Sure, This Band Has No Past might seem like an odd (and incongruous) title for a book that is very much about the distant past of its subject. But it makes sense if you view it through the slightly askew lens of the history and music of Cheap Trick. It was also the actual headline for the farcical band bio which graced the inner sleeve of their 1977 self-titled debut.
In this heavily detailed and expertly researched, book, This Band Has No Past: How Cheap Trick Became Cheap Trick (408 pp., $24.95, Jawbone Press), author Brian J. Kramp isn’t interested in chronicling Cheap Trick as the well-known, successful, and eventual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. The band behind hits like “Surrender,” “Dream Police,” “The Flame,” “She’s Tight,” “Tonight It’s You,” and of course, signature tune “I Want You to Want Me.”
Instead, he focuses laser-like on the years of formation, struggle and burning ambition. The band whose first gig was in 1974 at a Pewaukee High School Homecoming Dance and compensated to the sum of $300.
The story starts well before the core/classic lineup of Rick Nielsen (guitar), Tom Petersson (bass), Bun E. Carlos (drums) and Robin Zander (vocals) made their live debut together. Kramp details many of the members’ earlier groups with names like the Grim Reapers, Bol Weevils, Paegans, Fuse, and Sick Man of Europe. He also tracks down many of their members, friends, and associates to offer their revealing (and not always laudatory) recollections.
Something the book does well is paint a vivid picture not only of the scraping and scrapping thousands of Young Rock Bands like Cheap Trick had to do playing small clubs in small towns, but how to grow a fanbase especially on a regional basis. As they hailed proudly from Rockford, Illinois, Cheap Trick made their bones at small venues in the Midwest, slowly growing their audience and often with the help of T-shirts. Lots of free T-shirts.
And offbeat bookings. The band debuted a frenetic, less-than-two-minute early version of “I Want You to Want Me” at an outdoor family-friendly Mother’s Day concert in Rockford. That tendency also extended to Nielsen’s lyrics of strange people in strange circumstances. His tune about the notorious mass killer “The Ballad of Richard Speck” would eventually be rechristened “The Ballad of TV Violence” by nervous record execs.
James gives the story of how a fan created the now-iconic smeared typewriter font band logo, and gives equal credence to the Rashomon-style recollections of how the band got its name.
But whether it was original singer Randy “Xeno” Hogan ribbing Nielsen for playing a “cheap trick” Grand Funk Railroad-style guitar lick, or Carlos wanting a name with the word “cheap” in it, or Petersson’s recollection that English rockers Mott the Hoople used “every cheap trick” in the book after seeing them in concert, he includes them all.
James tells an amusing anecdote of when the band opened for a then-nascent Fleetwood Mac in 1975. Nielsen visited Christine McVie backstage and gave the singer/keyboardist a T-shirt with his band’s name on it. Her husband John McVie – out of his mind drunk at the time – got super pissed and thought his wife was being called a “cheap trick,” throwing Nielsen and his manager out of the room.
Kramp also writes how each member of Cheap Trick developed their visual personas, neatly dividing the band in half. Eccentric, weirdly dressed, pop-eyed goofball Nielsen and dour chain-smoking accountant Carlos were one side. And sexy smoking, frizzy-haired Petersson and blond pin-up boy Zander lived on the other. Guess which pair are featured without the others on the front covers of the LPs In Color, Heaven Tonight, Cheap Trick at Budokan and Lap of Luxury?
The book’s last section shows the band still struggling to break through commercially with their first few records, finally scoring a big hit with the live version of “I Want You to Want Me” from the Budokan record.
A turn of events even more unexpected as the project was meant for release in Japan only (where Cheap Trick had massive success) and band members actually fought to not release it in the U.S. The band likely agrees now it’s a good thing The Powers That Be at Epic Records bucked their wishes.
As written, This Band Has No Past will most appeal to the hardcore Cheap Trick fan, and it reveals stories and tales even that group will find new. And while Carlos (who is no longer in the band and was involved in lawsuits against them) did give Kramp interviews for the book, none of the other three principals did. It would have made for a much more complete effort, but they are represented in archival quotes. It also features many rare photos and ephemera.
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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.