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.
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?!?”
Photo: Promo photo of Cheap Trick