Turning Tricks

The four members of Cheap Trick have been to the mountaintop of rock and roll fame and celebrity. They've stood on its hallowed peak and surveyed with satisfaction and accomplishment the years spent kicking and scratching and clawing their way up that mountain: the early years of failed record deals and endless one-nighters; the grueling tour schedule loaded with thankless opening gigs for hotshots like KISS, Kansas, and the Kinks; the equally thankless task of playing bone-crunching, witty, and economical rock and roll when lumbering, arty dorks like Styx were filling stadiums and arenas. It all paid off. Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander, Tom Petersson, and Bun E. Carlos have finally, at long last, drunk collectively from the platinum-plated tankard, savoring the sweet wine within -- the taste of million-selling albums, Top 10 singles, and adoration from critics and the masses. Rock and roll has indeed been good to Cheap Trick.

And it has also kicked them around a bit. The band has made the journey up and down that mountain so often they should have a patch of trail named after them. For every journey upward to its cushy apex, there has been a tumble right back down to its darkened valley. After toiling through much of the early Seventies in nightclubs, honing their craft until they at last landed a record deal, they watched their first three albums for Epic -- 1977's Cheap Trick and In Color, 1978's Heaven Tonight -- languish in the nether region of the album chart. Finally, payback arrived via a live album recorded in Japan that wasn't even supposed to be released in the U.S. Said album, Live at Budokan, released for domestic consumption in 1979 only after unprecedented sales as a high-dollar import, captured the pop majesty and gritty hard-rock wallop of the Rockford, Illinois, foursome and produced a huge hit, the nagging and naive pop nugget "I Want You to Want Me."

Later that year came the first tumble: Dream Police, the ambitious followup to Budokan, had a lackluster chart run and was slagged by critics as a ponderous indulgence. It wasn't, but later albums such as One on One and The Doctor most definitely were. The band's music had become predictable, tiresome, and sluggish; by the mid-Eighties, the group was back out on the state fair and club circuit.

Fortune found Cheap Trick again, this time in 1988, in the way of "The Flame," a treacly power ballad by a pair of song-mill hacks. Both "The Flame" and its accompanying album, the 1988 patchwork Lap of Luxury, scaled the charts and made the band once again kings of the pop hill. At the same time, countless metal and punk groups were rifling through Cheap Trick's early work, finding inspiration in the band's lexicon of sharp, witty, post-Beatles classics. Typically, Cheap Trick failed to capitalize on the heat generated by "The Flame" or its ever-growing alt-rock influence. Its next two albums -- 1990's Busted and 1994's Woke Up with a Monster -- fell quietly and rightfully into oblivion, while a batch of leftover Budokan tracks issued in 1994 as the imaginatively titled Budokan II was unjustly ignored.

Rick Nielsen is pragmatic about Cheap Trick's commercial yo-yos. "What are you gonna do about it?" asks the songwriter, guitarist, and tireless power-pop craftsman for the group, during a phone interview from a tour stop in Rochester, New York. "With all the work we've done and all the running around we've done, we could easily get frustrated and feel sorry for ourselves, but that's not our nature. We started out by playing in a garage, and we may end up back in a garage. And so what? It doesn't matter because we just want to play, and since we can still play and can still play good, everything else is just frosting."

A healthy outlook, to be sure, and one that befits a man who admits to an interest in the rational-therapy theories of psychocybernetics. Still, you can hear a trace of cynicism in Nielsen's craggy, hoarse voice when asked about the wealth of groups currently mining with great success the Cheap Trick legacy. "We never see any royalty checks," Nielsen exclaims, laughing but not really joking. "We're in almost every kind of rock magazine, every month, but the stories are never about us. They're about somebody else who mentions how much they like us." Then, tempering his vitriol with a shot of rational therapy, Nielsen demurs: "That's cool, though. It's fine. We're still working."

Right now the members of Cheap Trick -- Nielsen, guitarist/vocalist Zander, bassist Petersson, and drummer Carlos, the original quartet -- are working on drumming up interest in Sex, America, Cheap Trick, a four-disc boxed set that chronicles the band's 22-year career and documents the band's brushes with greatness and flirtations with failure. It is a sometimes baffling compendium, one that omits some essential cuts (for instance, such debut-album jewels as "Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace" and "He's a Whore") and weighs too heavily in favor of latter-day whoop-de-doo rarities such as an alternate take of the 1982 sorta-hit "If You Want My Love" and sundry demos, outtakes, and compilation cuts. It does salvage the few worthwhile gems from such late-era losers as One on One and Standing on the Edge.

"A lot of the stuff holds up," Nielsen says of the set. "The only thing I find wrong with some of our records over the years is the mix, how sonically some of the sounds don't work. Otherwise, all the stuff is there -- the tunes, the technique, the this and the that."

Problematic it may be, but Sex, America, Cheap Trick authoritatively establishes the brilliance of the group's unique, twisted brand of power-pop, a melange of Beatles-esque melodies, sly vocals, inventive hard-rock riffs, and a rhythm section that works around the riffs with precision and finesse. Nielsen's lyrics offer savagely funny takes on everything from mass murder ("The Ballad of T.V. Violence") and romantic obsession ("Big Eyes") to sex ("Hot Love"), drugs ("Downed," "Heaven Tonight"), and rock and roll ("Clock Strikes Ten").

At his best, Nielsen overturns rock cliches as he recasts them, nowhere better than on "Surrender," from Heaven Tonight, which offers a charmingly whacked-out portrait of suburban life in which a young kid's parents tell him horror stories of tainted Asian women and then make out on the couch while listening to his KISS albums. "Growing up in the Midwest, you hear all the parents talking about walking ten miles a day through ten feet of snow and all this shit," Nielsen explains. "So I came up with a story about parents telling their kids all this herky-jerky stuff -- sick things like 'Indonesian junk' [read: venereal disease], parents listening to KISS. It's sick, but sick in a good way. Or maybe good in a sick way."

Which, Nielsen adds, might be a good way to define Cheap Trick's career thus far -- from the highs of the late Seventies to the lows that always lurk around the corner; from the good albums that got buried to the bad ones that went gold. "If I could go to everybody's house, door to door like an Amway salesman, and say 'Take a listen to this,' I bet we could sell millions of records," Nielsen figures. "After we make them, though, it's in someone else's hands. And if they don't know what to do with it, or if radio isn't playing good stuff that week, it gets lost. That is what's good about having a boxed set there to document this stuff. We can say 'I told you so. You didn't get this one at the time, but it's still there. It's still good.' I just hope people react to it.

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