I’ll eat my hat. I didn’t know they had covered Big Star until doing some Alex Chilton research the other day. That made perfect sense to me. I kept thinking Big Star was Cheap Trick on That 70′s Show because I didn’t have a firm enough handle on Big Star’s catalogue. I”m a slow learner I suppose, but it all makes sense now. Cheap Trick is Power Pop personified. Cheap Trick’s 1979 live record, At Budakon, made them a household name. Cheap Trick was already Big in Japan as Alphaville might say, but when they captured the frenzied Japanese crowd going bonkers for the boys from Rockford, IL the nation took notice in the form of record sales. It was released in the United States in February of 1979 and went platinum inside of three months. It reached #4 on the Billboard Charts and finished 13th on the year end charts. Live records just didn’t do that. They still don’t.
That said, I’ve never been that high on live records. Most of the time you just had to be there to really appreciate them. Obvious apologies to records like Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive and Little Feat’s Waiting For Columbus, to name just two, that transcended that philosophy, but by and large I’d rather have the studio takes in my collection. Cheap Trick’s three monster studio albums were 1977′s In Color, 1978′s Heaven Tonight and 1979′s Dream Police. These records were a blast in my humble opinion. In Color featured some of my absolute favorite Cheap Trick tracks of all time in “Oh, Caroline, Downed, Clock Strikes Ten, Southern Girls and Come On, Come On.” For the record “I Want You To Want Me” was never one of my favorites even though it gigantic for Cheap Trick. They followed that record with Heaven Tonight, which featured “Surrender, On Top of The World, California Man and On The Radio.” FM ear candy in a big old way. 1979′s Dream Police brought the title track along with “Voices” and another one of my all time favorite Cheap Trick tracks “Gonna Raise Hell.”
Cheap Trick were so worshipped in Japan that the press started calling them the “American Beatles.” Japanese Beetles might have been cooler, but you can’t buy that type of press. Cheap Trick, led by vocalist Robin Zander and guitarist Rick Nielsen, has a formula that served them very well. The kept the songs short, for the most part, and made certain there were plenty of hooks. “Surrender” was a smash single that everybody knew. I can still listen to it all these years later despite hearing it thousands of times. It had a kind of teen urgency, harmonies galore and a nod to seemingly “weird” parents. They even mentioned the band “Kiss” who were barely five years out of the shoot themselves. I loved it and so did millions of Americans. They had literally taken the essence of Big Star’s “September Gurls” and perfected it for the masses. Power Pop on steroids.
I understand completely that for some, Cheap Trick’s relevance ended around 1980, but fans who have followed them since know that there is invariably one great track on each record and they are still a blast in concert. Just when you think they’re done, they’d sneak in a “Tonight, It’s You” or a cover of some classic like The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” But even though they are still recording and last year’s The Latest got some critical praise, if they don’t record another note they have muscled their way into Rock Music’s collective consciousness forever. I still reach for their early records from time to time. It’s feel good music as defined by yours truly.
Their influence in Rock is still felt to this day and the list is long, but in particular I would point to bands like Fountains of Wayne and Weezer as two bands that have really carried the mantle of hooky Power Pop. I get sick of certain bands pretty easily and I wanted no part of Weezer early in their career, but there is something about them that grows on you like a fungus. I love “Beverly Hills” and “Drugs” and God help me, even “Buddy Holly” now. Fountains of Wayne is a ton of fun too. “Radiation Vibe, Sink To The Bottom and Stacy’s Mom” are a blast, just like vintage Cheap Trick. Aside from having one of the coolest names in Rock Music, Cheap Trick is about having fun and humor. I know I’ve said this many times, but humor has a place in Rock in my world. I want to laugh and smile as I’m enjoying the music. I can absorb a 17 minute piece of Progressive Rock with the best of them, but sometimes you just wanna have fun.
Buy or download In Color from Amazon here.