The 1970s were a time where “peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll’’ prospered all over the world. For the hundreds of artists that dominated the era there were only a few that were truly exceptional. Cheap Trick were among the exceptional. The band’s past was anything but ordinary with a series of name evolutions, lineup changes and little to no fanfare. But one night in a far away land had changed the trajectory of the group forever. From late night performances in bowling alley’s to concert arenas, this how Cheap Trick became the timeless giants of the industry.
In 1960s Rockford, Illinois, two teenagers from musical families found themselves in and out of various bands. The teenagers, Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson, both held a strong love for the British Invasion years. Emulating the pop progressions, Nielsen and Petersson formed the local American rock band Fuse. The band, however, wouldn’t live past the new decade of rock music as they would only release one album to mediocre reviews. But after adding two new additions, the group rebranded themselves as Cheap Trick. A play-on-words name that came from Nielsen viewing a band in concert that used “every cheap trick in the book” for their performance. The group’s 1977 debut album was released to stellar reviews from critics nationally. The album’s only single, “Oh, Candy”, drew the band as favorable comparisons to The Beatles and The Who. Sadly, fans and the commercial market didn’t express the same favoritism as the album tanked in sales. But rather than settle for less, Cheap Trick decided to go abroad and what followed would be one of the greatest culminations for a live act to perform.
1977 would mark the year Cheap Trick released an immediate follow-up to their debut album. In Color featured a more polished set up for the group’s sound from legendary producer Tom Werman. The power pop classic featured the singles “I Want You To Want Me” and “Southern Girls” which saw chart-topping dominance. But not in the United States. The island of Japan followed Cheap Trick’s music obsessively after the singles debuted. The fan attention brought in comparisons to Beatlemania as Cheap Trick were hailed as legends in the country. This wouldn’t be the last time the group would find its muse across the Atlantic.
Cheap Trick kept the media craze in Japan going in 1978 with the album Heaven Tonight. The group would gain a heavy metal sound as their thundering wave of rock ‘n’ roll transpired. Japan raved over the album and it was during this time the group sought to finally capitalize in this excitement. The spring of that year, Cheap Trick held a concert in the capital city of Tokyo at the Budokan with over 12,000 fans in attendance. The live concert would be recorded and packaged as an album, Cheap Trick at Budokan, the following year. Originally, the album was intended for an exclusive release in Japan. But after a new rise in attention from the US, the album saw tremendous airplay and would go triple platinum. Rolling Stone considers the album a genesis to future heavy rock music and has been selected among the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. The album stands as Cheap Trick’s best-selling record and was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in 2020.
While their meteoric rise in a distant land paved the way for their breakout album, the band would levy a steep decline into the 1980s. Even with a string of minor hits on their next album they wouldn’t have a charted single until 1985. It was clear that a change in scenery was needed with their record label placing them with professional writers. The process led to a new album, Lap of Luxury, in 1987 which culminated to reaching platinum status. The band would make a mainstream comeback thanks to the album’s single “The Flame”. Their first ever single to reach No. 1 status on Billboard. Nielsen describes the experience as “tough” during the album’s early stages. He states, “We could lie to you and tell you it was all wonderful and great. It wasn’t.” he continues, “But it was lesson for us all.”
After a popular resurgence, the band would experience different transitions in their mainstream success again. The early 1990s would see the group stay at a relatively low radar with another staple of minor hits from their next albums. Knowing they needed to strike a chord with the new generation, Cheap Trick repackaged themselves and released a greatest hits-like album. 1997’s Cheap Trick saw a return to their roots with a stripped down, raw sound they had earlier in their career. Critics and fans alike appreciated the homage from their heyday with the addition of bonus tracks. Billboard reviewer, Paul Verna, would state, “Cheap Trick is glorious, tabula rasa return to form. Much that is classic and still contemporary about the band is on record here.”
The band’s extended period of success would follow them into the 2000s with a new legion of fans. Their lasting influence from previous and latest albums sparked a new wave of chart-topping songwriters. Among these writers would be the enigmatic Kurt Cobain who cited Nirvana as the Cheap Trick for their generation. The band’s success and legacy would be topped with an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016. Never satisfied, the band continues to write and record with a new album, In Another World, expected to release this coming April. Even with having achieved everything a band could want, the words from a past interview echo the band’s attitude on retiring. As Nielsen once stated, “We’re still hungry.”
Written by Trenton Luber