Cheap Trick were (and may still be) one of the most underrated pop/rock bands of all time. Next to cheery ’70s teen pop idols like David Cassidy, the heavy metal bad assery of Black Sabbath, or the painted theatrics of Kiss, Cheap Trick didn’t neatly fit into any one musical category of that era. By 1978, in spite of having put out three solid albums, Cheap Trick were largely overlooked by American audiences. As fate would have it, on April 28 and 30 of that year, the band would find the key to their success half a world away from their home turf of Rockford, Illinois.
In contrast to their humdrum homeland reception, in Japan, the band’s arrival was met with Beatlemania-esque fervor, hotels cordoned off from a public of politely rabid and enthusiastic fans clamoring for just a glimpse of their American heroes. The band had to abscond to their own show concealed in a mail truck to avoid being mobbed.
Pitched in Japan as the “younger brother band to Aerosmith”, Cheap Trick landed their first solo tour playing what would become a major gig at Budokan. It wasn’t the band’s first trip to Japan, having opened for rock giants Kiss and Queen on two separate tours in 1977. Yet despite the fact that Cheap Trick wasn’t popular in the United States, those two April evenings in Tokyo catapulted them from opener to headliner, and on into rock’s upper echelon.
“The Budokan made us famous, and we made the Budokan famous,” sums up Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen on the 30th anniversary of their career-making stint at Japan’s live concert mecca.
Three decades later, Cheap Trick’s big bang gets its due with a four-disc retrospective, including the Cheap Trick at Budokan live album in its original format and a DVD of the 1978 concert special aired only on Japanese TV and until now unavailable. The DVD features a cache of bonus features, including interviews with all four band members and 2008 performance footage of Cheap Trick revisiting the spot that put them on the map. Even more appealing to hardcore Trick-ophiles and rock n’ roll historians are the extensive (and I do mean extensive) liner notes that accompany this treasure chest. The crown jewels of this set, however, are the two remastered discs of the landmark concert. Originally intended to be a two-disc album back in ’78, that concept was scrapped due to the time constraints of ensuring a timely release to their rabid Japanese following.
Hell, the whole of Cheap Trick at Budokan was only ever intended for Japanese audiences. When word got back to the States about Cheap Trick’s live album, fans back home were chomping at the bit to snap it up as an import. These sales pushed Epic to release it in America later that year. As evidenced by the sales of Kiss Alive, Frampton Comes Alive, et al., if there was one thing American rock fans in the ’70s loved, it was their live concert albums.
The US release of At Budokan marked the beginning of a Cheap Trick renaissance. The three albums they released prior to Budokan? The songs from said albums that failed to chart? They got a new lease on life. Previously ignored singles like “I Want You to Want Me” and “Surrender” became the stuff of legend.
Listening to and seeing the both original and remastered footage of Cheap Trick’s Budokan show gives an accurate snapshot in time of a young band just coming into its own, seasoned enough to deftly maneuver through a tight set, but not so grizzled as to have been spoiled by fame. You can hear a giddy, youthful sense of humor evident in the Blues Brothers-like, thematic book-ending of their set with “Hello There” and “Goodnight”. From start to finish, Budokan rings with how happy Cheap Trick were to be playing to a crowd that came exclusively to hear them.
Their quirky, uncategorized brand of rock and equally quirky and uncategorized look made them a natural fit for Japanese audiences to seize upon. There’s the blonde, angelic frontman Robin Zander, almost perpetually clad in white, who nails both the sweet ballads and uptempo rock songs with equal capability. Swapping out the satanic, short-pantsed antics of Angus Young for those of a much more spastic schoolboy, Rick Nielsen’s style combines elements of punk simplicity, melodic pop, and a heavier crush of rock. The live video performance captures the underrated Nielsen in that rare period before he acquired perhaps one of the craziest collection of unique axes in all of rock, resigning himself to a single Gibson Explorer in a rather plebian wood finish. Not that he needs anything else. The tone and clarity of his sound — and Tourette’s-like fits of mugging the crowd — are all you need to capture vintage Nielsen completely in his element.
Swinging towards the other end of the spectrum is Tom Petersson — the quiet one — unassuming and intently focused on the song’s basslines (sometimes played in a melodic tandem alongside Nielsen’s guitar licks). The first bassist ever to venture into 12-string territory, Petersson yields an awesome solo on “Speak Now (Or Forever Hold Your Peace)”. And that brings us to Bun E. Carlos, ever looking more like an accountant than a rock star. Oddly enough, his image is appropriate; he’s all business behind the drum kit. Carlos’s style is frill-free for the most part, supplying steady beats throughout. When given a pocket of opportunity, however, Carlos crashes through with a thunder-and-lightning roll or two, and really struts his stuff on a cookin’ live cover of “Ain’t That a Shame”.
Listening to these four chart their way through a live set, you can feel both their energy and the crowd’s feeding off one another. Playing the unaltered disc back-to-back with the remastered discs, there are several noticeable differences that make the remastered journey very much worth embarking upon. “High Roller” emerges from the murky depths of its unaltered state into a full-blown juggernaut that stomps across the stage with renewed life. The greatest boon bestowed on Cheap Trick fans, however, are the harmonies, goofy improvisational chorus refrains, and subtle shifts in instrumentation at the end of “Surrender” that really pop on the remastered disc.
All of it is just one big “Aww, man! Ya’ hadda be there!” rock moment. For those of us who weren’t or couldn’t be, this four disc set makes it possible all over again.