A new four-disc set showcases the band’s ferocity on the concert stage
Though they didn’t know it, as Cheap Trick took the stage at Los Angeles club the Whisky a Go Go in June 1977, they were inching closer to a breakthrough.
In another sixteen months, a live album they made for the Japanese market, Cheap Trick at Budokan (initially only released in Japan) would finally win them the success they’d spent years working so hard for. But in the process, that very success would also bury some live recordings that were just as potent.
Cheap Trick was in L.A. recording their second album, In Color. They took a break from the sessions to play the Whisky shows, which also served as ad hoc rehearsals for an upcoming tour opening for KISS. Also on hand to record the performances was the Record Plant’s sound truck, Mobile Unit One. But once Budokan hit, the tapes recorded that weekend were shelved. Now, forty-five years later, four of the five performances that were recorded have been released in their entirety on Live at The Whisky 1977, a limited edition CD set from Real Gone Music. It’s essentially an expanded version of the killer 2020 Record Store Day exclusive Out to Get You! Live 1977 from Legacy Recordings.
The first thing that becomes apparent is how much harder the 1977 set rocks in comparison to the poppier Budokan. Granted, Cheap Trick didn’t have numbers like “Surrender” and, especially, “I Want You to Want Me,” the anthem that thrilled the band’s growing contingent of teeny-boppers, in their repertoire yet. Also, they perform nearly everything from their self-titled debut, which was the heaviest of their 1970s albums, as “ELO Kiddies,” “He’s a Whore,” and “The Ballad of TV Violence (I’m Not the Only Boy)” attest.
They also perform most of the tracks that would appear on In Color, and it’s here that you can understand the band’s reservations about how the album’s production (by Tom Werman) made them sound too “pristine.” Live, “You’re All Talk,” “Come On, Come On,” and “Clock Strikes Ten” burn with an intensity that surpasses the studio renditions. And as powerful as “Auf Wiedersehen” is on Heaven Tonight, it’s even more punishing live (and leaving you to wonder, since he sings with such forcefulness, just how did lead vocalist Robin Zander keep from blowing his voice out?).
A careful listen also reveals different arrangements between a live song and its studio incarnation. And then there are the ones that got away, a handful of songs included in the set that were never released in a studio version. In the liner notes, drummer Bun E. Carlos describes songs like “Loser” and “Oh Boy” as “goofy stuff … bar and club songs.” Just meant to fill out a setlist, they were not, perhaps, serious contenders.
Still, Carlos sells them a little short. “Loser” in particular starts out like a parody of a pop song, then gets increasingly snarky (“You were on the top and now you’re not!” Zander gloats at one point) over six-and-a-half delirious minutes. There’s also “Goodnight,” the matching set piece to “Hello There,” the In Color song designed to kick off a live show with a bang (“Hello There” was also cleverly designed as a way for the band to test instrument sound levels, in the days when their opening act status didn’t always grant them an adequate soundcheck).
This is the kind of live album where you can feel the crush of a packed house and see the sweat running down the walls. Though they yearned for larger stages, the small club setting gives these recordings an immediacy, the kind of visceral excitement you can only get when a band’s in peak form. Cheap Trick was already swinging for the fences, biding their time until the rest of the world caught up. And all good Cheap Tricksters can delight that someone was there to capture it all.