A sample question from the TV show Jeopardy would read… “Two heartthrobs, two weirdos and a pulverizing sound mining Beatles-esque melodic magic affixed to Who/Yardbirds/Kinks muscle. The answer… “What is Cheap Trick?”
Since storming the scene in the late ‘70s, Cheap Trick have weathered Mount Olympus commercial highs, devastating commercial misfortune, band lineup changes and an ever-changing musical climate. But their immense talent both in the studio and on stage coupled with a ferocious Midwest work ethic has helped them survive and prosper.
We’re All Alright!, the band’s latest studio album, its title cribbed from the coda to their classic single, “Surrender,” offers sonic proof of a late career artistic renaissance. A fresh blast of heavy power pop nirvana, the record is crammed with a bounty of future gems and a spirited reworking of The Move’s psych-rock jewel, “Blackberry Way.” We spoke with founding member, guitar god Rick Nielsen, about Cheap Trick, past, present and future.
Rock Cellar: Your father, Ralph, ran a music store, Ralph Nielsen Music, in your hometown of Rockford, Illinois and your mother was a singer.
How did being surrounded by parents who “got it” in terms of music help you in your quest to become a musician?
Rick Nielsen: Well, they played a different kind of music than I was interested in, but the fact that they were musicians was cool and made me think, “that’s the thing to do.” They were supportive. I was thrown out of Band in seventh grade and they didn’t like that; it wasn’t like I was grounded for the rest of my life or anything. (laughs) They weren’t proud of that, but they were proud of most everything else I did.
They always thought everything I did was pretty loud, but I knew when to pick my battles and when to turn my volume up. But they always supported my interest in my music and I think they were thrilled I was able to have a job in music. (laughs)
In the past few years since aligned with Big Machine, Cheap Trick have returned to the one-album-each-year slate you followed at the start of your career. Does that activity come from a sense of having less road in front of you than behind, and/or the feeling of “how much longer can we do this?” with the shadow of mortality looming?
Rick Nielsen: No, I never thought about it like that. It’s just the fact that we had the opportunity where we could do it. It’s not like we put out first record and it sold a million copies or anything. I think Big Machine just saw that we still had music in us and there was life in the band. We paid for our own records basically for all these years — and I guess we’re still paying for them now — but Big Machine have been really supportive, they were like, “Hey, go make a record!”
It wasn’t like, “give us your money first and then go make a record.” They got the company behind us.
What song on the new album, We’re All Alright! do you keep returning to?
Rick Nielsen: In concert these days we’ve been doing “You Got It Going On” and “Long Time Coming” but we can play them all; “Brand New Name On An Old Tattoo,” we can play that. We can play “Radio Lover.”
“Radio Lover” is a song the band demoed years back, right?
Rick Nielsen: We did that quite a long time ago, but no producer or people we worked with were that thrilled about that song but we always liked it. We thought it was good. As for the ones I like the most on the record, I like the faster stuff, the more upbeat stuff like the first four songs. That’s my kind of stuff that I get more of a kick out of.
The band has covered The Move in the past notably with “California Man,” what promoted you to dust off “Blackberry Way”?
Rick Nielsen: Yeah, we had recorded it a number of years ago. It was good and with this new version, we tried to do it without too many keyboards. We tried to do it mainly with guitars and bass. “Blackberry Way” is a great song. It’s a cool song and I think we do a neat version of it.
In the band’s early days, your lyrics touched on a myriad of quirky and perverse themes ranging from male prostitution (“He’s A Whore),” suicide (“Oh Candy”) and the shooter Richard Speck (“The Ballad Of TV Violence.”) What flavored this unique worldview as a lyricist?
Rick Nielsen: The flavor or the thought of that day influenced the kind of lyrics I’d write. I wasn’t trying to be like anyone else; I was just wanting to comment about things that I’d observed. That’s all it’s ever been for me as a lyricist. It’s never been writing forma totally autobiographical place. My lyrics weren’t all “boy loves girl, girl loves boy,” happy, happy, happy or “boy misses girl, girl misses boy”, sad, sad, sad. There’s more to life than that and that’s what I tried to write about in my songs.
In terms of influences that shaped the band’s sound, The Beatles, The Who, The Move and The Yardbirds are routinely cited. Are there any artists/bands that are a huge part of the group’s DNA that are seldom if ever name checked?
Rick Nielsen: Yeah, there’s definitely some. How about The Sensational Alex Harvey Band for starters? Then there’s the very early Small Faces. Family had some good stuff. Rory Gallagher. Taste. Patto. I loved their records but never saw them live. I liked Ollie Halsall; he was a great guitar player who’s virtually unknown to the masses. Another important band was the early Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan; that was the stuff for me.
Speaking of The Beatles, you were famously a part of the sessions for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy album and played on “I’m Losing You” and “Yoko’s “I’m Moving On.” Thinking back to those sessions, are there things you wished you had told or asked John about?
Rick Nielsen: Well, I did tell him I wanted to take him guitar shopping. Everybody would tell John, “Yes John, Yes John.” He had those kind of “yes” men around him and with a guy like that nobody tells him what to do.
I wasn’t telling him what to do but I was like, “You’ve gotta get away from playing this Veleno guitar. You’re John Lennon!”
I was gonna help him look around for guitars; that’s why he asked me for a guitar and I loaned him my guitar. It was a Fender Telecaster string-bender; he’d never seen one of those before. So I said, “here” and I loaned it to him and got it back three years later from Yoko. He played that guitar on the Double Fantasy sessions. I also had a white Hamer guitar made for him, which I sent to him.
Of course there are things I wish I had spoken to him about. But even more important is I never got a picture with him. Man, I wish I got a picture with him. This was before the days of having a phone with a camera on it. He gladly would have taken a picture. It’s something I regret, not having a photo taken with John. I was there, and the fact that I didn’t get a photo is a big regret. I don’t need to prove it anybody but that would have been a cool photo. We were talking about guitars, we were talking about mellotrons, we were talking about kids. The day I did that session was the day my son Daxx was born.
In Cheap Trick’s formative years, you were the main songwriter with an occasional contribution from Robin Zander or Tom Petersson. In the past 15-20 years, the writing team has been much more collaborative. What prompted this?
Rick Nielsen: It was easier to do and took a weight off my shoulders from being expected to do everything. Doing it as a collaboration works well now. It took some pressure off of me and it was more of a band thing. For the next album I plan to write a lot more.
With Robin and Tom stepping up as writers, what do they bring to the table?
Rick Nielsen: They have energy and they have songs and ideas they want to get across. Cheap Trick is a band and we finish things. If Tom brings in something, it might not end up exactly how he envisioned when he first gave it to us because we all contribute to it. Without us in it it doesn’t start up the same or end up the same. The good thing is everyone in the band is open to ideas from the others.
Having written songs for the past five decades, is it tougher to come up with a great song today?
Rick Nielsen: I don’t think it was ever easy. When you write songs, you don’t think, “boy, this is a great song.” I think I’m way past that. I just try and write songs. You can’t go, “I’ve gotta sit down and write a single.” You can’t do that.
Someone may say, “Hey Rick, can you write something cool?” And I’m like, “Fast cool, slow cool, ¾ cool, funny lyrics, sad lyrics, no lyrics, instrumental, fast, slow…?” Oh my God, there’s so many choices!
I hope everything has a bit of cool about it and that’s what I like to try and get across. I mean, on this new record, I wrote some things, and a song may not get discovered for 25 years. Does that mean it was a bad idea 25 years ago? (laughs) “Dream Police” was written three albums before it was released. “I Want You To Want Me” was written during our pre-record contract club days.
Every songwriter consciously or unconsciously recycles their work. Given that, have you ever realized a song or main idea of a song you wrote was borrowed from an older one of yours, and that this newly reconfigured song/idea is even better than the original source?
Rick Nielsen: Well, the middle part of “Dream Police” was taken from a song called “Ultra Mental.” I had a double-neck guitar and Tom and I would play dueling basses. It was just a section of the song and I thought, “Well, we’ll never play that one again” but the middle part was good and the idea was cool for “Dream Police.” So there’s a good example.
Pick the most overlooked Cheap Trick album that didn’t get its due.
Rick Nielsen: There’s a few. Maybe the Red Ant record, the self-titled Cheap Trick album from 1997. Rockford is another good one. There was some good stuff on Next Position Please. I mean, there’s good stuff on every record but there’s some bad stuff on every record too, probably. (laughs)
You have one of the most unique and arresting images in rock and roll. The baseball cap and bow tie…knowing you were not likely to be pegged as a heartthrob —
Rick Nielsen: (interrupts) What?! (laughs)
When did you first come to the realization to embrace the weird, the quirky and be a first class version of yourself, not a copy?
Rick Nielsen: I don’t know that I wanted to be me but I never wanted to be anyone else, so there you go.
I played it up for showmanship. I still play it up that I’m the best looking guy in the band. (laughs) The box tie? I’m playing in a band and I don’t want to look crappy all the time; it’s like getting dressed up and going to school. I never wanted to be like anybody else and I’d be sad if anybody wanted to look like me. (laughs)
Once you made it, what was your most extravagant purchase?
Rick Nielsen: In 1978 I bought a 1955 Ford Thunderbird which I still have today. That was my first extravagance. I always pour every other nickel and penny I ever had into guitars. And then in 1979 I bought a house, so there you go.
OK, tough question. You’re a well-known major guitar collector. You have to sell off all your guitars but one, which do you keep and why?
Rick Nielsen: I guess it would depend on how much money someone would pay me for the guitars. But if I had to get rid of all of them except one, for sentimental reasons I’d probably keep my ’55 Gibson Les Paul GoldTop. I bought it in ’65 for sixty five dollars. They were probably two hundred and ten dollars new in 1955, so sixty five dollars for a used guitar in ’65 was cheap but it wasn’t like I was out of the question. I used that guitar on our records early on but I haven’t played it in years — but I still have it.
What’s the last song that you heard that you said, “I wish I wrote that’?
Rick Nielsen: That’s a tough one…Let me see…Okay, how about “10538 Overture” by Electric Light Orchestra.
That one inspired “Downed” by Cheap Trick, right?
Rick Nielsen: Oh yeah, kind of. It has that flavor.
Speaking of ELO, it would have been interesting had Jeff Lynne accepted the role of producer when the band offered it to him while you were getting ready to record the album Woke Up With A Monster.
Rick Nielsen: Yeah, it would have been cool. If that happened, I always say, we’d be more famous than Tom Petty right now. (laughs)
If you could have been a fly on the wall to witness one day of recording for anyone in history, what artist /album would you choose?
Rick Nielsen: I’ll pick Are You Experienced by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. I’m happy to say that I saw Hendrix live three times. The first time I saw him live he played in Madison, Wisconsin with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Soft Machine opened for him at a place called The Factory, which ended up being our office for 25 years.
That first time, he did two shows and I saw both of them. It was three dollars and fifty cents to get in but I got in for free because Ken Adamany (future Cheap Trick manager) booked that venue. Then I saw him two more times, once when he was playing with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox.