When I was 10 or so, I decided to drop a penny for 13 free cassettes to the Columbia Record and Tape Club. I was sorely lacking in contemporary music savvy at that age, although I'd already played my Beatles "Blue" and "Red" greatest-hits records to death by that time. I went to a friend's older brother with the Columbia ad and asked for his advice on essential records of the day. He basically picked them for me, making his tastes my own, at least temporarily. Given the selection of typical '70s rock at the time, I could have done worse, I guess. I ended up with some stuff I still like (Billy Joel's best album, Turnstiles), some stuff I liked at the time but have gotten well over (Boston, Foreigner), and some slight missteps (Supertramp). I guess I'll never know why this guy, Scott, picked these albums, whether he was even a true music hound or simply a follower of the top 40 of the day. Still, I am forever grateful to him, for it was Scott who included among the lucky 13 free cassettes an album that, along with the Beatles records, served as the foundation for much of what I would seek in popular music for decades to come.
I speak of a record that was released in the United States as an afterthought, after surprising sales in Japan, by Cheap Trick, a band little known in the U.S. outside of their native Illinois. An Epic Records debut had failed to move major units in the U.S. Two subsequent records (In Color and Heaven Tonight), while packed with great songs, got much the same treatment stateside. However, Japan sat up and took notice, giving this young band a much-needed boost. By way of a "thanks for your support," Cheap Trick recorded a couple of nights' worth of shows at a Japanese venue and Epic released the best of the results as Live at Budokan. It took a full year before Epic realized that this album, which showcased Cheap Trick's muscle as no studio recording had to date, was selling briskly in the U.S. as an import, enough to justify a proper American release. And God bless him, that Scott kid put Live at Budokan on my list of freebies from Columbia. I contend that it ranks among American rock's very best live records, as well as a superior record, period, live or otherwise.
Ever since that fateful first listen, Cheap Trick have always been a baseline for uniquely American arena rock music for me. That they scored their first top-10 hit ("Ain't That a Shame") from a live release isn't surprising, since their live shows are consistently memorable to this day. That it was a cover of a Fats Domino tune is notable, considering that by this time Cheap Trick had already penned such classics as "Surrender" and "I Want You to Want Me," among others. Lackluster production on their second and third records may be to blame (the Budokan recordings put the previous versions of these tracks and others to shame), a result of Epic's bringing in a "hitmaker" producer for the band after their debut failed to blow up on the radio. At any rate, Cheap Trick have persevered through the years by doing anything and everything, including more hit covers ("Don't Be Cruel"), many great originals ("Dream Police," "If You Want My Love," "She's Tight"), and even a non-band-written power ballad ("The Flame"). They've been on movie soundtracks, rocked a modified version of Big Star's "In the Street" for TV's "That '70s Show" ("We're all all right, we're all all right!"), toured relentlessly, and worked tirelessly to stay relevant. Cheap Trick claim their own mistakes, steer their own course, clean up their own messes, and aren't too proud to take second billing to a bunch of kids like Smashing Pumpkins or Cake. Before pop music was kidnapped by boy bands, fashion, baby-T girls and divas, scores of bands paid tribute to Cheap Trick's guitar-driven, melodic rock. When the question "Who are your influences?" is asked of noted rock bands today, CT are listed time and time again. Guest musicians at their 25th anniversary show included Slash, Billy Corgan, and Art Alexakis. They obviously love what they do, good ol' Rick, Robin, Tom, and Bun E., and this time, with a new release called Special One, it shows.
This ain't no Aerosmithy, by-the-numbers, phoned-in rehash. Somehow, Cheap Trick have drawn on individual strengths that have always held true, put their unique CT stamp on every song, while sounding utterly current. The band's longevity and influence have come full circle; they've been around long enough to share a world stage with bands that may not have existed without them.
Robin Zander's voice is more than simply great rock 'n' roll, it's reached iconic status and should be bronzed. He often brings to mind John Lennon's dry delivery, then suddenly bursts out a growling wail as on "My Best Friend." Rick Nielsen's skill at responding to a song's melody with a dazzling guitar squiggle or accent is subtly perfect throughout, especially on "Pop Drone" and the opening track, "Scent of a Woman." Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos are perhaps the most consistently fabulous American rock rhythm section to span the last 25 years.
Cheap Trick play with different styles as always: jangly pop-psych on "My Obsession," prom-night retro classic on "Words," heavy buzz-guitar riffing on "Sorry Boy," even a burpy, groovy, trippy kind of intro to "If I Could." In every case, they throw in a wrench or two to make sure we don't forget who we're hearing.
It's the lack of easy categorization (other than "Cheap Trick-ish") that has ensured Cheap Trick's standing as an institution. This same reason has probably kept them from more mainstream recognition. It's Cheap Trick's curse that in order to break through the radio wall, they may just have to dumb down and capitulate to fashion (consider their radio smash "The Flame," a prefab hit song with hair-metal ballad overtones, which, by the way, they never, ever play any more). But they won't, and that's good. I'll admit to listening to certain mid-'80s to mid-'90s CT records with great interest and anticipation, only to shrug them off as fair. Special One is aptly named, the first fully-realized new Cheap Trick release in far too long.