Looking back on the band’s Rundgren-produced 7th LP
Forty years ago, on August 15, 1983, Cheap Trick released their seventh studio album, Next Position Please.
With a cover that mirrors the iconic image of Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons on 1975’s Born to Run, it’s an interesting case study of the band’s progression through the late-‘70s and into the early-‘80s.
The band blew the roof off the dump, of course, with 1978’s Live at Budokan. It was a golden time for live albums – Frampton Comes Alive, Skynyrd’s One More from the Road and Bob Seger’s Live Bullet were all released just two years earlier. Audiences craved live music. “I Want You to Want Me” and “Surrender” were ubiquitous on the radio, anchoring a set that made Cheap Trick’s double album an essential purchase. It reached #4 on the Billboard chart and was certified triple-platinum.
The Budokan set is sandwiched in the Cheap Trick discography between 1978’s Heaven Tonight and 1979’s Dream Police, both produced by Tom Werman and both of which have found comfortable homes atop various lists ranking the best Cheap Trick albums of all time. Best known for producing Mötley Crüe, Werman told the L.A. Times that Heaven Tonight is his personal favorite of all the albums he’s produced.
With Dream Police following up on Budokan’s massive success by reaching #6 on the Billboard album charts, one would think the band would be entering the ‘80s with all the stars and planets aligned for advancing from stardom to megastardom.
When Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos lent their guitar and drum skills to John Lennon’s Double Fantasy sessions in 1980, the smart Beatle hooked them up with legendary producer George Martin. The result: All Shook Up, seen by Trick fans as a misunderstood outing at best and a huge mistake at worst. It didn’t help that Tom Petersson left the band during recording, taking his bass with him.
George Martin? It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Two years later, the band released One on One, produced by Roy Thomas Baker whose credits most notably included Queen and The Cars. Jon Brant replaces Petersson, and on paper the meeting of Baker and the band seems perfect. The album, though, not so much. “She’s Tight” and “If You Want My Love” got MTV airplay, but the record wasn’t the return-to-form comeback they’d hoped.
Roy Thomas Baker? It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Maybe Cheap Trick felt the third time would be the charm when they brought Todd Rundgren aboard to produce Next Position Please. Rundgren’s work in the late-‘70s ranged from Patti Smith and the Psychedelic Furs to Shaun Cassidy and Meat Loaf, and his skills as a producer were considerable.
And if Martin brought a more experimental touch to the band and Baker brought a new wavy edge, Rundgren brought … Rundgren.
Opening with “I Can’t Take It” (released as the album’s second single), it’s immediately clear that this is a glossier Cheap Trick than we heard in Budokan. Penned by vocalist Robin Zander, it’s a solid dose of power pop that sounds made to order for radio airplay – which makes one wonder why it wasn’t the album’s first single. Rundgren argued that it should have been, but that honor went to “Dancing the Night Away,” a cover of the Motors’ first single from their 1977 debut album, 1.
“Borderline” is up next, a mid-tempo slice of Cheap Trick that probably should have been buried in the middle of side two. “I Don’t Love Here Anymore” (erroneously listed on Spotify as “I Don’t Love Her Anymore”) is a solid relationship song with a solid riff, followed by a title track that sonically feels like it never gets enough oomph to put it over the top.
By the time the listener is deep into side one, the tone of the album is established: decent, but nothing particularly special.
“Younger Girls” is yet another entry in the grand rock tradition of jailbait tunes that includes the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Younger Girl,” Gary Puckett’s “Young Girl,” Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Ringo’s “You’re Sixteen,” and so on.
“3-D,” packed with sonic effects, gives Rundgren a chance to really stretch his production legs, while the producer-penned “Heaven’s Falling” finds the band delivering another dose of the kind of power pop that kicked off the album.
Rolling Stone gave the record just two stars, noting that “despite their immense talent and tenacious commercial instincts, Cheap Trick sound like they’re coming apart at the seams.”
Todd Rundgren? It seemed like a good idea at the time.
In 2006, an “authorized” version of Next Position Please was released with a different song order and two additional tracks, “Twisted Heart” and “Don’t Hit Me with Love.” The changes don’t do much to change the album’s ranking in the band’s catalog. It remains solid enough – not awful, of course, but also nothing particularly special.
The ‘80s should have seen Cheap Trick rise to the highest heights of success. Instead, perhaps by playing a game of revolving producers, they receded from the high-water marks of Budokan and Dream Police. With the benefit of hindsight, one can only wonder what might have been had they stuck with Tom Werman for the duration.
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