The Second Best Rock Band Ever


Cheap Trick. Of Rockford, Illinois.

Why? Well, if you really want the answer, stop reading this damn article and put on the entire Cheap Trick at Budokan, reissued by Epic/Sony with outtakes not on the original vinyl, and a DVD. Don't take it off until you've heard the entire thing five times, all the way through. But, on the odd chance that you aren't going to do that, read on. The best place to start when considering all the great things Cheap Trick is, is to catalog what they're not.

They're not blues influenced. They're not folkies. They ain't techno, and there is not a dribble of jazz in these boys. They're not serious, but they're not frivolous. They are not a band for dancing, and I don't think any punk rockers in their right mind would want to be seen in the same state with them. They are well outside any rock snobs purview. I doubt, until now, they've ever been mentioned in the same sentence with Captain Beefheart (more likely Captain & Tennille.) I could go on and on.

But, at this point, I'll interject. They have the coolest logo of any band (sorry lips). Once, when I was on a rare visit to San Francisco and I was wearing my prized Cheap Trick jersey, a guy crossing the street yelled out to me, Greatest Rock Band Ever! He was almost right. But second greatest is not chopped liver, as they say in certain sections of New York City. Before I spell out the key to the band's magic, I'll circle around it with one essential clue. Someone I know relates a story of how Pete Townshend took a vintage Fender Telecaster and a vintage Fender Twin-Reverb amp and said, "you know, it's amazing, both of these were around in the '50s and" -- at which point Townshend turned both up to ten and against the hum of the tubes, slammed his fist on the strings, causing a truly Who-like rumble to emerge, and then he continued, "but nobody ever bothered to do that."

That explosion of pure electricity, pitch, rhythm, tone and volume linked up like an A-bomb, that's the key to Cheap Trick. They are all about guitars turned up loud, no mistaking them for nuance. Even when they try to do sensitive, like in the dirty pleasure genre they practically invented, the power ballad, they aren't really very good at dynamics. But here comes the real lodestone of the Cheap Trick question: Who needs nuance when you've got Bun E.? That's right, Bun E. Carlos, the weird drummer. The thwacking, whacking, pounding, propulsive, pile-driver on meth drummer that both anchors and ignites the band, that's the key. Kind of reminds you of Moon, Starr, Watts, Bonham, no? Precisely. Banging on things is the primal fire of Rock. And of Cheap Trick.

But while this is metal, especially in the capable, even virtuoso hands of maniac Rick Nielson, this is not death metal, heavy metal, or stoner metal. This is the last of the great American passenger trains hurtling hundreds of tons of steel through the mountain passes of Colorado in the late-sixties and you're in the observation car taking it all in metal. Power and beauty, more Archies than Arcade Fire. But, don't kid yourself, the pop bombast that fuels everyone from Arcade to Radiohead to Floyd inspires this greatest of stadium rockers. It's all here, kiddies, it's all here. Cheap Trick's music will never be made into a Broadway musical, it will not be played on the National Mall in Washington D.C. and probably won't pass muster at Glastonbury. It's juvenile and simple and a dirty, dark pleasure, like the Seeds' "Pushing Too Hard" and the Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction" (or Lester Bangs's Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung).

In the end, only the boys themselves can really sum it up:

"Whatever happened to all this season's/Losers of the year/Every time I got to thinking/Where'd they disappear/Then I woke up, Mom and Dad/Are rolling on the couch/Rolling numbers, rock and rolling/Got my Kiss records out."

Not music for grown ups. Thank goodness. (Oh, and while I'm at it, why aren't these guys in the Rock Hall of Fame? Oh, and while I'm at it, why aren't Alice Cooper or Mountain or Lester Bangs for heaven's sakes? But that's grist for another mill.)