CHEAP TRICK: ALL SHOOK UP (1980)
1) Stop This Game; 2) Just Got Back; 3) Baby Loves To Rock; 4) Can't Stop It But I'm Gonna Try; 5) World's Greatest Lover; 6) High Priest Of Rhythmic Noise; 7) Love Comes A-Tumblin' Down; 8) I Love You Honey But I Hate Your Friends; 9) Go For The Throat; 10) Who D'King; 11*) Everything Works If You Let It.
The Eighties are upon us, and this is the beginning of the end, right from the very first track. "Well I can't stop the music, I could stop it before...", Zander flings at us accappella-style, in a perfectly serious, quasi-operatic tone — something far more suitable for Foreigner's Lou Gramm or some other vocally endowed brawny, but sentimental arena-rock hero than for Cheap Trick, the (former) kings of friendly irony and muscular intelligence. As the instruments kick in, the whole thing gets no better — a stiff pop-rocker, largely dependent on keyboards and simple, straight-jacketed power riffs. Throughout, Zander yells, bawls and weeps as if he were totally serious about this exploding love affair, the vocal harmonies sound like underpaid extras in a power metal ballad, and the guitar sounds like a complete waste of Nielsen... and he wrote the song! And they released it as a single! And it charted super-low! And it was totally justified, because it was honestly the weakest Cheap Trick single to date.
The horrible thing about the album is that, alas, it does not get much better than that. It does get better, occasionally, and much worse things were around the corner, but the sober truth is that somehow, in some way, the evil fairy visited Rick Nielsen in his bedroom one night (probably on the very night that he forgot to take his ward-off-evil baseball hat and bowtie to bed with him), and he lost most of his songwriting talent overnight — not all of it, charging the unfortunate fanbase with the need to filter out the small bunches of gems from the large pools of dreck, but most of it, for sure. How the heck did that happen, so quickly?
The blame is sometimes transferred onto the producers — nowhere more so than on All Shook Up, which was produced by George Martin, no less. Now it may have been inevitable that Cheap Trick, Beatles admirers extraordinaire, would eventually team up with Martin, but the thing is, Cheap Trick music was really midway between the Beatles and the Stones, combining Beatles-style pop hooks with raw rock'n'roll energy, and it should have been clear from the beginning that Martin's production would suck out most of the raw rock'n'roll energy. I am not aware of any particular animosity between Martin and the boys during the sessions for the album (most likely, they were just way too awestruck by the opportunity), but Martin's «clean» production certainly does not agree with what the boys do best.
That said, no amount of sterile production could explain the fact that on All Shook Up, what we have is Cheap Trick 2.0 — but, as I already began to say in the Dream Police review, their newly found superstardom sure can. It is almost as if the band now saw themselves burdened with a new «responsibility» for their fans, and dropped a large part of its too-smart-for-its-own-good act in favor of a simpler, more straightforward approach; and the simpler it got, the less true it rang. Simply put, Robin Zander as a heart-on-sleeve lyrical troubadour, or, vice versa, Robin Zander as the basic, brawny, KISS-style cock-rocker just does not work after four albums in a row where we had Robin Zander, the demolition man for pop music clichés. Or was it his original intention to demolish all the clichés just so that he could immediately start rebuilding them from scratch and dust? And don't even get me started on Nielsen, who pretty much betrayed himself on this album — just how many good, let alone great, riffs can you count? Or, in fact, how many tracks that are distinguishable by some above-average guitar work in general? On Dream Police, one could complain that ʽGonna Raise Hellʼ and ʽNeed Your Loveʼ overstayed their welcome, but at least it was for a reason — so that Mr. Nielsen could have ample time to toy around with his instrument, and every once in a while, get a brand new, awesome noise out of it. On All Shook Up, experimental guitar playing is replaced by professional sterilization.
Some lines of critical or fan defense have been put up around the album, claiming that it was simply more «quirky» and «experimental» than their previous releases. Well, the only «quirky» thing about ʽStop This Gameʼ is that it seemingly fades in on the same piano chord on which Sgt. Pepper had faded out thirteen years earlier — which is a fun idea in theory, but a disgrace in practice: ʽStop This Gameʼ relates to ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ in about the same way in which a Dimitri Tiomkin soundtrack would relate to a Beethoven symphony. Other «quirky» elements include: (a) symmetric sound effect overdubs in the bridge section of the otherwise generic glam rocker ʽBaby Loves To Rockʼ — "in the morning!" accompanied by cock-a-doodle-doos, "in the evening!" by chirping crickets (for some reason, "baby loves to rock" everywhere but "not in Russia!" — which, I daresay, is a blatant lie!); (b) robotically encoded vocals on the chorus section of the dark sci-fi rocker ʽHigh Priest Of Rhythmic Noiseʼ, one of the few songs here, perhaps, that could feel at home — with different production — on earlier records; (c) an obvious parody on the mid-Seventies sound of Rod Stewart (ʽHot Legsʼ, etc.) called ʽI Love You Honey But I Hate Your Friendsʼ, a little out of time since Rod Stewart's sound had already deteriorated even way beyond that barroom boogie level by 1980; (d) a ridiculous mash-up of Fleetwood Mac's ʽTuskʼ and Queen's ʽWe Will Rock Youʼ, called ʽWho D'Kingʼ and possessing neither the humor and menace of the former nor the true stadium power of the latter.
It's not all bad — there are still some fast 'n' catchy power-pop numbers like ʽEverything Works If You Let Itʼ (actually, a bonus track on the CD re-issue, from the soundtrack to the movie Roadie starring Meat Loaf — fine, healthy company for the boys!); a cleverly built-up power ballad (ʽWorld's Greatest Loverʼ) with Zander at his absolute vocal best — even if you generally hate the bombast of power balladry, you still have to admit that the man shows a master class in self-winding-up here; and if you ever wondered what it would have been like to take a circa-Flick Of The Switch AC/DC rocker and run it past the magic hands of George Martin, ʽLove Comes A-Tumblin' Downʼ will give you the answer — I'd still take AC/DC's ʽLandslideʼ over this any time of day, but it is a curiosity, and it's at least fun. (For the record, the connection is not spurious: lines like "From the cabaret to the highway of hell / Had a monkey on his back it was easy to tell" clearly suggest that the song was intended as an obituary — and the fun thing is, Flick Of The Switch hadn't even come out yet, so you could say AC/DC themselves were influenced by Cheap Trick in 1983. Also, the song sounds much better in concert without the George Martin production).
But even with all the excuses, there is no denying it: Cheap Trick are trying to go way too serious on our asses, and this is a negative influence on their songwriting. A major part of the band's charm was precisely in the fact that they could take the popular genre conventions of the mid-Seventies and play around them with sly wit and intelligence — now, it seems, they are beginning to succumb to them, and the arena-rocker masks are beginning to stick to their faces way too seamlessly for comfort. Simply put, I don't need Robin Zander to educate me that "everything'll work out if you let it / Let it in your heart"; I'd rather prefer him to spoof that banal premise. And somehow it seems to me that, perhaps, he'd prefer that, too — but now they had this moral responsibility for all their post-Budokan fans, you know, or at least that's what they (and/or their recording industry superiors) thought at the time — ironically, the more serious they got, the fewer records they sold.