A combination of zany and sophisticated, Cheap Trick certainly took their cues from The Beatles. But in a career spanning more than four decades (they formed in Rockford, Illinois in 1973), they’ve proven top be the masters of power pop, with a retinue of classic songs almost as vast as guitarist Rick Nielsen’s collection of unusual guitars.
Nielson’s musical relationship with frontman Robin Zander has been magical, augmented by an image that combines rock star cool with a Hellzapoppin zaniness. This has ensured the band have never been predictable, and their raft of albums is impressive. Here they are, ranked from worrying worst to brilliant best.
18. Woke Up With A Monster (Warner Bros., 1994)
Oh, good grief! No, no, no. While there have been some less than inspirational moments throughout Cheap Trick’s 40-plus-year career, nothing dipped as low as this mess. Quite what they were trying to do is lost in a swirl of songs so poorly conceived that the band probably had to down gallons of moonshine just to face having to record these moronic pastiches. Ted Templeman’s production seemed bored and boring, and the band’s performances sound as if they couldn’t wait to get the first plane out of town and forget about the whole sorry experience. What went wrong? Everything. Put it down to the planets being wrongly aligned.
17. The Doctor (Epic, 1986)
This album suffered from a production, courtesy of Tony Platt, that tried to mimic the prevailing trends of the time. So the sound is swathed in synthesisers, which doesn’t suit the band at all. The songs are decent, especially It’s Only Love and Kiss Me Red, but under orders from the label Platt went for a production style which was ostensibly commercial, but ignored the subtleties and power that had made the Cheap Trick reputation in the first place.
16. Special One (Big3, 2003)
After a six year break, the longest gap between albums in the band’s history, Cheap Trick returned with a record that had all the elements of what makes for one of their classic albums. But it all sounded too forced and coerced. There was no richness or dynamism about them, and while there was the occasional hint of something exciting, the overall atmosphere reeked of a band who were struggling to come to terms with what they should be doing in the 21st Century.
15. Busted (Epic, 1990)
After roaring back with hit single The Flame a couple of years earlier, the band felt they had found the right path forward. So, Can’t Stop Fallin’ Into Love had all the hallmarks of being deliberately constructed to follow the same formula. And the album in general had a style that was predicated on the chart topping The Flame. Yet, for all it’s seemingly formulaic approach, Busted did have some fine examples of trickiness. The cover of Roy Wood’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Tonight zipped along, and Wherever Would I Be also had style.
14. Lap Of Luxury (Epic, 1988)
Cheap Trick have never been overly fond of this album. Despite the fact that it represented a stirring commercial fightback for them. The Flame was a number one single in America, while a cover of Elvis’ Don’t Be Cruel was also Top Five over there. The problem for the band was that they felt the label dictated too much to them, bringing in outside writers to try and make them more viable. The plan worked brilliantly, but having to collaborate with other people did restrict their usual vibe.
13. The Latest (Cheap Trick Unlimited, 2009)
Keeping it simple, Cheap Trick proved they were as powerful and committed as ever, on a collection of songs that covered all aspects of the band’s talent. An impressive working of the Slade song When The Lights Are Out is matched by the thundering Sick Man Of Europe (which was briefly the band’s name in the early 70s) and the haunting Sleep Forever. This album showed the band were far from jaded, and were reinvigorated to prove they were still masters of the powerpop field.
12. Next Position Please (Epic, 1983)
Getting Todd Rundgren in to produce this album was a stroke of genius. He instinctively seemed to understand how to get the best out of the band, while Cheap Trick appeared to warm to Rundgren. The result was a very satisfying album that highlighted the best of of the talents involved. The guitars sounded sharp, the vocal harmonies with colourful, and the selection of material was peerless. The Motors’ Dancing The Night Away could almost have been written for the band.
11. One On One (Epic, 1982)
The band’s first album after Tom Petersson left and new bassist Jon Brant was brought in to replace him. Cleverly, they went for a much more straight-ahead, singalong approach, compared to the previous All Shook Up. And while it isn’t as good as the fineries Cheap Trick had recorded in the 70s, nonetheless minor hits If You Want My Love and She’s Tight proved that the band were still capable of delivering right on the mark. Unfortunately, there was a lack of real consistency, which perhaps indicated that Cheap Trick were on the wane. And Roy Thomas Baker’s production lacked the necessary sparkle to bring out the best in the material.
10. Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello (Big Machine Records, 2016)
This is a strange album, because for the first time Bun E. Carlos wasn’t on drums. Instead, Daxx Nielsen (Rick’s son) comes into the fold. Of course, Carlos was missed, but the new boy did a more than decent job. The sound here was harder than perhaps would have been expected, but the band never abandon their melodic sensibilities. Heart On The Line and The Sun Never Sets both affirmed this band still had the right balance between power and pop.
9. Cheap Trick (Epic, 1977)
The band’s debut album. And with producer Jack Douglas at the helm, it had a rougher approach than we’d come to expect from them in later years. But the raw feel of the performances gave the songs an extra frisson. But it suited the songs, which represented the band’s live set at the time. Elo Kiddies, He’s A Whore and Mandocello all have a directness that owed something to The Who, albeit with a quirky undercurrent more in keeping with The Move.
8. Cheap Trick (Red Ant, 1997)
Having freed themselves of major label shenanigans, against the odds this was Cheap Trick’s best album for more than 10 years. And with it they were determined to prove that there was more to the band than nostalgia.
Song-wise, there isn’t anything here that can match the glories of their 70s material, but there was enough to convince sceptics that, as the millennium ended, Cheap Trick had still a purpose. Unfortunately the label went bust just three weeks after the album’s release, scuppering any real hopes for it.
As well as having the same title as their debut, the album cover was similar too. Hope for a re-birth in a new era.
7. Rockford (Big3, 2006)
While so many of their contemporaries made the mistake of trying to stay in the past or modernise their sound unconvincingly, Cheap Trick found the right balance.
Rockford (the title shared the name of their home town) had enough Trick trademarks to make it unmistakable, but it is also built for the 21st century. Unlike their self-titled album of 1997, Rockford actually had a number more-than-decent songs, especially Perfect Stranger, If It Takes A Lifetime and Give It Away. Very much a return to basics, the record proved that guitarist Rick Nielsen especially could still pull out a masterstroke or three from his contorted brain. A CT renaissance.
6. All Shook Up (Epic, 1980)
The album that not only marked the end of an era, but also the album when Cheap Trick felt confident enough about their own reputation to work with the Beatles producer George Martin.
At the time, it was dismissed as a bad mistake, best consigned to the dumper. But now… well, it sounds like a record that was unfairly treated. Listen to the way Martin extrapolates the band’s strengths, rather than trying to give them the magic touch he applied to the Fab Four. There’s a maturity on the record that should have been allowed to develop, but the subsequent loss of bassist Tom Petersson, and the comparative commercial dip, panicked too many.
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5. Standing On The Edge (Epic, 1985)
In a decade when Cheap Trick allowed their usually high standards to drop alarmingly, 1985’s Standing On The Edge was a rare exception. Moreover, it’s good enough to stand up against much of their 70s records.
Back working with producer Jack Douglas (whom they worked with on their self-titled debut), the group rediscovered their hard edge, something that gave the songs a genuine lift. In reality, after fighting for a reason to exist, here the band simply gave in to their instincts – and if there had been a little more belief at the label, then the likes of Tonight It’s You would have reinvented Cheap Trick for the MTV generation.
4. Heaven Tonight (Epic, 1978)
The third album from Cheap Trick, Heaven Tonight suffered slightly from lacking the cohesion of its predecessor, In Color. Nonetheless, it still had enough charm and quality to leave people scratching their heads and wondering why Cheap Trick were still lagging behind the likes of Foreigner and REO Speedwagon.
Interestingly, producer Tom Werman seemed to believe that the best way to get the best out of the band was to give them their head – something he avoided on the smoother In Color. The latter approach may have actually proved more beneficial on songs like Surrender, California (a rousing cover of The Move classic) and Auf Wiedersehen.
3. In Color (Epic, 1977)
Rakish and determined to find a true path, on their second album Cheap Trick found a formula that was to prove irresistible within a couple of years. While their debut might have been too close to The Beatles, or even the Electric Light Orchestra, with In Color, Cheap Trick were definitely a band standing apart from the sum of those influences.
Tom Werman’s polished production set a tone that allowed the band to compete on an international level. And there are enough strong songs on this album to make it a landmark release. From Southern Girls to Clock Strikes Ten, I Want You To Want Me, to Hello There, it’s a record that has got the right chops.
2. At Budokan (Epic, 1979)
Like Kiss with Alive!, and Peter Frampton with Frampton Comes Alive, Cheap Trick’s career was effectively launched by an era-defining ‘best-of-the-band-so-far’ live album.
Recorded at the legendary Tokyo venue, the vitality and melodic might of the band were astonishing. The performance brought out the best in songs that had hitherto failed to make their mark; suddenly everyone wanted to know about Clock Strikes Ten, Surrender, I Want You To Want Me.
To this day, the combination of brilliant, simple tunes, confident musicianship and crowd hysteria on At Budokan is a reminder as to why Cheap Trick are among the elite artists in hard rock history.
1. Dream Police (Epic, 1979)
It’s as if the success of At Budokan lit the blue touch paper. After being propelled from semi-obscurity to international acclaim, the band found another gear or two for Dream Police.
If what had gone before suggested potential, then this was the record where it all coalesced beatifically in the studio. Some of the lyricism was downright surreal (a Nielsen trademark) and the production was redolent of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell or Queen’s A Night At The Opera, but through it all shone those great songs. The title track, Voices and Need Your Love proved that Britain might have had The Police, but Americans dared to Dream.