Gonzo guitar god Rick Nielsen talks about his band’s breakthrough album and about revisiting it for a pair of concerts this week—35 years to the day(s) of the original Japanese performances.
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 very few bands that had fans in both camps. The quartet blew out of Rockford, Illinois playing a unique brand of hard rock that combined Beatlesque melodies with power chords and lyrics that were by turns witty and dark. Their first three studio albums were critically acclaimed but Cheap Trick remained more or less an underground band 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 old Fats Domino tune “Ain’t That a Shame.” The band capitalized on Budokan‘s popularity in late 1979 with their fifth album, Dream Police, which included another pair of smashes in the ballad “Voices” and the rocking, dramatic title track.
If Cheap Trick hasn’t maintained that 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. The band returns this month with a pair of shows to commemorate the 35th anniversary of their Budokan performances, playing the exact same set lists they played in 1978. The first one was this past Sunday (April 28th) at the John Varvatos Bowery Boutique in New York City, and that’s followed Tuesday night (the 30th) at the El Rey in Los Angeles. BLURT had a chance to chat with guitarist Rick Nielsen on the eve of these shows.
BLURT: To start off with, you guys are gonna be doing two Budokan anniversary shows — one here in New York and one in L.A. [Tell us] more specifically what you’re planning for each one and why now.
RICK NIELSEN: Well, I think we’ve been requested by the Japanese record company to do exactly the same set — the one we did on the 28th of April and the one we did on the 30th of April, in 1978. So we are going to put our brains into memory mode and [try to] remember exactly what we did. We already have those [set] lists. Luckily, they’re all pretty good songs.
The 28th, you’re gonna be here in New York. You guys have had a relationship with the John Varvatos store but you also had a relationship with CBGB. I was wondering what your thoughts are about both venues, now that CB’s is gone.
Well, they kept the bathroom the same, so I’m happy!
John Varvatos is a great guy. You know, he’s a rock historian besides [being a] fashion designer. You feel real comfortable [with] the transition from the old CBGB to John Varvatos. I don’t know if it would have worked in reverse. It’s a little nicer — well, it’s a lot nicer than CBGB’s was but it’s still got that vibe to it. It’s still rock and roll.
[Your] first three studio albums were critically acclaimed. But Budokan really made you guys a commercial force. It’s unusual for a live album to do that for a band. Looking back 35 years, what was so special about those shows?
Well, there’s a whole bunch of things. [The Japanese fans] liked our music, one. And they liked our studio versions, two. And we had just [released] singles in Japan, three. I mean, there were all three things going for us. We weren’t getting so much airplay in the United States [at the time] but we had three number-one singles in Japan.
Whose idea was it to cover “Ain’t That a Shame?” That was the second American single and an amazing cover.
The Japanese asked if we could do a cover song — and that was a good one. We liked the John Lennon version from the Rock and Roll album. For years, we’d done it with every guy having a solo and a long intro. It’s kind of a timeless rock song.
In 1979, a year after we had done that version, Fats Domino’s manager came to a show — I think it was in Salt Lake City — and said, “Fats likes your version so much that he wanted to give you this.” And he gave us the gold single of “Ain’t That a Shame” from 1955. We drew straws for it and I got the best straw!
When Cheap Trick first started, what do you think each of the four of you brought to the band that was unique — you, Robin [Zander], Tom [Petersson] and Bun E. [Carlos]?
Well, Robin could really sing, as opposed to screamers and shouters. I think on our first bio, he’s [referred to] as ‘the man of a thousand voices.’ He could go from [being] the guy that’s talking to his girlfriend who he loved to [being] a serial killer — and everywhere in between!
Tom started off as a guitar player. To fill out our sound, he came up with the idea to make a 12-string bass. I mean, nobody had a 12-string bass [at the time]!
And I was never gonna be a cute rock guitar player. I was a songwriter that played guitar. You know, I was kind of a — I hate to say the class clown, but I always had trouble in school. I was smart enough to do stuff but I was too dumb to blend in too well. I was never gonna be the heartthrob.
And Bun E. — where does he fit in? (laughs) It was a great combination.
I understand that Bun E’s not playing with the band right now?
Yeah, he hasn’t toured with us for a number of years now. My son Daxx is playing. About 12 years ago, Bun E. had a back operation and my son played drums with us for three months. After that, he was the drummer for Dick Dale for three years. And he played with A Fine Frenzy and Sheryl Crow. He went all over the world. A couple of years back, we asked if he wanted to tour [with us] and he was thrown back into the fire almost immediately. His first show was Austin City Limits and then South By Southwest. And he just fell right into it.
When Budokan 2 came out, years later, there were a lot of good songs on that album [too]. Some of the stuff on the second volume, like “Downed” and “Auf Wiedersehen,” was fantastic.
That was actually only one concert. We didn’t mix and master all the songs [at first]. We only made it into a single album. People would have [had] a different perception of Cheap Trick had they put out the whole concert because more of the heavier stuff is on the second part.
You know, we had more pop songs, I think, on the first [Budokan]. But the record company was so bright that they waited 20 years to put out the rest of it!