By Noah Hubbell
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On the surface, there seem to be plenty of reasons why guitarist Rick Nielsen should be feeling good about himself and his longtime band, Cheap Trick. The quartet (which also includes bassist Tom Petersson, drummer Bun E. Carlos and vocalist Robin Zander) is among the few hard-rock groups from the Seventies that are still together in their classic forms--and it may be the only one that doesn't suck. In addition, the act's latest album, Cheap Trick (issued by Red Ant Records), proves that Nielsen and company are not coasting. Rather than offering up new versions of old hits in mimicry of contemporaries like Fleetwood Mac, whose comeback/rehash CD, The Dance, entered the Billboard album chart at number one, they went to the trouble of writing a fresh batch of originals that compares favorably to their previous work. The disc has received praise from influential critics and such young bucks as like producer Steve Albini, whose quote about the combo ("crazed, irreverent and sarcastic, but equally...skilled and disciplined, and they rock like a truck full of bricks") adorns Cheap Trick's cover. Moreover, the current sound of Great Britain demonstrates clearly how influential Cheap Trick's blend of metal guitar riffs and pop hooks continues to be.
Unfortunately, none of these accomplishments appears to be making the fifty-year-old Nielsen happy. In conversation, Cheap Trick's creative force--a man known for his goofy look, his exuberant playing and his collection of bizarre guitars--is unexpectedly glum even at those moments when he's trying to look on the bright side. He insists that "life isn't all crap and crud. Now and then I think that it is. But luckily, I don't think that 24 hours a day." However, his tone while making this claim is so sour that it undercuts his words. His head takes pride in all that Cheap Trick has done over its twenty-plus years of life, but his heart can't help but feel that something is missing.
A case in point is Nielsen's response to the plaudits that have been coming his way from England of late. "They didn't send us any royalties," he grumbles, adding, "Compliments are wonderful--but I wish we were on some of those tours with Bush and Oasis and, well, go down the list. I think that a lot of people feel that just because you were around before, you can't be viable in any way. And I understand it in some ways. But at the same time, when I first started playing guitar, my favorites were Clapton and Jeff Beck, and I loved to read about what they listened to and who they were influenced by. Like if they said they were into Joe Turner, I went out and got some Joe Turner records. I researched it. And I don't know if a lot of people still do that. In some ways, I think music is force-fed through TV these days. It's listening more with your eyes than your ears. And that sort of leaves a band like us out in the cold.
"We'll never be the next new thing. But then again, I don't think we were ever the next new thing."
Nielsen's history bears out this statement. He began playing in bands in his native Rockford, Illinois, in the early Sixties, when he was in his mid-teens. By 1967 he was leader of the Fuse, a group that also featured fellow Rockford dwellers Petersson and Carlos, but an album subsequently issued by Epic Records fizzled. Moving the band to Philadelphia didn't help matters much, and neither did altering the lineup or changing the group's name to Sick Man of Europe. The Cheap Trick moniker made its first appearance in 1972, after Nielsen had returned to Rockford, and two years later the guitarist invited Zander, who had, up to that point, primarily been a folk singer, to serve as frontman. This turned out to be a key decision, in part because it created a visual balance: Zander and Petersson were pretty boys, while Nielsen and Carlos, a pudgy, mustachioed sort with a fondness for bad suits and drumsticks that resemble clubs, were nerds. But just as important were Zander's pipes. "Robin has such a great voice," Nielsen says. "He can sing rock great, but he can also sing ballads. Some guys, if they sing ballads, sound like they just got done with a voice lesson, but not him."
Almost immediately, the new configuration raised eyebrows in the Midwest. "By the time we had any success, we'd been playing in the clubs for years," Nielsen says. "In 1979, when a lot of people kind of discovered us, people who had seen us play in '74 were like, 'We could have told you these guys were good back then.'" Still, it took three years before Cheap Trick had a national album out, and the one that appeared in 1977 (like the new record, it is self-titled) came and went rather quietly in the States, and In Color and Heaven Tonight, both from 1978, fared only slightly better. Rock lovers in Japan knew better: They immediately embraced terrific songs such as "Hello There" and "So Good to See You," from In Color, and "Surrender" and "On Top of the World," from Heaven Tonight, pushing the full-lengths from which they sprang into the sales ether. To capitalize on this overseas popularity, the band headed to the Land of the Rising Sun, and the album that resulted--1979's Live at Budokan--broke the group wide open. "I Want You to Want Me," whose In Color studio version had been ignored in America, was suddenly blasting out of radios from California to Maine.