Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen: I’m not as pretty as Lemmy or Sting

Rick Nielsen giving the finger while holding a guitar
(Image credit: Adam Gasson/Total Guitar Magazine)

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This interview was conducted to mark the 300th issue of Classic Rock magazine, which launched in 1998. The magazine is available to purchase online, and also features interviews with Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons, Def Leppard, Alice Cooper, Geddy Lee, Slash and many more.

It has become something of a cliché: hugely successful artists saying they’d do it all regardless of the renumeration or acclaim. And when Rick Nielsen quips that Cheap Trick are simply too dumb to quit, he surely understands the disservice he’s doing himself and his band. 

But when the songwriter and guitarist talks of how his dreams have been made simply by being able to make music for so long, you can tell there’s absolutely nothing contrived about it.

Cheap Trick have played a big part in the history of Classic Rock. You’ve allowed us to give away one of your albums with the magazine and you’ve played at one of our Awards shows. 

Absolutely. That was at the Roundhouse, right? I just remember feeling embarrassed that I didn’t say hello to Geddy Lee. There he was, right in front of me, and I didn’t say hi. There was enough confusion going on anyhow, but I talked to John Paul Jones and a bunch of other people. And I got to hang around with Ronnie Wood, which was exciting enough. I’d first met Ronnie back in 1968, when he was with Jeff Beck. That was the same year I went to the Roundhouse for the first time too, when I saw The Gun, made up of the Gurvitz brothers. 

When Classic Rock began, the band had recently switched to the Red Ant label for the release of 1997’s Cheap Trick album. Did it feel like a new beginning? 

Yeah, we thought everything was looking good and we knew we had some great songs on there. But then the record company went bankrupt right after the record came out. That was comforting.

So has it been a case of numerous peaks and troughs over the past quarter of a century? 

The way I look at it, Cheap Trick got to do what we wanted to do, whether we had success or not. We got to make records, we got to tour. I can’t really think of too many downs, because we’re just lucky enough that we get to play. There’s a million other bands that wish they could be in our position, good and bad.

What about personal highlights for you during that time? 

Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello [2016] was a good moment. We had some success with that. And just being in Classic Rock again is cool. Let’s face it, we’re never going to be the next new big thing or whatever, plus we don’t dance. But the fact is I’m proud to be part of that club of people who are still out there playing music. I know that’s pretty basic, but it’s the truth. What a dream come true. 

Have you found that the band attract younger generations of fans at gigs these days? 

Y’know, it’s hard to find older people! But yeah, we have all ages. And we always did, even when we were playing the clubs back in the late sixties and early seventies. We always had people who brought their kids along. 

Do you think that’s because there’s a timeless quality to your music? 

How about this: we’re an American band who always emulated the English bands. It’s like the Rolling Stones. They liked the Chicago blues stuff, emulated it, then brought it back and turned it into something else. People loved them because it felt like somebody was acknowledging them. We’ve been lucky. 

I know this is outside of Classic Rock’s time frame, but I recall headlining one of the nights at the Reading Festival in 1979. That was just incredible. You’re on the side of the stage with Mick Ralphs and Mick Ronson and Dave Edmunds, all on the same bill. That week’s cover of Melody Maker was Sting, Lemmy and Rick Nielsen. I’m not as pretty as Lemmy or Sting, but to be on the cover of the same magazine was pretty cool.

Has there been a band or artist that’s really stood out for you over the past twenty years? 

I wish Purple Melon would’ve done better, because they were great songwriters. They had some cool songs, but I don’t know whatever happened to them. And I was a fan of the White Stripes too. We talked about having Jack White do some work with us, because he mentioned something about Cheap Trick in an interview. But then a lot of things happened and we never hooked up. 

What advice would you give to your late-nineties self? 

I was thrown out of a high-school band when I was in seventh grade, so it would be: just keep going. I’ve thought like that since the sixties. My line for Cheap Trick is we’re too dumb to quit, so we’ll always be coming back. We’ve made twenty albums, and I don’t think we’ve run out of bad ideas yet. 

We’ve got a busy year on the road, but we’re planning to get back into the studio as soon as we can. We’re with Rod Stewart from June, we’re also touring with ZZ Top, then we’ll be in England. It’s a riot, it’s fun. And hey, congratulations on twenty-four years!

Cheap Trick are currently on tour in The US. For dates, visit the Cheap Trick website.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.