Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cheap Trick's Dark Days Illuminated By The Flame

In 1982 Cheap Trick nervously awaited the reception for their latest album ‘One On One’, aware that in the absence of a substantial hit the trick might be up. The lead out single was the aforementioned pop-rock gem ‘If You Want My Love’. The song didn’t exactly set the world on fire in the U.S. (#45) or Britain (#57), but Australia fell in love with the track and pushed it all the way to #2 during the second half of ‘82. Sales of ‘One On One’ down under reflected Cheap Trick’s popularity at the time (OZ#25) but again other markets were less receptive to the Cheap Trick brand (US#39/UK#95). The follow up single ‘She’s Tight’ flirted with the lower reaches of the U.S. Hot 100 (#65) in late ‘82, but it would represent the last charting single for Cheap Trick, Stateside, for almost three years.

The Todd Rundgren produced album ‘Next Position Please’ (US#61) hit the stores in September ‘83, but signalled the start of a tough period for the veteran rock quartet. It spawned just two singles in ‘Dancing The Night Away’ and ‘I Can’t Take It’, but neither found a position on the charts. The only release from Cheap Trick during 1984 was the single ‘Spring Break’, which was the title track from the motion picture release. The titles for Cheap Trick’s next two albums in some respects reflected the plight the band found themselves in during the mid 80s. 1985’s ‘Standing On The Edge’ performed reasonably well (US#35) and garnered favourable reviews, but still well short of the band’s heady ‘Budokan’ days, though it did yield the minor hit ‘Tonight It’s You’ (US#44). The prescription offered by their 1986 album ‘The Doctor’ didn’t provide the much needed cure for Cheap Trick, but rather signalled a bottoming out of sorts, both creatively and commercially. Though it didn’t crack the charts, or yield any hit singles, ‘The Doctor’ did reintroduce Tom Petersson to his old Cheap Trick cohorts, whilst they were mixing the album. It would lead to Petersson returning to the fold in place of Jon Brant, and possibly provided the missing piece of the puzzle for the band to recapture some lost form.

With waning album sales, the lads in Cheap Trick understandably felt a little nervous about their tenure at Epic, in fact they were even canvassing interest from other labels. The band’s fortune’s would soon be revived by a soft rock power ballad that, on the surface at least, was very un-Cheap Trick like. The song writing team of Nick Graham and Bob Mitchell had been based in the U.K. for several years, penning songs for the likes of Sinitta and Toyah Wilcox. They had been commissioned to write some songs for vocalist Elkie Brooks, and one of the compositions they offered up was a song called ‘The Flame’. Brooks duly rejected the song, but Graham and Mitchell felt it had potential, so slapped a makeshift vocal on it and sent out a demo hoping to snare some interest. One of the copies found its way to Don Grierson, a former Capitol Records suit who had assumed the position of senior vice president A&R for Epic. Grierson loved the song but wasn’t sure who within the Epic family was best suited to record it. He was perusing the label’s roster when he came upon Cheap Trick and felt they might just be the band to take the song to #1. Grierson approached producer Richie Zito to oversee production on a new Cheap Trick album, featuring ‘The Flame’. There was only one hitch - the band didn’t like the song, much less like the idea of Cheap Trick recording it. It ended up being the last song recorded during the album sessions, and Zito had to coax each member of the band to record their part one at a time. Robin Zander laid down his vocal track first with a guide track on keyboard. When Zander heard the playback his feelings began to change towards ‘The Flame’. By the time the track was finished, pretty much everyone from producer to record label to Cheap Trick themselves, knew they had a sure fire hit record.

‘The Flame’ was released April ‘88 and debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 soon after. It was a slow but steady burn all the way to #1 in July (for two weeks). ‘The Flame’ scorched up the Australian charts more swiftly and hit the #1 position in May ‘88 (spending three weeks at the summit). ‘The Flame’ was Cheap Trick’s first American top 10 hit in almost a decade and signalled a resurgence in the band’s career. The source album ‘Lap Of Luxury’ restored their place inside the top 20 (US#16/OZ#18) and provided the platform Cheap Trick sorely needed to reclaim their status as a first class live attraction, with all the bells and whistles of eccentricity still present on stage. And as bassist Tom Petersson told Music Express at the time - “It reaffirmed our faith in ourselves”. In a daring move the follow up single saw Cheap Trick covering an Elvis classic with ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. The gamble paid off with a piece of contemporary pop brilliance, and Zander’s vocals were a perfect fit. ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ soared up the charts in both the U.S. (#4) and Australia (#5), followed by the minor hits ‘Let Go’ (OZ#75 - a much underrated song), ‘Ghost Town’ (US#33/OZ#67) and ‘Never Had A Lot To Lose’ (US#75), rounding out a banner twelve months for Cheap Trick. In February ‘89 Robin Zander combined vocal talents with Heart’s Ann Wilson on the US#6 hit ‘Surrender To Me’ (the love theme from the film ‘Tequila Sunrise’).

With an all new ‘adult oriented rock’ audience in tow, Cheap Trick then faced the challenge of maintaining their collective lap of luxury by building on the momentum kick started by their previous album. ‘Busted’ (OZ#37/US#48) was released in September 1990, and had been preceded by the solid pop-rock number ‘Can’t Stop Fallin’ Into Love’ (US#12/OZ#24), which was on its chart ascent around the time I saw Cheap Trick play. The album featured backing vocals from Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders) and Russell Mael (Sparks - see future post) on a couple of tracks. ‘Busted’ spawned one more hit single with ‘Wherever Would I Be’ (US#50), which would prove to be Cheap Trick’s last U.S. hit single to date. They released a greatest hits compilation in late ‘91, that I recall purchasing at the time, and I played Cheap Trick’s version of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ relentlessly for a while - it is a seriously good version.

After an association spanning almost twenty years Cheap Trick finally parted company with Epic and released their next album on Warner Bros. 1994’s ‘Woke Up With A Monster’ (US#123) hit the stores in March but hit the bargain bins soon after. Despite an attempt by Cheap Trick to recapture their high energy rock sound of the late 70s, the album couldn’t find an audience in the mid 90s, and the band parted ways with Warner soon after. Ironically that same late 70s high energy sound was revisited by the band’s old Epic label on a sequel to ‘Live At Budokan’, titled appropriately enough ‘Budokan II’, and compiled from live cuts previously unreleased. Following a brief stint with the cult-indie label Sub Pop (with the single ‘Baby Talk’ released), Cheap Trick hooked up with the Red Ant-Alliance label and released their second eponymous album in June 1997 - roughly twenty years since their first was released. ‘Cheap Trick’ (1997) scraped into the U.S. top 100 at #99 and yielded the US#16 Mainstream Rock Hit ‘Say Goodbye’, but Cheap Trick’s days of magic were seemingly behind them. During 1998 Cheap Trick played a series of shows in Chicago with each night’s concert devoted to one of their first four albums. The best of the show’s performances were captured on the band’s self released 1999 album ‘Music For Hangovers’. 2001’s ‘Silver (live)’ (US#45 Independent) and 2003’s ‘Special One’ (US#6 Independent) catered to the needs of long term Cheap Trick fans, and showed the band had lost none of its vibrancy and verve.

But the Cheap Trick legend lives on to a legion of loyal fans. The band released their latest album ‘Rockford’ (US#101) in 2006, and it was hailed as their best album in 20 years - see comments for this post for more info. Cheap Trick has recently toured Australia again, this time in support of fellow rock luminaries Def Leppard. A 30th anniversary DVD of ‘Live At Budokan’ has just been released at the time of this post.


fasted7 said...

Great post- thanks!
Great to see how Cheap Trick charted in Oz, too, as a comparison to US and GB.

Laura said...

Yes, excellent post of Trick's journey. A special note that their 2006 release, Rockford, was hailed as their best album/CD in two decades, should be made. It really was a return to form, and has some outstanding songs. My favs are "Perfect Stranger", "If It Takes a Lifetime" (Little Steven really liked that song as well and put it on one of his "Coolest Songs in the World" CD compilations) and "This Time You Got It".

Laura said...

Hi Zane!
Thanks for sending me a comment about my book...I can't reply to you because the bandzoogle mailer didn't capture your email, and I can't find your email listed anywhere (or is it right in front of me and I'm just not seeing it?). Just send a note to and I'll reply. Sounds like you're in Australia, yes? Did you catch Trick earlier this month while they toured with DL? I'm going to Los Angeles in a few weeks to catch them at the House of Blues.

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Thanks for the feedback guys, appreciate it :)
I'll make a note of 'Rockford' in my post - thanks for the info Laura.

A friend of mine saw the Def Leppard/Cheap Trick double bill a couple of weeks back. They said that Def Leppard were amazing, but Robin Zander seemed to have a bit of an off night with Cheap Trick - happens to the best of 'em.