Friday, January 30, 2009

Listen w/o Prejudice (The Revenge): Cheap Trick

The BOTG's large horde of fans have been ceaselessly nagging me* to revive my series of posts known as "Listen w/o Prejudice," wherein I argued the merits of bands such as Rush, the Indigo Girls, ELO and, most pseudo-famously, Hanson. Apparently readers derive great joy in watching me pour out my heart in this manner. Something akin to the uncomfortable amusement one can get while watching a clueless adolescent dog attempting to impregnate a mailbox.

With that in mind, I offer up what long reigned as Billy's Favorite Band: Cheap Trick.

Born in the mid-70s, the Chicago outfit, made up of Robin Zander on vocals, mastermind goofball Rick Nielson on guitars, and Bun E. Carlos on drums, switched out bassists more often than Spinal Tap replaced drummers. This band isn't exactly on the far end of Loserville, musically speaking. The list of bands who openly and proudly proclaim their love and devotion to Cheap Trick is long and distinguished (just like Slider's johnson). On top of the adoration of musicians, they have a healthy number of well-known singles including perhaps one of the most impossible-to-hate power pop songs of all time, "I Want You to Want Me" (Live, from Budokan, if you want the best version).

And if you don't respect "Surrender" as one of the greatest time-stamp family songs of all time, I pray for your mortal soul... and hope your kids don't find you rolling numbers and rock 'n' rollin' with KISS records.

Cheap Trick is power pop. In my book, they own the category, and everyone else rents space in it.

Sure, they hit a bad patch there for a while in the mid-80s where they showered a little too long in syrup and cheese, producing full-out trash like The Doctor and uncharacteristic schmaltz-pop like "The Flame." And even I can't fight too hard arguing that the band lost most of its true relevance to the larger music scene somewhere between All Shook Up (1980) and Next Position Please (1983).

No matter. I first fell in love with Cheap Trick during their lowest times, when they were eking out the spare pop gem ("Tonight It's You") on albums mostly filled with horny juvenile trash. Their album Standing on the Edge was in the $3.99 bargain bin at Turtles in the summer of my sophomore year, when my hormones had me feeling like I was Bruce Banner (or, in homage to Bill Bixby, "David Banner") except I never got the chance to turn into the Hulk. I was stuck in that raging quivering unstable in-between green contacts mode.

As such, cheesy stupid songs about horny bastards going after hot girls helped sooth the savage beast. At the time, my heavy rotation included Rush, Suzanne Vega, R.E.M. and Yaz, so most of the bands heavy in my rotation weren't exactly stoking the horny fires. Cheap Trick filled in a missing piece of my musical life... even if they were never gonna help me get laid.

And hell, once you fall in love with a band in their lesser moments, the admiration is destined to increase. If you could somehow fall in love with Cheap Trick in 1987, it was only going to get better with each album you discovered.

I've only seen them live once. But there's a reason their Live at Budokan was such an earth-shattering record, and it's because they bring something so powerful to their live performances that it bleeds through your eardrums even in secondhand recordings.

Even now, I can't help but argue that some of their stupid horny shit is just delicious... even if it's not gonna be seen as the second coming of Bob Dylan. Sometimes musical immortality is made of more primal matters.

* - By "large horde," I mean two. By "ceaselessly nagging," I mean one dude suggested it back in December. By "one dude," I mean Bob. 

Seven of the Best Cheap Trick Songs You Probably Never Heard:
  1. Reach Out (mp3) -- Let me be clear on this. Had I never encountered the soundtrack to the film Heavy Metal, I might well have grown up believing Dan Fogelberg was the end-all be-all of musicianship. I won't dare start any fistfights by claiming this The Greatest Soundtrack of All Time, but it's easily up there. And among the many oh-so-delicious gems on this soundtrack, none has been played more frequently into the depths of my eardrums than this, perhaps my favorite second-generation Cheap Trick song. (Everything after Dream Police is second-gen... some would even throw that one in there.) Unfortunately for them, this song proved that you can put some kick-ass synth into a kick-ass rock song, and then they spent the next decade realizing that it's not as easy as it seemed, 'cuz most of the time synth sucks out the marrow of rock faster than I can say "Kentucky Fried Chicken."
  2. Southern Girls (mp3) -- No question there's a certain Bizarro sense of pride in being from the South. Few of Cheap Trick's songs are really worth dissecting too finely. No Springsteen, they. It's usually a question of fun and hook power.
  3. Hard to Tell (mp3) -- Off their 1997 eponymous comeback album. This band has had more comebacks than John Travolta. To be fair, this album is the closest the band got to rediscovering the vibe and sound of their first few albums. As such, although perhaps derivative, it's a strong collection of songs.
  4. All Wound Up (mp3) -- From their 1988 mega-success Lap of Luxury, this song epitomizes why I fell in love with them even in their cheesy stage. They could rock the mother-frakkin' house (albeit in somewhat cheesy ways).
  5. One More Day (mp3) -- This song in many ways epitomizes the standard Cheap Trick song. A powerful and catchy hook surrounded by verses that can be... well, very Cheap Tricky.
  6. I Can't Take It (live) (mp3) -- This has a little less noise punch than most of my favorite Trick stuff, but the Todd Rundgren-produced Next Position, Please is probably one of three or four favorite CT albums.
  7. Tell Me Everything (mp3) -- Ironic that a band that sings about how much they want to bang your little sister (in more than one or two songs) also pens this catchy ditty about getting dumped and the karmic joy of watching the dumper become the dumpee.


Jed said...

Well, Billy, I am filled with a "Bizarro sense of pride" in being a Cheap Trick fan. Did you know that a boxed set is out of the Budakon shows and one dvd is of the famed shows? What do you think about the assertion that Cheap Trick, when firing on all cylinders, is a logical continuation of where Big Star left off (just less alt than The Posies)? Loved the post!

Billy said...

Thanks for the thoughts Jed. Although not a Big Star scholar, I see the connection and think it's a compliment to CT. I guess I'd say Cheap Trick is probably less intelligent and "crunchier," musically. And both of those differences probably help explain why they were more commercially successful!

And if Cheap Trick and the Replacements love Big Star, I clearly need to become a bigger scholar of their work.

Jed said...

You won't be disappointed. Be sure to check out Chris Bell's "I am the Cosmos" album. He was an original member of Big Star. The title track is seriously one of the best songs ever.

Bob said...

Funny, I've been planning a Big Star post for awhile, just needing to transfer the Itunes-purchased songs from one computer to another.

You know I love the "Listen w/o Prejudice" series and hope it continues, but I thought everyone liked Cheap Trick? Well, maybe you could call it Cheap Trick: the crappy years or something, cause I guess what everyone loves is pretty contained on the Live at Budokan cd.

Billy said...

I guess I should have clarified, 'cuz you're right. While some bands -- Queen, fer instance -- create serious love/hate discussions amongst strident music folks, I've never heard anyone I know EVER knock Live at Budokan, or at least the key two or three songs made particularly immortal by that album.

So yeah, I was mostly talking about post-1981, when they began their slow fade into semi-obscurity.