After much thought, I’ve come to a conclusion…although I’ve been a music freak since I was a kid, I’ve never really put much thought into whether or not any record truly changed my life. I’ve had favorite bands, then later resorted to just having a top ten list of favorites because it’s so hard to choose. Even then, the bands tended to rotate. My first album, around the age of 12, was Elton John’s Greatest Hits, and I bought it primarily for the song “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” followed by ZZ Top’s Fandango, a powerhouse of blues and rock, Tex-Mex style.
The album I’ve chosen was retroactively discovered, through the suggestion of an art school friend at age 18. Cheap Trick was my favorite band in high school—there were plenty of great bands out there, but they had an appeal that was hard to measure or explain. They had a special something that just worked. I first learned of the band primarily through their Live at Budokan record, and the subsequent hits that came from it.
Delving further into their stuff, I bought In Color. The production wasn’t that great, and the songs seemed lackluster and somewhat contrived. There were a few gems, but they really rang truest when played live on the Budokan record. Fate struck when my friend said, “You need to check out their first record, it’s phenomenal.” After he played it for me, I ran out and bought it. The first time I played it through, I liked it, but it grew on me more and more to the point that I felt a bit sheepish admitting that I had never listened to it prior to the band breaking big in Japan. I was usually way ahead of the curve.
Fast forward to 2019, Cheap Trick’s self-titled album still stands as a monolithic work that I never grow tired of. Nowadays, I can just pull it up on YouTube and play it whenever, but on a decent stereo (or headphones), it’s hard to believe how well it still holds up. Now considered to be one of the forefathers of power pop, Cheap Trick didn’t garner many sales with this first album, but hardcore fans tend to “get it” and love it.
Without doing a song-by-song breakdown, I can say that it’s the darkest album they’ve made, and has the rawest energy—it’s like they took the soaring vocals of Robin Zander, the amazing sound (and playing and ingenuity) of Tom Petersson’s 12-string bass, the hook-laden riffs of Rick Nielsen’s guitar work, and the hard-hitting pocket rock drumming of Bun E. Carlos, added a dash of mandocello here, some punk rock there, and put it all in a blender. What they got was unadulterated chaotic rock on one song, and on the next, heartfelt tributes to an old friend.
It’s a rollercoaster ride of a variety I’ve never seen a band traverse on one record—not inconsistent, but consistently different throughout, and cohesive as an album.
Bun E. inspired me to play drums, and I learned by playing along with him (headphones) in a dank basement in western Pennsylvania…an affliction that I’ve never been able to shake. I’ve seen Cheap Trick perform at least 18 times—as headliners, as openers for other bands, and as a club act. I think one of the biggest things that appealed to me was they did it their way, and as a short, freckle-faced kid that was never gonna have the “look” to be a rock star, it inspired me to see a band that had two guys that had the rock star looks, and two that were geeky and dorky looking. And they had a chemistry that got them all the way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Kudos to a great midwestern rock band that made music that reached the airwaves…and touched the heart of a kid who still finds them an inspiration all these years later. Thanks, Rockford, Illinois.
Read more from Bill Herrin in this issue’s Beachcomberland Places feature.