JAM Magazine Main Features

Cheap Trick

'Tonight' Belongs to Cheap Trick

That four-man rock 'n' roll ensemble from Rockford, Ill.. has rumbled through a lucrative career enduring quite a few identity problems, but it seems to have helped boost their popularity instead of stifle it For a long time. rock industry analysts never knew if the group meant to be taken seriously or not.

Their antics on stage seemed to parody the zaniness and juke box heroics of many stage shows. Their lyrics seemed to cut a cynical edge and poke fun at other bands. Each member seemed to represent a different faction of rock performers in style and dress; the cool, au naturale, long-haired bass player; the shy but serious. out-of-place drummer: the cute sexually appealing lead singer: and the lunatic lead guitarist with his Air Force recruit haircut, colorful pullover sweaters and bowties, old-style baseball cap, checkered guitar and a sly yet somehow innocent look on his face of "Boy, don't I look ridiculous?"

Finally, a name like Cheap Trick pretty much sealed the hypothesis that this band was merely a parody of rock 'n' roll.

"Yeah, I've read that, you know. It's like I'm a parody of myself," said the "lunatic" lead guitarist Rick Nielsen. And with his ever-present sense of humor and his witticism constantly slipping into the telephone interview from a Minneapolis hotel room, he seemed absolutely serious about this subject.

"How can you be a parody if you're doing what you've done for so long. You know, you are what you are, it's like you've got a style. Well, how am I a parody if that's what I've done all along. I'm not copying somebody else. I'm me. When I get on stage, it's like I've been shot out of a cannon: I just have a lot of fun.”

OK, so much for their stage show. There's still the matter of where the lyrics come from. "From you. Eric," said Nielsen, the band's chief songwriter. "Reading the paper or watching the news, reading magazines, meeting people, travelling. Everyday stuff with a little twist to it, you know. Because I think the world in general has a little twist to it, anyhow."

Like most composers, Nielsen, especially with his wit coming into play, has had to put up with fans and critics reading all sorts of things into the lyrics that weren't there. "Sometimes the ideas they come up with are better than the ideas we had," he said. "But, obviously there's more than just boy meets girl, the end, guitar solo. We usually try to write with multi-imagery."

And like most rock 'n' roll bands, this is a complex musical unit. And perhaps more so than most bands, this particular one has quite a unique lineup--Jon Brant on bass, Bun E. Carlos on drums, Robin Zander on vocals and guitar--with four totally different individuals that take a solid team approach to their music. Even the band's career is a bit more unique than most others.

Formed in 1974 and bred on the club circuit in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, where the group still makes their home and keeps their offices, Cheap Trick landed a contract with Epic records in August of 1976. But after two years of audience building and two albums with mediocre sales, their big break in America came when they went to Japan. They came home with their live album Cheap Trick at Budokan and followed up in 1979 with their classic Dream Police.

Their big break almost broke their identities, too. The band was forever associated with Japan, and Nielsen said he and his associates, as well as record-buyers, got sick of the media's infatuation with the subject. So, they stopped talking to the press.

"I'm not knocking it, you know, the success we had from it," Nielsen said. "It was just like the same question over and over and over and over. The main thing is, 'Hey, what about you're new record, where are you touring, what's going on now.' You know, I will talk about the older stuff, but the newer stuff is more important to us, as it should be, I think."

Their newer stuff is an album One On One, with a four-month U.S. tour to showcase the new material which started June 1. The group will perform at Lloyd Noble Arena on Saturday, July 17.

The album, in one sense, displays a change for the band in that, as Nielsen puts it, it is a "pretty straight ahead rock album," not quite as pop-oriented as previous efforts. However, this does not represent a new direction for the band. "It was just what we were writing and thinking at that time," Nielsen said. "I mean, the next record may be all electronic, who knows."

Besides, on stage, Cheap Trick has been anything but pop-oriented. Their shows have bordered on the heavy metal classification of rock: loud, busy and energetic.

Therein lies another item that adds to the complexity of this band. Cheap Trick does not try to make their albums bear all the intensity they have become known for on stage, according to Nielsen. “Although One On One sounds happy," he said, "I don't think anybody I know has a stereo that's loud enough to project on record what we do live."

Their stage performances, though, have earned the group as avid a following as their hit records did in 1978-79. Intensity is a consistent trademark of Cheap Trick on stage along with Nielsen's manic behavior, whether ripping through guitar solos with two or three guitars slung over his shoulder or trying to maneuver with a five-necked guitar that does just about everything a guitarist needs.

"The top part washes my clothes, the second part irons them," he joked about the unique instrument before actually describing it. "The top neck is a 12-string, the next neck is a regular six-string, the next neck down is a six-string with a vibrato bar on it, the next one is another regular six string that I tune for a slide guitar and the bottom one is a fretless-guitar."

Despite the instrument's complexity, Nielsen insists it doesn't add any confusion while he's playing it. "I'm confused 24 hours a day." He said he has mastered it, but there is one problem, "It is a bit difficult because you have to keep switching the switches on them to change to each neck. Otherwise it would just squeal and buzz."

At times Nielsen seems to be a man who has decided to remain 18 years old for a while. He is mature in his experience and towards his needs and sincere in his work and attaining his goals. To ward off laziness while on the road, he runs between three to 10 miles a day at least five times a week, not including what he estimates as another 10 miles on stage. Still, he insists that his life shouldn't get too serious, either as an artist or rock 'n' roll star.

"I actually got a letter once--a letter and a cassette--where somebody had written, 'You know, every album of yours has the word "tonight" in it someplace.' And they went through them, and they had little blurbs (on the cassette). So on our last record, I purposely didn't put the word 'tonight' on the whole album. Even if it should be there, I didn't put it in."

Sure they have a lot of fun. Sure they bar few holds when it comes to a sense of humor: Sure, you can't be too certain of how serious they approach their music. But this is a rock 'n' roll band with complex music, complex lyrics, and a complex image made up of complex individuals. And the name Cheap Trick?

"It's the girlfriend you used to go out with before your wife," Nielsen said.