Saturday, February 9, 2008

Why Cheap Trick is America's Greatest Rock Band (Really!)

Every great theory begins with tremendous doubt. Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church for his heliocentric view of the universe. Charles Darwin was labeled a heretic for his theory of evolution. Freud’s interpretation of his dreams was declared to be pseudo-science. As time went on, the controversy and doubt faded. These theories became the basis for modern science. The theory I am going to present in this essay will also be greeted with doubt, ridicule, and disbelief. However, I believe in it with every fiber of my being: Cheap Trick is the greatest rock n’ roll band that America has ever produced.

“Cheap Trick? The ‘I Want You to Want Me’ band? John, are you out of your mind?”

This is the general reaction I get from friends and colleagues when I present this theory. I admit it seems a bit far-fetched. There are certainly bands that have sold more records than Cheap Trick. There are bands that have had more hits and have sold out more arenas than Cheap Trick. Hell, there are bands that are more popular than Cheap Trick. I am aware of all these factors, but I still say that Cheap Trick is America’s greatest rock band. Why?

Rock n’ roll has existed for half a century. In those 50 years, America has produced thousands of bands. A select few are great. Some are pretty good. The vast majority are terrible. There are very few bands that are contenders for this title. Aerosmith, The Eagles, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skynrd would all be fairly standard choices. They all have strong followings and have sold tons of records. More importantly, these bands represent important facets of Americana. Aerosmith is the sleazy excessive side. The Eagles are the laid back country side. The Dead represents the optimistic stoner. Lynryd Skynrd is the South, and Tom Petty is the traditionalist. These bands are America. So what puts Cheap Trick above these bands?

March, 2003: It’s a gorgeous day in early spring and I am standing under the marquee of The Recher Theatre in downtown Towson. Cheap Trick is in town today, and I’m pretty skeptical. I know approximately three songs and don’t own any of their records. I am here because it’s just something to do, an excuse to get out of the house. Nothing beats live music, even if it’s a band that I don’t know anything about. The other people in line are not in my situation. Every single one of them has Cheap Trick’s iconic stamp logo emblazoned on something. Trick seems to be a code among these people, as they eagerly discuss the set list and showoff pieces of memorabilia.

Doors open at 7:00 PM, and I take my usual spot in the front row. I am minding my own business when I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and see a man about my dad’s age. He even looks like my dad: Button down shirt, khaki pants, glasses. His most distinguishing feature is his jacket: A vintage satin baseball jacket with the Cheap Trick logo on the back.

“Is this your first time brother?” he asks with a grin.

“Yup. Are they any good live?” I sheepishly ask.

“Unfuckingbelivable,” Almost-Dad says. “You are going to be blown away my man. I first saw them when I was your age, and I had no idea who they were. I was so impressed I bought the jacket.”

In my experience, adding the word “fucking” to an adjective usually means that you are about to see something monumental. The fact that the word came from my dad’s long lost brother confirmed it. This guy obviously used such words sparingly, and the fact that Cheap Trick warranted an obscenity was intriguing.

The house lights go down. Almost-Dad begins to pump his fists in the air and lets out a mighty “YEAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” He’s not the only one. These fans are in complete and total ecstasy, and a note hasn’t even been played. This is commitment.

Guitarist Rick Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos appear onstage first, followed by bassist Tom Petersen and lead singer Robin Zander. They tear into “Hello There,” and I am absolutely mesmerized. These guys are the same age as my parents, but are performing with the passion of a band in their early ‘20s. Robin Zander’s British Invasion-style vocals sound exactly like they do on the records. Rick Nielsen looks and acts like a crazy uncle, jumping around and telling dirty jokes in between songs. Tom Petersen stands in the background looking pretty, while Bun E. Carlos holds it together with his simple, steady drum beat.

The music is three decades old, but sounds as if it was written yesterday. Even though I don’t know any songs besides “I Want You to Want Me” and “Surrender,” I find myself singing along. The tight harmonies and heavy guitar riffs go together like peanut butter and chocolate. This is one helluva band.

The week before, I saw The Used at Towson University. The Used were in their ‘20s and could not match Cheap Trick’s energy or presence. I compared Robin Zander to The Used’s Burt McCracken. McCracken swayed back and forth like a heroin addicted glacier. Zander didn’t move around much, but charisma spewed out of every orifice. I want to be Robin Zander when I grow up.

The show ended with “Surrender,” and when the band left the stage Almost-Dad tapped me on the shoulder again.

“Whadja think Bro?” he asked.

“Amazing,” I breathlessly replied. “Absolutely amazing!”


With that, Almost-Dad left, his Cheap Trick jacket waving me goodbye.

I left the Recher and went around to where the tour bus was parked. I didn’t have anything cool for them to sign; I just wanted to tell them what I thought. After awhile, Robin Zander emerged from the bus. He flashes me his million-dollar smile and comes over. I sheepishly give him a piece of notebook paper to sign and he obliges.

“Y-you guys were really great tonight,” I said, aware that I was in the presence of greatness.

“Thanks,” he replied. “I appreciate you coming out.”

He shakes my hand before attending to the other fans waiting for an audience.

Rick Nielsen comes out next, and flashes me his demonic grin. As he signs the paper I ask him a question.

“Can I take a picture of you?”

“Yeah man! Snap away!”

I take out my Kodak disposable camera and take a picture of Rick gritting his teeth like a deranged R. Crumb character.

I immediately went out and bought the core of the Cheap Trick canon: Cheap Trick, In Color, Heaven Tonight and At Budokan. As I got deeper into their catalog, I wondered why Cheap Trick was not in the pantheon of great American rock n’ roll. It seemed odd that a band like Aerosmith was lauded with massive critical respect, but Cheap Trick languished in the Recher Theatres of the world. I wondered why.

June, 2006: Record and Tape Traders. It’s my weekly trip to the record store. While thumbing through the new releases, I stumble upon Rockford, the new Cheap Trick album. I wasn’t even aware they were making a new album, but I bought it anyway. I wasn’t expecting much, but loyalty is a rare virtue in today’s world. If anything, it would have one or two decent songs, like most latter-day Trick albums. I put it on the stereo, and my reaction was similar to the one I had three years before.

I listened to Rockford incessantly for about a month. With every listen, a hypothesis started to roll around in my head. Cheap Trick is one of America’s greatest rock bands. I continued to listen to Rockford and went over their back catalog. I was listening to Heaven Tonight when I came to my final conclusion. Cheap Trick was not one of America’s greatest rock bands; they were America’s greatest rock band.

I realized that this was a ridiculous statement the moment I made it to myself, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Like an evangelical preacher, I began preaching my theory, and was labeled a heretic. Maybe I am a heretic, but my argument stands on solid ground.

One of the pillars of American life is consumerism. From the moment Cheap Trick was conceived in Rick Nielsen’s wonderfully warped mind, they were already a brand. The ingenious stamp logo was plastered on everything from t-shirts to panties as early as 1976. To move the merch, the band created a subtle but effective image for themselves. Pretty boys Robin Zander and Tom Petersen were strategically placed up front, their adorable Midwestern faces greeting impressionable fans from an album cover. The not-so-pretty Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos were relegated to the back. This strategy not only sold records, it gave the band personality. Personality was scarce in the late ‘70s rock scene, and the band stood out.

This strategy especially worked in Japan, where Cheap Trick was treated like royalty. Millions of Japanese girls fell for the American marketing machine, shelling out millions of yen for posters of “Robeeen.” Although the image was calculated to sell the maximum amount of records, it was subtle enough that you didn’t really notice unless you actively looked for it. The image was also symbolic. Robin Zander and Tom Petersen were up front, but if you looked at the songwriting credits, they all belonged to Rick Nielsen. Robin Zander was the great and powerful Oz, but Nielsen was the man behind the curtain.

However, Cheap Trick’s image was much more than a marketing ploy. Early press releases featured fabricated stories of exotic backgrounds and exaggerated deeds. This was meant to give Cheap Trick a level of mystique that few bands had in the mid-‘70s. They were touted as a band without a past, and any journalist that attempted to get information out of them were promptly given a more outrageous story than the last.

Consumerism and branding are an aspect of American culture that Cheap Trick has mastered, but musically it is a bit hard to make a case. Each one of the bands that I mentioned in my introduction have a distinctly American sound. Aerosmith plays blues-influenced hard rock. Tom Petty plays electrified folk. The Dead is heavily influenced by jazz, while Sknyrd and the Eagles are influenced by the sounds of the south.

Cheap Trick is from the Midwest, but their sound is based in the British Invasion. Rick Nielsen’s huge power chords are taken from the Who, and the vocal harmonies are copped from The Beatles. However when you deconstruct their music, there is much more to it. The basis for the sound is in the British Invasion, but American culture is subtly inserted. Bun E. Carlos’ drumming is steeped in the American R&B of the 1950s, and the band often includes Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” in their setlist.

The majority of Trick’s musical influence comes from Britain, but Rick Nielsen’s smart-aleck lyricism and obsession with sex are purely American. Many of his songs are meant to be humorous, but kids from different cultures were able to get a slice of Americana from their Cheap Trick records. For example, “Surrender” is both an homage to and a parody of American teenage rebellion. However, in Japan, where such rebellion is looked down upon, “Surrender” provided a true release. It told the kids that they would be alright.

Finally, Cheap Trick’s music is totally devoid of the pretension that plagues most great American rock bands. All of them play completely unpretentious music, yet when you talk to them, they act as if they are talking about writing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. When Steven Tyler talks about writing “Dream On,” he talks with reverence about how that song launched a thousand make-outs. That’s all well and good, but it’s just another garden variety power ballad. It’s not like he wrote “In My Life” or “God Only Knows.” He has completely fallen for his own hype machine. It’s incredibly lame to see a nearly 60 year old man pretend to be relevant when his last decent record came out in 1979 (I am aware that Aerosmith is far more popular now than they were in the ‘70s, but I refuse to consider sober Aerosmith Aerosmith.) . Meanwhile, if you ask Rick Nielsen about “Surrender,” there is no pretension. He will tell you that it is a kick-ass rock song and then proceed to play it, complete with five-necked guitar.

In many ways, Cheap Trick is the embodiment of America. They are a hard-working band, completely devoid of pretension. They are big, loud and showy but complex at the same time. They talk a big game, but if you look deeply enough there is a big heart at the center of the music. Cheap Trick is the melting pot of rock n’ roll.

August, 2007. Virgin Festival. It is 105 degrees in the front row. My throat is sore, I have a pounding headache, and my nose is running. I have gone through the two bottles of water that I was allowed to bring in. Fountains of Wayne have just finished an underwhelming set, and my friend Jon is not happy. I told him that the only thing I really cared about was being in the front row for Cheap Trick.

“But what about the Fratelli’s?” He asked.

“Trust me on this one.” I assured him.

The background music fades out, and the MC introduces the band. I realize that I have stepped into the role of Almost-Dad, and Jon is my pupil. The band steps onto the stage one by one, with Robin appearing last. I look up at Jon, who has skepticism written all over his face. I wait with baited breath for the first power chord, because once he hears that, it’s all over. The band tears in to “Hello There.” I look up at Jon, who is now picking his jaw up off the floor.

After a blistering 45-minute set, Cheap Trick leaves the stage. I am mentally and physically drained. Jon stares into space for a few seconds, and then speaks.

“I don’t know about you, but I think that kicked ass.”

The cycle begins again.

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