Cheap Trick: At Budokan

Cheap Trick
At Budokan

Cheap Trick at Budokan must surely qualify as one of the music industry’s biggest cash cows. It was originally released in 1978, a couple years after the live album to end all live albums, Frampton Comes Alive. Live albums were huge in the latter half of the 1970s, which is incomprehensible on some level since the bands almost always concentrated on reproducing, as closely as possible, the studio versions of their songs, the only exception being the insertion of many extra minutes of guitar soloing on a few tracks. Still, the well-rendered live album could do a couple of things. First, it could create an excitement about the band that no studio album could duplicate. After all, if all those screaming people on the record were enjoying the group that much, they must be pretty damn exciting. Second, it created a “wannabe” feeling. If all those folks knew how great this band was, you didn’t want to be the naysayer left out in the cold. Cheap Trick used the live album gambit well. They had generated some buzz with their first two LPs Cheap Trick and In Color, but they were not household names. Their third and best album Heaven Tonight was released shortly before Budokan, which was probably expected to create additional demand for the studio album, but instead it almost completely overshadowed it.

Cheap Trick are usually thought of as purveyors of power pop, and while that is correct, it only takes a half-assed listen to most bands classed in the genre to realize that the emphasis is generally on the pop side of the equation. Cheap Trick, their sound honed by countless gigs in Midwest bars and clubs like the infamous Brat Stop, was used to cranking up the amps and rocking out. Though their songs were catchy as hell, they were also shaped by the unique and often darkly humorous lyrics of guitarist and resident geek Rick Nielsen. Nielsen wrote plenty of melodic material for blonde dreamboat Robin Zander to sing (“Come On, Come On”, “I Want You to Want Me”) but he also wrote crazy, dark, hilarious stuff like “Auf Wiedersehen” (an ode to suicidal tendencies), and “The Ballad of T.V. Violence” (originally titled “The Ballad of Richard Speck”). Yep, ol’ Rick was a caution, a cartoon in motion as he played his checkered Flying V guitar and stomped around in his bow-tie, cardigan, and baseball cap, exhorting the audience to near-orgasmic fits of screaming. But he could play that guitar, throwing off riffs like the opening to “Big Eyes” and hitting those power chords on the group’s canny cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame”.

Anyway, only God himself knows how many copies of Budokan were sold during its initial vinyl release. And like all ’70s albums, it was transferred onto CD when the format first began to take hold without any remastering and nary a thought to its sound quality. Then, during the 1990s, a curious thing happened. Cheap Trick, often dismissed in their heyday as a teenybopper band, became popular all over again. One reason for this was the admission by countless alternative bands (Billy Corgan, for one) that Nielsen and crew profoundly influenced them. Critics began to write respectfully of their songs and the incredibly delicate balancing act they had performed between raw guitar power and melodic teenage pop. In 1998, 20 years after the Budokan concert, Sony Music released Cheap Trick at Budokan: The Complete Concert, a remastered two-disc set that included all the songs performed at the source show in their original order. It is a great CD, and it’s instructive to see what was cut from the original album — some of the quirkier Nielsen songs like “ELO Kiddies”, “Auf Wiedersehen” and “High Roller”. Furthermore, the fact that the original release was cut down to a mere 10 tracks (including the intro and outro “Hello There” and “Goodnight”) lends credence to the idea that it was supposed to be more or less a teaser to get folks interested in the group and get them all lathered up about Heaven Tonight.

So, one might ask, why the heck bother to release the original Budokan album in a remastered version? The answer is that the original album is brilliantly sequenced and an entire generation or two that grew up listening to it want to be able to shove the disc into our CD players and be transported back to that magical time by hearing the album they remember, word for word and riff for riff.

The album hasn’t suffered a bit over time. I have often put in an album or two that I enjoyed thoroughly in college or high school only to be bitterly disappointed when it didn’t live up to my memories. But time has not dulled the appeal of this live set nor made Cheap Trick sound irrelevant. If anything, it makes one wonder why there are so few bands plying the Power Pop genre nowadays and why no one has been able to expand on the general sound that Cheap Trick exploited so effectively.

Going over these songs would be an exercise in futility, because everyone who was around when the album came out knows them by heart, and anyone who wasn’t will either give this disc a listen and become hopelessly addicted or they won’t listen at all. Suffice it to say that the sound quality is very good, with Bun E. Carlos’ drum work more audible and driving than on the original. Nielsen is there in every frame, whether providing crunching backup chords or playing histrionic solo licks.

Hearing Cheap Trick at Budokan again made me want to do like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty and sit around the house smoking bongs all day, leaving only to work at the local fast food joint. Of course, I won’t be doing that, but the fact that I even thought about it is testament to the power of this music.