CHEAP TRICK: AT BUDOKAN (1979; 1998)
1) Hello There; 2) Come On Come On; 3) ELO Kiddies; 4) Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace; 5) Big Eyes; 6) Lookout; 7) Downed; 8) Can't Hold On; 9) Oh Caroline; 10) Surrender; 11) Auf Wiedersehen; 12) Need Your Love; 13) High Roller; 14) Southern Girls; 15) I Want You To Want Me; 16) California Man; 17) Goodnight; 18) Ain't That A Shame; 19) Clock Strikes Ten.
US audiences really love their pop rock LIVE! and kicking, don't they? Two years after the toils and troubles of KISS were rewarded with their commercial breakthrough as a live band, the same thing happened to Cheap Trick who, ironically, opened for KISS in the early days: what could not have been achieved with the three classic studio albums (although, truth be told, each of those charted higher than its predecessor, so that the groundwork was laid well), was achieved with a live album — which, even more ironically, was never even intended for domestic release in the first place, so that the first US buyers got it as a Japanese import.
Nostalgic reasons aside, At Budokan remains great fun after all these years, but neither in its original form as released in 1979, nor in its expanded form (the complete concert, first released on CD in 1998 and since then having become the default version) does it really «destroy» the studio versions of the songs, as is so often claimed. The thing is, Cheap Trick are most certainly a «pop rock» band in the truest sense of the word, combining catchy pop hooks with dirty rock energy in brotherly proportions, but when it comes to the sacred question of «Beatles or Stones?», there's no getting out of it, and the Trick do love the Beatles more than the Stones — and this sets the predicament: unlike the Stones or the Who, Cheap Trick are studio creators first and live entertainers second. And even when they are live entertainers, the emphasis is very much on «entertainment» rather than «live rocking» — Rick Nielsen's baseball caps, checkered jackets, wild faces, and poly-necked guitars matter as much for the Cheap Trick show as does his ability to produce grumpy distorted tones.
This is why I normally prefer to listen to the studio versions of all these songs — yes, even the famous live performance of ʽI Want You To Want Meʼ, with the music hall piano replaced by Nielsen's rock'n'roll guitar, does not make nearly as much sense as the studio version, where the climactic bit of "didn't I, didn't I, didn't I see you crying?" is properly followed by the echo of another "crying", rather than the echoing yell of several thousand Japanese fans. And every time that Nielsen or Zander make a playing or singing mistake — and it does happen occasionally, although, to give them their due, much less frequently than after their fame had finally gone to their heads — it makes me cringe much more than any time the Stones or the Who make mistakes during their shows. The curse of the pop hook, yes indeed, sir.
Nevertheless, all of this criticism should be taken lightly — all I'm saying here is that it might be wise to begin your enjoyment of Cheap Trick with the holy trilogy of 1977-78 before assessing them as a live band, and only then proceeding to see how, at the expense of muddying up their sound and occasionally sacrificing the sharpness and subtleties of the pop hooks, they compensate for this with extra wildness. Needless to say, everybody is working their ass off, not the least of all «bookkeeper drummer» Bun E. Carlos, cracking at the snare with an amount of brutality worthy of the (not yet late) John Bonham; even if he cannot get quite the same «depth» of the sound, the power and melodicity of his drumming is enough to make him feel like a perfectly equal member of the band, and, perhaps, more vital to its overall live sound than both the bass of Tom Petersson and Zander's rhythm guitar.
Meanwhile, Nielsen lays on the distortion real thick — not in a nasty metallic way, no, rather in the naughty glammy «gonna raise hell» kind of way. For this release, he does not get any particular spotlight (in the 1970s, at least, he used to have a very lengthy «masturbatory» section as the introduction to ʽBig Eyesʼ, Angus Young-style, but you won't find it here), the closest probably being the extended solo in ʽNeed Your Loveʼ, a preview of the track that would eventually be recorded for Dream Police; however, that solo is clearly experimental rather than self-aggrandizing, and the whole thing, with Zander's dreamy falsetto and its odd contrast with the almost «slowed down proto-thrash metal» riffage of the song, is arguably the most complex and psychedelic performance of the show, a definite highlight largely due to Mr. Nielsen's making his guitar screech, squirm, and grumble in half a dozen different ways.
And then, of course, there's the whole «show» thing which, these days, can be fully enjoyed with pictures (if you do plan on getting Budokan, by all means get the edition that contains the DVD of the concert — it's trimmed, but still worth every minute of it), but is still very well felt even through just the sound. The show begins with ʽHello Thereʼ (of course) and ends with the reprise ("it's the end of the show / now it's time to go"), which naturally brings on to mind the concept of Sgt. Pepper, and even though nobody in the band is wearing uniforms, all of the members represent certain artistic and actor-like stereotypes, with Zander as the prototypical «rock idol», swaying the audience with excitement ("I... want... you... to want... ME!"), Petersson as the black-haired evil twin / mirror image of the white-haired Aryan god, Nielsen as the mischievous trickster ("the first thing I did when I got to Japan... WAS BUY A JAPANESE GUITAR!"), and Bun E. Carlos as the «working guy turned rocker» (well, you probably can't really hear that last one, but still, there's something about Bun E.'s drumming that suggests an «office guy gone all eccentric on us» style).
In any case, there is absolutely no denying that not a single «classic rock-style» band around 1979 could seriously compete with these guys in terms of generating arena-rock excitement — not only did they retain and amplify all the power of early glam rock, but they were able to throw in the tongue-in-cheek element, with plenty of humor, which would make At Budokan much better suitable for the modern listener, I think, than, uh, Peter Frampton, for instance. They do all the stuff that cheesy rock entertainers are supposed to do — like, for instance, trading brief solo passages between each other in the coda section of ʽAin't That A Shameʼ — but all the clichés are executed with an ironic angle to them. There's so much humor and irony here, in fact, that it really makes you wonder how on earth they managed to lose it all so quickly in the accursed Eighties — here, at Budokan, it seems as if they simply could do no wrong.
Just for the record, some songs here cannot be found on regular studio LPs: the oh-so-Beatlesque merry pop rocker ʽLookoutʼ was a B-side, and the slow shuffle of ʽCan't Hold Onʼ is a parody on the broken hearted blues genre that does not work too well, I think. ʽNeed Your Loveʼ, as I already said, would soon be recorded in a definitive version for Dream Police, and the encore features a rousing version of Fats Domino's ʽAin't That A Shameʼ that's right up their alley: just as old man Fats never fooled anybody with that whole "my tears fell like rain" stuff, neither do Cheap Trick, concentrating on the humorous side of rock and roll rather than its sentimental overtones. In fact, there's not a single shred of genuine sentimentality on Budokan, Zander's beautiful blonde hair notwithstanding. And they end the show with a mammoth version of ʽClock Strikes Tenʼ which, for a change, I do prefer to the original studio track — if only because it does not choose to end on the silly kiddie "imagine what we're doing tonight..." repetition, but rather on the manly-rambunctious "gonna get on down, gonna get on down" part.
A major thumbs up, of course, even if I probably wouldn't place this into the Top 10 of my favorite live albums (I think that the only «pop» band with a guaranteed spot on that Top 10 could be Fleetwood Mac — and, for all of Nielsen's wonderful qualities, he was never even half the guitarist that Lindsey Buckingham could be). But really, the worst thing that could be said about the record is that it made Cheap Trick into superstars — and, as superstars, they would very quickly begin to transform into an ordinary superstardom machine, behaving in accordance with the laws of the music market. Who knows? Without Budokan, there may have been no The Doctor, or no collaborations with Diane Warren, or none of those other unspeakable evils of the Dark Age of the Cheap Trick era. But then again, in the 21st century we're free to ignore the evils and focus on the good stuff, so enjoy this bit of Japanese magic and forgive them their later transgressions, or, rather, just forget about them.