“No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones in 1977” sang the Clash. Their views on the first Cheap Trick album released in that seminal year, are unrecorded. I think they’d have liked it. Everyone from The Ramones to Slipknot liked it, so why wouldn’t they? Who knew that Cheap Trick would turn out to be one of the most durable and consistent American bands of all time, inspiring a multitude of bands and garnering superstar endorsements from all genres of music? The clues are on their first album…
“Cheap Trick” shouldn’t really work at all. First off, look at that cover art. It’s black and white for a start – and that photograph – two pretty boys, a guy that looks like a down at heel accountant and some other bloke in a baseball cap and a bow tie who could be Peewee Herman’s dad. Early signs are not good. Fortunately, the music tells a different story.
It shouldn’t work, but it does. They’re too melodic to be a big ol’ rawk ‘n’ roll band and too noisy to be a pop group. Their producer, Jack Douglas, fresh from his success with Aerosmith, made sure the guitars on “Cheap Trick” are loud, but the melodies are louder. If the only Trick song you know is “I Want You to Want Me”, you’ll be shocked at how aggressive this record sounds. Even at it poppiest – “Oh, Candy” – the guitars still bite and at its heaviest – “He’s a Whore” – the melody still rules. So, what’s the secret? Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Rick Nielsen. Behind the goofy baseball cap, the geeky bow tie, the ludicrous cardigan and the never-ending parade of bizarre guitars lies one of the greatest pop-rock songwriters ever. Ever. He’s a badass guitarist too. John Lennon knew that, inviting Nielsen (and Trick’s drummer, the impressively named Bun E Carlos) to the sessions that eventually became the “Double Fantasy” album. The songs on this first album don’t sound like first album songs at all – they’re confident, self-assured and they know exactly where they need to go. Their influences are pretty obvious, but there’s no slavish copycatism going on here. There may be a track on here called “Taxman, Mr Thief” but it’s a long way from being the Beatles pastiche that the title may hint at.
There’s a rawness and abandon on “Cheap Trick” that the band struggled to get back on subsequent albums. They’re famous for polished powerpop, but on their debut, their bar-band roots show a little and there’s less gloss and more raucous behaviour, which suits the material rather nicely. Their choice of subject matter is quite unusual too – “The Ballad of TV Violence” is about serial killer Richard Speck, “Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School” is about paedophilia and “Oh, Candy” is about suicide. Not your typical top forty fodder, eh? That could explain the rather disappointing chart position of 207 (!) on the US chart on its release. Tellingly, the weakest track is their cover of Terry Reid’s “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace” which plods a little compared to the version on Reid’s self-titled album of 1969. It’s still pretty great though, just not as great as their original material.
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In spite of its less than stellar chart performance, “Cheap Trick” was perfect for 1977. With the arrival of punk, even the most dyed-in-the-wool rock dinosaurs started writing concise, poppier material (ELP and “Love Beach”, Yes and “Tormato”) and with Van Halen proving with their incendiary debut album that you could combine hard rock with pop, the stage was set for the unholy marriage of The Beatles, The Who and The Raspberries that Cheap Trick was. And because they straddle so many genres, their appeal is broader than your average rock band – Robin Zander and Tom Petersson’s pin up looks didn’t hurt either. Now, let’s talk a little about Zander. If there’s a better vocalist in rock and roll, please let me know. His flexibility and power is as evident on “Cheap Trick” as it is on any of their subsequent albums. He was good to go from day one and why that man isn’t held in high esteem as one of the definitive voices of American music, is a mystery. Trick’s concise, economical style meant that when punk rock morphed seamlessly into new wave, they could hold their own against the likes of The Cars and The Knack and let’s face it, Nielsen had that “geek-chic” thing down, way before anyone else.
Cheap Trick’s first four albums are all incredible examples of how good pop-rock can sound. Loud guitars, great melodies and some brilliant, non-flashy musicianship. The eighties weren’t particularly kind to them and they wandered away from what made them great, only to get it back in the nineties, to some extent. But nothing will ever touch those early records. Kurt Cobain loved their debut album. And you should too.
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