Cheap Trick, Oct. 1999

I recently realized that almost all of the music reviews I wrote for the Japan Times in the 90s and the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun during the same decade are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy.

f1716645cef80d193728065c30c28eb8An enduring myth about rock is that the best artists crash before they settle into a professional rut. Jazz, blues, and folk musicians are allowed the dignity of improving with age, while rock’n rollers descend into redundancy.

Though careerism stifles the rebelliousness that fuels rock’n roll, the instinct to survive economically has always been stronger than any artistic impulse. Cheap Trick embodies this paradox probably better than any other major American rock band. Like hundreds of other Midwestern groups in the mid-70s, the group made a living on the club circuit, playing three or four sets a night. What distinguished them from other boogie laborers was their original material–nothing creatively challenging or incisively personal, but distinctively enough theirs to earn them a recording contract and a wider audience.

As the name implied, Cheap Trick was a goof on all the cliches that grew out of 70s arena rock. Visually, guitarist Rick Nielsen’s dorky exuberance and drummer Bun E. Carlos’s avuncular impassivity contrasted smartly with the rock-star cool of bassist Tom Petersson and vocalist Robin Zander. The songs were loud, catchy, dumb, derivative. They contradicted the rock flavor of the moment—punk and new wave—while somehow being part and parcel of it because of the implied irony. But all the components were based on professional calculation, not artistic expression.

That’s why their finest record remains Live at Budokan, a title that has since become something of a rock platitude. When the Smashing Pumpkins played the venue for the first time in 1998 they were so in awe of the place that they performed “I Want You to Want Me” as an encore. Cheap Trick owes Japan. Budokan is great pop, but more importantly it’s also the band’s defining commercial moment, since it broke them in the states. It wasn’t the last time that Big in Japan prefigured Big Everywhere Else, but it may have been the first.

Cheap Trick opened their Oct. 13 concert at Shibuya Kokaido with “I Want You…,” though I have to admit it took me a minute to recognize it. The tune’s bouncy precision was obscured by the mix, which, in accordance with the times, stresses metal bombast over pop clarity.

They followed with “C’mon C’mon” and “Clock Strikes Ten,” two other songs from “Budokan.” The teenage girls who were so central to the sound of that album—the squeals and screams nailed Cheap Trick’s self-defined appeal in a way they could only hint at in the studio—are now housewives, and there were quite a few women in the audience who fit the stereotype. The emotion at the end of the three songs was loud and genuine, though at a markedly lower pitch.

It would be unfair to describe the performing style as perfunctory, but Nielsen, who is one of rock’s great guitar encyclopedists (even John Lennon once sought his services), did nothing musically exciting. The only solo he played was in “Need Your Love” and the brilliant offhand touches that made their best songs instant classics were either truncated or eliminated altogether.

He seemed more interested in showing off his multi-colored arsenal of axes (including the one with five necks and the other that resembles himself) and playing Big Rock Daddy, a role he pulled off with appropriate schmaltz (“I’d like to present my good friend and the best singer in the world, Robin Zander!”). Though he still wears the baseball cap and sneakers, and still skips around the stage like Big Bird, he no longer tries to look like Huntz Hall. These days, he sports wraparound sunglasses and a long braided goatee, as if he were on call as a stand-in for America’s other premiere careerists, ZZ Top.

Zander is not the greatest singer in the world, but like Daryl Hall he is greatly underrated. He can slide from the most treacly pop croon to a full-out hard rock shout with ease. During the 80s he was saddled with songs that seemed better suited for Gino Vanelli, and in concert he couldn’t do anything to make them more palatable. Looking as trim and adorably blonde as he did on the cover of Heaven Tonight, Zander does only what he needs to do on stage, but he alone was responsible for making “He’s a Whore” and “Surrender” the high points of the evening.

In contrast, Tom Petersson (who left the band for a time in the early 80s), seemed bemused by the proceedings, dressed as he was in a green leisure suit and sporting an up-to-the-minute chaotic hairstyle. Twice during the show Nielsen introduced him as “the inventor of the twelve-string bass,” an accomplishment that had little bearing on the performance at hand but indicates that Petersson has occupied his spare time constructively.

Despite Zander’s and Petersson’s still youthful good looks and Nielsen’s up-front affability, most of the audience shout-outs were for “Bun Eeeeee!” Maybe the Japanese see him as the ultimate salaryman rock’n roller, or maybe they’re enchanted by his zen-like inexpressiveness (“E” for “enigma”). Either way, the chain-smoking drummer best represents Cheap Trick’s legacy as a band that made pop metal safe for aging rockers. Even in 1977, he dressed like a defeated civil servant. Silent, seemingly bored, with his rumpled shirt, loosened tie, white gloves, and droopy mustache, he seemed the quintessential overworked drudge; someone who’s done what he does so many times he can do it in his sleep—though no less effectively.

Cheap Trick has wisely abandoned any pretense of being recording artists. Their newest record is a live set that practically reproduces Budokan, and since 1988 they’ve only released two collections of new material. No matter how ambitious you are, it’s impossible to build an entire career on a novelty, so Cheap Trick now makes its living as a nostalgia act; in other words, a rock band that actually revels in redundancy. It’s taken the rest of the band twenty years to catch up with Bun E. Carlos.

Interview with Rick Nielsen

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