CHEAP TRICK: CHEAP TRICK (1977)
1) ELO Kiddies; 2) Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School; 3) Taxman, Mr. Thief; 4) Cry, Cry; 5) Oh Candy; 6) Hot Love; 7) Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace; 8) He's A Whore; 9) Mandocello; 10) The Ballad Of TV Violence (I'm Not The Only Boy).
If you find it strange to see a band that released its debut album in 1977 sound so close to the glam-rock style of the first half of that decade, rather than be seriously influenced by the punk and New Wave styles of the present — do keep in mind that the band's guitarist and primary songwriter Rick Nielsen began playing in local Illinois bands as early as 1961 (being just 13 years of age), and that his first record, cut when he and Cheap Trick's future bassist Tom Petersson were still playing in a band called Fuse, was released in 1967. Furthermore, as I began relistening to their stuff a while ago and asking myself the question, «so who could really have been the biggest influence on these guys?» — eventually an inner voice called out SLADE!, and lo and behold, the next thing I re-learn is that the very name Cheap Trick actually comes from their going to a Slade concert and thinking that they used «every cheap trick in the book» while playing. New Wave? Post-punk? Forget it. You don't have to resort to chainsaw buzz or futuristic electronic bleeps and bloops if you want to be a rock star — not in 1977, you still don't.
Image was of serious importance to Cheap Trick in the early days of their popularity: the well-described contrast between the «two pretty ones» (blonde rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist Robin Zander and black-haired bassist Tom Petersson) and the «two nerdy ones» (baseball-cap-clad, five-neck-guitar-wielding lead guitarist Rick Nielsen and bookkeeper-turned-drummer Bun E. Carlos) did the job fairly well, not to mention Nielsen's additional antics on stage. On the other hand, one should not overestimate that popularity, either — Cheap Trick's studio albums did not chart too high until the success of Budokan, and in those early days, they did not chart at all, because the band's sound was almost anachronistic for 1977. (Curiously, they pretty much repeated the trajectory of KISS — who could not make commercial headway with their studio records, but finally broke it big with a live album).
So carry yourself back all the way to February 1977 and witness the birth of the underground power-pop band Cheap Trick — loud rock guitars and catchy vocal pop hooks all the way. What was it that made them special after all those years of guitar-based pop-rock bands? No single element, but a clever combination that allows to easily identify all their influences, but cannot be judged as a simple sum of all of them. Melody-wise, they'd sworn complete allegiance to the Beatles that they would carry through all the better and worse days of their career (and even on this debut, there are at least two totally blatant tributes to the Fab Four — ʽTaxman, Mr. Thiefʼ is quite transparent, but there's also the way Robin yells out "anytime at all, anytime at all" on ʽHe's A Whoreʼ that seems to be quite intentional); but sound-wise, they're suckers for a thick, crunchy hard-rock sound that owes much more to Slade, T. Rex, and other glam outfits of the early 1970s, and this really makes them the primary torch-bearers for the term «power pop» (which can be reasonably well applied to such earlier acts as Big Star and Badfinger as well, but neither Big Star nor Badfinger ever had even half as much pure power as Cheap Trick).
To this we should necessarily add a pinch of intelligence and witty sarcasm: unlike KISS, Cheap Trick were interested in rising above the level of Lusty Caveman, and although the self-titled debut does have its share of straightforward love ballads (ʽMandocelloʼ) and libido blast rockers (ʽHot Loveʼ), the majority of the songs either address social issues (ʽELO Kiddiesʼ, ʽTaxman, Mr. Thiefʼ) or complain of general personal insecurity (ʽSpeak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peaceʼ). And even ʽHot Loveʼ, when viewed in the overall context — for instance, as a precursor to the maniacal ʽBallad Of TV Violenceʼ — can hardly be taken without an ironic grain of salt. (Then again, it's all in good tradition: somebody like Marc Bolan, for instance, would always retain an ironic angle to his «sex idol» image, rather than playing it straight and stupid).
For Cheap Trick fans, the self-titled debut often has a special relevance, since it was produced by Aerosmith's producer Jack Douglas — and, consequently, is viewed as «less polished» and, therefore, «more authentic» than the rest of their Seventies' output, produced by Tom Werman. This may be objectively right — there's a little more crunch-and-rip to the guitars here, perhaps — but it is not necessarily a plus: Cheap Trick were a composition-based pop band first, and a rock'n'roll beast only second, so what really matters is how well written the songs are, and in that respect, I'd say that Cheap Trick has a larger share of underdeveloped filler than its two nearly-flawless follow-ups (no wonder, actually, that none of the songs from Cheap Trick made it to the original Budokan album, and only two appeared on the complete edition of the concert).
That does not mean that the band had to «learn» songwriting craft after this album, but it did learn more discipline — while a song like ʽDaddy Should Have Stayed In High Schoolʼ (not because daddy has always been a moron, but because daddy is still hunting for young flesh) certainly looks less «safe for work» than the band's later, less titillating, stuff, musically it is little more than a forgettable mess of distorted chords that can never come together into a solid riff. If you want yourself a really scary pedophile anthem, go back all the way to the Stones' ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ: this one's pretty sloppy in comparison. I am also not a fan of the lumbering slow blues trot of ʽCry Cryʼ (seems like an attempt to write something in late Beatles-era Lennon style à la ʽYer Bluesʼ, but Zander is too theatrical a personage to ever match John) — and not only do I not have the vaguest idea why ʽMandocelloʼ shares that title despite not featuring either a mandolin or a cello, but I also think it is their least effective ballad from the «golden period». Too slow and lumbering for a rocker, too harsh for a ballad, and the bassline seems to have been lifted from AC/DC's ʽHigh Voltageʼ, which is quite confusing.
But even with all the imperfections, more than half of Cheap Trick is stellar. ʽELO Kiddiesʼ is a brilliant introduction to the world of the band — the heaviness of the rhythm guitar and the pop melodicity of the lead line, the ambiguity of the lyrics (and the title — nobody really knows why ʽHello Kiddiesʼ eventually turned into ʽELO Kiddiesʼ and what it is exactly that Jeff Lynne has to do with kids who "lead a life of crime"... unless, of course, one thinks it a crime to buy a brand new copy of A New World Record), the lead pipes of the lead vocalist (that "you haven't got much TIIIME!... you know they're out to get you!!!!" is one of the greatest bits of white-guy scream on record the other side of Roger Daltrey) — it's, like, welcome to a radical reinvention of what «power pop» can be all about. Likewise, ʽTaxman, Mr. Thiefʼ brilliantly alternates between the paranoid distorted guitar lines of the verses and the Beatlesque chorus that delivers its simple message that nothing much has really changed in the last ten (eleven) years.
Arguably the single most ass-kicking moment of the album is the guitar punch that opens ʽHot Loveʼ, a song that hair metal bands of the next decade would probably kill for, but how many of them would be able to do it just right? Raw, rioting, restless rhythm guitars and a psychedelic lead guitar tone, the tightest rhythm section imaginable, lyrics that avoid unnecessary hypersexual clichés, and a lead vocalist that can scream at the top of his lungs and somehow not come across as a pompous imbecile? And just a few steps down the road, followed by ʽHe's A Whoreʼ that pretty much does it again, but with a bit rougher language? (The desperation in Zander's voice as he yells "I'M A WHORE!" as if he were being cast for The Exorcist is priceless).
Hilariously, ʽThe Ballad Of TV Violenceʼ opens with a five-note riff that is pretty much lifted from Uriah Heep's ʽGypsyʼ — except Cheap Trick are actually a good band, and instead of hanging the entire song on one riff, they quickly depart from it into the direction of an eerily danceable boogie that tells the story of a mass killer, with Zander going into full-scale Charlie Manson mode and the whole band doing sort of a ritualistic dance on the skulls of the fallen. Probably the most provocative track of their career, even if rock musicians have always tended to be fascinated by serial killers (from ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ to ʽGary Gilmore's Eyesʼ), but Cheap Trick work extra fine in «dark clown» mode, so this is a particular highlight. All in all, a magnificent debut, even despite some rough songwriting edges, and, I might add, one of the brightest beacons of hope for the «old school of rock'n'roll» in an era when conservative heavy rock riffage was going out of fashion, eclipsed by punk rock and the New Wave of heavy metal — so, naturally, a thumbs up without any reservations.