Counterbalance: Cheap Trick’s ‘At Budokan’

Hello there, ladies and gentlemen. Hello there, ladies and gents. Are you ready to rock? Because Cheap Trick’s classic 1979 live album is this week’s Counterbalance. Surrender. But don’t give yourself away.
Cheap Trick
At Budokan

Klinger: By the late 1970s rock had become big business, and the emergence of the live album is a perfect example of the way that popular music had gone from being a cottage industry to being a regular industry. Nowadays, the live album is seen as a delightful little bonus for the fans and completists, but back in the satin-jacketed ’70s it provided an opportunity for bands to cross over into the mainstream. Peter Frampton had been something of a journeyman musician for about a decade before Frampton Comes Alive made him a heartthrob and radio staple. Kiss’s first few albums were largely ignored until Alive made them jukebox (and lunchbox) heroes. And of course Cheap Trick were more or less a quirky road band until they tapped into their rabid Japanese following and made the album At Budokan.

When they performed at the Budokan indoor martial arts hall in 1978, Cheap Trick had released the maybe-too-weird Cheap Trick and the maybe-too-slick In Color, and they were about to release the sublime Heaven Tonight. But At Budokan became the group’s signature album, at least for the general public, and at No. 878 it’s their top-ranked LP on the Great List. So what was it about the live album that suddenly made these groups so commercially viable? Was it the production, which gave their songs some added punch? Was it the fact that the group was able to cherry pick its best material for a rethink of their sound? Or was it just the fact that thousands of screaming girls made the whole thing completely irresistible?

Mendelsohn: I have absolutely no idea. None. Cheap Trick and their success is still a complete enigma for me. How does an obscure band from the Midwest get dubbed the “American Beatles” in Japan? I’m so confused. What’s even more confusing, is that as much as I want to not like Cheap Trick — mostly just to irk you — I can’t help but feel like this record is pretty much the foundation of my own musical foundation. Is it because they speak some sort of unconscious Midwestern language that I am in tune with having grown up in the Heartland? Or maybe because all the grunge rock bands I cut my teeth on as a teenage were huge Cheap Trick fans? This last week has been an odd epiphany for me, Klinger. Never having really spent any time with At Budokan, I’m suddenly seeing he world in a different light.

To reiterate, I have no idea why the live album propelled so many bands into the spotlight — although I think you are dead on in all of you assessments, especially the greatest hits mentality of those records, coupled with the stripped-down, punched-up sound required to play any music live. I also have no idea about Cheap Trick. They rock, and that seems to be enough for me, but are they really the “American Beatles”?

Klinger: Cheap Trick was — and I’m choosing my words very carefully here — the best American rock band of the 1970s. Not only did they have a crystalline sense for a pop melody, but they also had an undeniable visual sensibility. Two pretty-boy rock stars (singer Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersen) were balanced out by a living, breathing cartoon character (Rick Nielsen) and drummer Bunezuela “Bun” E. Carlos, who may at one point have been a hotel desk clerk in a Mickey Spillane novel.

But back to the songwriting, which is what really set the group apart. Take a listen to “Come On, Come On”, which originally appeared on In Color. The use of diminished chords throughout the chorus demonstrate Rick Nielsen’s chops as a savvy pop composer, and he’s able to weld those dreamy progressions to arrangements that rock huge. (And as a sidebar, I’d like to point out that Zander takes the song out singing the exact same “improvisations” that he does on the record. I’m not sure exactly what that says, but I’m putting it down to a level of craftsmanship that was part of everything the group did.) Throw in that incredible, slowly unwinding riff behind “Big Eyes” and of course the music hall-meets-power pop of “I Want You to Want Me”, and you’ve more ammunition to make your case. American Beatles? That may be hyperbole, but I’m not going to argue.

Mendelsohn: So I went and listened to “Come On, Come On”, then I went back and listened to the original version on In Color along with the studio versions of most of the songs that appear on At Budokan. The difference is incredible. Night and day, Klinger. It’s like Cheap Trick is a completely different band when they are on stage. That manic energy, coupled with the enthusiasm of the audience makes a collection of very good songs into a great package of material. I’m beginning to understand the band’s sudden appeal after the release of At Budokan.

Klinger: They were 100% road-tested, and it shows. The whole point of “Hello There” is that the instruments come in one at a time. It was the band’s way of giving the sound guy a chance to get levels on the fly when proper sound checks weren’t going to be feasible. That, my friend, is a band that had paid its dues on the road.

Mendelsohn: But I want to back up for a minute because you just dropped a loaded bomb of a sentence in my lap and I don’t want to pass up the chance to play a little hot potato. You said, “Cheap Trick was the best American rock band of the 1970s.” That’s a pretty strong statement. Care to reconcile that with Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, or the Eagles?

Klinger: Bruce Springsteen is a guy, not a band. In the hands of a lesser songwriter, the E Street Band would not be the Asbury Jukes (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but still…). The Ramones were great, but Cheap Trick rocked nearly as hard with more sophisticated songs (you almost tripped me there, Mendelsohn, but I’m sticking with this). Eagles? Be serious. And none of them wrote “Surrender”, a song that I could spend hours — literally hours — pontificating about.

Mendelsohn: Hey, I’m just playing devil’s advocate. Those bands (and one dude) are all ranked higher on the Great List, meaning they achieved some mixture of commercial and critical success to push them into the upper reaches of the Canon. At No. 878, Cheap Trick isn’t exactly the critical darling but that hasn’t held them back from influencing future generations. But I digress, you were about to pontificate.

Klinger: Yes, thank you. ”Surrender”, at its core, encapsulates the 1970s experience in one four-minute burst of both incisive infectiousness and infectious incisiveness. It traces the countercultural contagion from the hippies to the suburbs, as mom and dad begin with dire warnings about social diseases and the dangers of drugs, and then they wind up on the couch blasting their kid’s Kiss records in a stoned makeout session. What’s left for Generation Jones to rebel against amidst all this Carter-era topsy-turviness? And the cherry on top is the song doesn’t even rhyme. It’s no surprise that Cheap Trick’s stock rose again in the ’90s, as a baby boomer Clinton Administration made all those questions relevant again.

Mendelsohn: While the Clinton Administration may have helped it along, I imagine Cheap Trick’s resurgence has more to do with the fact that all the new bands coming up in the late 1980s and early 1990s had grown up listening to At Budokan. The list of Cheap Trick acolytes in the alternative movement is a lengthy one: Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, the Melvins, Stone Temple Pilots, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Green Day to name a few. Those young musicians who were 10 years old in 1978 were in their early twenties as the ’90s blossomed. They helped recreate the musical landscape in the image of Cheap Trick, burying pop licks and sophistication behind walls of electric guitar and thundering drums. All that leaves me wondering, why hasn’t Cheap Trick gotten their due? Why are they a critical also-ran?

Klinger: Well, part of the problem is that they somewhat seriously lost the thread after a while. Post-Budokan albums were a little too polished and not nearly insane enough (although they had their moments — “Dream Police”!). And then of course, “The Flame”. Hm. (At best, we could say that this was a case of the band’s craftsmanship getting in the way of their better instincts. At worst it was a shameless cash grab.) And maybe their arena-rock success made the critics hold them a bit suspect in their time. Had they never broken through critics might speak of them in the hushed, reverent tones they apply to Big Star. But when you’re working within a relatively mainstream form the way Cheap Trick was, maybe cleverness is revealed on a more time-release basis. I suspect that there was a certain ironic detachment among the hipper set, but it quickly resolved itself upon further listening. That’s my theory, anyway, and it’s coming from me and my undying love for ’70s-era Cheap Trick. I’m most pleased that you’ve come to see the glory of the Trick. I’d like to believe that soon you’ll be digging into their studio work and be pontificating right along with me.

Mendelsohn: Stranger things have happened. My growing admiration for Cheap Trick being one of them.