[12 November 2008]
For anyone who wasn’t around at the time, it’s hard to believe that Cheap Trick were relatively unknown in their home country before their now legendary live LP, At Budokan, dropped in the USA in February 1979. The band had released three terrific studio albums in the span of only 16 months, but none had reached Billboard’s Top 40 (though their third, 1978’s Heaven Tonight, did peak at #48). In Japan, however, Cheap Trick’s mix of big pop hooks and soft-core hard rock proved the perfect combination. The fans who packed Tokyo’s 14,000 capacity Nippon Budokan arena on April 28 and 30, 1978 were in hysterics over Cheap Trick.
Appropriately, then, At Budokan first came out in Japan. Released there in October 1978, it was never intended for American markets. Fortunately, Epic took a chance on US listeners. The LP hit an astonishing #4 on Billboard and quickly went Platinum. Finally, Cheap Trick were more than just “big in Japan.” In April, they released the live version of “I Want You to Want Me” as a single. The studio take, from 1977’s sophomore album In Color, had missed the charts altogether, but the live cut shot all the way up to #7. Its follow-up, a live cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” went Top 40, too.
It is with good reason that fans on both sides of the Pacific went wild for Cheap Trick’s live act. They are an awesome live band. Mind you, this is not the same as being technically excellent performers. The guys are very good, sure. Bun E. Carlos is a stone solid drummer, Tom Petersson’s a perfectly competent bassist, Rick Nielsen invests cliché rock guitar solos with surprising vitality, and singer Robin Zander has a very agreeable voice that sounds pretty when used purely and street tough when he overdrives his vocal cords. Still, Cheap Trick’s musicianship isn’t the star attraction. What the band are masterful at is arranging. This is the keystone for making a song that sounds good when strummed on guitar seem incredible when four people plug in and play it together. Even on their studio albums, Cheap Trick play as if they were on a stage. Throughout At Budokan, the band put on a clinic: How to Perform Your Rock Songs So Audiences Will Scream.
Most brilliantly, they begin their show with a song titled “Hello There”. In the lyrics, they greet the crowd (“Hello there, ladies and gents”) and, while thumping down a driving beat and grinding out wide-open power chords, they ask the audience, “Are you ready to rock?”. There is only one response to this interrogative, and that is to howl like you’ve just been shot in the ass with a flaming arrow. So, that’s Macro-Arranging 101. On a smaller, yet still quite potent level, At Budokan displays the importance of dynamics. Even when a band rocks as well as Cheap Trick does, it’s important to occasionally lower the intensity a notch. That way, they can kick it back up again. On “Lookout”, a first album castoff which made its debut on the concert LP, the band spend a good minute or so chugging along at a brisk clip, mixing chunky riffage with lively drum rolls. Then, they simmer into a dark and slinky bridge, but Carlos keeps that kick drum pounding, so the audience never stops bouncing in place. Then, of course, Nielsen breaks into a blistering guitar solo. Sure, it all sounds kind of obvious, but that’s the point. Cheap Trick give the audience what they want. And, man, that audience gives it all back (and then some!).
For 20 years, the ten songs on At Budokan were the sole experience of the two riveting shows Cheap Trick had recorded at the immortalized arena. Then, in 1998, Epic issued the two-CD At Budokan: The Complete Concert. Like the original record, the title is a misnomer. The material for At Budokan was actually culled from several Japanese shows, including those at other venues. Nonetheless, The Complete Concert does a great job of simulating an entire Cheap Trick performance from that tour. The nine extra tracks tilt the overall feel from an emphasis on power pop to an even balance with harder rocking songs like “Speak Now (Or Forever Hold Your Peace)”, a mid-tempo and distortion-drenched number from the band’s self-titled 1977 debut. The group stretch out more on these extra cuts, too. The bluesy, non-LP track “Can’t Hold On” features plenty of room for heady grooves and scorching guitar work.
If a simulated show isn’t good enough for you, well the greedy Cheap Trick fan has much to look forward to in the beautifully packaged Budokan!. In addition to the two-disc Complete Concert, the band’s Friday April 28th show at Budokan is presented in its entirety. If you’re looking for setlist variety, well … you won’t find that here. The band play the exact same 19 songs in the exact same order as Complete Concert. Fortunately, they spend two fewer minutes doing so, which allows for the single-disc experience. The sound quality, however, doesn’t quite measure up to the other discs. The guitars are a tad mushy, and the overall intimacy level isn’t quite there. You’ll still have that feeling of having been at the show – only, feel like your seats weren’t quite as good. Regardless, the audience excitement level, the great songs, and the enthusiastic performances more than compensate for the B+ sound quality.
All right, it’s time to come clean. I’ve been holding out on you. Yes, the remastered sound of the Complete Concert is warmer and crisper than ever. Yes, you get an extra CD of unabridged live delight. The real treat here, though, is the DVD. That’s right. There is a fourth disc in the beautiful Budokan! package (which includes a fold-out poster and great liner notes; again, I’ve withheld some juicy tidbits). Shown only once before, 30 years ago on Japanese TV, the DVD is the visual complement to the April 28th CD. Shot with multiple cameras and professional production values, you’ll see the band take the stage and then rip through their nearly 80-minute set. Cheap Trick are almost as fun to watch as they are to hear. Nielsen looks like a cross between Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman (the ultimate Frankenstein?) and is frenetic as he bounces from one end of the stage to the other, tipping his cap and mugging at the crowd. Carlos, meanwhile, is as cool as the lead on a ‘70s cop show, smoking a cigarette while he runs through drum fills with hard-boiled nonchalance. As for Petersson and Zander, they simply play well and look pretty. They’re the Charlie’s Angels of the hard rock era, so they don’t need schticks. Together, the misfits and the sexy rock stars whip up a terrific show.
All of these extras are incredible and, for the big fan, well worth the 50 clams (suggested retail). At its heart, though, the four-disc deluxe multimedia extravaganza of Budokan! remains that ten-song LP released 30 years ago. Intended as a treat for the band’s devoted Japanese fans, At Budokan launched Cheap Trick’s star into the rock ‘n’ roll firmament. In some ways, the original still can’t be beat. It remains the best introduction to one of the greatest bands of the late ‘70s. On the other hand, this 30th anniversary package is truly glorious. Not meant for newbies, it’s clearly intended for the lifelong lovers of Rockford, Illinois’ heroes of heavy pop. The only remaining question is: Are you ready to rock more than ever before?