Reputation Is a Fragile Thing: The Story of Cheap Trick

by Mike Hayes with Ken Sharp


By Frank Youngwerth

Cheap Trick, you might have noticed, is in the midst of a rather unusual revival. Earlier this year Sony’s archival label Legacy issued At Budokan: The Complete Concert, and on Tuesday it will release “expanded editions” of the three albums that preceded the original Budokan: Cheap Trick (1977), In Color (1977), and Heaven Tonight (1978). Four shows at Metro this spring, each of which celebrated one of Cheap Trick’s first four albums, all sold out. This summer the band, which hasn’t had a hit since 1990, warmed up for Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam–and if that’s not enough cred for you, both guitarist Rick Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos have spun records at Lounge Ax’s Sunday-night DJ series, a job usually reserved for underground insiders like Steve Albini or Jim O’Rourke.

What you might not have noticed is that Cheap Trick spent this Fourth of July much as they’ve probably spent many a summer night over the years–playing their greatest hits at Kings Island amusement park, outside Cincinnati. This actually amounts to something of a coup: if you’re far enough over-the-hill to ply your chestnuts at a midwestern amusement park, you’re not supposed to be cool enough to sell out Metro four nights in a row or hobnob with Billy Corgan; for that matter, if you hobnob with Billy Corgan you’re not supposed to be cool enough to hobnob with Steve Albini, who covered Cheap Trick’s “He’s a Whore” with Big Black in 1987 and engineered its 1997 Sub Pop single.

Right from the start, though, Cheap Trick have worn their contradictions on their sleeve. The cover of the first album sandwiched well-groomed pretty boys Robin Zander and Tom Petersson between gaunt goof Nielsen and mustachioed oaf Carlos. The ragtag look may not have hurt the band, but it didn’t move many units either: Cheap Trick sold only about 150,000 copies the first time around.

Eventually, though, the band would sell millions of records–even as it continued to buck rock-biz protocol and defy easy categorization. This is what sets the occasionally mediocre Cheap Trick apart from the hordes of utterly crappy rock bands that have cluttered major-label rosters over the last two decades, and what makes a new book about them worth reading, despite its tediously fannish format: Mike Hayes and Ken Sharp’s Reputation Is a Fragile Thing: The Story of Cheap Trick (available for $25 from Box 1249, Willow Grove, PA 19090) is bogged down with song-by-song analyses and too many undigested excerpts from old magazine articles. But this doesn’t prevent a trove of curious details from shining through as the authors chronicle the band’s oddball odyssey through its two previous waves of success.

The first of these came almost completely by surprise in 1979. Selections from At Budokan, a live album intended solely for the Japanese market, started getting airplay in America, where Cheap Trick had until then been more or less ignored by radio. Brisk sales of the album as an import provoked the band’s label, Epic, to release it domestically, and seemingly overnight the boys from Illinois became world-class rock stars.

This of course happened prior to developments like Live Aid, back when rock stars were expected to be (or at least act) filthy rich, debauchedly decadent, and royally arrogant. But for the most part sudden fame didn’t faze the Rockford natives. Rick Nielsen told an interviewer at the time, in a quote reprinted in the book, “Yeah, we’re doing all right. It’s fine, but to me success is longevity, longevity without stepping on people and without doing it just for the money.” These comments would turn out to be prophetic for Nielsen and his mates.

Of the four, only bassist Petersson made overt moves toward conforming to the rock lifestyle. He began seeing a German fashion model he’d met when the band toured Europe, moved to Hollywood, and quit the band in 1980. Meanwhile Nielsen, Zander, and Carlos continued to reside in their working-class hometown. Nielsen spoke to an interviewer at length around this time about his community involvement, mentioning a donation of guitars from his legendary collection to a local center for the blind and his participation in a Rockford school-system program designed to introduce students to classical music.

A 1983 performance staged in Rockford by the local Mendelssohn Club showcased Zander accompanied by a choir and orchestra conducted by Nielsen’s father, Ralph. The program included old English ballads, classical pieces, “Ave Maria,” polite versions of a few Cheap Trick favorites performed by the group itself, and a teary-eyed duet between Zander and the elder Nielsen of the John Denver-Placido Domingo ballad “Perhaps Love.”

A couple years later, in an unusually patriotic move for high-profile rockers, Cheap Trick took part in a series of rock-oriented USO shows for troops stationed overseas. Nielsen, Zander, and Carlos all donated their time and services. Their generosity was all the more impressive when you consider that back home Cheap Trick was losing momentum. Budokan’s follow-up, Dream Police, had contained a pair of Top 40 hits, but three more albums and an EP hadn’t managed to yield any. The band was no longer headlining big shows, instead opening for ephemeral acts like .38 Special and Ratt.

But Epic hadn’t yet stopped trying to put Cheap Trick back on top. In 1987, just in time for Petersson’s return to the fold, the label found the song it believed would spur a comeback in “The Flame,” a slick power ballad from a team of professional songwriters. “The Flame” doesn’t sound like a Cheap Trick song. In fact it doesn’t even sound like it was made by a real live rock band, and with good reason: As producer Richie Zito recalls, “The band didn’t want to do it, so we had some pretty good arguments over it. It became a little crusade for me. We recorded it one guy at a time.” Still, it was an undeniably impressive vehicle for Zander’s soaring voice–always one of the band’s strongest assets–and the single reached number one.

Had Cheap Trick sold out? Maybe, although if the single hadn’t succeeded it probably would have just found its place alongside other compromised, nondescript tracks the band turned out throughout the 80s. Nielsen later recounted, “In 1980, things started to go wrong. The record company started to get real smart on us and instead of fighting for us, our manager went along with it. You listen to what they say and before you know it, you start believing it.”

At any rate, the resurgence didn’t last long. The group’s last three new albums have come out on three different labels. The best of them, called, like the debut, Cheap Trick, was released last year by Red Ant but is already out of print. In 1998 Cheap Trick fans typically prefer to focus on the three superior pre-Budokan albums, and both the band and its former label have taken this view to heart.

Normally the idea of four guys pushing 50 with no record deal, clinging to songs they wrote in their 20s, seems more than a little pathetic. Why, then, is it “once again hip to like Cheap Trick,” as Hayes and Sharp observe in their conclusion?

Maybe because those early albums hold up better to late-90s rock standards than they did to the requirements of the 70s. On the original Cheap Trick, In Color, and Heaven Tonight, the band didn’t come across as especially eager to get airplay or to please the critics with something novel. What does emerge is a poppy eclecticism that incorporates Cheap Trick’s varied musical influences (the Beatles, Family, the Move, Patto) and its high-spirited humor. Compare these former stadium rockers to the critical darlings of the late 70s, Talking Heads. After Time declared cover boy David Byrne “Rock’s Renaissance Man” in the mid-80s, he swallowed it whole and headed onto a collision course with unbearability. Rick Nielsen never got a tenth as much acclaim as Byrne, but he never lost his head, either–and now he’s all right by the same fans who abandoned Byrne long ago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers/ photos by Chuck Jones.