Rick Nielsen is a famously bad interview. In fact, I had resisted any impulse to interview him for years. But it’s 2004 and I’ve got a lot to come to terms with. The fact of the matter is: I’m not getting any younger and neither is Cheap Trick.
With that in mind, I sat next to the phone quietly, the way I wait at the dentist – it’s gonna hurt a little, but it’s necessary. He called. We talked. The answers were familiar since I’d read a few of his interviews as research. Then, apropos of nothing, the man who wrote “Surrender” starts ranting off-script.
“Can you do me a favor?”
Score you some weed? Buy copies of Heaven Tonight for all of my friends? I’ll do anything.
It seems Nielsen’s sons were recently ripped off by an eBay scam artist from my home town and dad plans on settling the score when his band rolls through town next week. Until then, the guitarist – forever embedded in rock lore as “that guy with the hat and the funny guitars” – will entrust this interviewer to track down the scumbag and peruse his appointment calendar to see if he’s available for an ass-whupping in between sound check and the band’s support slot for Aerosmith at a local theme park.
“You’re my only hope…my only link!” he yells, a hint of power-ballad vulnerability in his voice. I reach for a hand to hold, but there is no one there.
Somewhere a few blocks over, an eBay thug is quaking in his boots, but enough about him. If we’re getting it all out in the open, I have my own score to settle. Like the time Nielsen flicked a pick at my head with such deadly precision that it stuck to my forehead for over an hour, eliciting guffaws from a drunk guy in a satin jacket who had not left his parents' house since the Century Theater show in ’77. Or, how ‘bout my money back for The Doctor?
That aside, Cheap Trick is a band that deservedly received a somewhat closer look in the mid-1990s as “alternative” music became mainstream and borrowed the band’s Big in Japan “Heavy Metal Beatles” banner. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and Milli Vanilli all name-checked the band which resulted in a high-profile re-issue campaign, the intermingling of indie rock geeks and middle-aged mullet-men at the band’s gigs, and interpretations of the iconic bleeding typeface logo on everything from skateboards to designer socks. The fuss was about the first four Cheap Trick albums – 1977’s self-titled debut and In Color and 1978’s Heaven Tonight and breakthrough At Budokan – which successfully crossed the tunefulness of the Beatles, the energy of the Who, and creepiness of late Move/early ELO at a time when the lines between punk, metal, and bubblegum were already blurred beyond recognition.
The story is: the band set out to destroy corporate arena rock and ended up one of the genre’s worst offenders. Ask the record store clerk and he’ll tell you “the first four,” but take a look at The Greatest Hits or the crowd at the county fair and you’ll see a somewhat different picture – despite uneven or downright bad records, questionable fashion, a bass player that was not Tom Petersson, and outside songwriters shared with Starship, the band wracked up a decent amount of hits in the 1980s and, thanks to film soundtrack placement, classic rock infomercials, VH1 Classic, and Reagan-era nostalgia, it is those songs that the band is often known for.
It is in that spirit that the group unleashed last year’s Special One, a record that attempts – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – to exhibit the diversity and range of a band that, Nielsen admits, are often referred to as “The ‘I Want You to Want Me’ guys.”
When the record succeeds – the trippy “Pop Drone,” the psych-jangle of “My Obsession,” the three-chord scream-fest “Best Friend” – it cements just how great this band can be. Even when the tunes leave you wanting a bit more, there is killer middle-eight, a solo cheekily lifted from Badfinger, or a left turn so ballsy you respect the song anyway.
“I think even since our first record, they’ve always been a bit diverse – our first record had a song called ‘Mandocello’ on it; it also has ‘The Ballad of T.V. Violence’, it had all of the above. So I don’t think [Special One] was a great departure from what we’ve done,” Neilsen says.
Some may argue that point. In some ways, the record seems like a missed opportunity. The sure way to keep the credibility train rolling would be to attempt to replicate “the sound”; to feign hunger or take a stab at humor. Therein lies the rub: Cheap Trick has failed at the very things they’ve tried so hard at, and succeeded when they least expected it. Their biggest album was fluke. Their only number one hit was written by professional song doctors. People find them amusing yet they seem to take themselves seriously most of the time. At a time when radio will not touch a new album by a “classic rock” band, they make a radio-ready record.
Nielsen says the band wrote about 40 songs for the record, recorded with a number of different producers (Chris Shaw eventually got the nod to oversee the project), and sometimes, ended up using the original demo.
“We’d done some stuff with Steve Albini, we’d done some stuff with Jack Douglas, and then when we went to do the album, if those tracks were something that we wanted to use, ‘did they hold up?’ or ‘could we do a better version of them?’ When we tried to do a better version, if we couldn’t do a better version, then we went back to the old track that we’d done. The song “Low Life” we did in Rockford in a kinda demo studio that we’ve used for year. We’d done the song and we went to a big studio – the more expensive place – and we couldn’t beat it.”
The album’s first single – the admittedly catchy, but somewhat cringe-inducing Who-meets-AC/DC pastiche “Scent of a Woman” – did get some airplay, but the band has maintained a pop culture presence primarily via commercials (Diet Coke and Universal Studios), movies (a cameo in Daddy Day Care), and television show themes (a re-working of Big Star’s “In the Street” for That 70’s Show). For a veteran band that doesn’t fall into an easily definable radio category, it’s always a struggle.
“We never went to radio – we always hoped that radio would come to us,” Nielsen notes. “Sometimes it’s happened, sometimes it just didn’t. We’ve always gone and done things our own way. Even back to the Budokan days, we couldn’t get any airplay; somehow through the back door airplay came to us via Japan. You say, ‘well, you hear all these TV commercials,’ sure we’d like to be on the radio more than we are, but you’re not programming it and we’re not programming it. Wishing doesn’t do much.”
It sounds like whining – well, it sort of is – but the band has fully taken control of its career after years of record company disasters and poor management. A recent licensing deal with upstart indie Big3 will open the floodgates to a number of re-issues (including 1997’s out-of-print self-titled album, which Nielsen dubs “the Dead Ant record,” referring to the now defunct Red Ant label for which it was recorded), more new material, and a Behind the Music-style DVD that proves the band is entirely capable of poking fun at itself while simultaneously assessing its legacy.
“Where Are They Now, No Hit Wonders, America’s Least Wanted – we’ve been asked to all those shows and we always said ‘no,’” Nielsen says. “None of us were heroin addicts and we didn’t kill our manager even though we wanted to. We didn’t think we had any great stories, but then you start to think about it, everything we’ve done is a great story. How certain things happened in our career. If you know the details, it’s more than just ‘they flew to Japan and they had a hit.’ There’s more that went into all of that stuff – the good, the bad, and the ugly – there’s a lot there. If you’ve got to tell people how cool you are, you not very cool. So, we kind of avoided it.”
The resulting DVD, From Tokyo to You, celebrates the 25th anniversary of the famous Budokan concerts that ultimately led to the band’s success in America and shines a light on Special One material as well. Interspersed throughout are humorous vignettes where the band recalls – rather fuzzily or downright inaccurately – over thirty years of survival in an industry where the life expectancy is much, much shorter.
And they apparently aren’t done yet. Nielsen notes that a new record is in the works, with 12 songs demoed, and the oft-bootlegged Albini-produced re-recording of In Color may be completed before too long.
“We’re still out banging around,” Nielsen says, referencing more new product, the recently issued two-CD career overview Essential Cheap Trick. “Our stuff still gets played, our catalog still sells – and I don’t think it’s just old people refreshing their record collections.
“There’s so much going on that doesn’t make national news,” he adds. “‘Oh, it’s those guys, ‘I Want You To Want Me’— if you want a sound bite for us, there you go. But we have so many sound bites.”
Like, tonight at eleven: “Rock star embarrasses Buffalo eBay thief with carefully flicked pick.”
— Brett Essler