On Top of the World: Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight at 45
Looking back on the band’s remarkable third LP
Cheap Trick was on a rapid roll by the time it stepped into a pair of Los Angeles studios to record what would become Heaven Tonight, which was released 45 years ago today.
Relentless gigging throughout the Midwest had built up the band’s interplay while guitarist/songwriter Rick Nielsen steadily accumulated material. Having already experienced one missed opportunity at a major label with Fuse, he didn’t want to remain in cover band hell afterwards.
Even though some club owners in the band’s circuit in Wisconsin and Illinois were resistant, the infusion of original material led to the group getting a record deal of its own.
The stash of songs made their way to the band’s fantastic self-titled debut and its terrific follow-up In Color, both released in 1977.
The group’s touring itinerary expanded beyond the middle of the country, but the band also didn’t waste time, working on the third album before the year ended. It didn’t hurt that there were still songs in Nielsen’s stash.
The self-titled album was produced by Jack Douglas, who gave the relentlessly catchy, often dark songs a raw edge similar to what he’d done on Aerosmith’s albums of the period. In Color, produced by Tom Werman, was a slicker affair. All the hooks were intact, set to lighter lyrical material.
While it worked, the band felt it was too slick, wanting something closer to what Douglas had done or even like the sound of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols.
Heaven Tonight, with Werman back in the producer’s chair, wound up being a compromise — the polished production remaining, albeit with more edge allowed to creep back in. Meanwhile, the lyrics hewed closer to what was on the debut.
When talking about Heaven Tonight’s songs, one has to start with the elephant in the room — the four minutes and 12 seconds of what’s in contention for best rock song ever written — “Surrender.”
VIDEO: Cheap Trick perform “California Man” and “Surrender” on TV 📺 1978
It’s not just a song with a chorus hook. It’s all hooked, propulsive and guaranteed to remain embedded in your brain.
It’s also one of the holdover tracks from the band’s days as club kings. Even though the song was about World War II era parents and their boomer kids, it remains universal in its depiction.
Lyrically, it’s a witty take on that generation gap. It starts with a mom being overprotective to the point of sounding like Norma Bates (“Mother told me, yes she told me/I’d meet girls like you/She also told me stay away/You’ll never know what you’ll catch”). But by song’s end, the protagonist finds out that there’s less difference between him and his parents than he thought, making the discovery in awkwardly uncomfortable fashion (“Then I woke up, Mom and Dad/Are rolling on the couch/Rolling numbers, rock and rolling/Got my KISS records out”).
Nielsen wisely did some revision on the lyrics, changing, “Now I had heard the WACs recruited old maids, dykes and whores” (which was too mean to fit the tone on the rest of the song) to “Now I had heard the WACS recruited old maids for the war.”
The song is so sturdily put together that it feels eternal. On YouTube, you can find videos of people like Bob Mould (with his pre-Sugar trio of Aton Fier and Tony Maimone) in 1990, Scott Weiland (with Slash and Nielsen himself) on the Tonight Show in 2006 and a Billie Joe-fronted cover show in Albany, California in 2019, all clearly having a good time doing versions of it.
As well-crafted as it is with its two killer key changes, it’s not just the combination of music and lyrics that make it work. Lead singer Robin Zander, blessed with more than just a frontman’s pretty face, delivers a vocal that launches it even further. He has the right amount of snarky attitude in the verses, then soars on the choruses (“Awayyyyyyyyyyyyy!”).
Cheap Trick returned to the world of the criminal characters from the first album. Instead of the well-heeled sex worker of “He’s a Whore” or the future SVU villain and/or Missouri Representative of “Daddy Should’ve Stayed in High School”, we get the drug dealer oozing with confidence (and Lord knows what else) of “High Roller”. Written by Nielsen, Zander and bassist Tom Petersson, it’s allegedly based on someone the band came across in Lake Geneva. The guy brags about how he can “get the best of everything” to the point where you half-expect him to use a line from a future Mr. Show sketch (“I am King Shit of Fuck Mountain!”). This low-level Casanova’s trying to make the moves on a woman, singing lines like “I’ll tuck you in tonight” with a hook that’s even catchier than the main one. It practically begs for the answer song from the woman’s POV, complete with lyrical eye rolls.
There’s also the return of suicide as lyrical fodder. On Cheap Trick, the mournful “Oh Candy” expressed sadness and regret over the death of a friend who took his own life.
“Auf Wiedersehen”, a Nielsen/Petersson co‐write that’s another holdover from the club days, is pretty much the opposite, utterly full of pitch black nastiness.
It’s Heaven Tonight at its most aggressive with Zander’s snarling vocals (accompanied by Nielsen’s backing) matching the crunch of the guitars. It’s also a reminder of how good the rhythm section was as well, with Petersson’s strong 12‐string bass and especially the precise power of Bun E. Carlos on drums, who ensures the song will stick in your head.
Nielsen’s appreciation for the works of Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood had cropped up on In Color, with the riff on “Downed” being a nod towards ELO’s “10538 Overture.” He went for a double dip on Heaven Tonight, covering the Move’s “California Man” and accentuating it with the riff from that band’s “Brontosaurus” in the break.
The Move’s version had a ramshackle charm in its salute to old time rock-and-roll. Cheap Trick buffs it down and polishes it, keeping its spirit intact.
It’s not the only time Nielsen tips his ever-present baseball cap to another song, as he throws in a little “Peter Gunn Theme” into “On Top of the World.” The snapshot of a probably doomed relationship, for all the bits of Nielsen’s squawling soloing, is an example of why the adjective “Beatlesque” got thrown Cheap Trick’s way. The melodicism plays like a punchier ELO.
And those are just on the album’s first side.
Heaven Tonight was originally going to be called American Standard, but the band balked at the idea. The front and back cover photos, cropped from one shot, remained, so you can see some of that plumbing. Those photos continued the marketing from In Color.
The front cover of that album featured Zander and Petersson appearing as two bored male models astride a pair of choppers. The back featured Nielsen, dressed in salute to Huntz Hall’s Bowery Boy with this sweater, bowtie and hat and the bespectacled Carlos, cigarette dangling out of his mouth lie a tired accountant on a break, sitting on mopeds.
Heaven Tonight’s front had Zander and Petersson, standing and looking somewhat less bored, but not bothering to do duckface, or whatever the Rockford version of Blue Steel was. The rock god/rock geek contrast on the back had Nielsen wearing a tour jacket while brushing his teeth. Carlos, perhaps with his smoke break over before going back to crunch the numbers, is adjusting his tie in the mirror.
It may have been label shenanigans (“Hey! Let’s put the cute guys on the front!”), but there was no separation in the band itself at this point. Cheap Trick wasn’t just doing club shows here and there. Before signing with Epic, they could often play two or three sets a day. By late ’77/early ’78, that tightness clearly showed on record.
“Takin’ Me Back”, one of the underrated gems in the Cheap Trick catalog, shows off more of that melodicism and the band’s willingness to expand its sound ever-so-slightly with Jai Winding’s keyboards. As with “Surrender”, it has hooks that aren’t in the chorus that could be main hooks for other songs.
“Stiff Competition” gives “Auf Wiedersehen” a run for its money as the album’s heaviest song, at least until its bridge. Nielsen delivers the insistent riff and Zander boosts it with vocals to match.
It’s not a song about sports. Nor is it a second menacing song about suicide. Instead, “Stiff Competition” is about exactly what Beavis and Butthead would have thought it was about — sex. Or, as Nielsen later quipped, it could have been called ” “The War Song of the Marching Penises”.
The studio version of “I Want You to Want to Want Me” off In Color was Cheap Trick’s stab at the Beatles’ music hall moments. They took another stab on Heaven Tonight with “How Are You”.
If it doesn’t approach the live version of the first stab, it certainly betters the studio version — more insistent and more deftly constructed. It feels like a proper album track rather than B-side filler.
“On the Radio” is either a love letter to the music they grew up with and enjoyed or an attempt to pander to station programmers, maybe both. In any case, it’s neither as transcendent as the Raspberries “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)” nor as amusingly specific as the Guess Who’s “Clap For The Wolfman.”
The title track is haunting psychedelia put through Cheap Trick’s power pop filter. It’s one of the album’s strongest musical moments, which it absolutely needs to be to put its anti‐drug message across. That’s because its lyrics play like the soundtrack to a Very Special Episode of a sitcom where Nancy Reagan’s destined to appear to remind the characters to “just say no.”
The words don’t cut as deep as the music. And it also sounds a little off, considering the reveal of “Surrender” including the fact that the protagonist’s parents enjoy weed as much as he does.
The album wasn’t a huge breakthrough commercially. It did keep their building momentum going, though. They made their first appearance in the Billboard Hot 100 when “Surrender” peaked at No. 62 in September. It was when acts like Foreigner, Boston and the Cars were able to hit the Top 40, but there was a lot of disco, not to mention three songs from the Grease soundtrack in the Top 15.
As it turned out, Cheap Trick was finding a willing audience, just not in its home country. Their fans here would have to wait for the follow-up as a result. Their fourth album (and third in a row with Werman), Dream Police, was ready to go in early ’79.
Before that, even before Heaven Tonight, Cheap Trick had scored valuable slots opening for Queen and Kiss in Japan. Those tour performances drew enough interest for them to book two nights to headline at Tokyo’s Budokan, to be recorded for a live album.
It was import-only at first, but fans here sought out enough copies that Epic took notice. Live at Budokan, released in February of 1979, would become their best selling album. Dream Police, when it finally came out in September, would be their top selling studio release.
It may not have been the commercial smash it sounded like upon its release, but Heaven Tonight still stands as the end of Cheap Trick’s killer career-opening trio of albums. In early 1978, they were still a relatively young, hungry band with plenty of gems that hadn’t been heard outside of the clubs along with enough sense of craft to flesh things out.
Even now, as unsure as they might have been about whether they’d find a wider audience despite their creative roll, Heaven Tonight makes that step forward sound inevitable — smart, quirky and catchy as hell.
- ALBUMS: May 2023 In Review - May 31, 2023
- You See Your Gypsy: Stevie Nicks Turns 75 - May 26, 2023
- Temptation Waits: Garbage’s Version 2.0 at 25 - May 12, 2023
2 thoughts on “On Top of the World: Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight at 45”
On the back cover of In Color, they’re on mopeds, not bicycles.
Thanks for reading Tom! It has been fixed.