Any of you other old-timers following Nothing Not New read this
yet? I know . . . interesting perspective, isn't it: Cheap Trick posited as a band that almost-kinda-sorta hit the big time, that "phoned in it" and were "half-assed." If you lived through the era, as I obviously did, you know that C.T. was one of the biggest rock bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s, selling out arenas, recording several hit singles, and moving millions of units for their label -- and, maybe most importantly, influencing scores of musicians over the course of the next couple of generations as pioneers of power pop. Legacy cemented.
Though I count myself as a big fan, I've always felt they were real hit-and-miss. Many of their records in the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s were spotty and some were flat-out bad, and the band certainly churned out a lot of iffy songs (including their single biggest hit, "The Flame") and included tons of cornball tunes for what seemed like every teenage sex comedy released during the early and mid-'80s.
But when they were on their game, few bands melded pop and hard rock better than Cheap Trick. Their self-titled 1977 debut is a near-perfect fusion of classic, melody-based pop, some of the artier and glammy British rock of the mid-'70s, and the edgy energy of the blossoming American punk scene. And it's all wrapped up in a dark and often darkly comic themes of getting by in the late 1970s. In my eyes, The Pretenders' self-titled debut, Devo's debut, the Ramones' Rocket to Russia, X's Wild Gift, and Cheap Trick's are the best American punk albums (I know, 75 percent of The Pretenders were British, but their leader was 100 percent Midwestern) of the classic era of punk -- and three of those acts are not even considered to be punk. But for a very brief time, Cheap Trick were a great punk band in addition to always being a very good pop-rock band.
In a conversation with the writer (who, yes, is from a different generation, one weaned on 1990s alt-rock) of the Cheap Trick/Rock Band essay, he refused to acknowledge Cheap Trick's sizable legacy, even making an offhanded comment about C.T.'s two biggest songs, "I Want You to Want Me" and "I Want You Want to Want Me (Live in Budokan)." In fairness to this young man, by the time he was a teenager and a member of the music-consuming public, C.T. were mostly doing the state fair/casino/oldies circuit -- though they had a bump in the late 1990s when people like Steve Albini and Billy Corgan name-dropped Cheap Trick and a generation of punk bands uncovered C.T.'s debut and its seering centerpiece, "He's a Whore" -- and were well beyond their creative peak.
I was shocked when the writer's buddy shrugged off what is, perhaps, the band's finest hour, the hit 1978 single "Surrender." He intimated that it was a silly novelty song. I say it's a timeless teenage anthem that bookends the teen culture announced by The Who's "My Generation." "Surrender" was the first hit single to illuminate a point in America's cultural history when, for the first time, rock 'n 'roll wasn't just for kids.
It's a bittersweet moment for the song's protagonist when he realizes his parents are human, that they'd dealt with some disillusioning shit, and that, just like him, are also into sex, drugs (a Top 40 single with unveiled references to heroin and pot weren't exactly commonplace back then), and rock 'n' roll. The chorus of "surrender, but don't give yourself way" -- punctuated by the indelible "We're all all right / We're all all right" chant -- was just right for the restless, tumultuous late '70s.
That type of Cheap Trick song -- of which there were many in their early catalog -- didn't fit in the Reagan era's conform-or-die mentality (but lived on as a counter-culture anthem, as it does to this day), and by the middle of the decade (after the solid Dream Police record), Cheap Trick had conformed to the hit-making conventions of the day and mostly resorted to writing to schlocky power ballads and, as I mentioned earlier, hokey soundtrack fodder.
So, sure, that's what most younger adults remember Cheap Trick as. And, true, the band they is pretty much just an oldies act now. I was recruited to review them at their casino show this weekend, but I'm not even that excited about it. I've seen them more than a half-dozen times, the most recently around 2003, at the Milwaukee Zoo. They actually brought children onstage at one point to shout out "Cheap Trick!" or some such nonsense. It was really annoying. Then, perhaps in a nod to their slyly subversive heyday, they lit up the place with a typically ferocious version of "He's a Whore." I don't know what to expect during Saturday's concert (quite possibly more lows than highs) but I'm pretty sure they will not, as no true professional would, be phoning it in.
Best song: Sorry, Katzenjammer. You just happened to fall on the day when I had to defend the music of my youth. But you're a pretty solid band, and you get props for being unique and talented if not necessarily something I'd want to listen to a whole lot. And I really liked "Demon Kitty Rag."
Deja vu: Katzenjammer is sort of like a Norwegian all-female version of Gogol Bordello, but actually a lot more interesting and diverse. These four create amazing harmonies and employ several different lead vocalists, unconventional instrumentation, exceedingly strong musicianship, and a knack for lots of European musical styles and even traditionally American musical idioms. Pretty cool, considering their from Norway.
I'd rather listen to: Probably something by Tom Waits
"Nothing Not New" is a yearlong project in which New Times editorial operations manager Jay Bennett, a 41-year-old music fan and musician, will listen only to music released in 2010. Each Monday through Friday, he will listen to one new record (no best ofs, reissues, or concert recordings) and write about it. Why? Because in the words of his editor, Martin Cizmar, he suffers from "aesthetic atrophy," a wasting away of one's ability to embrace new and different music as one ages. Read more about this all-too-common ailment here.
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