Cheap Trick (Epic ‘77) Rating: A
This was a prime hard rock album by a band that started out great, though many have forgotten this due to their putrid decline later on. Featuring flashy guitar playing by prime songwriter Rick Nielson, some wicked bass by Tom Petersson, a thumping drum assault by Bun E. Carlos, and brilliantly idiosyncratic vocals from poster boy frontman Robin Zander, this album is pure fun. In fact, it rocks harder and with more raw energy and abandon than any of their subsequent studio albums. The band’s strategy was to mix The Beatles' melodicism with heavy metal, and the irreverent end result sounds as fresh today as the day it was released. Part of the band’s unique appeal is their lyrics, which are alternately funny (“He’s A Whore,” which is about gigolo), twisted (“The Ballad Of TV Violence (I'm Not The Only Boy)” and “Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School” are strong album tracks about a serial killer and pedophile, respectively), and sad (“Oh, Candy” is an affecting lament about a suicide victim). Some of this stuff would be absolutely chilling if it weren’t so tongue in cheek, and if the hard-hitting music wasn’t so catchy. Among the highlights are “Hot Love,” which starts things off with a horny rocker that could give Kiss or Aerosmith a run for their money, while “He’s A Whore” and the campy chants of “ELO Kiddies” are other hard rocking highlights. Elsewhere, “Taxman, Mr. Thief” memorably bashes the I.R.S. with a melodic chorus, while “Mandocello” and “Oh, Candy” are wonderfully airy ballads that also feature soaring guitar solos. In short, after listening to these 10 really good and sometimes great songs it's easy to see why Cheap Trick would years later be embraced by a generation of alternative bands such as Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, The Posies, and Weezer.
In Color (Epic ‘77) Rating: A-
Though some of these songs still have the oddball edginess that distinguishes Cheap Trick from other Beatles influenced bands, the group’s pop tendencies generally come to the fore on this batch of consistently hooky tunes. Producer Tom Werman helps clean up the band’s sound, which is still fittingly loud but given a sugary coating, and “Downed” (melodic, atmospheric, and dramatic), “Oh Caroline” (campy, trippy, and rocking, those strange yet hooky backing harmonies, once heard, won't soon leave your head), “Southern Girls” (The Beach Boys themselves would be proud to call this one their own I'm sure), “Come On Come On” (masterfully fun power pop, with vocal hooks a mile high, it was selected for Rhino's Poptopia compilation for good reason), and “So Good To See You” (uplifting, airy, Beatlesque pop rock) are among their best and catchiest songs. Not content with merely being power pop masters, the band also rocks furiously on “Clock Strikes Ten” and “Hello There,” the former generic but energetic, the latter merely a cheesy (but fun) intro on which Zander asks: “are you ready to rock?” Apparently the band was, at least on “Big Eyes,” a moody mid-tempo stomper, and “You’re All Talk,” which improbably and quite successfully matches a danceable beat to boogie-based metal. The album’s biggest disappointment is how stiff and wimpy this studio version of “I Want You To Want Me” is, and the album on the whole seems a tad tame compared to its more exciting predecessor. However, the songwriting on this more pop oriented outing is similarly strong if not quite as outstanding. Cool album cover, too; it features the good looking guys (Zander and Petersson) sitting on motorcycles on the front cover, which is in color. The dumpy Carlos and the nerdy looking Nielson grace the black and white back cover, but on bicycles and looking awfully uncomfortable. The main reason I mention this is that Cheap Trick’s contrasting visual appearances played a major part in crafting the band’s unpretentious commercial appeal.
Heaven Tonight (Epic ‘78) Rating: A- Some more great songs here further up the pop quotient while basking in a punchier production (Werman again). Although not quite as consistent as their debut album, their high water mark in the studio despite not containing any hits, Heaven Tonight is probably the band's second best studio album, as even the lesser songs here get by on the band’s ever present energy, craft, and charisma, as the band playfully recycles The Beatles, The Who, and The Move (memorably covering the latter’s “California Man”) while adding the trademark Cheap Trick crunch and warped worldview. The ballsy, hard-hitting rocker “Aur Wiedersehen,” which pokes fun at suicide (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) by signing off in several different languages, showed that the band’s skewed sense of humor was still very much intact, while the anthemic, fast-paced rocker “On Top Of The World,” the singable, airy semi-ballad “Taking Me Back,” the creepy, atmospheric, almost gothic title track, and the Beatlesque piano popper “How Are You” were other highlights. However, the classic here is the leadoff track, “Surrender,” on which our young narrator wakes up to find his parents smoking weed on the couch to his KISS records, accompanied by a wacky yet catchy chorus that won’t ever leave your head (just ask Mike Damone). Rock n’ roll simply doesn’t get any better than this bright and punchy power pop classic (probably the best song about parents ever), and the other songs not previously mentioned are generally good as well, as Heaven Tonight continued the band’s winning ways without much tinkering with their successful formula.
At Budokan (Epic ‘79) Rating: A- At Budokan: The Complete Concert (Epic ‘98) Rating: A
The storming live album At Budokan broke the band big in the United States. As you can tell from the ridiculous crowd shrieking throughout, they were already big stars in Europe, or at least in Japan, where this album was recorded. Delivering raw and noisy live versions of 10 songs, 5 of which were culled from In Color, one can feel the highly charged atmosphere of these concerts, which saw a great band playing at the peak of their collective powers. A good new song (“Lookout”), a barnstorming romp through Fat Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame” (a top 40 U.S. hit), and a punchy hit version (#7 U.S.) of “I Want You To Want Me” that blows the doors off the original all helped make this one of the ‘70s best live albums, a few Spinal Tap-ish song introductions aside. The rest of the songs are also well executed, including “Come On, Come On,” the nearly 9-minute “Need Your Love” (soon to appear on the not yet released Dream Police album), “Clock Strikes Ten,” and, of course, the surging power pop perfection that is “Surrender.” Although all band members put in strong performances, drummer Bun E. Carlos especially stands out, while Rick Nielson proves to be a quite capable “guitar hero,” playing plenty of enjoyably unhinged lead guitar throughout, particularly on “Need Your Love” and “Ain’t That A Shame.” And though “Hello There” is included and reprised as “Goodnight,” At Budokan still clocks in at a concise 42 minutes, during which time this clever band pulls out all the stops on one of the few necessary live documents. In 1998 Epic released the remastered 2-cd set Cheap Trick At Budokan: The Complete Concert, which added nine songs to the original At Budokan album and reshuffled the song order to match the running order of the actual tour, thereby presenting a more accurate, less filtered representation of what that tour sounded like. Let's face it, fine though the original album was, it left you wanting more, and “Clock Strikes Ten” and “Hello There” (and "Goodnight") are still generic even if these versions are definite improvements on the originals. It's great to have a couple of songs ("ELO Kiddies," "Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace") from their stellar Jack Douglas-produced debut, as well as excellent versions of more of my faves from In Color ("Big Eyes," "Downed," "Oh Caroline," "Southern Girls") and Heaven Tonight ("Auf Wiedersehen," "High Roller," "California Man"). I kinda miss hearing "Ain't That A Shame," "I Want You To Want Me," and "Surrender" back-to-back-to-back, but on the whole there's no denying that The Complete Concert is a definite improvement on At Budokan. Some glaring omissions like "He's A Whore" and "On Top Of The World" aside, The Complete Concert works extremely well as both a de-facto "greatest hits" album and as a great starting point for the uninitiated.
Dream Police (Epic ‘79) Rating: B+
On this album Cheap Trick are armed with a bigger, more ambitious production, which is put to best use on the terrific title track opener, with its bright synth swooshes, memorable riffs, and huge chorus (including those high-pitched backing harmonies). Melodic entries such as the soft ballad “Voices” (a minor hit as was the title track), "Way Of The World," and “I Know What I Want” (sung by Petersson rather than Nielson) are also easily recommendable and approach the band’s former flair, but elsewhere Nielson’s songwriting is growing increasingly formulaic. The hard-hitting rocker "The House Is Rockin' (With Domestic Problems)" is nothing special but gets by on its energy and enthusiasm, while the stomping disco metal of "Gonna Raise Hell" is interesting in its differentness and features good performances but drags on for 9 overindulgent minutes. The also epic-length (7:38) "Need Your Love" is similarly indulgent and agreeably hard-hitting; both songs have their moments but they also demonstrate the band's increased pretentiousness on this project. Still, the aforementioned highlights (“Dream Police,” “Voices,” “Way Of The World,” “I Know What I Want,” and also "I'll Be With You Tonight" while we’re at it) are all really good hooky tunes, though the album on the whole isn’t quite up to their previous high standards. Unfortunately, this album is considered by most to mark the end of the band's "classic period," as their artistic stock would soon plummet, though they would years later hit the top of the charts with “The Flame,” a lame power ballad that became their signature song for newer fans who didn’t know any better (i.e. people who also think that “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” is the best Aerosmith song!). My advice: forgive the band for selling out since in the long run it hurt their own reputations (if not their bank accounts) more than anything else, and go straight to the classic early albums reviewed here. Note: It’ 2005 as I write this, and in all fairness I have not listened to any Cheap Trick albums since their late '80s nadir (i.e. "their putrid decline" referenced earlier), so maybe some of their later albums have recaptured at least some of the band's early magic.