CHEAP TRICK: NEXT POSITION PLEASE (1983)
1) I Can't Take It; 2) Borderline; 3) I Don't Love Here Anymore; 4) Next Position Please; 5) Younger Girls; 6) Dancing The Night Away; 7) You Talk Too Much; 8) 3-D; 9) You Say Jump; 10) Y.O.Y.O.Y; 11) Won't Take No For An Answer; 12) Heaven's Falling; 13) Invaders Of The Heart; 14) Don't Make Our Love A Crime.
Ironically, what is probably the best Cheap Trick album of the Eighties does not sound that much like Cheap Trick — courtesy of the band's third «one-guy-per-album» producer in a row, Mr. Todd Rundgren himself. Although Todd Rundgren is no stranger to heavy rock, with which he had toyed around sufficiently over the previous decade and a half, his typical preferences are for a cleaner, more polished and controlled sound; unlike George Martin, however, he had a better idea of how to make that sound actually work for Cheap Trick, rather than simply destroy them as a meaningful musical entity — and over the course of twelve songs (fourteen if you count the two extra tracks on the CD version), that idea is applied so consistently that, for the first time since Dream Police (and, unfortunately, for the last time in a long, long time, if not ever), what you get is a Cheap Trick album that is enjoyable all the way through.
This is really electric guitar pop — thick, brawny, distorted guitar tones have been removed almost completely, with maybe two or three exceptions (like ʽ3-Dʼ), and the cock-rock flavor of One On One has been generally replaced with a more romantic attitude; however, neither Nielsen nor Rundgren ever allow that romanticism to run over into exaggerated dramatic sentimentality, with nary a single power ballad to be found anywhere. And best of all, the melodic hooks are back for a while — with Rundgren stripping the band's sound down to bare essentials, refusing to succumb to generic synth-pop or pop-metal coatings, there's nothing to offer the listener but sheer melody, and this implies a last-minute effort from Rick, who rises to the task so admirably you'd almost be ready to apologize for the disparaging assessment of his remaining pool of talent on the All Shook Up disaster.
Unfortunately, they made a wrong move with their first single — instead of releasing a Nielsen original, they went ahead with a cover of The Motors' ʽDancing The Night Awayʼ, a pop-punk nugget from 1977 that they slowed down, de-punkified, and «aggrandized» so that the entire group ended up sounding like a bit of a parody on the E Street Band (as in, «I wonder how Bruce Springsteen could have covered this tune? Maybe like this?»). Not coincidentally, it was the only track on the record that Rundgren refused to produce (since it was forced on the band by the label rather than by himself), and Ian Taylor's production makes it sound closer to the sound of One On One and to the sound of their next album, Standing On The Edge, at the same time. It's not really awful — the original was so good that it would take much more than bad production to spoil it completely — but the public seems to have smelled signs of fakeness, and the single did not chart (besides, it's rarely a good idea to release originally British nuggets as potential hit singles on the US market, and vice versa).
I suppose the disappointment instinctively carried over onto the reaction to their second single, ʽI Can't Take Itʼ — which is a completely different story, a spirited, uplifting power-pop ditty with lots of jangly, Townshend-esque electric guitar and a passionate vocal build-up all the way to the last line of the chorus. Interestingly, it is one of the very few songs in the Cheap Trick catalog that is credited solely to Zander, and indeed, the song gets by largely on the strength of the pulse of the rhythm guitar and the passion of the lead vocals — and as much as I hate to admit that Cheap Trickers could sometimes write great pop songs without a trace of smarmy irony in them, ʽI Can't Take Itʼ makes for one of the strongest cases. Why the hell did it flop as a single? It even had one of their most hilarious MTV videos ever, with people sticking pins in Zander's voodoo dolls and weird zombie/vampire references all over the place. Go figure.
Once we move past the obvious general complaint — yes, the songs are generally lightweight, straightforward, not too ambiguous, not too funny, and largely relate to «classic» Cheap Trick the same way, say, that post-1972 Ray Davies records relate to the classic Kinks period — there's very little by way of specific accusations that I could fling at specific tracks, because I like most of them. Melodic-romantic power-pop à la Roy Orbison? You have this in the form of ʽBorderlineʼ, an escapist anthem whose verve makes it perfectly credible (hey, wait a minute — is this why they are parodying the cover of Born To Run on the front sleeve photo?). Odd mixes of lushly harmonized Europop with British pub-rock? That is more or less what they do on the title track, one of the album's few returns to pure sarcasm ("I wanna be the biggest gun in the world, I wanna see the tits on every girl!" roars Zander while impersonating the average exploited slob) that cleverly drifts between cocky verses and pleading choruses. Likewise, ʽYounger Girlsʼ offers a good way of glueing a generic blues-rock verse with a singalong pop chorus, and this juncture is actually more interesting than the song's salacious lyrics — hedonistic odes to group sex with teenage females may be a trademark of the Eighties, but it is the melodic structure of the tune, not its verbal message, that has a better chance of survival into the 21st century. (Not that I'm implying that group sex with teenage females has become completely irrelevant in the 21st century, mind you, but at least people tend to use different language to describe it now).
Even the album's lonely ballad, ʽY.O.Y.O.Yʼ, is a standout in their balladry catalog of the time: the emphasis is not on the «power» aspect, but on the melodicity of the lead vocal — Zander's "why oh why oh why can't I... be in love forever?" has a beautiful drawl to it, more of a combination of satisfied purring and hazy laziness than operatic bombast, and somehow all the guitars and keyboards are wisely minimalized and restrained in the background, placing 100% emphasis on the echo-tinged vocals (and yes, Zander's vocals can be beautiful when handled properly). And the album's only song that was actually written by Rundgren, ʽHeaven's Fallingʼ (and sounds not unlike pop-era Utopia), is suitably anthemic and catchy, though, again, perhaps a little too idealistic for a band like Cheap Trick.
Anyway, I do have to keep all the gushing in check: Next Position Please is highly consistent, but this does not necessarily mean that it is consistently great — much like Todd Rundgren's entire career, it is extremely solidly written pop, but it reflects craft rather than genius, and it is not often that you can instinctively perceive that the guys are really living out these songs or having fun with them. In fact, Rundgren's production precludes them from having fun: it goes in the opposite direction from One On One, where all the wildness sometimes seemed too exaggerated and standing in the way of a good pop hook — and now that we've got pop hooks a-plenty, I'm starting to miss some of that wildness! You could say that some people are never satisfied, yet somehow they didn't seem to have a problem harmoniously merging the two sides on four albums in a row in the previous decade. And now they have it — still a thumbs up, for sure, but once your magic wand is broken, there's only so much you can achieve with duct tape.