Ostensibly the cheap trick here was the band's dichotomous visual image displayed on the front and back covers of the In Color and Heaven Tonight albums, where two pretty boys gazed dreamily at us from the front cover while two nerds, one thin and geeky and one a chubby accountant-looking guy, hid on the back cover. Robin Zander (vocals) and Tom Petterson (bass) are the good looking guys and Rick Neilsen (guitar) and Bun E Carlos (drums) are the geeks. I guess the marketing strategy was to get the little girls to cream over the pretty guys and therefore buy the record before getting suckered into listening to a band that was not all pin up beautiful. Or maybe the in-joke was just for the boys who liked hard rock and wanted it to be less po-faced and grim than the run-of-mill ugly bands like Uriah Heep, Kansas, Boston or any number of other metal heavyweights of the era.
I read about Cheap Trick in the New Musical Express long before I ever heard their sound. There was a piece that lovingly detailed how wonderful the debut album, Cheap Trick, was because it had this hard rock veneer underneath which all kinds of weird and wonderful lyrics and attitudes hid. Perhaps this was the other cheap trick – it sounded like standard hard rock but it was more subversive. The other neat aspect of the music, particularly In Color and Surrender, was that it owed a big debt to the Beatles. In the New Wave crazy NME and in the wake of the power pop phenomenon, this vaunted Beatle-esque approach made Cheap Trick highly credible. This was excellent praise for an American hard rock band of the late Seventies who did not come out of the New York punk scene that influenced and informed so much of the British punk scene.
'I Want You To Want Me' was the lead single from In Color and eventually became something of a hit when a live version of it, from the Live At Budokan album was released as a single, but it was the studio version I first heard on Radio 5 and which I immediately fell in love with. The song had a kind of clunky, stomping en deliberate riff and vocals and lyrics that very much sounded like something the Beatles might have come up with circa 'Love Me Do' or 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand'. I adopted Cheap Trick there and then and loved them. I did not know much about them, had not heard anything else by them but I still loved them. I guess the imprimatur from the NME had quite a bit to do with it.
The NME reviews for In Color and Heaven Tonight were glowing. They loved Cheap Trick too.
Somewhere around 1978, after the release of Heaven Tonight, the third album by the band, I found a sale copy of In Color, possibly at the bi-annual CNA record sale, and bought it, took it home and loved it for real. The album cover had Robin and Tom posing on serious motorcycles, looking all moody and dangerous. On the back Ron Neilsen and Bun E Carlos crouched over mopeds, looking dangerous in a completely different way. The album had a gatefold sleeve and on the one side of the inner cover, Zander and Petterson really posed their hearts out: they were so pretty either the little girls would gush or the gay guys would. On the other side Carlos faced front like a rumpled accountant in a police lineup and we saw Neilsen from the back with his weird short hairstyle, the baseball cap and a sating bomber jacket with the band name all over it. He looked like a guy trying to avoid the paparazzi after spending time in the same line up as his cohort Carlos. No guesses which band members would grace the official poster.
The music on the vinyl consisted of short, intense, riff laden songs with the incredible vocals of Robin Zander. As is the case with Robert Plant, Zander's voice was another instrument in the lineup. As I learnt later, the music and lyrics fitted in with all kinds of American musical traditions from Pacific Northwest and Nuggets style punk, to the Beach Boys, hard rock, pop, and freak out. This was a fun album where each successive tune was as delightful as the previous or the next. This was music for smiling to.
In Color has echoes of early Kiss, Angel, the Move, the Dictators, Big Star, and a number of other pop-styled bands of the Seventies who also liked heavy guitars. Sometime after I bought In Color, I also stocked up on a couple of Aerosmith albums and the first three Blue Oyster Cult albums, and these records, more than the icons of British metal such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath, were where I really got into hard rock. All of them kicked out the jams, but had a lot of melodic smarts and serious craziness going for them. Where Aerosmith was gonzo sexist riffmeisters with a bent for the Mick 'n Keef frontline, and Blue Oyster Cult were funny and heavy at the same time, Cheap Trick was the quirky kid brother, the one who was not nearly as normal as he looked and was proud of it.
It was difficult to think of Cheap Trick as hard rock at all. I thought of the band as New Wave American style and that was alright with me. So Good To See You was on repeat play for the coda where Robin Zander really gave his pipes a semi-operatic (but in a good way) workout. It would have been a monster hit in any parallel universe where I compiled the charts.
I played In Color so much (this was in the days before I had a decent tape recorder and had habitually recorded m vinyl records on tape) that the snap and crackle and pop of the eroded vinyl made listening a chore.
I found the debut album, Cheap Trick, in some sale bin somewhere. I'd read that this album was far heavier, weirder and less pop-oriented than In Color and I was therefore keen on discovering what the band sounded like before they started listening to proto punk. Indeed, the guitars on Cheap Trick are tough, crunching and almost traditionally hard rock compared to the lightness of touch on the second album. Rick Nielsen's concept was probably a band in the vein of the more intelligent hard rock of, say, Blue Oyster Cult, than the blustering thudding of Grand Funk Railroad or the plod of Black Sabbath. He wanted radio hits as much as he wanted to rock the house. In a way Cheap Trick could have been the precursor of Smashing Pumpkins whose Billy Corgan had a similar approach except that Robin Zander had a much more powerful voice and Cheap Trick probably aimed at direct mainstream success in the days before grunge became an alternative mainstream of its own.
Cheap Trick found success only after the release of the At Budokan album, which was originally meant to be a Japan only release as the band had found favour in the land of the rising sun when it was still a struggling band in the USA. At Budokan sold so well on import that the label released it officially in the States and took the live version of I Want You To Want Me off it as a single, and had a bit on their hands. Cheap Trick had released three studio albums without much commercial success although rock critic, especially the cognoscenti in the NME, loved them to death.
The release of Dream Police the follow up to Heaven Tonight, was delayed because of At Budokan's success. It was going to be the big breakthrough album that would cement the band's position in the mainstream and make them top dogs once and for all. The cover was in full colour and all four band members featured on the cover in their Dream Police uniforms.
I had skipped Heaven Tonight, for reasons unknown and probably irrational. The NME review had been ecstatic but it also seemed to me that it would be a tad pretentious and too weird for me after the first two albums and I never bothered acquiring it when released in South Africa.
Therefore, Dream Police was the third Cheap Trick album I bought. Like all of the others I bought it at record sales, but unlike the others the vinyl was a dud. There were deep scratches all over both sides of it to the extent where one could hardly listen to the last couple of tracks because the record jumped so much. I did not like the music much anyway. There was quite a bit of the hard rock style of the debut album but far too much sweet angelic harmony multi-tracked vocals for my liking. The Trick had gone all sophisticated on my ass and I did not care for it. It was an ambitious record form a band that apparently suddenly had the money to blow on studio time but had not quite managed to produce songs that matched the money spent on the production.
When I spotted Heaven Tonight in yet another discount bin, I snapped it up, took it home and prepared to love it. Funnily enough, though it is much in the vein of In Color, there is no tune on it that hit so hard in the guts as almost every song on In Color. It is on this second album that Cheap Trick perfected their early pop influenced, Beatlesque rocking groove. Heaven Tonight was not bad but I did not have a gut reaction to it and I did not play it all that much.
Next up was the EP Found All The Parts which consisted of tunes in the early style, and a great cover of Day Tripper, which emphasised the critics' fondly held view that the late Beatles informed the quintessential Trick songs. Otherwise the guitar sound was thicker, less gritty and to an extent more conventional than the early Trick but the tunes were great and the brevity of the EP makes for a brilliant record that ranks up there with anything that went before.
My final Cheap Trick purchases, both on one day, and I think it was a Ragtime Records sale in the late Eighties, were the early Eighties albums One On One and Next Position Please. By the release of these albums Cheap Trick were no longer the critics' darlings they had been in the Late Seventies and apparently the albums were not particularly commercially successful either. That is a pity for I loved both albums. Sure, they were not In Color, but the songs were great, the production muscular and the musicians were on top form. Just about every song had a memorable tune or hook and I sensed a deal of joy in the playing, even if this may not have been the case with a band that was facing a steady decline in popularity.
Some years later I found All Shook Up at Vibes Vinyl (long since defunct) in the Old Mutual Arcade in the centre of Cape Town, a shop specialising in second hand records, and even cassette tapes. At the time, and after I had not bought records for a very long time, I again became interested in acquiring vinyl versions of albums I had long wanted, never bought when new, and could not really get on CD. Who knows why I bought this, the 5th Cheap Trick so long after the fact, but perhaps it was because I wanted to complete my collection and because the record was cheap. Anyway, I bought the thing and played it perhaps twice before putting it away and into storage along with all my other records. Unlike In Color, or any of the earlier records, All Shook Up just did not appeal at first hearing and I was not prepared to give it time to grow on me.
Supposedly the Trick became more experimental with their music on All Shook Up, though I would have thought that Dream Police had already been pretty experimental, but for the most part it sounds no more and no less like a pretty standard, middle of the road hard rock album with not much to distinguish it from anything else around at the lime. The power pop influence and attack was gone, the joy and fun were gone. This album seemed to have been made by a band that was solidly set on producing a professional product that would suit their record company and mainstream rock radio rather than a set of quirky songs that would appeal to a more selective but more appreciative audience, such as the original fans who loved the first couple of albums. Perhaps Cheap Trick embraced a certain amount of hard rock cliché in order to subvert the genre, but on the other hand this cheap trick was not nearly as entertaining as the sneaky pop smarts of In Color.
I have to confess that my current assessment of All Shook Up is based on a five CD box set of the first three albums, plus All Shook Up and Next Position Please I recently bought. It is a good idea, the packaging of 5 early albums by an artist, in replica record sleeves, and with additional previously unreleased tracks except that for some unholy reason, in the 3 such box sets I own, the albums are not completely in sequence. For example, Dream Police is omitted from the Cheap Trick box set though it is the follow up to Heaven Tonight, and Cheap Trick at Budokan is also not in its rightful place in the sequence of releases. Perhaps this is a marketing ploy motivated by the fact that the two omissions were and maybe still are good little earners in their own right and do not need bundling and also because the live set has been released in an expanded double CD version, for the serious fans.
Never mind my small gropes. When I listened to In Color for the first time in many years, at age 49, I was as thrilled by it as I was when I first popped the record onto my turntable when I was about 19. I believe that this album in particular has not aged one bit, is not such a faddish artifact of its time that it now sounds a tad stupid and lifeless like so much self-consciously "new wave" music of the late Seventies or early Eighties does, or even the leaden hard metal of the era. This is something Cheap Trick has in common with early Aerosmith and Blues Oyster Cult; all of them made hugely enjoyable and interesting music with a degree of intelligence and suss not enjoyed by most of their peers and a resultant long half life.
I liked and still like the tricks Cheap Trick played on my mind. Whether they were pretty boys or dorks made no difference. The music in the grooves kiboshed any visual cliché that would have us file the band under this label or that. Melody end power rock, serious skills and humor, light and shade, all of these aspects make Cheap Trick's music a fun experience. In my book In Color is definitely up there with the greatest albums of all time, or at the very least the albums that always brings a grin to your face when you hear the opening chords of the first song and you know you will be mightily entertained for the next 40 minutes or so.