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.
Industry analysts, such as Dave Marsh, writing in the New Rolling Stone Record Guide, laid the blame squarely on Nielsen's shoulders. Even before Petersson dumped his bandmates, Marsh holds, "Nielsen's jokes began to fall flat and the band's power-pop intensity disintegrated into pure FM-radio formula."
Nielsen claims Cheap Trick never, ever put out a bad album but allows that his band let loose with its share of effluvia during its lower-than-a-snake's-belly period. Predictably, though, he dumps the blame on Epic Records, the band's label, hereafter referred to as "the record company."
"I think we made some dogs," Nielsen admits. "I hated one song we did called `Kiss Me Red.' We were almost forced to do it by the record company. We thought it was gonna be a big flop. It bombed. `Dancing the Night Away,' we hated it, too. It was picked for us to do it. Todd Rundgren [the long-faced rock enigma who produced the band's Next Position Please LP] hated it. The record company said, `Go do it.' The record company didn't do it to be mean to us. They were bamboozled, too."
It was Cheap Trick's mission, then, to un-bamb the boozle, which Nielsen did with a certain fervor using psychocybernetics and the power of positive thinking. And since we're doing tongue twisters, Nielsen hastens to mention the importance of the power of positive perseverance.
"If you persevere," he says, "you have a chance of attaining some of that again. If you don't, if you screw the fans and if you make lousy records, that won't do it. If you're lazy and don't want to do it, don't expect anything good to happen. We didn't get day jobs. Even this is a 24-hour job, basically."
CT thus humbly returned to its roots, plying the smoky-air, clinking-glass circuit and, in the process, avoided becoming a bunch of hypocrites. You see, back in the Seventies when Nielsen was God with a five-necked guitar, he thinks that, like most musicians in his situation, he probably uttered the standard line: "Even if they took all of this away and we had to go back to working the bars, we'd do it, because what matters is rock 'n' roll, not the size of the audience."
"I probably have said it, and we did it," Nielsen snorts.
As for those who said it and didn't, Nielsen harrumphs, "That's their problem."
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Now that Nielsen and friends have emerged from the bars again, there is the temptation to give the record industry a Bronx cheer and wag an "I told you so" finger at the naysayers. Nielsen, ever the diplomat, says, "What good does that do? We might think it: `Where the hell were you when we needed you?' But you can't blame them. We don't forget. At the same time, it's part of the game. You can't expect them to like everything we do."
Cheap Trick will perform at Compton Terrace on Sunday, March 5. Show time
is 7 p.m.
"Physically, we're back in the slimelight again."
Nielsen allows that his band let loose with its share of effluvia during its lower-than-a-snake's-belly period.