Cheap Trick is an American rock ‘n’ roll institution.
Formed in Rockford, Illinois in 1973, they were grouped with the era’s reigning arena-rock kingpins by the time they went multi-platinum with the landmark live album, Cheap Trick At Budokan, in 1979. But the band always had an acerbic, sneakily subversive edge lurking beneath their larger-than-life, cartoonish persona. They might have shared a producer with Aerosmith in the ’70s, but Cheap Trick felt closer to punk. Dig deep into their catalogue and you’ll find songs about serial killers, suicide, middle-aged pedophiles, pot-smoking parents, and other darkly comic snapshots from the underbelly of Middle America.
The band’s main songwriter is guitarist Rick Nielsen, whose dweeby stage clothes and knowingly ridiculous performance gimmicks — the multi-neck guitars, the dozens upon dozens of tossed-off picks — are complemented by a deeply sarcastic sense of humor and an unmatched ability to chronicle suburban kinkiness. His songs are a big reason why Cheap Trick remains a common touchstone for a wide range of artists who would never otherwise commingle. They’ve toured with Queen and Guided By Voices, and have been covered by Taylor Swift and Big Black. I have personally seen Nielsen play his signature song, “Surrender,” on separate occasions with both grunge gods Pearl Jam and emo upstarts The Get Up Kids. As Nielsen himself puts it, “We’re a lot of people’s fifth favorite band.”
On April 9, Cheap Trick will release their 20th album, In Another World. Ahead of that, I asked Nielsen to share his thoughts on nine of the band’s most significant albums. As usual, he didn’t hold back, speaking candidly about his band’s many ups and downs.
Cheap Trick (1977)
It came out during the disco era, which was not our kind of music. But, luckily, [producer] Jack Douglas had heard about us, and he came to see us. His in-laws lived in Waukesha, Wisconsin, so he planned on being there. We had a show at Sunset Bowl — it was a bowling alley, and a place we had played at a number of times. He came there, and he liked us. I think he made a call that night or the next morning, and said, “You’ve got to sign these guys.” It’s like, here’s Jack Douglas, he did Aerosmith, all this good stuff!
We liked punk. We liked the Sex Pistols. But we never tried to be anybody. We never thought, “Let’s be like those guys,” like a lot of bands do. They try to be what the flavor of the month is. And it’s like, I don’t know what month we picked.
In ’76, we went to New York, and started working at the Record Plant. I think we did 20-something songs in six or seven or eight days. I’m not sure how many days it was. So, we had to cut it down from what we had done. When we started to do the sequencing, it was like, everything should be side one and side A, because we didn’t have any side B or two. That’s one of the little dopey details that we felt about ourselves.
We had to change a few titles on there to pass clearance. “The Ballad Of TV Violence,” that was “The Ballad Of Richard Speck.” The record label was worried we’d get sued by the relatives of Richard Speck. [Ed. note: Speck was a serial killer apprehended in 1966. He died in 1991.] All we were doing was telling a story. But it was like, well, TV violence — I thought that was going to be something that people would complain about soon enough. When I think about it, it was a wise choice.
So, it had some fun stuff on there. When we did that record, I sent it to Tom [Petersson, Cheap Trick’s bassist] and said, “Should I have a different name for songwriter on there?” Because it had “Mandocello,” and then you had “The Ballad Of TV Violence.” It was like, it can’t be the same guy doing it. It seems like it was written by different people. But it’s the same person, just a different emotion for a different song.
People would say, “Well, where do you get the inspiration from?” I said, “Well, maybe The National Enquirer. Half of it is farfetched, and the other half is probably half-true.” Plus, I always liked the idea of a double and triple entendre. You don’t want it to mean something where that’s all it means. Like, the song “Oh, Candy” — Marshall Mintz was this photographer that we had who committed suicide. “Oh, Candy, why did you do it? You didn’t stick a needle in your vein.” So, we made it into a pop song. But if we said, “Hey, Marshall Mintz, what did you do it?” it wouldn’t make any sense. So, I tried to make it into something else.
In Color (1977)
I think we got a pretty good review of the first record, but it didn’t sell anything. Nobody knew who we were, except a few of our fans that had come see us live. We were building a pretty big following in Chicago, Milwaukee, and the Iowa area. We used to drive to Minot, North Dakota, and play at the Dutch Mill, four or five sets a night, seven days in a row, and there was usually nobody there. And they were telling us to turn it down all the time, after every set. “Would you turn it down?” “Yeah, okay, we will.” We never did. And we were playing all original material.
Tom Werman, who was head of A&R at Epic, was also a staff producer. He had been doing Ted Nugent and I don’t know who else. He was chosen to produce us, because they wanted a more commercial song or whatever. We said we liked the Sex Pistols, and he hated the Sex Pistols. So, it’s like, uh-oh, we’re in trouble here.
We’d record, and then we’d go on tour while the record was still in fresh paint. I’d play my last note, and I’d get on the bus. So, we never heard the final mixes that were on the actual album. Werman put stuff on there, like the piano on “I Want You To Want Me,” and it wasn’t the way we played it live. All of a sudden, it’s out, and the record company execs, they’re all happy. Instead of making us sound like The Who, we sounded like The Guess Who. And that record didn’t sell very well. But we were picking up a little bit. We were getting on good shows, because lots of bands, like Kiss and Queen, wanted us.
Heaven Tonight (1978)
Heaven Tonight was the second album we did with Tom Werman. When I write something, I try to make it as good as possible. I thought about things in my life. My mother wasn’t in the WAC, the Women’s Army Corps, but I had an aunt that was. The opening line, it’s like a rock ‘n’ roll line, “Mother told me, yes, she told me I’d meet girls like you.” Don’t go over there. Those kids are bad. They have knives.
So, I took stuff from my life and embellished it. By then, I was 29 years old or something, and I was the oldest guy in the band. I still am! Growing up, every kid I knew, their parents were weird. Whether they were hippies or straight or religious nuts or whatever, every parent is weird. “Hey, you want to come over to my house?” “No, your parents are weird. Do you want to come to my place?” “No, no, your parents are weird!” You’ve got to know how to stretch the truth with your parents. You’ve got to listen to them, but you don’t always have to heed it. That’s “Surrender” — don’t give yourself away. Don’t turn into one of them.
Cheap Trick At Budokan (1979)
We were starting to get some popularity because of playing with Queen and Kiss, the tours in ’77. When we played with Queen, we opened up two of the shows in Milwaukee and Madison. I think Thin Lizzy was supposed to open for them, but I’m glad they didn’t because we got the chance to open for them.
The Japanese press were there for Queen, because they were huge there. But the Japanese press liked us, too. After the show, they asked me to write an article, what’s it like to tour with Queen. I’m so full of crap, I’ll write anything. What do I know? We used to make fun of every band, and Queen was one of them. But we didn’t on those two nights.
After I wrote the article, it came out in Japan and we started getting fan mail. And there were caricatures of ourselves in the Japanese magazines. We were kind of easy to draw funny. And then we had a number one hit with “Clock Strikes Ten.” And it’s like, only in Japan! Holy cow, what a great place. And then we started getting more and more fan mail. We hadn’t even been there. But I thought they were the smartest country on Earth.
So, in ’78, around the Heaven Tonight record, we went there, and it was like Beatlemania for us. They loved Cheap Trick! We flew coach from Chicago, and here were 5,000 kids when we landed. I thought, “Who in the heck’s on this plane?” We were in the back of the plane, a little late getting off. They were standing on top of the terminal screaming, and it’s like, “Wow, gee, careful there.” After we go through customs, the security people put us in these taxi cabs, and all these taxi cabs chased us from the airport all the way to where our hotel was. People were screaming, hanging out the windows. It was like, “Wow, this is cool.”
At that time, it was Tom and myself in one room, and Bun E. and Rob in the other room. We were sharing rooms then, but it was better than the U.S. because we’d probably be sharing a room for four people instead of two and two.
Every show we had was sold out. We didn’t know what the Budokan was. The Budokan made us famous, but we made the Budokan famous. I think Robin said, “Here’s a song from our new album,” and it was.
Dream Police (1979)
That was the last album we did with Tom Werman. I liked him. He was great. I’m friends with his family and his kids, and it was great to work with him. He was always encouraging. We liked it heavier, that was all. When we had the orchestra stuff on that record I went in to help conduct the strings, because Werman didn’t even show up for that part. The musicians would look at me like, “This little wise ass.” But I was right. I knew music through my parents. Not that I liked their kind of music, but I just knew a wrong note from a right note. But some of the orchestras, they could sense that they were taking criticism from a ding-a-ling. But again, I didn’t care. It was my song.
All Shook Up (1980)
We had asked George Martin to produce our record. He and Geoff Emerick came to Madison, Wisconsin, in the middle of winter. I can’t believe we had the balls to ask him. But he actually came there, in a big snowstorm, and saw us in Madison, in a rehearsal place. Full Compass Studio, I think it was. And he liked what we were doing. Musically, he knew more than anybody I had ever worked with, and besides my father, he was the smartest man that I worked with. I became friends with him, too.
We’re from Rockford, Illinois, and he’s worked with The Beatles. Jesus! But he listened to my ideas, and I think we hit it off really well. We were one of the first bands to play at AIR Studios in Montserrat, in the British West Indies. That’s the same place in The Police video where they’re jumping up and down in the studio. After we finished the basic tracks, we flew to London, and that was the first time we flew on the Concorde. It was like, we’re it.
When we were all in Montserrat, nobody could get through to us. I had my wife there and my two kids, Erron and Miles, they both learned how to swim there. And Daxx was in her tummy at that time. But nobody could get through on the telephone, except Tom’s wife from Beverly Hills. It was such a distraction. She’s having trouble with their new house they had there. It was like, concentrate on what we’re doing! So, actually towards the end, I ended up playing bass on “Baby Loves To Rock.” [Ed. note: Petersson left the band before All Shook Up was released, and later re-joined in 1987.]
We finished the day that Bon Scott died. I know because we were big fans. I wrote a little verse in “Love Comes A-Tumblin’ Down” about Bon. And I had George Martin give us his voice. “I’m hoping to live longer, aided by the supreme healing force of music.” I got him to do that, and he didn’t want to do it. “But come on, George! I’m your pal now!”
Later on, John Lennon was trying to fatten up the sound for Double Fantasy. So, [at the invitation of the album’s producer Jack Douglas] we went in and we played “I’m Losing You” and “I’m Moving On.” If you listen to our versions, as opposed to the versions on Double Fantasy, Double Fantasy sounds like a lounge band. We didn’t fit with that, but it was like, they wanted that sound. But John at one point said to Jack and Bun E., “God, I wish we would’ve had him on ‘Cold Turkey.’ Clapton choked up.” Really. I called him John. Bun E. called him Mr. Lennon.
Lap Of Luxury (1987)
There’s records that nobody liked where there’s always something good on them. A lot of work goes into them. I remember we finished an album once, and the record company, before it came out, was like, “Just wait till the next record.” What?
It was a bad time for me, because I had written 99 percent of the stuff. And here’s the record company and the management and the record producer all saying, “We need you to get some outside writers.” Oh, thank you. We had done cover songs. But it was stuff of our own choosing. But now they wanted outside writers. I kind of get it, but at the same time, it’s like, for a songwriter, to say we’ve got to get other people, uh-oh. Guitar player’s leaving soon, too. So, it was rough. Nobody defended us except us.
“The Flame” is a terrific song, and Robin sings it great, and my solo’s not too bad. It’s good. Probably more good than bad on it. But the reason I “hated” it, as the story goes, is that it was the 10th song where the record company and producer said, “You’ve got to record this.” We recorded about 10 different things. It’s like, “Why didn’t we do this one first?”
How did I feel about the music scene of the late ’80s? I use this line all the time: We never progressed. We never tried to be something that we weren’t. That’s too difficult. It’s like trying to remember the lie. Wake up in the middle of the night and all of a sudden you’ve got an English accent.
It was fun to do. When we go in and record stuff, we do it all live. I don’t think we ever did more than three takes on any song. We know what we are, and we aren’t trying to do something that we can’t do. Usually when I write songs, I always do them in keys where I don’t have to look at the neck. I want to look at the audience. Who wants to see a guy noodling down there, not moving?
I’m a musician. I’m supposed to be poor. But the fact is that we have a career. We always work. We always will work. We just kept going at it. We make records for ourselves, so if we do something dumb, it’s our fault. We must have agreed to do something that’s not us. It’s like, “Hey, we’re Cheap Trick. We’re thrilled that anybody likes us.” We’re a lot of people’s fifth favorite band. If we’re at the top, it’s like, don’t you like Led Zeppelin?
In Another World (2021)
The more I hear it, the more I like it. When you’re doing it, I don’t compare it to this or that unless it’s a direct steal from somebody or a direct steal from ourselves. We started it on Big Machine, and then as we were doing it, BMG wanted it. What’s this, record companies clamoring over us? We’ve been around so long, we’re never going to be the next new thing. We don’t know how to dance. We’d lose on American Idol or any of those shows. We’d never make it. But, they get what we do. There was no interference.
I like the rock stuff. “Summer Looks Good On You,” that’s a fun one. I like “Boys & Girls & Rock ‘n’ Roll.” They’re all kind of different.
I think we’re respected because we never gave up. We made every mistake there is — we’ve had success, we’ve had failure, but we keep going. To me, that’s success, the fact that we’ve done 6,000 shows and played seven nights a week, for no money, in awful places. But we always believe in ourselves.
In Another World is out via BMG on April 9. Get it here.