CHEAP TRICK: HEAVEN TONIGHT (1978)
1) Surrender; 2) On Top Of The World; 3) California Man; 4) High Roller; 5) Auf Wiedersehen; 6) Takin' Me Back; 7) On The Radio; 8) Heaven Tonight; 9) Stiff Competition; 10) How Are You; 11) Oh Claire.
You know what's a creepy song? ʽHeaven Tonightʼ is a creepy song, and the fact that it's placed right in the middle of an album of typically tongue-in-cheap-trick tunes, or even the fact that Nielsen himself called it a «parody» on anti-drug songs is able to do anything with the creepiness. I would be the first to agree that Cheap Trick is essentially a «B-level» band, one whose inherent sense of humor always prevented it from descending into the true depths of human psychology and emotionality (and when they'd lost that sense of humor in their Eighties shit period, it was too late to go deep anyway) — but no first-rate B-level band can exist without at least one or two A-level tunes, and ʽHeaven Tonightʼ is simply it.
The song has been compared to everything, from the Beatles' ʽI Want Youʼ to Led Zep's ʽKashmirʼ, with both of which it does share melodic properties, but the vibe is different — it is distinctly funereal, a more-than-perfect soundtrack to the death of a junkie. Just a few transpositions, and the magical-mystical-Sufian ʽKashmirʼ vibe becomes a funeral march... but the most shiver-sending moment is, of course, when Zander lowers his voice down to that ominous whisper — "would you like to go to Heaven tonight? would you like to go to Heaven tonight?"... where ʽHeavenʼ signifies both the heavenly delight of a really solid dose of the stuff, and its direct consequences. A parody? This should be played at frickin' drug rehab centers — the only song I know that could compare to this directly in impact is the Stones' ʽSister Morphineʼ. Oh, and did I mention the instrumental banshee wail in the coda? I am still not completely in the clear what instrument that is — a musical saw? Or just a synthesizer imitating one? Regardless, it's as perfect a symbolization of the poor soul finally getting on its way to Heaven as possible.
And no, the rest of the album is nowhere near that heavy on the senses, even if it is very frequently heavier on the guitars. For many, Heaven Tonight remains the absolute peak of the band, and I almost concur, except I think that In Color may be just a tad more consistent, if, on the whole, lighter in tone. In a way, Heaven Tonight synthesizes the «rawness» and «titillation» aspects of the self-titled debut with the tightness and pop hooks of In Color, so its greatest songs (title track apart, that must be ʽSurrenderʼ and ʽAuf Wiedersehenʼ) are true pop masterpieces, and both of them sound as fresh and relevant today as they did nearly 40 years ago. In particular, ʽSurrenderʼ, with its theme of «hip unity» between teens and parents, has, in fact, only become more relevant with age, as parents and grandparents these days can often give their kids lessons in hipness ("Mom and Dad are rolling on the couch... got my Kiss records out" almost sounds sentimentally naive these days!).
And ʽAuf Wiedersehenʼ — now there's a tongue-in-cheek song for you! If you ever contemplated suicide, this song could actually present a cure: the very concept of suicide is sent up so brutally by these guys (basically, the message is "you want to kill yourself? no, really? wait, lemme just grab the popcorn!") that the very act of suicide, through this angle, becomes a moronic theatrical gesture rather than a true solution to your problems. Cue solid Dylan lyrical reference (not that ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ ever endorsed suicide, but it was a dark tune all the same), an Alice Cooper-ish riff brimming with swagger and contempt, and some of Zander's wildest screaming ever captured on record, and you got yourself a kick-ass positive social statement (which, I have no doubt, quite a few idiots in their time may have mistaken for propaganda of suicide).
The rest of the record lags and sags a little bit in between the three big babies, although, truth be told, there is not a single bad tune — some are just okay, like ʽHigh Rollerʼ, a slow catchy cock-rocker based on a riff with AC/DC chords played Grand Funk style; or ʽOn The Radioʼ, which lifts its fun ascending melody from the Kinks' ʽPicture Bookʼ and goes for the same style of light-hearted nostalgia; or the music hall influenced ʽHow Are Youʼ, which is even more McCartney-esque than ʽI Want You To Want Meʼ — a fun, catchy, friendly song, but one that would pretty soon disappear off the radar (because who the heck would want to have to perform two ʽI Want You To Want Meʼs in a single show?). One song that did go on to become a show stopper, surprisingly, is a loyally performed cover of The Move's ʽCalifornia Manʼ (with a bit of ʽBrontosaurusʼ thrown in for good measure) — a perfect barrelhouse boogie for the boys, but certainly a bit unoriginal; Nielsen's glam-rock guitar soloing in the middle, with almost every single rock and roll cliché thrown in, is probably the high point.
In any case, even the least of the lesser numbers is still perfectly enjoyable thru and thru, and the album thrives on quirky little hooks and gimmicks that keep the interest up and running — even the final track (ʽOh Claireʼ), a one-minute arena-rock screamer with "oh, konnichiwa!" as the only lyrics: it is, at the exact same time, a send-up of their «tradition» of recording an ʽOh C...ʼ song on every album (ʽOh Candyʼ, ʽOh Carolineʼ), made even funnier by the fact that it is a pun on "Eau Claire, Wisconsin" — and an odd «preview» of the Budokan concert, perhaps recorded in the anticipation of the upcoming Japanese tour. (Actually, the song was not listed at all on the LP cover, being one of those ʽHer Majestyʼ-style little surprises... alas, it is impossible to write a single Cheap Trick review without a bunch of Beatles references, is it?).
Yes, Heaven Tonight is a monster of an album — and the last in the classic trilogy to work wonders with pretty much the exact same formula. It's almost a pity that already on the next album they'd start tinkering with the formula — and initiating their downfall in the process — but in 1978, there was still no end in sight to the power and the glory. An enthusiastic thumbs up: this is absolutely required listening for all lovers of heavy pop music.