Why Cheap Trick Is Secretly One of Rock's Most Influential Bands

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Cheap Trick, performing with Peter Frampton at Red Rocks on Tuesday, June 16, occupies a unique place in the history of rock music. The group's music was almost definitively power pop, but even then, it often rocked harder than peers who were stamped with that same designation. When the band started out, in 1974, its raucous live shows and almost anti-rock-star appearance had the spirit of what would later become punk. Guitarist and primary songwriter Rick Nielsen has a knack for hooks — as well as the humility to recognize the limitations of his own singing voice and deferring to great frontman Robin Zander.

“There, I'm perfect,” says Nielsen of his backing-vocals role. “I wrote songs for a better voice than I had.”

By the end of the 1970s, that classic Cheap Trick lineup — Nielsen, Zander, bassist Tom Petersson and drummer Bun E. Carlos — made the group not just radio stars, but also a huge concert attraction, both in the USA and abroad. Nowhere was this more vividly illustrated than on the 1979 album Cheap Trick Live at Budokan, one of the best live rock albums of all time. That record documented Cheap Trick's first tour to Japan in April 1978, ahead of the May release of its Heaven Tonight album and the classic lead single “Surrender.”

Cheap Trick remained a popular band throughout the '80s, in spite of its '70s roots and a changing lineup that saw Petersson leave and then rejoin the band in time for 1988's Lap of Luxury. (That album had its own hit single, “The Flame.”)

But Cheap Trick spent some time playing regionally before being signed to Epic Records, the label that had previously signed Nielsen's old band, Snazz. Based out of Rockford, Illinois, the group wasn't necessarily poised to garner a wider audience, though it played warehouses, bowling alleys and weeklong stints at bars and venues outside of Illinois. “We played all over the place,” recalls Nielsen. “Wherever we could. We played Minot, North Dakota, a lot because they would take us. I remember playing a place called Jack's Snacks. They wanted someone who would work a week at a time.”

During the ascent of its popularity, Cheap Trick's music was often featured in films like cult classics Heavy Metal (1981) and Rock and Rule (1983). “Surrender” and other tracks appeared in Over the Edge, a film that was shot in Greeley and Aurora. The movie depicted the life of troubled/neglected kids living in subdivision neighborhoods on the periphery of metropolitan areas in the American West, and Cheap Trick's music was a perfect fit.

Cheap Trick has consistently released new music over the years, and its association with film and television has continued, as well. The title music to The Colbert Report is a Cheap Trick composition, too, but with a twist.

“[Stephen Colbert told me that] 'I Want You to Want Me' was his character, the Uncle Sam kind of deal,” reveals Nielsen. “I said, 'Okay.' I wrote 'I Want You to Want Me,' so I took the melody and ran it backward. Now I'm pissed off he hasn't called me back for his new show.”

Cited as an influence by Kurt Cobain and Buzz Osborne of the Melvins, and covered by Big Black ("He's a Whore"), the influence of Cheap Trick can be found in much of the rock music that has come along since the '70s. In 2007, the Illinois State Senate declared April 1 Cheap Trick Day. Few musical acts receive such an honor. And while many bands of the same era are on the nostalgia circuit playing state fairs and the like, Cheap Trick has maintained an audience beyond mere throwback appeal. Or, rather, a new generation of musicians and music fans are discovering the group's raw pop. Whatever the reason for Cheap Trick's ongoing appeal, one thing is for sure: A great pop song ages well, and Cheap Trick has written more than a few.

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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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