Cheap Trick – Cheap Trick
Released February, 1977 on Epic Records
Sometime in February of 1977, one of the more interesting journeys in rock ‘n’ roll began. Cheap Trick, a power pop band from Rockford, Illinois, released a self-titled debut with a black-and-white cover; unassuming as hell, and yet as vital as anything else released during that fabled year. The band would go on to get big in Japan, want you to want them, and flame out in the Eighties on a power ballad, only to achieve a weird kind of undead half-life from the mid-Nineties onward. Cheap Trick is where that starts, however, and their lasting power is directly evident from the start.
First of all, power pop is sort of a problematic term for them. It’s a term used to dance around punk rock without having to hold your nose about it. Punk rock is indelibly coded as requiring a certain look: spiked hair, ripped clothing, blatantly anti-social imagery. Also a necessary factor: a certain speed of song, a certain tone of guitar, a certain snarled English accent. Thanks Malcolm McLaren. Thanks Rancid. Thanks Exploited (sincerely). Power pop, then, is what you call a punk band that doesn’t look like UK hardcore circa 1981. You’ve got that loud guitar and that edgy lyrical outlook, but you don’t pound away at three chords and you might not be from Leeds. Think of Elvis Costello, Blondie, The Cars, and so on: they were, in 1977 (or a year later for the Cars), just as cutting-edge and pointed as the stuff typically labelled “punk rock”. With regard to the above definition, however, how can you call Blondie “punk rock”? It’s half disco ferchrissakes.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Cheap Trick is just as punk rock as the Sex Pistols and the Clash. In that strangely portentous year (birthing punk rock and hip hop in the same squalid atmosphere), it is highly reflective of the cynical, jaded themes being generated by Western culture as a whole. “ELO Kiddies” is pure teenage degeneracy, delivered dripping with menace. “Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School” shows Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed And Confused to be a pure creep. “Taxman, Mr. Thief” is anti-government; “Oh Candy” deals with the suicide of a close friend of the band. “He’s A Whore” turns Robin Zander into a gigolo; “The Ballad Of TV Violence (I’m Not The Only Boy)” turns him into Richard Speck. It’s not all edgy material and heavy guitar, of course; tracks like “Cry, Cry” and “Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace” manage to get by with just the heavy guitar. The only reason that this album isn’t considered a punk rock classic is because Robin Zander sang a little too classic rock and the band’s lover of checker design and five-necked guitars made them seem perhaps a bit too nerdy and overindulgent. Plus, Bun E. Carlos looks like an insurance salesman and Rick Nielsen goes out of his way to be as utterly corny as possible every given moment of the day. Still, music is about music at the end of the day, regardless of how one’s perception of the makers colours and shapes the music for the listener.
Cheap Trick would be the start of an impressive five-album run that took them to 1979 and include the best live album ever recorded, At Budokan. This debut is on the whole edgier than their later recordings, although of course “Auf Wiedersehen” would outsnarl anything here or elsewhere. It’s a perfect match in tone, however, for 1977, a year that in retrospect seems as though it was dominated by menace and a sense that, under the modern sheen of the contemporary capitalist world-economy, there was serious turmoil bubbling under.