Power pop-rock heaven tonight, with a few hiccups....
Power pop-rock heaven tonight, with a few hiccups….
The story of Cheap Trick’s early days could feasibly be re-told by replacing the band’s name with Peter Frampton’s. A handful of albums garner critical acclaim but sell poorly, a jittery label wonders when and from where the breakthrough might come, before a game-changing live release provides the catapult to Top 10 glory.
Ultimately, the multi-million sales and year-long chart residency of 1978’s Cheap Trick At Budokan (originally only intended for the Japanese market) was relatively small beer compared to the juggernaut of Frampton Comes Alive two years previously, but it was the making of this quartet of Illinois anglophiles. Like The Raspberries and Todd Rundgren before them, Cheap Trick worked from a power pop template; in thrall to The Beatles but imbuing their own music with the broader rock hues favoured by American FM radio.
The past tense is misleading, as the band continue to tour and record today, but this box set is a celebration of their major label output, an impressively prolific dozen albums between 1977 and 1990. Road-hardened by a minimum of 200 gigs a year, the first few releases were recorded quickly, although attempts to capture their stage vitality on record brought mixed results; studio versions of “I Want You To Want Me” and “Clock Strikes Ten” merely whispered where the subsequent Budokan readings roared.
Heaven Tonight remains the high watermark of the ‘70s albums, singer Robin Zander and the melodic power chords of guitarist Rick Nielsen forging radio-friendly anthems at will (“Surrender”, “Takin’ Me Back”). 1979’s Dream Police, recorded before Budokan but held back until after promotion of the live album, signalled the start of a change, the swathes of synths on the title track suggesting a shift from bars to arenas, although the minor chord splendour of “I’ll Be With You Tonight” kept a foothold in the group’s pure pop past.
Perhaps ironically, the hiring of George Martin as producer for 1980’s All Shook Up took these Beatles fans further away from the sound that first inspired them (in the same year that Nielsen and drummer Bun E Carlos would take part in demo sessions for John Lennon’s Double Fantasy). Bombastic and overblown, Martin’s grandiose tricks were unsuited to the sprightly rock ‘n’ roll of “Just Got Back” and “I Love You Honey”, but strong songs were few and far between anyway.
The rest of the decade saw Cheap Trick only intermittently catch sight of their earlier benchmarks. Producer Todd Rundgren gave their backsides a kick on Next Position Please (1983), “You Say Jump” and “Heaven’s Falling” recalling the fiery attitude of his own work with Utopia, but the albums that bookended it (One On One, The Doctor) suffered from weak material and coldly clinical period production.
After six years away bassist Tom Petersson returned to the fold for 1988’s Lap Of Luxury, and although the band were initially unhappy about Epic persuading them to work with outside professional writers (including Diane Warren on the cheesy power ballad “Ghost Town”) the likes of “Let Go” and a flirtatiously camp cover of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” contained enough echoes of what went before to keep the customers satisfied.
Throughout the period covered by these albums, Cheap Trick’s bread-and-butter was the live stage, the goodwill earned from the energy and enthusiasm of the first few releases, the now iconic …At Budokan especially, carrying the requisite clout to forgive them their missteps. Certainly, their 21st century set-lists are still dominated by songs from their first half-dozen years together, while not entirely saddling them with the tag of nostalgia act.
It could be argued that theirs is a story of promise only partially fulfilled, a lack of consistency that saw their accomplishments dwarfed by those of contemporaries like Tom Petty, or even Huey Lewis. Some of these albums don’t warrant too intense a revisit, but others remain shining examples of how joyful guitar-based pop-rock can be.
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