[19 October 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Well, you have to marvel at Sony for this. The label is still generating product from an act that hasn’t been on its roster for the past 20 years. Hey, what’s wrong with making a dollar where there’s a dollar to be made? And Cheap Trick are certainly worthy of the repeated exposure. With each compilation or reissue comes the chance that someone might discover or re-discover this hugely influential, not to mention fun, yet often overlooked band. Maybe someone who had written them off as those guys who did “The Flame”, or know them only as the opening act for ZZ Top nostalgia tours. Yes, Cheap Trick had some success, all right. But they faded, were gobbled up by the record industry machine, and have never really had a proper chance to show how completely they’ve redeemed themselves. Oh, and they have always been one of the most powerful live acts in all of rock’n'roll. So what’s wrong with The Very Best of Cheap Trick Live?
Well, the very best of Cheap Trick live was already issued in 1979 as At Budokan. And then in 1993 as Budokan 2. You get the idea. Even the self-released, hard-hitting Music for Hangovers (1999) gives a more complete career overview. So basically, The Very Best of Cheap Trick Live serves no purpose, other than a purely financial one.
No, you say. This is a complement to the other live albums. There’s stuff on this that’s not on those. There are “alternate versions”. There’s a cover version of Dylan’s “Ms. Henry”! There’s a Tom Petersson vocal! Well, for you I have two words: Previously released. Any Cheap Trick fan who’s hardcore enough to want these versions has probably found them already, on the Found All the Parts EP, the various Budokan iterations, and the Sex, America, Cheap Trick box set, not to mention the scores of bootlegs that make the rounds amongst the fan community.
And maybe, just maybe you could argue The Very Best of Cheap Trick Live serves as a convincing overview of the band’s exciting, groundbreaking early days. You know, how they combined the volume and dynamics of hard rock with the melodicism and playfulness of British Invasion-era pop and demonstrated their alchemy on some stellar, timeless tunes. After all, most of the recordings here date from that late-‘70s period. From the epic-length “Mrs. Henry”, signature hits “I Want You to Want Me” and “Surrender”, to the crushing blues of “Can’t Hold On” and the bastardized disco-boogie of “You’re All Talk”, the evidence of the band’s considerable mark on rock’n'roll history is here. And then there’s the playing. Who minds being reminded of Bun E. Carlos’ razor sharp, off-the-cuff-artful drumming, or Rick Nielsen’s grab bag of guitar styles and virtuosity, as on the mind-blowing solo of “You’re All Talk”? Or Robin Zander’s versatile voice, sounding like the pretty boy ladies’ man and the mischievous kid in the corner rolled into one?
Yes, the album does blaze along, leaving scorched earth and blown speakers behind. And then it runs head-on into 1988 and “The Flame”. You know, the Number One hit that earned Cheap Trick a stay of execution with Epic and zapped what was left of its credibility. The song is pretty enough, and is actually a bit tougher in this live rendition. Still, after the first three-quarters of The Very Best of Cheap Trick Live have reminded you of the band’s greatness, you’re forced to relive the group’s descent into being just another middle-of-the-road act peddling big hair and Diane Warren songs. Worse, this collection completely ignores the fact Cheap Trick has been very much a going concern for the last 20 years, with its last couple studio albums ranking among their best. If you’re going to get an incomplete picture of this band, it’s best to cut out that ugly bit in the middle, at any rate.
Just by the very nature of its songs and performances, you can’t totally write off The Very Best of Cheap Trick Live. But you can accurately call it the fourth- or fifth-best live Cheap Trick album. If you’re new to these guys, choose your Budokan and then pick up those first few hallowed albums and the last couple for good measure. If you want the complete, sometimes ugly truth, there are more than a few compilations for that. And if you still have a few bucks left over after that, well, I guess there are worse ways to spend them.