Cheap Trick

Star Plaza Theatre, August 26

The coolest guy in junior high was Jeff McNish. Every school had one–a guy who was 13 going on 21 and the subject of every girl’s crush. Jeff was tall, with long, feathered, dirty-blond hair and the beginnings of a mustache. He smoked cigarettes and always wore Levi’s straight legs over hiking boots and a black satin Cheap Trick jacket.

Back in the days of Foghat and Journey, Jeff was cool enough to realize that Cheap Trick’s pure power pop had it all over those other bands. Their first three records–Cheap Trick, In Color, and Heaven Tonight–were what you played every morning before school and every weekend at parties. Nearly every song was right on the money, from the dark “Auf Wiedersehen” to the upbeat “Southern Girls” to the rocking “Elo Kiddies.” But it wasn’t just the individual songs that were great (some drew from the Move and the Beatles). The records worked as a whole. Cheap Trick was bassy, raw, and fast–perfect for family crises. In Color was upbeat–great for parties. And Heaven Tonight contained elements of both of its predecessors, and therefore was appropriate for depression and parties alike. The placement of the songs–and the songs themselves–made for three complete, almost perfect records.

Then came Live at Budokan, which produced the hit “I Want You to Want Me” and made the Rockford quartet big-time stars. The follow-up, Dream Police, foreshadowed the beginning of the end. Dark, bass-heavy songs like “Gonna Raise Hell” and the haunting showcase for Robin Zander’s slicing voice, “Need Your Love,” stood next to overproduced, synth-laden drivel like “Dream Police,” making it the group’s first spotty record. Still, it was better than what the other stadium fillers were producing. The good songs were like the ones on the first records: solid pop delivered with a raw, almost punk energy.

A string of lame, overproduced records followed Dream Police and often featured songwriters who weren’t in the band. Last year Cheap Trick’s 14th record, Woke Up With a Monster, found the band on a new label, Warner Brothers, and with a hooky title track that sounded like the old Cheap Trick. But it was the album’s only standout.

Despite their string of mediocre records, Cheap Trick never lost their edge when they played live, and have managed to consistently book about 250 dates a year.

Unlike Jeff McNish, who sort of faded into the background in high school, Cheap Trick has staying power. Even during my transitions from new wave to punk to noise rock, I still played my Cheap Trick records. I wasn’t alone; Big Black covered “He’s a Whore” in 1987, lovingly re-creating the cover of Cheap Trick’s first–and best–release, their eponymous album from 1977. And the Beastie Boys sample of Budokan’s introduction to “Surrender” kicked off that band’s 1992 Check Your Head.

For all I know, Jeff McNish is fat and married, living somewhere in 815 right now. But, if Cheap Trick’s recent show at the Star Theatre is any indication, the members of the band never grew up. Zander, whose vest and tailored pants resembled his duds on the cover of Cheap Trick’s first record, might sport some wrinkles, but his voice is still right on the mark. The brim of Rick Nielsen’s baseball cap is no longer turned up and he’s filled out a bit, but he still commands the stage with boundless energy. Tom Petersson, who left the band and has since returned, plays his trademark magenta 12-string bass. And Bun E. Carlos–well, he’s always looked middle-aged. He’s just a little bit balder now.

The show started with a quick version of “Hello There,” which segued neatly into “Come on, Come on.” For the most part the band stuck with old numbers, even pulling out “Southern Girls” and “Heaven Tonight.” Petersson teased “Mandocello,” then sang a more than passable version of “I Know What I Want.”

Nielsen provided the most entertainment, trotting back and forth along the stage making faces, peppering the audience with guitar picks, and tossing out comments like, “If you’re here, please stand up.” Nielsen made well over a dozen guitar changes (nearly one for every song), but seemed to favor various versions of a Gibson Explorer. The most memorable, though, was a custom-made yellow double-neck that looked like a life-size version of himself.

Nielsen’s shtick and the energy of the music combined to make a compelling show. If there was a low point, it happened near the end of the set, when the band followed a gutless cover of “Magical Mystery Tour” with the crowd-pleasing ballad “The Flame.” But the audience sang along and when the lights went down pulled out lighters in homage (the same crowd also sat through an interminable Loverboy set). But the tempo picked back up with “Surrender,” which featured Nielsen playing a cumbersome five-neck guitar. Overall the show was much more energetic and riveting than, say, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who played later that night at Metro.

Cheap Trick is still a great live band. Maybe that’s because they have a sense of humor. (The proof is in the marketing; after the first record, the two good-looking members were featured on the record covers, while Nielsen and Carlos looked serious and demented on the back. On the cover of In Color Zander and Petersson pout on fancy motorcycles, while on the back the geeky Nielsen and Carlos sit astride mopeds.) Or maybe it’s because Cheap Trick did it the hard way, putting in their time developing their songs and their act in bars. Or maybe it’s because when they’re onstage, the band–not the record company, manager, or record producer–has control. Whatever the reason, the act, the songs, and the chemistry are still there.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Natkin–Photo Reserve.