Hello there, ladies and gentleman—are you ready to rock with Rockford’s favorite sons and recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees? Guitarist Rick Nielsen talks about that, how the Republican Party tried to hire them to perform at the RNC Convention, the making of their new album, the recent passing of producer George Martin, and more. Above photo by David McLister.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
In the late ’70s, when punk rock and arena rock were at odds with each other, Cheap Trick was one of the few bands that had fans in both camps. The Rockford, Illinois, combo played a unique brand of hard rock that combined Beatlesque melodies with power chords and lyrics that were by turns dark and witty. In addition, each member of the band was recognizable and had something to contribute. Guitarist and main songwriter Rick Nielsen was rock star as class clown: an excellent axeman and tireless stage presence who favored funny faces and baseball caps. In contrast, heartthrob lead singer Robin Zander was known early on as “the man of a thousand voices” — and for good reason. He could deliver a sensitive ballad or tortured screams equally convincingly. Tom Petersson, the band’s other heartthrob, pioneered the idea of a 12-string bass. And heavy-set drummer Bun E. Carlos provided a rock solid backbeat — usually while wearing a blank expression and glasses.
Cheap Trick’s first three studio albums were critically acclaimed but they remained more or less an underground phenomenon until their fourth effort, Live at Budokan, launched them into the pop stratosphere. It’s rare that a live disc becomes a band’s breakthrough album but Budokan was the exception to the rule, spawning two hits: the original “I Want You to Want Me” and a manic version of the Fats Domino standard “Ain’t That a Shame.” The band capitalized on Budokan‘s popularity in late 1979 with their fifth album, Dream Police, which gave them another pair of smashes in the ballad “Voices” and the rocking, dramatic title track.
Admittedly, I myself didn’t really start to worship at the church of Cheap Trick until the ’90s. Although I was certainly aware of them before that time, I didn’t have a strong feeling about the band one way or the other until one weekend when I was on a business trip in New Orleans. While I was there, my friend (and former boss) Frank convinced me to skip a work-related function and hang out with him and some of my other former co-workers, who were going to see Cheap Trick perform. I decided to join them and was rewarded with one of the most entertaining — and loudest — shows I’d ever seen! I caught hell from my then-boss for not attending the work function. But if I had it to do all over again, I would make the same decision.
If Cheap Trick hasn’t maintained their initial level of popularity in the last three decades and change, they have still recorded frequently, toured incessantly, inspired a ton of bands and even scored a number-one hit in 1988 with “The Flame,” an uncharacteristically commercial love song. And 2016 is shaping up to be a big year for them. April 1st saw the release of Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello, the band’s 17th studio release and their first since 2009. Bang, Zoom is highlighted by the rockers “No Direction Home” and “The Sun Never Sets,” the more reflective “When I Wake Up Tomorrow” (the first single) and a cover of the Dobie Gray oldie “The In Crowd.”
One week after the new album arrived, Cheap Trick was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! And even though Daxx Nielsen, Rick’s son, is the band’s current drummer, they were able to put their differences with Bun E. Carlos aside for the evening and play with their original lineup. [Ed. note: Below, watch the band’s induction by Kid Rock and the members’ respective acceptance speeches, including some semi-pointed comments by Zander about lawsuits. Neither the singer nor the guitarist was exactly complimentary towards their erstwhile drummer in an interview with The Guardian conducted just prior to the induction ceremony, either. Meanwhile, though, for this BLURT interview, Nielsen respectfully declined to dish about Carlos, and in more recent interviews (such as for the May Uncut, he’s offered the official line, saying, “What’s the situation with Bun E. Carlos? Well, what we say is that he is in the group, but he doesn’t record, he doesn’t tour, and he’s not in photos.” Carlos, for his part, in the lead-up to the release of a new solo album Welcome to Bunezuela!, has been candid, albeit in a somewhat diplomatic way, of late, confirming in a post at his Facebook page that while Nielsen’s comment is technically accurate, he feels there’s still some unpleasant and unfinished business to take care of. Wrote Carlos, “I no longer tour or record with Cheap Trick because the other Shareholders asked me to allow them to use a hired drummer instead. I reluctantly agreed provided that I wasn’t thrown out of the businesses we spent our whole lives building together. But then they cleaned house and under the advisement of their new team tried to remove me from our companies… Few bands get along after 40 years but for the sake of Cheap Trick I truly hope that Rick, Tom, & Robin can drop the gloves, stop the ugly name calling, and find a way to live and let live.” Meanwhile, go HERE at BLURT to read our own interview with Carlos.]
2016 has also yielded an intriguing footnote for the group’s trajectory: As you’ll read below they were offered $100,000 by the Republican Party to play a concert at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this July. Cheap Trick declined, however.
Meanwhile, Cheap Trick’s 1998 biography Reputation is a Fragile Thing, by Mike Hayes and Ken Sharp, is getting a limited edition reprint this year (check Sharp’s website for details). Also, their early ’80s discs One on One (featuring the hit “She’s Tight”) and Next Position Please (which failed to chart) were just reissued on one CD.
Tom Petersson, incidentally, was not on board for those albums, as was fired just before the release of 1980 LP All Shook Up; in a recent Uncut interview he cited burnout and “a combination of us fighting with each other and with the management.” He would be replaced by a succession of bassists until returning in 1987 in time for the next year’s Lap of Luxury and has been in the band ever since. He and Nielsen, as you’ll read below, are the best of friends.
I recently had a chance to chat with Rick Nielsen, which was a pleasure. Despite the sarcastic sense of humor and class clown persona, Nielsen can also be sincere when he wants to be. And at no point in our conversation was this more evident than when I asked him about the late George Martin (who produced All Shook Up).
BLURT: I’ll start with the new album, Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello. This is your 17th [studio] album. Tell me a little about when and where you started recording this one.
RICK NIELSEN: Well, we started a couple of years ago. We didn’t have a label but we had a bunch of songs we wanted to start recording. So we started in LA. We were out on tour, as usual, and we went to the studio and recorded about eight songs. Then we went back on tour — [but we wanted] to go back. So we went back and recorded another seven! Then we went back on tour [again]. And down in Nashville, we had [the] opportunity to go to another studio. So we went in and recorded another seven or eight there. Before you knew it, we had about 30 songs! And we started polishing ’em up, you know? We approached Chris Lord-Alge, who we’ve worked with before, because he does a great job mixing. And we started whittling it down. I think we whittled it down to — you know, like I say, about 30. Probably from there, we whittled it [further] down.
As we were [doing] the mixes, we got an offer from Big Machine [Records]. [Label head Scott Borchetta] had approached us about four years before that, saying he really liked the band but thought that we needed kind of an overhaul… I think it was [last] October or November, he said, “Fly down here to Nashville.” He heard some of our stuff and basically signed us on the spot. The people at Big Machine had no idea that since 2007, April 1st has been Cheap Trick Day in the state of Illinois. So they looked up the timetable and said, “That would be perfect. We’d like to get your record out then.” So we started doing art work and all that stuff.
Then we got the phone call about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and found out that was the 8th [of April]! So it was just kind of tied in… All these dates fell in together.
You guys are definitely having a good year.
Yeah, it seems like it!
This is the first year I was on the voting body of the Hall, and the first [name] I checked was you guys. I was psyched to be able to play a small part in you getting in.
Small part? Big part!
I might as well ask you, since we’re [already] talking about it, if you have any specific [thoughts] on that. At this point, we all know what Steve Miller thinks of it. I wanted to get your take on the Hall and what the induction means to you.
Oh, I think it’s the ultimate honor! I thought it was great. I said, if the other bands can’t handle it, we’ll let Peter Cetera [of Chicago] and Ritchie Blackmore [of Deep Purple] play with us. Really! If they’re gonna squabble, forget it. What an honor.
Nobody had any idea what was going on backstage. We were playing when people were doing all the press, don’t forget. And they actually closed the press room down after Steve Miller went back there. It was like, “I wish you would have waited a week or so!” (laughs) Sure, there’s things he didn’t like. [But] we were just happy to be there, you know? We’re not gonna start complaining about it!
On the new album, the first single is “When I Wake Up Tomorrow.” I [wanted] to ask you a little about the inspiration for that tune.
Actually, Robin came to the studio with that and played — not an acoustic version but like a demo version of it. I just thought it was great to start with…You know, the line “Will you be here when I wake up tomorrow?” How come we didn’t use that before? It had ‘memorable line’ written all over it. And [yet] it’s not some epic song; it gets to the point and [is] over within three minutes.
We’ve always tried to make albums. We’ve never [said], “Alright, we’ve got this single. Now we’re gonna have 10 other songs that aren’t quite as good as the single.”
Switching gears… It’s obviously been a rough year in the rock world in general because a lot of people are leaving us. About two months ago, George Martin passed away… You guys worked with him years ago, on All Shook Up. Not only was he an important producer but I’ve always heard he was a nice man.
He was the greatest musical person that we ever worked with. And he was a friend of mine… At the Rock and Roll Hall, I said that besides my father, he was the greatest man that I’d ever met [and] in the [new album] credits, I mention working with [him]. Every year, I’d get a hand-written Christmas card from George and this past year I didn’t. [I thought] maybe it got lost in the mail, or whatever.
When we worked with him, I never asked him any Beatles stuff, you know? If somebody brought it up, he was always more than willing to talk about it. [But] I never wanted to be that [guy who says], “Hey! What’d John say?” You know, all that kind of stuff… One of the best stories [was] when we did pre-production for the All Shook Up album, in January or February or something. He and Geoff Emerick came to Madison, Wisconsin. You know, three feet of snow! I mean, you wouldn’t expect — as far as the position he was in — [that] he would travel to see us. But he did! And when we did the Sgt. Pepper stuff, all the shows we did with the orchestra [in Las Vegas], I went to his house and he and [his wife] Judy cooked! And he gave me the original charts, hand-written, [for] Sgt. Pepper. I had those charts to work with. It was pretty amazing.
I recently read that you guys were asked to play at the Republican Convention this year. True?
Yeah, we were actually asked twice! No matter what’s going in politics today — which, of course, is the Clown Car and all that kind of stuff — just being associated with either party, I think, is bad news. Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Independent — whatever you are — I’d vote for who I thought was the best candidate. I would never think ‘straight ticket.’ [That’s] just a joke. They said, “Well, you’re not gonna be on site, you’re gonna be six blocks away.” [But] we don’t need that. We don’t need to be associated with it in any way, shape or form.
Plus, we stayed at the Plaza [Hotel in] New York years ago. Donald Trump was married to Marla Maples at the time. We came into the hotel, we walked in the lobby and we turned around and he gave us a dirty look! You can tell when people are kinda snotty, like how dare we be there? Well, our money was just as good as anybody else’s. I [still] recall that.
One last question. If I’m not mistaken, you and Tom Petersson go back almost 50 years now, right?
Yup. We first started, I think, in 1967.
That’s what I thought. You played in the band Fuse — even before Cheap Trick — [and] you’re still playing with Tom. I guess I wanted to ask you about your friendship after so long.
[With] Tom, it’s like the unspoken best friend kind of thing, you know? I’d do anything for him, he’d probably do anything for me. There’s a lot of unspoken stuff…. He lives in Nashville. He’s got his own family [and] I’ve got my family. Actually, Tom and I — the first time we went to England was in 1968. It was because of the music we loved…
You know, we had to go the source, together. And we’re still together.