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The magnificent late-career rise of Cheap Trick, a band too dumb to quit

Cheap Trick
Cheap Trick (l-r): Tom Petersson, Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander, Daxx Nielsen (Image credit: David McClister)

“Rock’n’roll moves like a roller-coaster, the same way our career has gone,” offers Robin Zander, Cheap Trick’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist. “We’ve had our ups and downs over the years. We never had goals, we just keep on doing what we do because we love it. What can I say? I like rock songs with good energy.” 

Zander is trying to account for a couple of things. Firstly, the longevity of Cheap Trick, the band he’s fronted with dashing elan since 1974. Then there’s the uncurbed intensity and verve of the band’s latest album In Another World, which distils everything that Cheap Trick do best – punchy popmetal, great ballads, hooks, harmonies, glam-bam rock’n’roll – into 50 wondrous minutes. 

The album also crowns a prolific late-career surge that has yielded four albums in nearly as many years. “We actually enjoy the challenge of recording,” explains flamboyant lead guitarist Rick Nielsen, he of the trademark baseball cap, bow tie and crazy stage moves. “There’s thirteen songs on In Another World, and we probably had at least another half dozen on top of that. In the same time frame we also did a Beatles track for Howard Stern, a David Bowie track with [producer] Jack Douglas and a song for a Harry Nilsson tribute album. So we like to work. And we never seem to be searching for things to do – things search us out.”

Cheap Trick actually started recording the album while still with Nashville label Big Machine, who released 2016’s return-to-form Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello and the 2017 double whammy of We’re All Alright! and Christmas Christmas. They’re now signed to BMG. 

In Another World was initially down for release in 2019, but was disrupted by COVID. Opening track The Summer Looks Good On You (aka Here Comes The Summer), all burst lungs and power chords, came out as a taster single as early as 2018. The album’s longish gestation is sometimes reflected in the subject matter. For all the zip and pep of effervescent tracks like Here’s Looking At You or Boys & Girls & Rock ’N Roll, Cheap Trick have catalogued the Trump era in their own special way; Another World, The Party and Final Days all hint at darker, troubling times.

"I think they’re a reflection of how everyone feels,” contends Zander. “This was before COVID, so we were talking about the United States in general, about politics and how things are going. I guess we all felt like we were being run by a mob.” 

Pessimism, however, has never been a Cheap Trick trait. Zander is keen to point out that the song Another World “may paint a dark picture, but notice the words in the chorus: ‘We could be happy, in another world we could be free. There will be peace for you and me’. It’s about finding the balance,” Nielsen adds. “I think we’re more realistic about things in a rock context. We’re not trying to do a Springsteen and preach to anybody, we’re just showing a slice of our lives. It’s three and a half minutes of stuff we’ve observed, that we feel."

The album closes with a biting cover of John Lennon’s protest anthem Gimme Some Truth. Conceived in the era of Nixon and Vietnam, its message hasn’t diminished, or become any less relevant, in the 50 years since Lennon recorded it. 

“That song was one of the first things I thought of for this record, because of the lies that were happening in our country,” Zander says. “It sort of permeated the whole record after we’d recorded it. Everything seemed to fit within that realm.” 

The Lennon connection feeds into a specific memory for Nielsen, especially in light of the fact that Final Days yanks on a riff from his Cold Turkey

“I worked with John and Yoko on the Double Fantasy sessions, doing a song called I’m Losing You,” he recalls. “I was in the studio, playing, and John looked at Jack Douglas and said: ‘God, I wish I’d had Rick on Cold Turkey. Clapton choked up.’” 

Joining Cheap Trick on the cover of Gimme Some Truth is former Sex Pistol Steve Jones, who plays some suitably spiky guitar. He took up their invitation after Zander and Nielsen appeared on his LA radio show Jonesy’s Jukebox. 

“I’ve known Steve for a long time and Cheap Trick always loved the Sex Pistols,” Nielsen explains. “Their approach was so alien from what we were doing, but it still had that raw power. So I was showing him a guitar that I’d brought to the radio station and we were playing along to something that was on air. Then I asked if he wanted to play on a track with us. He liked the idea of the song, and it worked out perfectly. Now we can’t get rid of the guy.” 

“As bands, the Pistols and Cheap Trick came out around the same time, so I guess it made sense to him,” adds Zander. “We’re a totally different group, going from simple ballads to full-on Auf Wiedersehen stuff. That’s why I think people like Steve Jones appreciated us, because he liked the intensity and diversity of it.”

The assimilation of Jones and Lennon on In Another World loops back to Cheap Trick’s lifelong Anglophilia. The band might have formed in northern Illinois, a stud in America’s Rust Belt, but their spirit was forged from the music that emanated from the UK in the 60s and early 70s. Zander sees the band’s sound as a natural reaction to the music of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Animals and The Who

“It was that sort of secondary blues influence that turned me on,” he remembers. “It was energetic, louder and more exciting than the kind of blues we had over here. I was really truly influenced by the British Invasion and I loved the guitar playing of The Yardbirds or early Fleetwood Mac. There was some extraordinary stuff. It gave me that feeling of: ‘That’s what I wantto do.’” 

Nielsen’s obsession was just as deep, perhaps more so. Anxious to keep abreast of what was hip across the pond in the UK, he had weekly music paper Melody Maker sent to his home in Rockford, Illinois. “I think it was around a hundred and twenty-five dollars for a year to get it air-mailed,” he recalls. “That was expensive in the sixties, but it meant I got my copy six weeks earlier. I wanted the news as it was happening.” 

Excited by what he was reading, Nielsen made his first visit to London in 1968, along with future Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson. The guitarist is still enthused by the memory of his time there. 

“We got off the plane and went to stay in the Bayswater area, at the Inverness Court Hotel, where you had to put shillings into the meter,” he says. “As we walked in they were playing Sabre Dance by Love Sculpture. I remember buying a used Mellotron from Cliff Cooper at Orange Music, and also the very first Orange amp, which I still have today. Later that week I went to the Marquee and saw Love Sculpture with Dave Edmunds, then I bought four Sound City [amplifier/speaker] stacks, because that’s what he used. It was all so exciting.” 

At that juncture, he and Petersson were playing together in Fuse, having previously been members of the Grim Reapers. The latter’s main claim to fame – in an act of tragic symmetry, considering the band’s chosen name – was being on the bill as support to Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays on the night Redding and four members of the band were killed in a plane crash.

“I had to go up and announce to the crowd that they’d crashed into Lake Monona and wouldn’t be appearing that night,” says Nielsen, referring to the fatal accident near Madison, Wisconsin in December 1967. “I told them that the show would not go on, although the band I was in still had to play. That was because our manager was like Ozzy Osbourne’s old manager, Don Arden. We did as we were told.” 

Zander’s route to Cheap Trick also came via a trip to the UK. “I was in a band with the original singer of Cheap Trick, Randy Hogan, for about a year,” he says. “Then I went to upstate Wisconsin and performed up there for a while. When I was eighteen I moved to Scotland for a year, because I thought I could get a record deal. So I took the train into London, went to Pye Records and played a few songs for them. They basically told me to go back home and practise. Which is what I did. When I came back I joined Cheap Trick.” 

Apart from absorbing the music he loved, Zander’s time in Britain also brought him into contact with the people who made it: “I went to Alex Harvey’s birthday party in London, which turned into a drunk fest. But I loved his way of singing, all that very theatrical stuff. I think Bon Scott was influenced a lot by Alex too.”

That formative experience also plugs into In Another World. One of the most wistful moments on the album is the heartsick So It Goes, with Zander intoning over picked acoustic guitar and gentle ambience. The song dates back to his time as a struggling wannabe. 

So It Goes was written a long time ago, probably when I was living in Scotland,” he says. “Pye Records passed on that one. It needed work on the melody and lyric. So it was one of those things that I dug up and decided to finish for this record. Sometimes it works out like that. I’ll go through my old stuff and think: ‘That’s really kinda cool.’” 

In many ways, then, In Another World finds Cheap Trick riding that same roller-coaster that Zander alluded to earlier. They’ve enjoyed the steep ascent of late-70s landmark albums In Color, Heaven Tonight and Dream Police, peaking with 1979’s multiplatinum At Budokan, endured the commercial dip of the following decade, and climbed again with their 1988 comeback Lap Of Luxury. And for all the difficulties of the 90s and early 00s, the band are now, unquestionably, back on the rise.

Crucially, throughout it all Cheap Trick have always been true to themselves. Keep at it long enough and you become an intrinsic part of the culture. In 2016 they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Last year, their album At Budokan was placed into the US Library Of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. 

“We never tried to be something that we weren’t,” says Nielsen. “For the people who still don’t really know who we are, it kind of validates us: ‘You’re in a rock band? Oh good. You’re seventy-two years old and play in a rock band? Oh Jesus! What’s wrong with you?’ People used to say that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere. I say if you can make it in Rockford, Illinois, you can make it anywhere. 

“I didn’t plan for any of this to happen,” he continues. “We’ve just worked hard and we’re too dumb to quit. Music has been our hobby and our love the whole time. One of the things I’m always proud to say is: ‘We’re Cheap Trick. We’ve basically never improved and we’ve never progressed. But luckily we started off pretty good.’”

In Another World is out now.