Lately, for whatever reason, I’ve been spinning a lot of Cheap Trick records. After a few more purchases, I’ll be content with having enough C.T. titles in the collection (maybe In Color, definitely Dream Police and perhaps One On One). That is, unless Cheap Trick throws down another required listening effort, which is quite possible because they’re still going at it and they seem to be undergoing a creative resurgence, if I’m judging their latest Rockford correctly; it’s as good as they’ve done in nearly twenty years and, unlike the solid (yet horribly overproduced and dated One On One), it bypasses any attempt at “updating” their sound and relinquishes modernism for focusing on what made ‘em Rockford, Illinois finest rock and roll export.
What seems to be getting continual listens is Cheap Trick’s debut album, the remastered version with bonus tracks (including a rough demo of “I Want You To Want Me” that is totally better than the one on In Color). I’ve tried to imagine what the hell people thought of this album at the time it was released; quirky, hooky, and rough in the right places, it was unlike anything else in 1977, yet today its influence is obvious.
With songs about pedophiles, mass murderers, suicide, and greed, it’s understandable why Cheap Trick struggled a hair above obscurity while their wonderful power chords and Beatles-esque sense of melody made it easy to understand why a major label like Epic continued to foster the band along, hoping that the audience would eventually catch on.
They did, of course, with the absolutely essential Live At Budokan. The reality is that Budokan merely captures the environment that was the band’s bread and butter until record buyers had a chance to catch up: their live show. And while, with the exception of the debut, their recorded studio output found the band exploring various directions (oftentimes with frustrating results), Live At Budokan documents a band quite confident and agile on stage.
What it doesn’t do (and this doesn’t distract from how awesome that album is) is capture the characters that made up the band, during a time in rock in which lasting impressions were sometimes critical to a band’s success.
That was best experienced by seeing Cheap Trick live.
During the tour for All Shook Up, the band made their way to Memorial Auditorium, a small arena nestled on the banks of the Mississippi River in Burlington, Iowa. The venue is a stopping point for bands reaching the end of their apex, and in some cases, bands that are on the verge of stardom (Guns ‘N Roses and Metallica played there just before their careers took off).
As evidenced by Mike Damone’s struggles to unload C.T. tickets to a young customer in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the band was experiencing smaller than normal venues and less than expected record sales. Yet these Midwestern favorites continued to be a draw in Southeast Iowa and I got a friend excited about taking the 45 minute long trek to see his first concert.
Our seats were in the first ten rows, which probably created a strong memory for my friend. After all, you could do worse, much worse actually, than having Cheap Trick as your first live experience.
The other thing that probably created a strong memory was the selection of great material they played for this tour. Road tested to the point where they could probably play the entire set in their sleep, the band showed no evidence of disappointment that they were playing a date in a town that’s highest population figure was probably a generous 45,000 residents.
Rick Nielsen provided the crowd with the obligatory in-between song stage banter and in-song guitar pick tossing, one of which ended up on the floor directly in front of my friend’s seat. It’s a souvenir that I hope he still has to this day.
Nielsen used his checkerboard Hamer Explorer guitar throughout most of the performance, until he brought out the Hamer 5 neck out for a money shot.
Bun E. Carlos stayed in back most of the night, smoking and drumming, until something drew his attention from the drum riser.
“You….look…great!” Nielsen said.
“We…feel….great!” he continued.
Then, someone from the crowd through a joint on stage, which landed near Rick. Carlos, having noticed this offering, got up from his kit and walked towards the front of the stage by Rick. Nielsen noticed and then offered “Bun E….feels….great!”
Carlos picked up the joint and drew a lighter from his pocket. He lit the joint and took a large hit, much to the delight of the crowd.
He took another hit, and holding the smoke in his lungs, he grabbed the microphone from Rick and gave the crowd his opinion of the gift.
“Good shit.” He said, before handing the joint to someone in the front row and returning back to the drum kit.
For a fifteen year old kid, it was one of the most awesome things I had ever seen and it forever changed my opinion of Bun E. Carlos.
But time, weed, and the introduction of outside songwriters faded the image of this concert from my memory, and Cheap Trick became “street fair” act. I’m fairly certain that the band really couldn’t care less about what me, or anybody else thought about their tour schedule. They were doing what they set out to do all along: make a living playing original rock and roll music.
So with each tour, they play the obligatory hits package and incorporate a few new tracks to promote their latest effort. The thing is, having seen the band play “Surrender,” “I Want You To Want Me,” and other catalog favorites countless times, they don’t seem to be any less enthused about performing them today than when they were new.
So while newer bands underscore what they feel they’re “entitled” to, Cheap Trick understands they the only entitlement they have is showing up to the 150-200 shows they book each year. The stage has always been their strong point, and we’re privileged that they’re still at it, no matter what stage they decide to walk on.