They Want You to Want Them

Somehow, somewhere out there in the jungles of suburban SoCal, Mike Damone still has a job. While the smooth-talking ticket scalper/virgin deflowerer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High has assuredly seen the demand for Blue Öyster Cult and REO Speedwagon seats dry up, he might still be extolling the "charisma of Robin Zander" while warbling "your mommy's alright, your daddy's alright" to potential Cheap Trick show attendees.

Of all the early-'80s rockers, none has retained more relevance today than Cheap Trick. The quartet from Rockford, Illinois, still boasts the same lineup that recorded the self-titled 1977 debut, and the band is currently touring on their first new record in six years, Special One. The band and its longtime fans are poised for a resurgence of interest in Cheap Trick's patented blend of power pop, hard rock and swoony ballads.

"We've been around each other so long, we could finish each other's sentences -- but we don't all say the same stuff!" says guitarist Rick Nielsen. "We're all well read and tech-savvy, and the only dumb thing we want to do is play in a rock and roll band. I mean, look at the sitcoms: When the daughter brings a boy home, the only thing worse than a musician is a pedophile!"

And while Nielsen is comfortable with his band's accumulated history, he treats each new live gig "like an audition," particularly to those who either haven't seen them before or know only the hits.

"We didn't go to rock school or Performer U.," he says. "You are so lucky if your job is doing what you love, and if you're just going through the motions, it's easy to read. The audience can tell if you're just jerking around out there. We're not virtuosos, we're Cheap Trick. A good pop band."

Nielsen, vocalist Robin Zander, bassist Tom Petersson, and drummer Bun E. Carlos have always worn their Beatles/early Who/Big Star influences on their sleeves, but the pop sounds often take a backseat on Special One. From the arena rock of the first single, "Scent of a Woman," to the dark themes and sounds of the title track, "Pop Drone," "Sorry, Boy," "Best Friend" and the Jayhawks/Wilco-like "My Obsession," Cheap Trick has produced an unlikely-sounding Cheap Trick record.

"I think it fits in well with what we've done," Nielsen offers. "It's not ten 'I Want Yous' or ten 'Flames.' "

Nielsen says he wrote "Scent of a Woman" before the release of the movie of the same name. "It's paying tribute to women, but it's not a wimp-woman song. We got blasted by a couple of reviewers, but the guys in Aerosmith told us something. They'd have these big burly guys in tattoos and leather come backstage and say 'Oh, that "Angel" is my favorite song.' So every guy with a tattoo has a song that turns him into a pussycat. But we still wanted something [harder-] sounding."

The swirling "Sorry, Boy" was mostly inspired by the Iraq war, an acidic commentary on the unforeseen roles of American soldiers, the hardships suffered by those they were sent to "liberate" and the unnecessary death toll on both sides. "I think Robin was in a bad mood or something when he wrote that," Nielsen says.

Special One (the title is a frequent closing endearment found on Japanese fan letters) has been released on the band's own label, Cheap Trick Unlimited, in conjunction with Big3 Records. The band saw the control afforded by starting its own label as a necessary move after several of their more recent efforts failed commercially. The new album was cut at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York, where the walls have echoed in the past with the sounds of historic sessions by the Band and Janis Joplin. Turns out the studio is aptly named. "There were some mountain lions and wild turkeys and bears and all kinds of critters roaming around," Nielsen remembers, though he doesn't say if any of those woodlands residents mistook his trademark five-necked guitar for a complicated weapon and ran in fright.

The Cheap Trick story begins in 1973 (though many books and the band's own Web site mistakenly say 1974) when Nielsen and Carlos formed the group from the ashes of an act called Sick Man of Europe. By the next year, original singer Randy "Xeno" Hogan was replaced by Zander and the addition of Petersson -- with whom Nielsen had played on and off for years -- cemented the lineup.

Their first three records, Cheap Trick, In Color and Heaven Tonight, were released in the heyday of punk and disco and garnered only a cult following in America. But in Japan they were regarded as the second coming of the Beatles -- albeit with a different visual sense. Zander and Petersson were grouped as the pinup-worthy blond-and-brunette rock gods, while the freakishly pop-eyed, bow-tied and flamboyantly dressed Nielsen and the portly, balding, walrus-mustached and chain-smoking Carlos were the odd couple. (One Rolling Stone reviewer years ago described Carlos as looking like "a Nazi war criminal on the lam.") Small wonder that someone (maybe the label, maybe the band itself) saw fit to feature only Zander and Petersson on four album covers.

It was the band's fourth effort, the live At Budokan with its smash single "I Want You to Want Me" (their second stab at the song), that finally broke them stateside. A string of minor hits followed, from the dirty ditty "She's Tight" to the surreal rocker "Dream Police" to the anthemic "Tonight It's You." The band also had success with ballads such as "If You Want My Love" and even a cover of Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame." Petersson left the group for most of the '80s, but returned and the band scored a massive hit with the lighter-waving romantic anthem "The Flame" and had another with their cover of "Don't Be Cruel."

In the past few years, unlike many of their bigger-selling contemporaries, Cheap Trick has been name-checked as an influence by a surprisingly diverse group of younger musicians. Bands like Everclear, Smashing Pumpkins and Coldplay have sung their praises ("It would be cooler if they covered our songs!" Nielsen laughs). Kurt Cobain once described Nirvana as Cheap Trick with louder guitars.

More recently, the band provided the theme song to That '70s Show (with a tune based on Big Star's "In the Street") and made a cameo in the Eddie Murphy comedy Daddy Day Care. Many of their earlier records will be rereleased with bonus material next year.

On Cheap Trick's last swing through Houston a couple of years ago, they were grafted onto a heavy rock bill for 93.7 FM's ArrowFest that featured Lynyrd Skynyrd, Deep Purple, Ted Nugent and Nazareth. At least one front-row punter at the Woodlands Pavilion didn't care for the group, and his vocal disapproval led to Carlos's jumping off his drum kit with surprising speed and anger to ream him out, and Nielsen denouncing the "asshole" from the stage.

Nielsen "vaguely" remembers the incident today, and jokingly notes that Carlos will sometimes jump off the drum riser and start fights Nielsen has to finish. But the band won't tolerate hecklers, and Nielsen jokes that he's not above stirring up a lynch mob. "If you don't like the band, fine, go get a beer. But we have enough people who come to see us that we can mobilize them against anyone," he laughs. "Sort of like 'Go get him!' "

As longtime fans of the band know, Nielsen loves weird guitars, as does a certain famous Houstonian. "I come up with ideas and get somebody goofy to make them," he says. (These bizarre guitars can be viewed at www.cheaptrick. com/guitars1.html.) "You're in Houston, and I'm a big Billy Gibbons fan. He's a collector, too." Interestingly, the five-necked guitar was originally to be a six-necked monstrosity that "spun like a roulette wheel," until Nielsen thought better. "Hey, I'm glad it's only five. That thing is heavy enough already!"

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero