Monday, August 2, 2010

Track by Track: ‘Cheap Trick’ by Cheap Trick

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, I’ll be taking a close look at albums of the classic, underrated, and flawed variety, and assessing them Track by Track.

1977: the year that Punk provided Rock & Roll with a much-needed high colonic. The new guard led by The Clash and The Sex Pistols chided the old guard of classic rockers (“No Beatles, Elvis, or the Rolling Stones in 1977”) no matter how much that new guard owed to the old one. Still, punk did its damnedest to flush out the pretentious concepts, endless guitar and drum solos, and godlier than thou stance that had been dominating popular music since the end of the ‘60s. The punks initially scoffed at the artiness that had seeped into Rock & Roll since psychedelic ’67, though, many of them—including The Clash, The Damned, Radio Birdman, Pere Ubu, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Adverts, and The Buzzcocks— would soon incorporate many psych trappings in their most interesting work. If it wasn’t raw, raunchy, shouted, and shredded, it was nowhere. And though the best punks welcomed elements of old-fashioned, Who-inspired power pop into their music, they were careful not to stray too far from the two-chords-and-a-pissy-attitude formula (another posture that would soon fade). This is why the purists cast a skeptical eye toward folks like The Jam, Joe Jackson, and Elvis Costello, with their skinny ties and pesky melodies.




Cheap Trick never received flack for being posers the way Weller, Jackson, or Costello did because they operated on their own power-pop planet. Too polished for the punks, too snide for the classic rockers, Cheap Trick was a band bred for culthood. Robin Zander may have looked the golden god, with his pretty puss and blonde mane, but his demented yowl may have even been too much for the Zep Heads. Rick Nielsen’s lead guitar work (“and when we say lead, we’re not kidding: he’s got thirty-five guitars” future novelist Eric von Lustbader boasted in the original liner notes) could go head-to-head with that of Jimmy Page, but his Huntz Hall get up wasn’t going to get him on any centerfolds. Bun E. Carlos looked more like he should be wiping dipsticks than waving drumsticks. Only bassist Tom Petersson really looked and played the part of classic rocker, but who paid any attention to him?

Cheap Trick made music as paradoxical as their image. They are known to non-cultists as big, dumb rockers, a stereotype that may not necessarily be anathema to the band. But one would have to be aware of stuff like “Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School” or “He’s a Whore” to suss the irony in something like “I Want You to Want Me”, which too many take at face value. And how many casual listeners have really paid attention to the parodic yet oddly sincere lyric of “Surrender”? Wicked humor and taboo-busting plays as key a role in Cheap Trick’s greatness as hooks. That the band wasn’t really able to sustain that greatness past their third or fourth album also accounts for why they are so often dismissed by non-fanatics. But is there a trace of ironic humor in the power ballad “The Flame”, the band’s only number one hit? I’d find it hard to believe that there isn’t, considering Cheap Trick’s track record, but that doesn’t necessarily forgive its surface awfulness.

But let’s rewind to Cheap Trick’s debut record, when they were capable of crafting a power ballad both sincerely lovely and ironically strange, when their lyrics were bizarre, obscene, and hilarious and their riffs were massive enough for Led Zeppelin freaks and melodies melodious enough for Beatlemaniacs. An album of such irrepressible cheekiness that even the record labels contained a good joke (one was tagged “Side A”, the other “Side One”!) Cheap Trick: the pinnacle of power pop and an album worth examining track-by-track…

(all tracks by Rick Nielsen unless otherwise stated)

Track 1: ELO Kiddies

Much like their idols, The Beatles, Cheap Trick worked their four asses off prior to cutting their first album. Playing 290 gigs a year, which regularly required them to drive an average of 150 miles to each one, Cheap Trick maintained a punishing schedule that honed them into a drum-tight unit. Such arduousness and value accounts for the sweet and sour punch of “ELO Kiddies”. Is it a spew of anti-fan vitriol? A rallying cry for the sweaty, smelly teens who comprise their screeching audiences? Is Zander barking “Hello” in mock Cockney? Is he
paying tribute to E.L.O., the ‘70s supergroup that grew out of The Move, one of Cheap Trick’s all-time fave British Rock bands? Whatever its specifics, “ELO Kiddies” forms a portrait of a Rock concert out of control. The martial stomp of the beat and the unison shout of the chorus suggest a Nazi rally. But the attendees are drugged out, school-skipping, paranoid, TV-addicted, money-filching teenagers rather than mini-fascists. Simple as a Gary Glitter chant, “ELO Kiddies” gains its power more from a fevered performance that reaches a frenzied climax than sharp composing. The lyric is funny in its enticing ambiguity, but Nielsen’s pop skills are mightier elsewhere. Still, concert-opening set pieces don’t get much more apropos or exciting than “ELO Kiddies”. And speaking of Gary Glitter…



Track 2: Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School

The first great song (as opposed to great track) on Cheap Trick is “Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School”. All of the band’s powers are functioning at equal strength here: their vile humor, their mean playing, their seductive catchiness. “I’m thirty but I feel like sixteen” crows the pedophiliac daddy. A slithery rhythm and Zander’s particularly lascivious vocal convey the self-delighted sleaziness of Nielsen’s character perfectly. The heavy backing track matched with chorus harmonies that could have been swiped from the latest Bay City Rollers hit define Cheap Trick’s ironic stance. But it’s those lyrics that make “Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School” such a stand-out, the unapologetic nastiness of a creep who hangs around outside of schools (High Schools? Junior Highs? Elementary schools? How horrendous is your crime, Daddy?), who is “dirty” even though his “body is clean”… shades of Paul’s “very clean” grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night perhaps? And speaking of The Beatles…



Track 3: Taxman, Mr. Thief

Cheap Trick’s ironic daring reaches a peculiar point on “Taxman, Mr. Thief”. Generally, when a songwriter engages in a bit of petty pilfering he/she does not trumpet that crime in the song. George Harrison didn’t need to reference the Chiffons in “My Sweet Lord” in order to get served for pinching a bit of “He’s So Fine”. Nielsen displays his big-clangers by writing “Like The Beatles, he ain’t human” for no other reason than to announce where he nicked the idea for his own ode to the Taxman. Unlike Harrison’s pointed screed from Revolver, anti-I.R.S. sentiments are not necessarily the main agenda of Nielsen’s “Taxman, Mr. Thief”. For the most part, he remains on topic (“You work hard, you went hungry, now the taxman’s out to get you…” etc.), but what gives with that line about The Beatles aside from its use as an explicit reference to the song’s source? Why would the American Cheap Trick mention Edward Heath, the Conservative British Prime Minister who’d already been out of office three years in 1977, other than as an additional nod to The Beatles (“Ah, ah, Mr. Heath!”)? Chances are the pre-fame Cheap Trick were hardly victims of the taxman and this song’s chief role is as Beatles pastiche. On a melodic level, aside from the similar way Zander and The Beatles sing the one-note “Taxman” chorus (emphasis on the second syllable), this track sounds quite unlike the one on Revolver, and for that matter, anything else by The Beatles.



Track 4: Cry, Cry (Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander, and Tom Petersson)

Not surprisingly, the most disposable track on Cheap Trick is the sole collaborative one. Lacking the wit, catchiness, and dynamics of its album-mates, “Cry Cry” is a slow burn that fails to fully ignite, even if its chorus is fairly catchy. The lyric might be a comment on the triteness of self-pitying pop lyrics (given the group’s penchant for parody, this is not an impossible claim), but as such it still lacks the lacerating nastiness of the seemingly simple yet quite complex “ELO Kiddies”. Zander’s brief Elvis impersonation during the fade is a nice touch though.



Track 5: Oh, Candy

Cheap Trick are back in full ability on “Oh, Candy”. As ironic as their best work, the track isn’t as flippant and actually possesses a core of sincerity. Here the irony lies in the way that a sugary power-pop tune is matched with a stark lyric about a friend of the band who committed suicide. Nielsen expresses regret that Candy killed himself rather than called and talked out his despair, which Zander captures well in his yearning wail. But Cheap Trick being Cheap Trick, this morose sentiment is not sung over a dirge but a gorgeous, jangle-pop backing. “Oh, Candy” is the cleanest sounding non-ballad on Cheap Trick, pointing to the sound that would dominate their second record (which contains their next “Oh” track, the similarly magnificent “Oh, Caroline”).



Track 6: Hot Love

Anyone who mistakenly started Cheap Trick with Side A rather than Side One would have been under the impression that the album’s opening number was “Hot Love”. Not nearly the striking icebreaker that “ELO Kiddies” was, “Hot Love” is another track that derives its power from performance rather than composition. Nielsen’s almost Chuck Berry-like riff is certainly fiery, as is Zander’s drop-to-his-knees vocal, and the chorus is fierce, but the lyric ranks along with “Cry Cry” as the album’s weakest. A good rocker, for sure, but not the best introduction to Cheap Trick.



Track 7: Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace (Terry Reid)

Terry Reid was Jimmy Page’s first pick to front his new-Yardbirds, but as Reid had a prior commitment as opening act for The Stones’ first tour in two years, the singer recommended Page try out Robert Plant instead. We all know how that worked out for Page and Plant, but Terry Reid has remained relatively obscure, though extremely busy, figure in British Rock. Cheap Trick helped to do their part in establishing Reid’s significance by covering the singer’s “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace”. Not quite as bluesy as Reid’s original, Cheap Trick’s reading is still quite faithful, Zander doing a particularly fine job of mimicking Reid’s challenging vocal. Again, not one of the key cuts on Cheap Trick, but hardly filler.



Track 8: He’s a Whore

All minor tracks are behind Cheap Trick with the album’s concluding triad. For my money, the masterpiece of the entire lot is “He’s a Whore”, which finds Rick and the gang dipping into their bag of tricks and pulling out each of their greatest gimmicks. Is there a dirty, satirical lyric? One of Nielsen’s best: the lament of a male prostitute that comments on the depths to which the greedy will sink (is this a riposte to the writer’s own “Taxman, Mr. Thief”?) and gives a very funny, if mean-spirited, account of man-whoring. How about a memorably heavy riff? The five-note stutter on the D major can’t match your average Led Zeppelin riff for complexity, yet its vigor makes it easily as infectious as all yer “Black Dogs” and “Heartbreakers” and what-have-yous. Bun E. Carlos introduces the rhythm with a drum-beat power-packed with all the hookiness of the guitar part. Tom Petersson brings it to life fully by hammering spontaneous licks around the main riff. By the time Zander steps in, the track feels as if it has already reached its boiling point, yet there are still peaks to hit. So does that mean “He’s a Whore” contains a catchy, climactic chorus? Oh, yes, yes, yes indeed, it does. But what about one of Cheap Trick’s patented hero homages? Friend, “He’s a Whore” has one of those, too, for before the chorus there is a most unmistakable quote from The Beatles’ “Anytime at All”, and unlike they did on “Taxman, Mr. Thief”, the Trick really does sound like the Fab Four this time around. One of the ‘70s’ finest slabs of cracked power pop.



Track 9: Mandocello

And then respite. The sole ballad on Cheap Trick is a piece of controlled tension led by Petersson’s restrained but distinctive bassline. The lyric makes no attempts at humor. It is a love song of separation (“You’re a million miles away or you’re here”), possibly inspired by the band’s relentless roadwork. The melody unfolds in long streams of sustained notes that fully untwine over a descending arpeggio played on guitar and the title instrument, a lower-register mandolin. The song contains two completely different bridges. The first (“Look at me like I look at you…”) is ethereal. The second (“We can go down slowly like the rain…”) opens the track up considerably while drawing it to its necessary climax. Nielsen serves up one of his most beautifully tasteful solos before sliding shooting-star licks down the neck of his instrument as the band lurches heavily on the descending riff. Unconventional in its lack of a proper chorus and its tip-toeing tempo, “Mandocello” shows that Cheap Trick have as unique a way with a ballad as they do with a rocker.



Track 10: The Ballad of TV Violence (I’m Not the Only Boy)

From the sublime to the shocking. “The Ballad of TV Violence (I’m Not the Only Boy)” began life as “The Ballad of Richard Speck”, but perhaps even Rick Nielsen realized that explicitly naming a mass murderer who tortured, raped, and killed eight student nurses a decade earlier was too much (John Waters, however, would never have such reservations). The lyric reads like the scrawled ravings of a psychotic, flitting from expressions of desire for girls to desire for weapons. On the bridge, Zander repeats “I was a lonely boy” over and over in choirboy tones before howling “I’m not the only boy!” and ushering in the final verse. The approach is as menacing as that of “Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School”, the subject matter as unsavory. But whereas “Daddy” seethes throughout, “The Ballad of TV Violence” detonates into terrifying primal screams. This is more “out there” than any comparable Punk song released during the genre’s ’77 heyday, and a harrowing, fearless, frightening conclusion to the year’s greatest non-punk record.

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