Heavy Load: Rick Nielsen

Rick Nielsen has been Cheap Trick’s gurning, scissor-kicking lead guitarist since the band formed in Rockford, Illinois in 1973. After 1978’s At Budokan live album, Cheap Trick became an arena act and an influence on bands as diverse as The Pixies and Mötley Crüe. Now gearing up for the release of the group’s seventeenth studio album, a tour and induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, the 67-year-old shows no sign of slowing down. “Music is my thing,” he says. “It’s what I do.”

How do you feel about Cheap Trick being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?

It feels like a validation of our whole career. I’ve heard all four of us will be there as well [estranged drummer Bun E Carlos filed a lawsuit against his bandmates in 2015]. That’s good. Bun E is a huge part of our history. But my son Daxx plays drums on our new record.

What does the new album’s title, Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello?, actually mean?

I originally wrote a song called Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello?, which evolved into a song on the new album called Long Time No See You. I wanted a title with four ‘impact’ words. The original was a kind of drinking song for people who don’t drink any more.

Do you still drink?

I haven’t had a drink for fifteen years. But I had a few before then. So I can still write songs about old vices.

What were you like at school?

If I liked a teacher I did well in their class. I was good with numbers, so I could have been a math major. But I loved music. I played drums and flute, and I was first chair in the school band until I told the band director he was a drunken, incompetent fool. I had my ass paddled in the principal’s office for that.

What would you have done if you hadn’t become a musician?

I’m an ideas guy, and I’ve always loved architecture. I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, but I can visualise. And I’m quite handy with a computer.

Have you ever been arrested?

Yes. Outside a bar in 1969. There was a white guy and a black guy outside, and the white guy was taking a piss. A cop saw it but arrested them both for public indecency. I told him he was wrong, so he arrested me for interfering with a police officer. That was the last time I told the truth.

What do you recall about living in London in the sixties?

It was summer 1968, and I came over with [CT bassist] Tom Petersson and another friend of ours. We were in a band together before Cheap Trick. We stayed, three of us in one room, in a hotel in Bayswater. We had to put shillings in a machine to get heat. We saw Love Sculpture with Dave Edmunds, and Skid Row with Gary Moore at the Marquee.

Would you describe yourself as an Anglophile?

Yes. A lot of my roots are in British music. I was the only person in America to have Melody Maker airmailed to them, because I couldn’t wait six weeks for it to arrive by boat.

What was the lowest point of your career?

There are things I like about every Cheap Trick record. Even the ones people think are no good, like [1986’s] The Doctor. But every song I’ve ever written has a story or is about a personal experience.

Which is your favourite Cheap Trick song, then?

There’s a version of World’s Greatest Lover on [the 1996 box set] Sex, America, Cheap Trick which has me singing on it. I am one thousandth as good a singer as [CT vocalist] Robin Zander, but it’s my demo and it’s my emotions, so it’s kinda cool.

What do you remember about playing on the sessions for John Lennon’s Double Fantasy album?

It was August 1980 and my son Daxx had just been born. I’d been at the hospital for the birth of my other kids, but I missed Daxx’s as I’d been asked to play on a John Lennon record. If it had been McCartney’s record I’d have gone to the hospital. But John Lennon was cool and quirky. But when I first walked into the studio he said: “Oh, it’s you!” I think he thought he was getting Ricky Nelson.

Was Lennon a Cheap Trick fan?

Yes. When I was playing on [Lennon’s] I’m Losing You, he looked over at the producer, Jack Douglas, and said: “God! I wish I’d had him on Cold Turkey.” He and Jack actually talked about Lennon going out with Cheap Trick instead of his studio band. That’s a true story.

Do you believe in God?

I believe in a higher power. But I’m not sure what the definition of ‘God’ is. Is God an orgasm? All I know is there’s got to be something up there that’s better than I am. I can guarantee you that.

Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello? is out on April 1 via Big Machine.

Mark Blake

Mark Blake is a music journalist and author. His work has appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, and the magazines Q, Mojo, Classic Rock, Music Week and Prog. He is the author of Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, Is This the Real Life: The Untold Story of Queen, Magnifico! The A–Z Of Queen, Peter Grant, The Story Of Rock's Greatest Manager and Pretend You're in a War: The Who & The Sixties.