Hear

Cheap Trick: Why Aren’t They One of the Biggest Bands Ever?

cheap trick

Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame” is widely regarded as a quintessential rock n roll song. Through the years it’s been covered by artists from Pat Boone to Hank Williams Jr.  — even John Lennon. Of all the covers, Domino’s favorite was the version by Cheap Trick. And it’s hard to disagree with him.

In a live recording from 1980, Cheap Trick performs the rock staple in front of a star-studded audience. The scene plays out as follows; Robin Zander walks out as the instrumental introduction coming to a close. Tom Petersson, whose hair is larger than life, is driving the crowd absolutely wild. Guitarist Rick Nielsen is running all over the stage like a kid off his medication. And remarkably for one of the first times in history, Bun E. Carlos is pounding his drums without a cigarette in his mouth. When the band kicks off, the energy is off the charts. A performance like that begs the question: “So why aren’t they HUGE?”

It was never about where the band came from; in fact, where they came from was a setback. A group from northern Illinois trying to make it in Wisconsin wasn’t exactly at the top of a record label’s list. If anything, those conditions fueled rebellion on their part. To bust out of the obscurity of Rockford, Illinois would take something special. And they had it.

Their dynamic was simple but flawless. In front were Zander and Petersson. Zander proved to be a dynamic frontman with an incredible vocal range, rhythm guitar capabilities and the looks to carry him through. Petersson was the entire “Zander” package, only with brown hair and picking a four string instead of a six. Together the two would line the front of Cheap Tricks’ albums for years to come.

Behind the curtain were two of the most unique figures in rock. Drummer Bun E Carlos looked like a chain-smoking insurance salesman but provided an energetic beat. The backbone of it all was guitarist Rick Nielsen, an enigma that words can never fully convey. His unorthodox wardrobe, eccentric guitar collection, and unprecedented energy were exactly what rock n roll is meant to be.

In 1974, the band set out to make a name after landing a record deal with Epic Records. When they burst on the scene, audiences weren’t entirely sure how to categorize them; They were… a bit of everything. They were rebellious but could write a sophisticated pop song. They cared about the music they played but didn’t care how they came off. They had pop appeal with the legitimacy of a bonafide rock group. Their first three albums embodied a raw sound that toed the line of power pop and the vigor of the upcoming punk scene.

1978’s live album Cheap Trick At Budokan jettisoned them into the spotlight. Fewer albums have captured the magic that Budokan did; it put the group on the map. The energy of the crowd was comparable to that of Beatlemania. Critics were quick to applaud Budokan and help elevate Cheap Trick’s status to top tier rock band. The group quickly followed up with their strongest and highest charting studio album: Dream Police.

Coming off the success of Budokan and Dream Police, Cheap Trick was able to successfully crossover and maintain their rock popularity. Not only was their AOR appeal fortuitous, but the timing of their ’80s peak was equally opportunistic. The ’80s produced some of their biggest hits in “If You Want My Love”, the Todd Rundgren-produced “I Can’t Take It”, and their first # 1 hit, “The Flame.” Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time before their own flame started to fade.

Even with their success, the legacy of Cheap Trick has become a bit diluted. It seems they’ve become stuck in a purgatory of a “novelty band.” Their biggest hit, “I Want You To Want Me” has become synonymous with “bubble gum pop.” Some adolescent lyrics, such as “Surrender” haven’t resonated well. Even their biggest exposure came at a price: their theme song for That 70’s Show was merely a reimagining of Big Star’s “In The Street.”

As time passed, something had eluded the group; a trip to the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. The group patiently sat by the phone since their first year of eligibility in 1999. Zander and Petersson even admitted they were never sure if they were ever going to get in. Finally, in 2015, it was announced that Cheap Trick was nominated. Quickly, an online campaign emerged, enlisting the support of Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, Chad Smith from Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam. Cheap Trick was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame on April 8th, 2016.

Related: “Cheap Trick: From Budokan to the Hall of Fame”

Although the group finally got their due, their reputation still remains in play. Doubters will be quick to pin the group as too juvenile or commercial. But what makes Cheap Trick special is that they have one thing most groups strive to have: an identity. They never pretended to be anything they weren’t and killed it at everything that they were no matter how unconventional. Cheap Trick’s influence is perfectly summed up in an exchange between “Damone” and “Dena” in the 1982 movie classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Damone attempts to sell Dena a pair of tickets to a Cheap Trick concert. After her reluctance, Damone pleads “Can you honestly tell me that you forgot? Forgot the magnetism of Robin Zander? Or the charisma of Rick Nielsen?” Still not convinced Dena is quick to reply with “That’s kids stuff…”

To which Damone can only reply “Kids stuff? But what about the tunes?!?”

-Michael Sarno

Other Posts You Might Like

22 comments on “Cheap Trick: Why Aren’t They One of the Biggest Bands Ever?

  1. Avatar

    They are the best band in the planet. They’ve survived and thrived and we Tricksters love them.

  2. Avatar

    Even the heading is dumb, followed by fan-boy gusto which offers no conclusion other than after 30 years Cheap Trick cover Big Star for That 70’s Show and succeed in making Big Star not sound amateurish (for once). In relation to time, apparently Led Zeppelin must also fail in being one of the “biggest bands ever” as they have not had a hit song since 1979. CT are in the R$R Hall of Fame, their latest album is their best in 30 years (riddle me that, Heart, KISS, The Who) and as well as being millionaires Cheap Trick tour endlessly because they love it. Goodnight now.

  3. Avatar

    Haven’t, can’t and won’t stop listening to them (I got hooked in 1977). I’ve seen them live more than 50 times and look forward to seeing them a couple more times this summer. An absolutely brilliant band.

  4. Avatar
    John TIghe

    They were the first band I saw live. This was in 1977. I didn’t know who they were. They were the opening act for the “KISS Alive II”. 20 years later, after a show at Pala(?), they told me that the sound was shitty and that KISS recorded the album in a NJ studio later. They also told me that Peter Criss was so wasted that Bun was told he might have to put makeup on and take his place.

    Seeing them at the Indian Casino was nice; I even got two picks (something that was impossible from the nose bleed section in ’77). KISS became an embarrassment, and I sold off most of their memorabilia, but I still like Cheap Trick.

  5. Avatar
    Damian Mastnick

    I went to Richfield Coliseum south of Cleveland in 1979 to see Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow. I asked my brother who was opening and he said “Two bands I’ve never heard of before. Somebody called Cheap Trick and REO Speedwagon.”

  6. Avatar
    Lesley R.

    Cheap Trick was a back up band for John Lennon, back in the days. So when Robin sings a tune in a Beatlesque way, you where it comes from. I’m a die hard Trickster and always will be.

  7. Avatar
    Joanne V

    Love Cheap Trick, have seen them many times and will see them many more, they are the best, Go Cheap Trick,
    Robin Zander has the best vocals I have ever heard, and Tom Peterson isn’t so bad himself

    • Avatar
      Susan Hapman

      Back in high school, we shared our favorite bands. When asked “who’s your favorite band?” I would say “Cheap Trick,” but I had never seen them. I would stay up late at night hoping to hear them on the radio. A friend of mine brought me a picture of the band, I fell in love with the lead singer “Robin Zander!” But I fell in love with their music first.
      This band has a history of many hit songs, and they will always hold a special place in my heart. I love their music and I love “Cheap Trick!”
      “ROBIN ZANDER!”🥰
      They are the best Band Ever!!

  8. Avatar

    I thought her name was Linda

  9. Avatar

    I am also a trickster. A great band who sound as good live today as they did 40 years ago. I went to see Kiss in 1977. The first band came out. I remember thinking how very good looking the guy with the long blond hair was. Then he started singing IWYTWM. I just loved the song and his voice. Somehow I knew I had discovered something very special. And I was right. They have been and remain my favourite band. I love each and every one of their songs. I have seen them live many times and hope to many times again.

  10. Avatar
    Keith Trayer

    Tom Peterson plays a 12 string bass, not a 4 string. If you’re gonna write about them, maybe research them first.

  11. Avatar

    People who know, KNOW: Cheap Trick was, were, and STILL is one of the best – and incredibly influential – rock bands, ever. They’ve persevered because the love what they do, and we’re glad they do!

  12. Avatar

    Cheap Trick’s fans KNOW how great they are and we never needed anyone to tell us. Cheap Trick let the music do the talking and they are still more kinetic live then several bands half their age. And they NEVER sat by the phone waiting to hear from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

  13. Avatar
    Peter Jones

    Great lede, but where is the story?

  14. Avatar

    Sorry guys, but this is some very patchy writing. “Novelty band” refers to a band that makes a career out of writing “joke” songs, often of a very timely nature, or a band which features some kind of unique, one-off gimmick which seems new and fresh (hence the root word “novel”) because it’s different.

    They usually have a very short shelf life, either the band or the songs, because things can only be new and fresh for so long. Cheap Trick doesn’t fit the definition of a novelty band in any reasonable sense the term has ever been used. I suppose technically SOMEONE could have accused them of being a “novelty act” if they looked at Rick’s guitars during the first 5 minutes of their career, but that time has long since passed.

  15. Avatar

    Those of us who saw them “grow up” in Rockford can give you plenty of reasons why things “escaped” them. However, I wouldn’t cry too hard for them. They’re all very comfortable in their old age.

  16. Avatar

    I like the replies. Better than the article I think. I thought some of the article was good, but seemed to want to finish way too fast and never really answered the question of the title. That’s part of Cheap Trick’s greatness – no one can accurately describe them. Never been a more hardworking band, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t waiting by the phone for 16 years hoping to get into the hall of fame (popularity). They were too busy creating new music and playing festivals and small venues that us real fans love to attend.

  17. Avatar
    Robert Busscher

    I love the band, and mr. Bun E. Carlos is one of my alltime favorite drummers!

  18. Avatar
    Jerry Martin

    Simply a great pop rock and roll band! I got tix for ZZ Top in Phoenix and am thrilled to see that Cheap Trick is going to open for them. That’s going to be a great show!

  19. Avatar
    Larry Lewis

    CT played a venue in my home area of eastern Connecticut, just before “Budokan” broke through. (The place was later one of those small stops during the first “van tour” by the Police.) I was already a big fan of CT and managed to record the entire show on the sly. At that point, I’d never heard a louder band, maybe ever, given the venue size. That gig was electrifying. My ears rang so loudly that outside, a guy asked me a question and I had to shrug him off with, “I can’t hear you!” The next day, I had to leave work, I was so dizzy & nauseous. This is NOT a complaint! Anyway, one of the best performances I’ve ever seen….and heard! I now live in FL, in the same immediate area as Robin Zander, whom I’ve met a few times. He’s very approachable. On one of those occasions, he sat in on my solo guitar/vocal restaurant gig, singing, “IWYTWM” to his daughter, with extended family looking on…yep, I have photos and I’ll never wash my mic again. The woman owning the restaurant used to cut his hair and knew Robin and his family well. Robin is known to sing with local musicians working “in the trenches” in our beach area. Some months back, he gigged with his son in a gazebo as a duo, in his current town here, and recently performed as the Robin Zander Band in a small coffee house-type venue in my city. Robin is simply one of the friendliest “name” musicians I’ve ever met.

  20. Avatar
    Larry Lewis

    One quick question for Robin, if he’s reading this page. Whatever happened to that country album you recorded, several years back? (Seriously.)

Leave a Reply

Love the Beatles? Get this eBook FREE when you subscribe.

It turns out there's a lot to say. Just say "yes" to get yours.