The Jukebox Heroes Are Back… Again
A middle-aged Bowery Boy skipping about the stage, urging the crowd on like a crazed carnival barker. A blond-tressed singer whose remarkable pipes still manage to overshadow his considerable sex appeal. A stereotypically quiet bassist who drives the band with an inimitable wall of sound. And then there’s the bespectacled fellow in the back — he no longer plays with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, but Charlie Watts’ Yankee counterpart still strongly resembles a beleaguered Chicago bookie.
Even 29 years after the release of Cheap Trick’s debut album, America’s greatest rock band seems unaffected, unchanged by the ravages of time. Their first fans might be bringing their grandkids to the concerts now, but the show is still as exciting and fun as it was when the Dream Police began patrolling the airwaves.
How could this be possible? I was hoping guitarist/songwriter/madman Rick Nielsen could explain it to me as we talked about the band’s stellar new disc, Rockford (Big3 Records/Cheap Trick Unlimited), which has been widely acclaimed as the band’s best effort in 25 years.
Of course, I had to be prepared for anything and everything, which is exactly what was delivered when he rang me up from his home in Rockford, Ill.
Our conversation was less like an interview, and more like a front-porch chat with a quick-witted, eccentric neighbor. Of course, I never put a photo of my neighbor in my high-school locker…
Congratulations on such a great record. My wife and I cranked it up in our new car this weekend.
What did she like better, the new car, or the… oh, never mind.
I felt like a kid again, like I just bought All Shook Up down at the drugstore.
I hope the backseat got a workout. What kind of car did you get?
It’s one of those Chevy HHR’s, have you seen those? Fully loaded, $23,000.
Wow, you got one of those? How did you get it so cheap?
That’s just what it cost. Nice car. Leather, A/C, sunroof, Pioneer stereo, we had it rockin’ with Rockford. Onwards… I loved the Rolling Stone review, likening Cheap Trick records to mac and cheese — you’ll eat it no matter how well it’s cooked. What’s the difference between a great Cheap Trick album and a very good one?
You’re askin’ me?
Uh, I think when the album is over, and if it repeats it doesn’t bother you. When the album’s last song flows into the first, and so on — like it was meant to continue on and on. I’ve never thought about this before, but that’s my answer and I’m stickin’ to it.
What were some of the keys to making Rockford a great album?
Oh, I don’t know. Maybe a better clarity…I worked on a lot of the stuff, to begin with, and then the band finished ’em. Plus, doing it ourselves — we used different producers, but we finished every song on our own, they didn’t put their ‘producer sparkle’ on them. We put the Cheap Trick “lack of sparkle,” “Gee, this is how it will sound live,” lacquer on them.
Kind of like your early days, when CBS left you alone.
Yeah! Leave us alone, and when we’re done with the record, then pay a lot of attention to us, so we can sell some albums.
“Dream the Night Away” and “O Claire” are more of your obvious nods to the Beatles…
Nod, like nodding off?
What were your thoughts when Paul turned 64 a couple of weeks ago?
I hadn’t thought of it… he’s that young?
And you’re not that far behind.
Aw, shut up! Well, I wrote, “I’m 30, but I feel like I’m 16” [“Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School”] on our first album. Now, I’m a little past 30, but I still feel like I’m 16. [Back then] I certainly wasn’t thinking about turning 64. I really hadn’t thought of Paul’s age; 64 isn’t that old!
What has been the key to the band’s longevity, what has kept it fun?
You’d have to ask each of us, but I love to play. We’re good at what we do, we’re the best Cheap Trick cover band there is — and there’s some good ones out there. And the fact that we still make records.
You should sell your fountain of youth elixir on your website. You guys look great.
Sounds like you need glasses.
My wife agrees with me. She thinks Tom looks better now than he did 20 years ago.
I think so, too. His wife just had a baby two years ago, you know.
As far as our longevity goes, we’re from the Midwest, and we’re not afraid to work. We never wanted to be the biggest band in the world, never wanted to be the wealthiest band, and I think we’ve achieved that.
We never thought, “We’re gonna conquer the world! And if we don’t, we’ll be miserable.” We just wanted to be in a cool band, and I still think we’re kinda cool… then again, I’ve always said if you have to tell people you’re cool, you’re probably not.
Aw, you’re as cool as ever. I mean, a Rick Nielsen interview is pretty high on my list, just below McCartney and Brian Wilson.
At least you can understand me, sort of.
I saw Brian at a county fair a half-dozen years ago… it was unbelievable.
In what way? It was that good?
Oh, yeah… this big band onstage, reproducing stuff from Pet Sounds, instrument for instrument — it was beautiful, amazing.
It is amazing. The fact that he’s out there doing it… I mean, he knows he has problems. If you read his story, read about his abusive father… it’s amazing he’s still alive, in many ways, let alone being able write all that great music.
And then you have “The Beach Boys” out there performing now…riiiight.
A band shouldn’t be called The Beach Boys without any of the Wilson brothers.
There you go… “The Love Boys”?
It was great to see Tom on the cover of Bass Player.
They misspelled my name in that article…I get mentioned once, and they get my name wrong. Thanks…
What color is your HHR?
Sort of a gunmetal grey, with the chrome package.
That’s nice looking. Which model did you get, the 2LT?
Yeah, in order to get the better engine, you have to buy the 2LT. The supercharged four-cylinder is nice, my dad thought it was a six. Anyway, it was nice to see Tom get some credit. I’ve always said that you have to see Cheap Trick live to fully appreciate his contribution to the band.
Oh, yeah, he’s great. He’s not just a bass player. Tom started out as a guitar player, he quit playing guitar to play bass. Then he invented the 12-string bass, wanting to get a fuller sound.
Not that he plays like Entwistle did, but Tom’s relationship to you, musically, is similar to Entwistle’s relationship with Townshend. Tom’s playing rhythm and bass kind of simultaneously gives you a lot of room, allows you to show off.
In other words, I’m not doing anything.
Aw, you know what I mean.
Oh, yeah. We’re called Cheap Trick, after all… when we play gigs, some people ask, “Where’s all the other players? That’s a cheap trick!” I mean, my hand is up in the air more than it is on the neck of the guitar. People wonder how I can do that.
I taught myself how to play, for one. I learned certain chords — what rang out, what didn’t. And then there’s Tom… people think there’s six musicians onstage, when it’s just the four of us.
Do you have the little jack for the iPod?
In the HHR? Yeah, it’s got everything. You’re pretty interested in this car.
I love cars.
We have a red ’69 Dart and the HHR now.
I have a ’55 T-Bird and a ’58 Ranchero.
You’re a Ford man.
“Fix Or Repair Daily,” that’s what it stands for. I don’t drive ’em much — I’m not home much. But they’re good cars.
The HHR and the PT Cruiser, at least they have a certain look to them… most cars look all the same now. My T-Bird only has 73,000 miles on it, I bought it in ’78.
So you bought it with an early royalty check.
My first royalty check was for 66 cents, I framed it.
Career-wise, you’re a very unique band…
We’ve made more mistakes than any other band has.
Well, you became icons pretty early in your career, but you’ve always been able to ‘keep it real.’ You’ve never traded on your fame, never sold out — except, maybe, with “The Flame.”
[Laughs] Maybe a little bit…
And even that song sounds great, played live.
It does sound good. Even bikers have tender moments with that song.
But no matter what you do — even if you put out a Pet Sounds next year — you’ll always be associated with Budokan, with “Surrender,” “I Want You To Want Me.” At what point in your career were you able to put this in perspective, mentally?
I still haven’t. I’m still in therapy.
Seriously, though, it must have been a hindrance for you at one point or another.
You’re talking about it right now, so it never goes away. I’m proud of (Budokan). Who else tried to lessen the U.S. deficit to Japan? We tried to help balance the thing out.
Seriously, it opened a lot of doors for us, so I can’t complain.
Cheap Trick has been going strong for over 30 years now. Is there something that you would personally like to accomplish, or try, that you haven’t yet?
Ah, no. I just want to keep playing, keep writing songs. Variety is the spice of life, and my life has a lot of variety.
Cheap Trick: cheaptrick.com