Now Reappearing: Cheap Trick

Rock's Houdini-come-lately band turns Wonder Bread-metal into platinum after a ten-year vanishing act

You watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High these days and it's sharply evident the movie wasn't particularly ahead of its time. For one thing, Sean Penn's totally mellow Jeff Spicoli is clearly an anachronism. Spicoli gives no indication that Penn would someday open a renowned Hollywood eatery specializing in knuckle sandwiches. And who woulda thunk it that Phoebe Cates' career would eventually take the Nose Dive Express, especially after her steamy performance.

But before you condemn the movie as just a teen period piece, fast-forward your worn Fast Times VCR tape to the scene where greasy ticket scalper Mike Damone is frantically trying to foist Cheap Trick tickets on a potential sucker. In these few frames, the movie manages to identify and capture the fatal turning point in the career of the group that was once rock 'n' roll's most ferocious killer bee.

You see, in the scene, Mike Damone is having a good deal of trouble unloading his Cheap Trick tix, because by 1982, the time of the movie, Cheap Trick is no longer rock 'n' roll's next Beatles. In 1982, Cheap Trick is three years down the road from its chest-beating status, but it might as well be three centuries. In 1979, Cheap Trick had captured the fantasy of the Japanese, invading Budokan and rocking the house so hard that the band felt compelled to release a live album of songs recorded there. And its fans had felt similarly compelled to buy a mess of Cheap Trick at Budokan albums. But between '79 and '82, Cheap Trick went from slump-status to biting the big one, releasing the anticlimactic Dream Police and three mold-upon-creation albums, All Shook Up, Found All the Parts, and One on One.

So in 1982, Fast Times' Mike Damone whines, "Can you honestly tell me that you forgot? Forgot the magnetism of Robin Zander or the charisma of Rick Nielsen?"

"That's kids' stuff," a fresh high school whippersnapper counters.
"Kids' stuff?" Damone moans. "How about the tunes? `I Want You to Want Me.' The dream police, da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da. Your mommy's all right, your daddy's all right/They just seem a little bit weird."

No "Surrender." No "Rock 'n' Roll Never Forgets." No dice.
Suddenly, even a slimy ticket scalper couldn't make a living off Cheap Trick. Suddenly, Robin Zander was no longer Teen Throb Central. He was that guy who sorta looked like a tamer David Lee Roth. Suddenly, air-guitar dudes weren't flipping their lids over Rick Nielsen's quintuple-necked guitar.

It was time for Cheap Trick to put up or shut up. Not that the pop-rock mavens of the world particularly cared--they were prepping to anoint Jon Bon Jovi as the new Wonder Bread-metal deity.

So Cheap Trick's members rolled up their sleeves and played their Chicago butts off, visions of topping the charts dancing in their heads.

For about a half-decade, the Cheapsters made the rounds in venues that held hundreds, not thousands, of people and had a hit--an "If You Want My Love" here and a "Tonight It's You" there--every once in a while. The tunes made elderly fans all misty-eyed and shimmied high enough up the singles chart to hold off the repo men.

Then, last year, with an LP ironically titled Lap of Luxury, Cheap Trick emerged from slumberland. "The Flame," the latest in a series of virtually indistinguishable Poisonbonjovimotleycruecheaptrick power ballads, went where it belonged in this age of half-metal/half-pop radio--right to No. 1. Then, taking advantage of a nation fixed on Elvis Presley, Cheap Trick came up with a cover of "Don't Be Cruel" and stumbled up the singles chart once more. As if that weren't enough, Zander recently ditched his bandmates briefly for a studio rendezvous with Ann Wilson (the homelier of the Heart sisters) and returned the proud papa of a weepy French-kiss duet hit, "Surrender to Me," which grew up into a Tequila Sunrise soundtrack cut. Needless to say, Lap's gone platinum.

How to account for this way-up/straight-down/sorta-up again trip? Did Rick Nielsen belch in the face of an important radio-station vice-prez or something one day back in '78? Were all Cheap Trick fans just jerks for suddenly packing up shop and becoming Madonna aficionados? And if the fans were jerks, how did the boys win 'em back?

"Hula-Hoops," proclaims Nielsen in a recent interview from Winnipeg, Great White North, "were in, then out. Miniskirts were in and out and in. You're only the next new thing once. Physically, we're back in the slimelight again. It's a roller coaster. Some days are good, some days are bad."

Cheap Trick scholars have emerged from the summit talks with other theories. Chemistry professors believe that when Tom Petersson, who played twelve-string bass and challenged Robin Zander for the highest hunk quotient in the band, took off in 1980, none of his replacements quite fit into the formula. Now Petersson is back from his solo disappearing act.

Personnel consultants seem to believe that the band's George Steinbrenner policy of routinely offing producers after working with them for just one album was disruptive. Since 1979, Tom Werman, George Martin, Roy Thomas Baker, Todd Rundgren, Jack Douglas, and Tony Platt have been given the heave-ho. They had the audacity to not deliver mega-albums for Cheap Trick.

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