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.
The group would never be so big again, but that didn't mean it disappeared. Its next studio album, Dream Police, was typical of its Eighties and Nineties efforts; it was considerably spottier than the releases that preceded it, but far better than what was being put out by the vast majority of its hard-rocking brethren. At the time, Nielsen realized that Cheap Trick was a cut above. "Since there were so many terrible bands out there, we figured that even if we didn't make it, at least we had something we could listen to," he says.
Others listened on an intermittent basis. All Shook Up, a 1981 disc produced by Beatles associate George Martin, moved quite a few units, as did 1982's One on One, the band's first recording without Petersson, who departed in order to start a band with his wife. (He returned to the fold a few years later.) But with the exception of 1988's Lap of Luxury, which contained the hits "Don't Be Cruel" and "The Flame," the four-piece's other platters fell considerably short of blockbuster status. Even Cheap Trick's move from Epic to Warner Bros. in 1994 for Woke Up With a Monster failed to light the right kind of fire.
"We got signed by Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin, and the minute the record came out, they got fired," Nielsen recalls. "And on top of that, we heard from quite a few people from the label that they couldn't stand our manager. They'd talk to us but they wouldn't talk to him, because he'd go in there and rant and rave and try to push people around--and I don't think that's the way to do business."
After giving the manager in question the ax, Nielsen begged out of the outfit's Warner Bros. contract. "We didn't have a label for over a year after that," he notes. "But we weren't worried about it. People said, 'Oh, gee, you're not signed, how terrible.' But being signed to Warner Bros. wasn't a success, so what good did having a label do us then? Being Cheap Trick and having music is more important than having a label."
According to Nielsen, Cheap Trick turned down several offers from majors in order to join forces with Red Ant, which has put its all into the marketing of Cheap Trick. The album is as good as anything the band has put out in the past ten years, with highlights like the mid-tempo opening track, "Anytime," the sneering, fuzz-toned "You Let a Lotta People Down" and the almost punky "Baby No More." The lesser tunes have decent hooks, too, but once again, domestic radio stations have mainly steered clear of them. Nielsen claims that the supremely melodic "Say Goodbye" and the new single, "Shelter," a surprisingly straight-faced ballad Nielsen wrote following the deaths last year of his mother and father, have earned modest airplay in this country, but not nearly as much as they've received abroad.
"In Europe and Japan, the album's actually doing fairly well," he allows. "But in the United States, well, we've struggled our whole career. Right now is very difficult, because in some ways it's a different musical climate."
Perhaps so, but that doesn't mean that Cheap Trick's audience has dried up entirely. Sex America, a four-CD boxed set from 1996 that provides an overview of the group's career, showed up on numerous best-of-the-year lists, and its sales encouraged Epic's reissue arm, Legacy, to dig deeper into Nielsen's archives. "They're going to rerelease most of our albums, like Lap of Luxury and our first two records," Nielsen reports. "And I'm going to remix In Color, which has always sounded too wimpy to me. If you've listened to the first album, which we did with Jack Douglas, you know that it's a really raw album--raw and noisy. But on the second one, Tom Werman toned us down to try and get us some airplay, which didn't work at all except for Japan, where they were playing us anyway. But the stuff is on the tracks. I think it just needs to be updated and mixed heavier."
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Looking back on this era should buoy Nielsen, but somehow it doesn't. When asked why Cheap Trick is looked upon so warmly by such a wide variety of rock fans, he mutters, "I think we were a lot of people's fifth favorite band. They're like, 'I love the Beatles, I love the Stones, I love Led Zeppelin, I love Metallica and I like Cheap Trick.' We made interesting stuff. Maybe it's not earth-shattering, but when you play it, you can enjoy it at face value; you don't have to have somebody explain it to you. I think we were more song-oriented than anything else. And I guess we had some pretty good songs."
Undoubtedly--and when he starts getting depressed, Nielsen reminds himself of that. "Mostly, I keep my griping and defeatism down to a minimum," he says. "Otherwise, we would have given up a long time ago, as a lot of other bands have. We've had a lot of ups and downs in our career, but we're still banging around."
Cheap Trick, with Cry of Love. 8 p.m. Friday, September 12, Paramount Theater, 1621 Glenarm Place, $20, 830-