To my knowledge, Cheap Trick has performed in the Upper Peninsula several times during their storied career. I have managed to miss them each time. The concerts I can find records for (and there maybe more I am not aware of) were in Marquette and at the casino in Harris. The first show was at Lakeview Arena in support of Foreigner and The Little River Band. “In support of ” is concert speak for “opening act” on a multiple band bill. My retro calendar tells me that this show took place on a Wednesday (September 21, 1977 to be exact) and I can think of a couple of factors that kept me from attending. This would have been early in my third year teaching in Ontonagon. It was also the first year my future wife and I were dating so taking a Wednesday off to travel to Marquette for a concert would have not been an option. A one night, round trip was a possibility, but not my first or second choice. I had spent two of my college years commuting back and forth between band gigs and kitchen work at the Huron Mountain club (circa 1971-1973). After a couple of summers waking up and trying to remember how I got back to the club for work, the memory was still too fresh to want to do it no matter how good the concert was. Arriving home in the wee hours of a Thursday morning to get up dog tired and do a regular school day just did not sound appealing and I was banking personal days for adventures on the dating end of the spectrum.
I remember seeing posters for Cheap Tricks second U.P. appearance, but this March 17, 1981 show at NMU’s Hedgecock Fieldhouse was scheduled as my wife approached her due date for our daughter Elizabeth’s birth. Even if I had been chomping at the bit to see the band then, Elizabeth’s arrival a mere 18 days later tells me I would not have been scheduling any out of town trips in that period. As rabid as my concert attendance had been from 1967 through 1977, work and family obligations became part of the decision process when picking what shows could be squeezed in between everything else life threw at us.
The band had appeared on Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert program less than two months before the first Marquette concert in 1977, so I was aware of who they were. Seeing Rick Nielson’s goofy ‘Bowery Boys’ cap, bow tie, and weirdly decorated guitars were hard to miss. The chain smoking drummer, Bun E. Carlos, dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt and skinny tie provided the band’s other ‘weird’ bookend. The two ‘pretty boy rock stars’ (singer/guitarist Robin Zander and bass player Tom Petersson) were always grouped together in band photos flanked by their less glamorous band mates. I understood the visuals immediately: in the rock and roll world, one needed to stand out and the ‘geeks and rock stars’ schtick definitely grabbed one’s attention. They were animated on stage and played great music. I made a conscious note to pick up an album along the way because I really liked Bun E.’s drumming, plus he also favored Ludwig brand drums. Procrastinator that I am, 1978’s Heaven Tonight and 1979’s Dream Police were my introduction to the band even though they had two previously released albums (1977’s Cheap Trick and In Color). Each of these records included songs that would become staples of their live set yet they were not getting much airplay in this period. Constant touring was the road they took to the top and scanning the archive of Cheap Trick’s concerts shows they played clubs and concert halls all over the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan. Exposure gained as an opening act for bands like Kiss and Uriah Heep would soon elevate them to headliner status and they were one of the most sought after bands in the latter half of the 1970s and early 1980s. Ironically, the album that made them superstars wasn’t even supposed to be released worldwide.
When Cheap Trick first landed in Japan in 1978, the greeting they received from fans there was comparable to Beatlemania. The band recorded two shows at the Budokan arena to distribute as a ten track album ‘thank you’ to their Japanese fan base. With the 12,000 screaming fans all but drowning out the band, the Budokan recordings were a failure. Though the album released bears the title Cheap Trick Live at Budokan, the performance on the album was recorded at a smaller hall in Osaka. Strong airplay for a promotional album (From Tokyo to You) plus sales of an estimated 30,000 import copies finally convinced Epic Records to release Live at Budokan in February of 1979. The album peaked at number four on the Billboard Top 200 charts while selling some three million copies (it was certified as triple Platinum by the RIAA in 1986). The success of the single release of I Want You to Want Me (reaching number seven on the Billboard Hot 100) and a cover of Fats Domino’s Ain’t That A Shame (number 35 on the BH 100) also helped spur the sales of their previous albums. Cheap Trick was riding a wave of popularity into the 1980s and while they continued releasing well crafted albums during that time, their sales did not reach Budokan levels.
As with any band, there are ups and downs. Fads come and go; styles and genres are embraced and then chucked aside; today’s big album seller becomes tomorrow’s “where are they now?” storyline. Through it all, Cheap Trick continued to record, tour, and (most importantly) remain together. Many bands crumple when they are no longer the ‘it’ band, but not Cheap Trick. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. We last visited with drummer Carlos (FTV: Bun E. Carlos 3-30-16) a good six years after he was replaced as their touring drummer. Early album notes identified him to be Bunezuela E. Carlos from Venezuela and whose parents had helped build the Panama Canal before he abandoned them to play rock music in America. In truth, Bun E. hailed from Rockford, Illinois (real name: Brad Carlson) and he was a founding member of Cheap Trick back in 1973. Soon after filming a segment of Austin City Limits in early 2010, a falling out between Carlos and Zander precipitated an announcement that Bun E. would no longer be touring with Cheap Trick. Carlos would still be a member of the band but Nielsen’s son Daxx would take over the drum throne.
Things between the band members were still cordial until 2012 when Bun E. was cut out of business decisions and the band stopped making payments to him. Carlos filed a $600,000 lawsuit against the band which was finally resolved when Zander released a statement in February of 2015 saying, “Bun E. is a member of the band but he is not touring. We’ve had our differences but we’re all settled up now and hopefully we can forget about that era.” The agreement resolved issues concerning monetary payments, business participation, and voting rights, but not the personal relationships. Carlos told Rolling Stone, “Any friendship we had went away when I had to file a federal lawsuit…Going after these guys wasn’t pleasant. The friendship sort of frittered away there.” In spite of it all, Bun E. was with the band on April 4, 2016 when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As Nielsen said (about playing with Carlos for the event), “They are inducting the people who made the records way back when and that’s good. He deserves it.” Bun E. remains active with various musical projects including a group called the First Airborne Rock ‘n’ Roll Division who perform at USO sponsored concerts for the US armed forces. The band includes members of The Doobie Brothers, Kansas, Little River Band, Pablo Cruise, and Toto.
As for the rest of Cheap Trick, they have not let the dust settle on them during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. They released their 20th studio album in April of 2021, but it isn’t the only Cheap Trick album to see the light of day in the last year. Though Record Day in October of 2020 wasn’t ‘business as usual’ thanks to COVID, Cheap Trick dusted off 22 tracks recorded live over four nights at the Whiskey a Go-Go in 1977 for a special RD release. It was a great ‘filler album’ because the record released in April 2021 (In Another World) was actually begun before the pandemic turned everything upside down.
The night before In Another World was officially released, Cheap Trick appeared on A Late Show with Stephen Colbert. They performed from a soundstage elsewhere as has been the pattern used by late night TV for the past year. Though they are associated with Colbert as the ‘masterminds behind the legendary theme song for The Colbert Report’, this airing marked their Late Show debut. The track they performed (Boys & Girls & Rock N Roll) was exactly what one would expect from a band with their bonafides. Daxx Nielsen has grown into the position as the ‘new’ drummer in the band (even though he has been at it for a decade already). Rick Nielsen and Zander did their thing but it was obvious that bassist Petersson wasn’t in top form. Seated on a stool sporting a long duster, wide brimmed hat and a blue bandana face covering, he wasn’t his usual animated self. When social media erupted with observations of Tom’s appearance, he released a statement telling everyone that he was only weeks removed from heart surgery but recovering. When CT played their first 2021 concert in June, lead singer Robin Zander’s son Robin Taylor Zander filled in for the still recovering Petersson. The show held in Mashantucket, CT was notable because half the band was made up of ‘sons of Cheap Trick’ so to speak as guitarist Rick Nielson’s son, Daxx, has been their drummer for the past decade.
In a recent interview with Classic Rock Magazine, Zander and Rick Nielsen expanded on the band’s history, longevity, and how they managed to squeeze out yet another great album in the time of COVID. The opening track of the BMG release In Another World (The Summer Looks Good On You (Here Comes The Summer) was actually begun back in 2018. With the bulk of the material recorded during the tumult of the last presidential cycle, Zander said some of the songs are “a reflection of how everyone felt. This was before COVID, so we were talking about the United States in general, about politics, and how things were going. I guess we all felt like we were being run by a mob.” Zander continues by pointing out that Cheap Trick has never been one to dwell on pessimism: “The song, Another World, may paint a dark picture, but notice the words in the chorus: ‘We could be happy, in another world we could be free / There will be peace for you and me.’” Nielsen continued the thought in the CRM interview: “It’s about finding the balance, I think we’re more realistic about things in a rock context. We’re not trying to do a Springsteen and preach to anybody, we’re just showing a slice of our lives. It’s three and a half minutes of stuff we’ve observed, that we feel.”
The inclusion of John Lennon’s Gimme Some Truth was a natural fit for a couple of reasons. Though written during the turbulent era of Nixon and Vietnam, the band felt the parallels to what was going on fifty years after that era were hard to ignore. Nielsen is especially fond of the era because of his own involvement with Lennon: “I worked with John and Yoko on the Double Fantasy sessions. I was in the studio, playing, and John looked at Jack Douglas and said: ‘God, I wish I’d had Rick on Cold Turkey. Clapton choked up.’”
During their formative years, Cheap Trick were influenced by many bands including Lennon’s Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, The Animals, and The Stones. Zander likens the Cheap Trick sound to what they heard on vinyl back in the day: “It was that sort of secondary blues influence that turned me on. It was energetic, louder and more exciting than the kind of blues we had over here. I was really truly influenced by the British Invasion and I loved the guitar playing of The Yardbirds or early Fleetwood Mac. There was some extraordinary stuff. It gave me that feeling of: ‘That’s what I want to do.’” Nielsen was obsessed enough with the Anglophile sounds he heard to subscribe to the weekly music trade paper Melody Maker. The subscription cost to have it delivered to their home base in Rockford, IL wasn’t cheap, either: “I think it was around a hundred and twenty-five dollars for a year to get it air-mailed,” Nielsen recalled to CRM. “That was expensive in the sixties, but it meant I got my copy six weeks earlier [than the newstands]. I wanted the news as it was happening.”
The influences ran deep enough that Nielsen and Petersson made their first visit to London in 1968 to further absorb the music they wanted to emulate. Rick and Tom were playing together in a band called Fuse at that time. Previously they had been in a band called the Grim Reapers who happened to be on the same bill in support of Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays on the night of his fateful plane crash in Wisconsin. According to Nielsen, “I had to go up and announce to the crowd that [Otis and his band] had crashed into Lake Monona and wouldn’t be appearing that night. I told them that the show would not go on, although the band I was in still had to play. That was because our manager was like Ozzy Osbourne’s old manager, Don Arden. We did as we were told.” Zander had been in a band with CT’s original singer, Randy Hogan, and by the time he replaced him in Trick, he had also spent some time absorbing music across the pond.
How does a band overcome the ups and downs of a rock and roll career? Nielsen likes to confront those who think that, at 72, he is too old to play in a band. Nielsen now says, “I didn’t plan for any of this to happen. We’ve just worked hard and we’re too dumb to quit. Music has been our hobby and our love the whole time. We’ve basically never improved and we’ve never progressed, But luckily we started off pretty good.” A man of many talents that he is, Rick Nielsen also created the iconic Cheap Trick logo by sitting down with his rickey manual typewriter to concoct it, misaligned letters and all. Imagine what one would pay a professional graphics company for a Cheap Trick logo these days! Well done, Rick, well done, because the music and image created in the name of Cheap Trick are imprinted with your finger prints.
Top Piece Video: The boys from Rockford introduced by Steven Colbert . . . from 2021’s ‘In Another World’