CHEAP TRICK: IN COLOR (1977)
1) Hello There; 2) Big Eyes; 3) Downed; 4) I Want You To Want Me; 5) You're All Talk; 6) Oh Caroline; 7) Clock Strikes Ten; 8) Southern Girls; 9) Come On Come On; 10) So Good To See You.
All right, so this album is neither as crunchy and raw as its predecessor (because they changed producers) nor as subtly deep as its follow-up (because they temporarily ran out of truly titillating subjects) — but it is still the perfect Cheap Trick album, simply because it has no filler whatsoever. This is where Nielsen's songwriting powers reach a genuine peak, as does his art of genre-hopping (and no, it's not nearly true that Nielsen only knows two subgenres of pop music: the «Lennon Pop» and the «McCartney Pop» genres, even if they do get unfairly superior coverage on this record — he also knows all the subgenres that are derived from those two!!)
For starters, there's probably no single other song that would explain all the essence of Cheap Trick more effectively than ʽHello Thereʼ does in one and a half minutes. On the surface, it is a silly, generic arena-rock winding-up of the fans — "would you like to do a number with me? would you like to?.. WOULD YOU LIKE TO?..." — but the use of "hello there, ladies and gentlemen", hardly an appropriate turn of phrase for a rock'n'roll arena, inverts the message and places the whole thing under heavy irony: it's like they're a Las Vegas act that accidentally ended up on a much bigger stage, and now they have to address the rock'n'roll crowds in the «proverbial» rock'n'roll manner. That's the band's double nature in a nutshell — they're formally respecting the arena-rock cliches, but they're also mocking them at the same time — in the same way that some of the more intelligent hair metal bands, like Extreme, would do this with their genre a decade later. And if I am not mistaken, that brief guitar solo at the end is lifted almost directly from Bowie's ʽHang On To Yourselfʼ, which is just as symbolic: a retro-nod from the current generation of ironic glam-rockers to the Grand Deity of ironic glam-rock himself.
But just so that you do not forget that Cheap Trick have a real musical heart behind all the irony and all the «cheap tricks», the next song is ʽBig Eyesʼ, which, on the guttest of gut levels, is my personal favorite Cheap Trick song of all time. Yes, it is obviously far from the most intelligent one, or the most sophisticatedly arranged one, but there are few, if any, things in the world that beat the absolute MONSTER of a riff that kicks in right after the brief arpeggiated guitar intro, and then loyally reappears, doubled by the vocals, in each chorus, the "I keep falling for those big eyes..." riff. God, what a monster — this is basically Tony Iommi borrowed for power-pop usage, a caveman declaration of voodoo lust that screams «bewitched» and «brutal» at the same time. The contrast between Zander's angry screechy vocals in the verses and the group's collective «dazed and confused» harmonies in the chorus is priceless by itself, but it is largely the riff that turns the song into the single Top Headbanging moment of the band's career. And, believe you me, only very few hard rock acts in the world are capable of such instantaneous magic.
Cheap, simple, delectable thrills like these are the word of the day — if ʽHello Thereʼ and ʽBig Eyesʼ are not enough for you, then we will close the deal with ʽI Want You To Want Meʼ, Nielsen's intentional attempt to write a very lightweight pop song that would send the genre up, pretty much like ʽHello Thereʼ sends up the crowdpleasing rituals of the arena. People like comparing it to McCartney, but McCartney took those simple love songs more seriously and he'd probably never write anything quite as simplistic, not even in 1977 — this is more like, I dunno, Osmonds territory or something, and yet, still unbeatable, largely due to the "didn't I see you crying?" bridge where you have the first phrase as tender and caring, the second one as worried and fearful, and the third one as determined and heroic (only the fourth one, reprising the first, kind of breaks the flaw — I always keep thinking of the last one as slightly underwritten. Mail the whole thing to Macca for some perfection polish?). So, classic rock radio overplay aside (and who listens to these stations nowadays, anyway?), that makes the single best pure pop hook in Cheap Trick history closely following up on the heels of their single best heavy rock hook. Everything's delightfully insincere, of course, but who cares?
The other big hit was ʽSouthern Girlsʼ, Cheap Trick's personal contribution to the series of anthems to collective female attraction that already included such obvious influences as ʽCalifornia Girlsʼ and ʽSeptember Gurlsʼ: Trick's song manages to resemble both of them in spirit (and a bit in form) without being obviously derivative of either, but also, as could be expected, a little ironic in nature (after all, the sincerity of a bunch of Illinoisans' love for «Southern girls» might be put under doubt, not to mention that they hadn't even been more to the South than Oklahoma by early 1977). It is still a near-perfect power-pop creation: a puffed-up musical march that builds up a stereotype and then proceeds to demolish it — not that any actual Southern girl would be happy if she were addressed with "Southern girl, you've got nothing to lose!"
But that's just the hits anyway, and then there's everything else, never letting down the quality angle. ʽDownedʼ? One of their finest early quasi-psychedelic numbers — Zander's "downed, out of my head...", arching out of your speakers, really feels like he means it. ʽYou're All Talkʼ? It's like Stevie Wonder's ʽSuperstitionʼ gone hard rock and sped up: cool, angry, funky bass and guitar interplay, not to mention the hilarious contrast between Zander's pleading "please don't go... please don't go away from me" and pissed-off "you're all talk! you're all talk!" — more of the «confused caveman» emotional angle. ʽOh Carolineʼ? Perhaps the most Foreigner-like of the lot, but in the general tongue-in-cheek context of the album, even its falsetto "go to the end of the world... FOR YOUR LOVE!" feels like a post-modernist deconstruction of the arena love ballad rather than «the real thing». ʽClock Strikes Tenʼ? Their fastest, head-spinningest piece of rockabilly gone heavy and mastodontic. ʽCome On Come Onʼ? Until I bothered to listen to the lyrics, I thought it was one of those "people get together" anthems that stimulate the listener to action, like breaking a few chairs or pulling a hunger strike on the White House lawn, but it turns out that the song is actually an instigation to copulation, which makes those "come on, come on... yeah yeah, yeah yeah..." group harmonies even more hilarious (and gross), though I can, like, totally envision Rick Nielsen in his checkered suit and baseball hat as a perverted voyeur.
By the time the album tells you that "I want you to stay" in Zander's most seductive falsetto on the last track, you might just be tempted to follow the admonition and play it from the beginning all over again — at the very least, it is clear that In Color has fully capitalized upon the promise of the self-titled debut, and that Cheap Trick have pretty much saved the day for old school classic rock. They may have been too derivative for their home country to want them: the album sold significantly better than Cheap Trick, but still barely charted, and neither did any of the singles. Yet they did gain enough prominence to earn plenty of bookings in Europe and in Japan, and time only worked in their favor: these days, it's even hard to guess that the record was produced in 1977, with not a single trace of the contemporary punk sound (sure sounds a lot like the New York Dolls in places, but in 1977 that was yesterday's news already), let alone disco. What really matters, though, is how great those pop hooks are, song after song after song: these guys sure knew how to be consistent, if only for a brief while, and that particular lesson that they most likely did learn from The Beatles really separates them from the majority of their contemporaries. So, quite an exultated thumbs up here.