The Rockford rock legends’ eponymous debut is an infectious blast of energy from a band coming into its own
Built off the experiences of around a decade of trying to make it, Cheap Trick’s self-titled debut, released 45 years ago this week, was not a hit.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
But it was the first shot across the bow, the first in an opening run of four studio albums that would be the band at its peak.
Guitarist and main songwriter Rick Nielsen and bassist Tom Petersson had been playing together since the 1967 formation of Fuse in Rockford, Illinois. That band lasted long enough to put out a 1970 album on Epic that was as successful commercially as it was artistically for the two, which is to say not at all. A move to Philadelphia and a name change to Sick Man of Europe failed to stop the inevitable demise by the end of 1973.
AUDIO: Fuse “In A Window”
The one silver lining of the Fuse/Sick Man days was that the band had picked up a drummer for a time — Brad Carlson, better known as Bun E. Carlos.
When Nielsen and Petersson went back to Rockford, Carlos was there and the three formed Cheap Trick. The band started playing small venues throughout the Midwest, mostly doing covers, but was missing one crucial element — the lead singer.
That changed when they crossed paths with Robin Zander, who was invited to replace Randy “Xeno” Hogan, a wise decision.
The band continued its busy schedule throughout the region, adding more originals to their repertoire and picking up a reputation for terrific live shows.
It was one of those shows that proved fortuitous. Producer Jack Douglas, whose career had heated up, was in the audience for it. Douglas, impressed, told Tom Werman, then in Epic’s A&R department, eventually leading to them signing with the label in 1976.
They recorded the album that fall, with Douglas, who’d produced and engineered Alice Cooper and was coming off producing Aerosmith’s classic Toys in the Attic and Rocks, in the producer’s chair.
Playing club gigs with sets increasingly full of original material had cost the band financially at first, because cover bands were paid a lot more money, roughly ten times more per night.
But the benefits were clear when the band stepped into the studio. By this point, Nielsen had written enough material that songs from those club shows had them set beyond the first record. They had songs in reserve that made albums throughout the initial run.
The pairing of the band with Douglas was an inspired one. They play with a snarling ferocity on the rockers and, unlike subsequent albums, there’s no excess polishing or watering down. This is Cheap Trick at its rawest.
And make no mistake, there is a definite darkness to some of the material. “The Ballad of T.V. Violence” had been previously been titled “The Ballad of Richard Speck”, about the remorseless spree killer who murdered eight nursing students in their residence home in one night.
Nielsen delivers hard-edged riffs while Zander, in retrospect one of the best singers an album rock band could have asked for, gets the message across with his delivery.
The lyrics are simple, certainly not in any way a detailing of what happened that night, but Zander’s vocals portray the increasing descent into out-of-control violence, with the oft-repeated line of “I’m not the only boy”, a reminder that although Speck was put away, there were (and are) others still like him still out there.
The song ends in near-cacophony as Zander yells out the final lyrics as whatever the narrator has unleashed has reached its grim conclusion, the whole thing capped by a gunshot.
The character in “Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School” is no less awful, in this case a predator who goes after underage girls. Kiss had a hit single in 1976 with “Christine Sixteen”, in which the lyrics about stalking school property in search of a specific victim, are delivered with a smug smirk, a predator’s pitch to a 16-year-old.
“Daddy”, in contrast, doesn’t flinch in acknowledging the demeaning nature of what’s happening. Nor does it look away from the entitlement of the predator. The protagonist is, to put it kindly while wearing a Captain Obvious hat, not a good person in the slightest, but he’s not portrayed as anything other than a sleaze, albeit one with melodic hard rock backing.
If he doesn’t get his deserved comeuppance at song’s end, well, sadly, a lot of his real-life counterparts don’t, either. “Not the only boy,” indeed.
The album isn’t all about amoral, dark people by any stretch. Its one single was “Oh, Candy”, written about a friend of the band, photographer Marshall Mintz, who had committed suicide. The lyrics reflect Nielsen’s sadness in dealing with the unanswerable question of “Why?” and wishing a way could have been found to have that conversation that could have kept Mintz there. They’re emotions anyone left behind in that situation has felt, delivered with empathy.
VIDEO: Cheap Trick “The Ballad of T.V. Violence”
“Mandocello” remains one of the loveliest songs the band ever committed to tape, about long-distance love, about holding on to that love (or at least a doomed effort at trying). It’s the kind of song that should have been a perfect fit for nights on FM rock stations.
Two of the band’s most underrated songs are highlights here.
“Taxman, Mr. Thief” is Nielsen’s hat tip to the Beatles, who get both mentioned by name (“Like the Beatles, he ain’t human”) and by song (“Taxman, Mr. Heath”) in the lyrics.
But the music behind it isn’t Beatle-esque pop. Rather, it’s a heavier rocker whose riffs stick in the brain like candy, as does that chorus hook from Zander.
From the verses to the chorus to that solo break to the way Zander pitches up the intensity at the end, it’s a clear that this is a band that had honed its craft in those bars in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Cheap Trick gets almost punkish with the ferocity of “He’s a Whore,” which is built off Nielsen and Petersson’s descending tandem riffs. It’s less about selling one’s bodily assets through the job of sex work and more about being willing to sell anything, including one’s own integrity, in pursuit of more money. It’s a memorably visceral blast of energy in under three minutes.
“Hot Love” gets in and out in similarly fast and furious fashion, although the lyrics are much less pointed. If the wit isn’t there, it still feistily kicks through the speakers and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
The album’s first track — “ELO Kiddies” is definitely not about a predator although, in a bitter irony, it owes a musical debt to the biggest hit recorded by one.
Nielsen’s influences were sometimes obvious (compare In Color’s “Downed” and Electric Light Orchestra’s “10538 Overture” for one example). In this case, the main riff is a nod to Gary Glitter’s 1972 UK hit “Rock and Roll (Part 2)” which became a ubiqituous stadium anthem (the one with the “HEY!” chant in the chorus) here in the States until the late ’90s, when word of Glitter’s ongoing crimes– ones that have him still in prison- began to emerge.
The title, it should be noted, is not about any such illegal and vile proclivities, but about Rock ‘n’ Roll rebellion. It’s all attitude and sneer, delivered with drive.
There is one from the band’s cover days — “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace” off the 1969 self-titled album from Terry Reid, who became as famous for turning down lead singing gigs in Led Zeppelin before Robert Plant and Deep Purple before Ian Gillan as for his own work, sadly.
AUDIO: Cheap Trick “Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace”
The original starts with a riff that had burrowed into Marc Bolan’s brain before he wrote “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” and becomes a nice enough guitar-and-organ rocker.
Cheap Trick tweaks it and punches it up, starting with Petersson’s bass instead. Zander belts it out more than Reid did and the guitars and Carlos’ drums are louder. It simulatenously rocks way harder while bringing the melodies more to the fore.
“Cry Baby”, meanwhile, is a blues-based track from a band whose influences weren’t always blues-based. It works as a showcase for Zander, whose ability to handle the softer moments with the same aplomb as he did the capitol-R Rawk belting was the weapon needed to carry Nielsen’s songs over the top.
It didn’t hurt that Nielsen had that Petersson/Carlos rhythm section behind him, either. Nor did it hurt that he had a lot of songs to match what the other three could deliver.
It was a perfect match — an infectious blast of Rock ‘n’ Roll energy from a band coming into its own and a producer perfectly suited to making sure every punch landed. Sadly, the pairing only happened one other time — on 1985’s Standing on the Edge, by which time the band’s songwriting well wasn’t nearly as deep with the absolutely killer “Tonight It’s You” (No. 1 on Cheap Trick’s “shoulda been a hit” list) being a highly notable exception.
While arguably better albums were on the way, due to the songs themselves, the debut carries itself with that harder edge and is all the better for it.
It came out at a time when slicker acts like Styx and Foreigner would be staking their claim to album rock radio airspace and Cheap Trick’s dark edge wasn’t quite the louche decadence Aerosmith carried at the time. So, the album fell through the cracks.
Yet 45 years later, Cheap Trick remains the first great statement in their resume, a 10-song document as sinister, melodic, witty, wonderfully played and well-constructed as anything they ever recorded and one of the standout rock albums of the ’70s, if not any decade.
Elo kiddies? Hello, world.