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

cheap trick

This post, from way back in 2019, is still percolating all over the interwebs, so we thought it’d be a good time to revisit it here. After all, it does raise a good question…

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

Photo: Promo photo of Cheap Trick

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

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

  2. 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. 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.

    • ChasUGC

      As a black dude, growing up around white guys in Hollywood, who liked Kiss, Alice Cooper and Elton John in the ’70s, I was bound to catch the rock bug. In college in the 80’s, I got it bad, when I first heard Budokan. After that, I brought all their albums, began singing them, learning all the lyrics, and eventually brought a guitar. My white college roommate brought me a ticket to Cheap Trick in the 80’s, at Cal Poly S.L.O.,out of his kindness of his heart, and I was so thrilled. They were so nice to me, Cheap Trick. Here I was, the only black guy on the floor, with good seats, shouting out all the lyrics, and the band took notice. Rick started showering me with guitar picks, and I will never forget that. I got over a half dozen of the White Cheap Trick guitar picks, with their name and picture of Rick. When I later wrote “The Flame Of Love”, a full studio production, and played it at the Guitar Center in Hollywood, and shortly thereafter, Cheap Trick came out with “The Flame”, I swore they stole my song idea, but it didn’t matter. I was just so glad to have been a part of their fan base and got to hear them and have that memorable night. We are all much older now, but I am a Cheap Trick fan for life. And yes, Cheap Trick is my favorite band alongside Steve Perry era, Journey. Third I think is probably Parliament. But, that is just me. I like to diversify my life. I like so many genres now, in fact, the first 45 I got as a child was a Beatles tune that I use to shout it around the house. I forget what it was now, but I remember my mom buying it for me. I just never grew up with hate or mistrust for people just because of their race. I am so glad that I was raised to love that way. Thanks mom. Long live Cheap Trick. Thank you for great music and great memories of my young adult life at Cal Poly and afterwards, cruising in my convertible, shouting my favorite Rock n Roll tunes through Hollywood in the 80’s. Peace.

  4. 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. 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. 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.

    • John Wright

      When John was making his comeback in early 1980 he used Cheap Trick in the studio for “I’m Losing You”..unfortunately that was not the take John decided to use so it never made it on “Double Fantasy” – unfortunate because the Cheap Trick track has much more grit and sounds more like John then what ended up on the album.

  7. 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

    • 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. I thought her name was Linda

  9. 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. Keith Trayer

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

    • Actually he does play a four string on several tunes. Still does. The 12 string cake after they signed their first record deal. Maybe research them first before you comment.

  11. 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. 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. Peter Jones

    Great lede, but where is the story?

  14. 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. 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. 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. Robert Busscher

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

  18. 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. 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. 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.)

  21. Jilly Morgan

    I didn’t discover CT until seeing the live performance of Silver on DirecTV in 2003 while laid up from a surgery. It was love at first sight. I mean, these guys sounded & performed amazingly after 25 yrs. together. I heard only IWYTWM, Dream Police, Surrender & The Flame growing up in the 70s-80s. Finding & repeatedly playing all CT songs from their beginnings only deepened my admiration & deep respect for CT. Each member exhibited such extraordinary humility & inividual talents. Their concerts produced a frenetic (thank you Rick, Bun. E, & now Daxx) & sexy (thank you, Robin & Tom), & tight show. I mean, how many bands out there are as successful with LIVE albums? I actually won 3rd row tickets to a concert in 2003, even met Rick Nielsen, blown away at how easy he was to chat with. AND THEY’RE STILL MAKING KICK-ASS RECORDS, TOURING CONSTANTLY AS R&R HALL OF FAMERS WITH ROBIN ZANDER’S PITCH-PERFECT, UNMATCHED VOICE. I’ve lost count of the number of concerts & Meet & Greets. I’ve run into Robin, Rick & Daxx separately (coincidentally, not a creepy stalker) and they all are gracious, friendly, patient & not full of themselves. My only regret is that I didn’t recognize their brilliance sooner in life. There are songs on every album that touch my soul (or crack me up – SO clever) that never saw the light of day in radio play. Still steaming after 45 years, I will continue to seek out Cheap Trick concerts as often as possible, the best shows being CT alone in a small venue. And I’ll anticipate & collect all new albums; can’t wait for the next! Tom Petersson once said that they’ll “keep on till we drop”! I hope they’re around for many years to come. I’m also convinced their music will be playing in heaven!!!

  22. Jake Justice

    I’m 35 and grew up on a heavy dose of 90s grunge, but grew up on a heavy dose of Zep, Sabbath, Van Halen etc. Cheap Trick somehow manages to bring punk, arena rock, garage, and pop together in the most honest way possible. It’s mind blowing to me that they don’t get more credit than they do. They somehow wrapped all that up into the most perfect Power Pop band that’s ever existed.

    • Marty R.

      Cheap Trick were never any one thing that stood out.The sum is greater than the parts.However great Zander is as a singer he’s never been a showman… that’s why Rick was. The best pure musician in the band was Bun E… He gave the band its rhythm swagger… Tom was a decent bass player. Years ago Rick was so great as a guitar player that most people don’t realize how good you need to be to do what he did.. especially the first 3 albums.. but truthfully…for sheer beauty they never surpassed Mandocello… So in the end they are a really well known band and they played thousands and thousands of shows making a living ,paying the bills and earning the respect they always deserved.

  23. “Their biggest hit, “I Want You To Want Me” has become synonymous with “bubble gum pop.”” –

    I sincerely question this characterization. Putting aside that “I Want You To Want Me” isn’t even their second biggest hit, I’ve never come across anyone describing the song in that way.

  24. They are the best f’ing band you will ever see.

  25. matt johnson

    I have been a fan of Cheap Trick since 79 and agree with the story. I always wanted them to get big but it really never happened. I think it started when Dream Police never took off like it should have. They have put out over 20 albums but never had that great seller to get them too the next level.

  26. Ezekiel J Gonzalez

    I will drive anywhere within 700 miles to see Cheap Trick as long as I can be close or it’s in Red Rocks or a club that holds 400 or I gotta call off work or……….. After a long time not seeing them live due to raising our children we are making up for lost time going to 4 to 6 shows a year

  27. Mark Radice should be a member, not just CTs “song doctor”.

  28. Ashlee McDermott

    Hey world! First off, I want to say that with me being 29 years old, I was and have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by great music! One of those(obviously) was Cheaptrick. I have done alot of digging around as to what makes that band unique. The fact that they were able to adapt to the era, even though that song either was not great or simply outstanding, they still managed to pull through, and made it their career. Besides their style that each individual had, it was their capability to adapt with the changes. Robin had a voice that was (in a way) very universal. One minute he can bust out a very grungy, punk, early rock and roll vocals. The next he can sound very soft and country. He had it all, especially his looks! Rick, was the nerdy school boy with a unique flair of his own. He can not only play as a great guitarist,but can write songs which became the foundation for years to come. Bun.E. Carlos, insaine drummer! This man can play with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth!! While looking like a car insurance salesman, WILD! His style I applaud, he along with Neilson were the type of people gave the band a spin, a flair that set the tone for years to come. For Tom, a hell of a base player, who in their right mind can sit there(originally) played a guitar, but then picks up and shreds a base?Talking about mad talent! His style just like Robins, but more sophisticated. All of them have been incredible! Each have shared, dark times together, and successful times! Long live Cheaptrick and their Legacy! I have been a fan of theirs since i was (guessing) 14 or 15 years old. Here we are around 15 years later and still loving them.

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