Originally finished: June 7th, 2014
Updated: May 18th, 2016 to add new album

Cheap Trick

An upcoming Cheap Trick show in Lancaster, PA has gotten me listening to a lot of Cheap Trick lately. I figured as long as I'm listening to everything, I might as well write an overly-opinionated web page about it. In case you somehow found your way to this page without knowing much about Cheap Trick, here's an overview:

The band formed in the Rockford, Illinois area when guitarist Rick Nielsen, bassist Tom Petersson and drummer Brad Carlson (aka Bun E. Carlos) convinced vocalist Robin Zander to quit his day job and join their band, which had recently been renamed from Sick Man of Europe to Cheap Trick. The band quickly gained a reputation in the midwest for live shows featuring their quirky on-stage personas and their hard-edged pop music that blended the energy and attitude of punk rock with the melodic hooks and musicianship of classic rock. They eventually came to the notice of Epic records, who signed them to a deal. Between 1977 and 1978 they released three studio albums and had a minor hit single with the song "Surrender". If the band's story ended there, they would have long since faded into obscurity. But then came a tour of Japan...

While the band were only moderately successful in the United States, in Japan they were known as "the American Beatles". During their 1978 tour of that country they were mobbed by fans wherever they went and in concert they were confronted with thousands of screaming Japanese girls. A couple of the concerts at Budokan arena in Tokyo were recorded and released as a live album simply called Cheap Trick at Budokan. The album was originally intended for release only in Japan, but demand built up domestically and when it was finally released in the States it became a bestseller, spawning one of the biggest hit singles of the 70s from the live version of "I Want You to Want Me". The band quickly went from opening act to superstar headliners. The next studio album, Dream Police, was also a big hit.

Unfortunately, that level of success proved to be fleeting and eventually bassist Tom Petersson decided to leave the band. They hired Jon Brandt as the new bassist and had a bit of a rebound when the newly created MTV put the power ballad "If You Want My Love" in heavy rotation. The problem was that Epic now became convinced that Cheap Trick's strength was in doing love songs. So they kept pushing the band to do that kind of music all through the 1980s and into the early 90s, even going as far as hiring outside songwriters to try to write hits for the band. To some degree it worked, as the band did have hits with "Tonight It's You" and especially "The Flame", and even lured Petersson back. But the band wasn't always happy with the music they were playing, and each new album seemed blander and blander.

Finally the band switched labels and eventually went independent, returning to a harder-rocking sound. They've been at it ever since - touring, releasing live albums and the occasional new studio album. Hopefully they'll continue to do so for a long time to come (despite a recent feud between Bun E. Carlos and the rest of the band).

And now, on to the individual albums:

Cover image of Cheap Trick's debut album

Cheap Trick (1977)

The band's debut disc sounds kind of like the Beatles doing a punk album. It's much harder sounding stuff than they would become known for later - as someone who first got into the band in the early 80s and then backtracked through their catalog, this album came as a bit of a shock. I actually didn't like it for the first few listens, but it grew on me.

The track titles "ELO Kiddies" (pronounced like a dropped-h "Hello Kiddies") and "Taxman, Mr. Thief" show the British influence, while titles like "He's a Whore" and "The Ballad of TV Violence" give an idea where the band was coming from musically. The Beatles influence turned out to be indirect - Rick Nielsen's songwriting bears a large debt to British musician Roy Wood, who himself was highly influenced by the Beatles. Over the years, Cheap Trick have covered multiple songs by Wood's band The Move, and his involvement in founding the Electric Light Orchestra might explain the spelling of the track "ELO Kiddies".

From the start the band developed stage personas, which can be seen on the cover of the debut album. Brad Carlson became Bun E. Carlos (an early radio ad included in the Sex America Cheap Trick boxed set reveals that his full first name is Bunezuela), a chain-smoking drummer who wore a tie and looked more like an off-duty accountant than a rock star (Bevis and Butthead, while watching a Cheap Trick video, once joked that if you saw Carlos at a grocery store, you'd say "Excuse me sir, where's the light beer"?) Zander and Petersson were the good-looking guys, and Nielsen was the nerd, wearing a bow tie, sweater and a baseball cap with the brim turned up, basically looking like a 50s kid who suddenly found himself as a rock star.

I don't listen to the debut album all that often, but if I had to pick some standout tracks from it I'd probably go with "He's a Whore", "Mandocello" (which is as close as that first album gets to a ballad), "ELO Kiddies" and "Oh, Candy" (which took me years to figure out is about a friend dying of a drug overdose).

Cover image of In Color album Back Cover image of In Color album

In Color (1977)

I guess technically the full title of this album is "In Color and in Black and White", if you read both the front and back covers. Further emphasizing the band members' personas, the front cover showed Zander and Petersson as the cool, handsome guys on big motorcycles, while the back cover showed Carlos and Nielsen as the nerds on tiny scooters. The band would repeat this theme on other album covers over the years.

Musically, I'd say the album was a step up from the debut, but I might just have that opinion because many of the songs from this disc went on to make up the bulk of the Live at Budokan album - "Hello There" (which did double duty on the live album, both opening the show and closing it as "Goodnight"), "Big Eyes", "Clock Strikes Ten", "Come On Come On" and of course "I Want You to Want Me".

If you heard the live album first (as most American listeners probably did), then the original studio version of "I Want You to Want Me" almost sounds like a parody. It's very "whimpy" by comparison, coming across as a limp country song. It's amazing how different it was in concert. For that matter, this entire album has been criticized as being too light and poppy sounding, especially compared to their first album. Personally, I've always liked the sound of In Color, except for that weak-ass "I Want You to Want Me". The band disliked the production of this album so much that years later they went back into a studio with a different producer who was known for recording "heavier" music and re-recorded the whole album. I'm not sure if that ever got officially released or not, but it was leaked to the internet and widely traded.

Cover image of Heaven Tonight album Back Cover image of Heaven Tonight album

Heaven Tonight (1978)

This is sort of the Goldilocks of early Cheap Trick albums - while the debut may have been a little too raw and heavy, and In Color was criticized for being too light and poppish, on this album they made an effort to get it "just right". And it paid off, with the song "Surrender" becoming a minor hit and even getting a mention in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The cover art imitates the previous album with Zander and Petersson on the front, looking somewhat dreamy in their dressing room. Meanwhile the back cover reveals that just to their left Nielsen is brushing his teeth and Carlos is adjusting his tie.

The album starts off strong with "Surrender" and another good rocker "On Top of the World". It continues with a great cover of the Move's "California Man" and eventually gets to one of the most twisted tracks in Cheap Trick's entire catalog, "Auf Wiedersehen". That song says goodbye in various languages to a suicidal listener, and makes no effort to talk them out of it - in fact, it appears to be encouraging suicide. I've never quite known what to make of that song, but I usually end it cranking it up when it comes on.

Side two of the album goes back to the upbeat, poppy sound of In Color. Songs like "Takin' Me Back", "On the Radio" and "How Are You" sound custom-made to be inoffensive radio hits. The only song that I don't really go for is the title track, which is a kind of creepy sounding promise to the ladies that if they'll sleep with the narrator, he'll make sure they get to heaven tonight.

Cover image of Live at Budokan album Back Cover image of Live at Budokan album

At Budokan (1978)

Recorded in concert in April 1978, released in Japan in '78 and finally released in the United States in early 1979, this is the album that really put Cheap Trick on the map. It's the perfect blend of pop hooks and hard rockin' energy, topped off with a frenzied audience full of Japanese girls screaming for "Wobin!" (Robin Zander).

The album cover continued the trend of the previous two albums, showing Zander (in what is possibly the worst picture ever taken of him - he looks like a bloated, stoned Tom Petty) and Petersson on the front and Nielsen and Carlos on the back. However this time no one looks too nerdy - these guys are rock stars in their element.

The set list is about as perfect as a rock concert can get - it opens with a song tailor-made to open concerts, "Hello There", and closes with the same song but with the lyrics changed from "Hello there ladies and gentlemen" to "Goodnight now ladies and gentlemen". In between we get stormin' rock and roll numbers ("Come On, Come On", "Lookout", "Big Eyes", "Surrender"), a perfect-for-radio pop number ("I Want You to Want Me"), a brooding, extended song (remember, this was the tail end of the prog-rock era when 10+ minute songs were not uncommon) in "Need Your Love" and an updated cover of a rock classic in "Ain't That a Shame". All topped off with an encore of "Clock Strikes Ten", which was apparently a huge hit in Japan.

If I had to put together a list of the ten best live albums of the 70s (and that decade generated a lot of great live albums), this would definitely be on it. Maybe not at the top, but up there. This was a career-defining record, as shown by the fact that the recordings of this concert have been released four times (so far) - there's this album, Budokan II, The Complete Concert and the Budokan! boxed set. If you're only going to buy one Cheap Trick album, this is the one to get (and it'll probably make you want to get more).

Cover image of the Dream Police Album Back Cover image of the Dream Police Album

Dream Police (1979)

But what if you wanted to get just one Cheap Trick album and were one of those weird people who don't like live albums? Then Dream Police would be the album to have. I know tastes in music are subjective, and I've even read reviews from people who are of the opinion that Dream Police is one of the band's worst albums, or that this is where the decline began. Those people are wrong. Just flat out wrong. This album is a powerhouse that rocks from beginning to end.

I remember buying this album on cassette during my freshman year of college (which is how I first acquired most of my Cheap Trick collection) and listening to the thing non-stop for weeks. I probably wore that tape out long before replacing it with a CD. Let's look at the track listing, shall we?

"Dream Police" - you must have heard this song at some point. If you like it, you'll probably like the entire album. If you don't like it...what are you doing reading a page about Cheap Trick? "Way of the World" - holy crap is that a great song or what? "The House is Rockin' (With Domestic Problems)" - when you put Rockin' in the title, you better have a kick-ass song to back it up, and in this case they certainly did (as an aside, when I recently found out about the band's current feud with Bun E. Carlos, I found a web article about it and in the comment section some clever fan had written "Sounds like Cheap Trick's house is rockin' with domestic problems"). And they're not done kicking your ass yet, as the next track is a lengthy, orchestrated number called "Gonna Raise Hell". The band was taking no prisoners on this album.

The back half of the album features the beautiful song "Voices" - I was playing that on the stereo one day when a guy who lived on my dorm floor but who I'd never met before just popped his head in my door and said "Isn't that the sweetest song ever...man, those vocals" and then moved on. The only questionable track on the album is another one that's basically an extended brag about the singer's sexual powers, "I Know What I Want" (and I Know How to Get It, is how the lyrics continue), but even that song is a guilty pleasure. And then the album wraps up with a studio version of the centerpiece of the Budokan album, "Need Your Love".

I guess I can see why some fans of the earlier records didn't embrace this one. It does seem a bit overproduced compared to their first three studio albums, and there are orchestral parts on nearly every track (although I bet you never thought an orchestra could sound as menacing as they do on "Gonna Raise Hell"), so it was a bit of a departure from the band's past. But for my money, they cooked up one of the best studio albums of the 70s with this one.

Oh yeah, this album cover broke the streak of two guys on the front, two guys on the back - this time the full band was on both the front cover (dressed as policemen in white) and the back cover (as potential criminals or victims).

Cover image of the Found All the Parts EP

Found All the Parts (1980)

I still remember finding this four-song EP on cassette in a little Mom and Pop record store and for some reason thinking I had stumbled upon a great rarity. In a sense I did, because this EP was out of print for ages before it was included on the remastered CD of All Shook Up. Until just recently I had always been under the impression that this EP had been released after All Shook Up, but apparently it actually came out not long after Dream Police.

There's not much to say about this one. Side one features two live tracks, a cover of the Beatles' "Day Tripper" and the previously unreleased "Can't Hold On" (a leftover from the Budokan concerts - you can tell because it starts with super-high-pitched screams of "Wobin!"). The latter is a great, bluesy number and the former is a decent cover tune. Both tracks have since been included on other albums ("Day Tripper" on the Sex America Cheap Trick boxed set and "Can't Hold On" on the later Budokan concert releases). I've read that "Day Tripper" was actually recorded in a studio - supposedly the band wasn't happy with the original concert performance, so they re-recorded it and dubbed in the audience noise from the original recording. If that's true, they must have gone out of their way to make that studio recording really sound like a live performance.

The back side of the tape contained two previously unreleased studio tracks, "Such a Good Girl" and "Take Me I'm Yours". Wikipedia says they were recorded "between December 1979 and January 1980", but gives no further information. I don't know if they were intended for a new album that was abandoned or what, but I can understand why they weren't used. They aren't terrible songs, but they're not much to write home about either. In that sense, this EP makes the perfect transition from the glory days and live heights of the Budokan era into the "eh, it's OK" stuff that was to come. At any rate, this EP pretty much marked the end of Cheap Trick's classic era.

Cover image of All Shook Up album

All Shook Up (1980)

As the 70s gave way to the 80s, everything seemed to be going Cheap Trick's way. They had a few hit songs, a hit studio album and a monster live album. Even better, John Lennon had asked them to help record his next album, and legendary Beatles producer George Martin had been lined up to produce the next Cheap Trick album. What could go wrong?

Well, the big problem was that they didn't really have any good songs for the new album. Maybe they were burnt out after three years of non-stop activity. Maybe they had used up all their good songs on their first five albums. Maybe they felt like they had to stretch out a bit and try some music that was a little more experimental. For whatever reason, the end result was an album that isn't terrible or even all that bad, but was probably the least satisfying thing the band had done up to that point.

The first half of the album has some decent, fairly straightforward rock songs like "Stop This Game" and "Baby Loves to Rock". For some reason "World's Greatest Lover" seems to be the song from this album that gets a lot of fan praise, but it's possibly my least favorite track on the disc. I've always liked the back half of the album, where the songs started getting a little weirder. The title "High Priest of Rhythmic Noise" kind of describes the entire album - a lot of it seems to be driven by the drums and percussion. That song features odd vocals that were run through a vocoder or synthesizer or something to make them sound totally robotic. "Love Comes A-Tumblin' Down" is catchy, and then the next two tracks ("I Love You Honey But I Hate Your Friends" and "Go For The Throat (Use Your Own Imagination)" are blistering rockers. The album wraps up with the oddball "Who D'King?" which just features the band chanting "Who's the king of the whole wide world" over pulsing, tribal drumming. Back in college a friend of mine fell in love with that song and we used to crank it up and chant along with it.

One review I read about the album put forth the interesting theory that each song is meant to be a parody of some famous 70s band or song. For example, the reviewer thought that "Who D'King" was specifically making fun of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk". I'd love to ask Rick Nielsen sometime if there's any truth to that.

All in all it's not a bad album, and certainly worth hearing if you're a Cheap Trick fan, but I can see why a lot of people were disappointed with it when it first came out. On top of that, just after the album was released bassist Tom Petersson left to record a record with his wife. Coming into this album, things looked good. But afterwards, the outlook wasn't so rosy.

Cover image of One on One album

One On One (1982)

The cover of this album put an interesting twist on the front/back theme that the band often used - this time each member of the band held up a mirror and the cover shows the four mirrors reflecting back the images of the four band members. A (possibly intentional) side effect of this is that new bassist Jon Brandt is partially obscured behind Rick Nielsen's mirror, making him look more like Tom Petersson.

When this album came out, the still-new MTV had gone from a novelty to a juggernaut. By 1982 you couldn't really have a big hit album unless you had a video that was in heavy rotation on MTV. Possibly because of that, Roy Thomas Baker was hired as the producer for this album. Baker had had success with the Cars, turning them into MTV favorites. And he worked his magic on Cheap Trick - both "If You Want My Love" (you got it) and to a lesser degree "She's Tight" became hit songs after their videos where shown frequently on MTV. However Baker's production also drastically changed the band's sound - the drums sound more like a drum machine and everything sounds very synthesized, just like the Cars did at the time. Personally, I think it works for Cheap Trick, but that might be because this was one of the first Cheap Trick albums I ever bought, based largely on liking the MTV videos (which, oddly, I can't remember at all any more). The album must have come as a shock to long-time fans of the band.

Due to the MTV exposure, this album returned the band to mainstream popularity. I remember getting a ride home from an amusement park from a high school friend in the summer of '82 (or it might have been '83) and he had One on One in his cassette player. Turned out we both really liked the album. In addition to the two hits, there was the pulse-pounding opening track "I Want You", the catchy title song, the heavy "Lookin' Out For Number One", the bizarre "I Want Be Man" and the live-sounding closer "Four Letter Word". In fact, it might just be nostalgia talking, but I'd say there isn't a weak track on this one, as long as the very 80s-sounding production doesn't put you off.

The down side to all this is that the success of "If You Want My Love" convinced the music label suits that the band's strength was the power ballad. From this point until the band finally left Epic, the label kept meddling with them, insisting that they do more love songs and power ballads. If the band wouldn't (or couldn't) comply, the label brought in outside songwriters to try to write those power ballad hits for them. So in that sense, this album was the beginning of the long, slow decline into blandness that marked the 1980s and early 90s for Cheap Trick.

Cover image of Next Position Please album Back Cover image of Next Position Please album

Next Position Please (1983)

After finding success with the very MTV-friendly One on One album, the band oddly chose to go in a completely different direction with this album and brought in 70s pop star Todd Rundgren to produce. The result was a very bubblegum-pop sounding album that is actually pretty good (and is apparently a favorite of the band themselves, as they still play songs from this album in concert to this day) but which sounded very out of step with the times in 1983. Because of that, it didn't generate any hit songs and quickly faded into obscurity. Despite buying the albums that preceded and followed this one, I had no idea this disc even existed until I stumbled across it in a record store several years after it came out.

I'm glad I did eventually find it though, because there are a lot of good songs on here. The Zander-penned "I Can't Take It" was apparently a minor hit (although I never heard it on the radio), "Borderline" is very catchy, the almost-explicitly filthy title track is a guilty pleasure and "Younger Girls" is one of those tunes that gets stuck in your head, as is "You Say Jump". I've always liked "Dancing the Night Away", although apparently it's a cover song that the band was forced to record by the record label because they thought it would be a hit. My favorite track though is the goofy "Invaders of the Heart" which starts out with the band counting off the song and then accidentally launching into the Who's "My Generation". Eventually they start playing the right song and when it gets to the bridge Robin Zander yells "Take it Rick!" In response, Nielsen starts counting the bars, getting all they way to 32 before handing the vocals back to Zander. When the song starts to wind down, Bun E. Carlos refuses to let it end and keeps launching the band back into action with a series of drum fills. When it finally does come to a stop, you can hear someone (Zander?) tell Rundgren "You've got your choice of lousy endings now".

The cover concept is once again clever - each band member is leaning on the next until Nielsen is forced off the edge of the cover, but it's OK because his trademark double-necked guitar that looks like him is front and center of the picture. And when you turn the album over, there's the cut-off part of Rick leaning into view next to the track titles. I never realized it, but according to Wikipedia this cover is supposed to be a parody of the cover of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run album.

Cover image of Standing on the Edge album

Standing on the Edge (1985)

For this album the band returned to the producer of their early records hoping to get back to a more hard-edged, rock and roll sound. Said producer had to leave before the album was finished though, and the new producer decided to replace a lot of Carlos' drums with drum machines and add a lot of synthesizers to make the album sound more like the successful One on One. The result was a very 80s sounding album that generated the hit power ballad "Tonight It's You", further reinforcing the impression that that was what the band was all about.

I bought this album on cassette my freshman year of college, and I have to admit that I listened to that thing practically non-stop from late 1985 into 1986. Part of the reason was that I only owned a handful of tapes and listened to my walkman cassette player every day while walking to class, but I actually did like this album a lot (and still do). The lyrics are pretty much obsessed with sex, which you can tell just from the song titles - "She's Got Motion", "Cover Girl", "Wild Wild Women", etc. Even the title track is about waking up to find a woman standing on the edge of the bed. Oddly, the nature of the lyrics never really made much of an impression on me back when the album first came out - I just liked the music.

Knowing the back story of this album, I can hear the hard-rock version of the music hiding behind the 80s trappings. I'd like to hear the band re-record this one (like they did with In Color) to make it more like what they originally intended. It'd probably be an interesting album. There's an idea - the band should re-record all their songs that were "meddled with" for commercial reasons and put out a boxed set of the music as they originally intended it. I'd buy that.

Cover image of the Doctor album

The Doctor (1986)

This is where the band started to bottom out - many consider it to be the worst album they ever recorded. It has a couple decent songs, but mostly it's just a really bland, really mediocre, really 80s sounding album. Despite being a pretty big Cheap Trick fan when this album came out, it was years before I got around to buying it, and even then it was only because I found a really cheap used copy.

That said, the song "Take Me to the Top" is actually a really good track. "Rearview Mirror Romance" is also pretty good. In fact there are only a couple real stinkers on this disc. I'd say "Man-U-Lip-U-Lator" falls in that category, as does "Kiss Me Red" which is the only track on the album written entirely by outside songwriters. That song confused me when I first heard this album because the Jeff Lynne-less version of ELO (known as ELO Part 2) had also recorded the same song on their debut disc, and since I had delayed buying The Doctor for so long I ended up getting those two albums at almost the same time. I couldn't figure out who was covering who. From what I've read, yet another version of the song was used as the theme song to a short-lived TV series - it's a crappy song, why have so many versions of it been recorded?

The real problem with this album is that it's just really generic sounding - it could have been any 80s band that recorded this. By this point Cheap Trick had been chasing the hit single and trying to appease their record label for so long that they barely sounded like Cheap Trick any more.

When the band did their 25th anniversary concert (as documented on the Silver album), they played at least one song from each of their albums. They wisely picked "Take Me to the Top" from this disc, and when they were done performing it, Rick Nielsen commented "Now who says The Doctor was a bad album? Only every critic in the United States, but what do they know?" I don't know that it's a bad album so much as just a very forgettable one. But worse was yet to come.

Cover image of Lap of Luxury album Back Cover image of Lap of Luxury album

Lap of Luxury (1988)

In an attempt to "fix" the band's problems, the record company insisted on using a lot of outside songwriters for this album. One result of that was another mega-hit power ballad, "The Flame". It was one of the biggest songs of the 80s, and is probably the band's second best known song after "I Want You to Want Me". In other good news, the band's original bassist Tom Petersson returned for this album, so the band was back to its original line-up. The album even managed to spawn a second minor hit in a cover version of Elvis' "Don't Be Cruel".

The downside of all this is that, most likely because of all the "help" the band got, this is another album that hardly sounds like Cheap Trick at all. It's mostly just bland, forgettable 80s pop. The first few tracks, "Let Go", "No Mercy" and "The Flame" range from OK to good, but after that the album just kind of meanders though a bunch of average, blah songs and the above mentioned Elvis cover. There's very little to get excited about on this album - so much so that I never bought a copy of it, and the only reason it's in my collection at all is because my sister bought it for "The Flame", and when she got sick of that song she gave me her CD.

Interestingly, with the return of Petersson the band fell back into their old habit of having Robin and Tom on the front cover and Rick and Bun E. on the back, and the album generated a big hit. I'm not saying there's any cause and effect there, but maybe the band should consider always doing their covers that way. Note how excited they look about this album on the cover.

Cover image of the Busted album

Busted (1990)

Then again, maybe that cover scheme doesn't always generate a winner - this album had Zander and Petersson on the front standing in front of pictures of Nielsen and Carlos (and vice versa on the back), but the album was still a lemon. It sold relatively well (probably due to new fans gained via "The Flame") and the song "Can't Stop Falling into Love" was a minor hit. But overall this was another weak, forgettable album. The hired songwriters dominate, leading to a so-so pop album that sounds little like Cheap Trick. The title, awful as it is, was very appropriate - the band was busted at this point, both in the sense of being broken and bankrupt of musical ideas.

If I had to find a song from this one to praise, I guess "I Can't Understand It" is kind of memorable, and guest vocalist Chrissy Hynde almost makes "Walk Away" a decent ballad. But if I had to pick a single Cheap Trick CD from my collection to just throw out the window and never listen to again, this would be the one. I'd say it's easily their worst album.

Following this disc, Epic Records finally dumped Cheap Trick, which turned out to be probably the best thing that could have happened to them.

Cover image of the Budokan II album

Budokan II (1993)

A couple years after unceremoniously dumping the band from the label, Epic trolled through the archives and decided to cash in on Cheap Trick one more time. They slapped a cheap-looking cover on the the nine songs recorded at that famous Budokan concert that weren't included on the original album and released it as Budokan II. Since the original disc focused on the more pop-friendly songs from the set list, this one is more of a hard-edged rock album. The band was as surprised as anyone to see this album appear 15 years after the event, and they quickly disowned it and made it clear that it was released without their approval.

Regardless of that though, it's a pretty good album. It'd be hard to go wrong with anything recorded at that Budokan show. That said, the label still tried their hardest to make a mess of it by including three songs that weren't recorded at Budokan (they come from the following year's tour in support of the Dream Police album) - "Stiff Competition", "On Top of the World" and "How Are You?" But those songs all come from the pre-Budokan albums and are great performances, so they blend in well with the other songs.

Eventually both of the Budokan albums would be combined by the band and released as The Complete Concert, with the songs re-arranged back into the order of the original performance and some additional stage announcements and whatnot added in. So this Budokan II disc is now basically obsolete except for those three non-Budokan tracks.

Cover image of the Woke Up With a Monster album

Woke Up With a Monster (1994)

As the 1990s wore on, the band took one more swing at the big time by signing with Warner Brothers and releasing this album, which was a much heavier effort than their previous few albums and did away for the most part with the hired songwriters and pop trappings. The result is an album that is actually pretty good - in my opinion, the best thing they had done since Standing on the Edge. The problem is that Warner Brothers did absolutely nothing to promote it. I became aware of its existence was by finding it in a discount CD rack at a drugstore a couple years later, that's how well promoted this album was. That awful cover picture certainly didn't help.

To be honest, it took a few listens for this album to grow on me. I had gotten so used to the bland pop Cheap Trick that this harder rocking, almost grungy version threw me for a while. The lyrics are also a darker than usual - the album's title track tells the tale of a guy who goes to bed with a beautiful girl, and the next morning realizes that she's an emotional train wreck due to childhood abuse. "Ride the Pony" is also really dark and deranged sounding. On the other hand, the album's opener "My Gang" is a pretty catchy song, and "Girlfriends" has a chorus that gets stuck in your head. Other than that, none of the song titles are really sparking any memories in me right now, but when I listened to the album just recently I was surprised at how good it was.

The deal with Warner Brothers didn't last very long - after this album sank without a trace the band soon found themselves without a major label deal again. This time, for good.

Cover image of Sex America Cheap Trick boxed set

Sex America Cheap Trick (1996)

This boxed set of the Epic years makes a strong argument for the greatness of Cheap Trick. The music is arranged roughly chronologically, so the first couple discs cover the band's early years and include some excellent previously unreleased live recordings and rarities. If you're a long time fan of the band, you'll probably find yourself wishing they had included this song or that song - but that in itself is a good indicator that this band created a lot of great music early on.

But the even bigger revelation comes on the later discs. Since they cover the band's "down years" in the 80s and early 90s, you'd think they wouldn't be very good. But when you filter out the lamer tracks that cluttered those later albums, you realize that there was a lot of good stuff in there. And there are a ton of rarities - alternate versions, movie soundtrack songs, demos, unreleased songs, b-sides, etc. It seems like the band was willing to record anything for anyone who showed interest (and had money). Many of the rarities on this set make you wonder why they didn't put those songs on the albums instead of some of the junk that did make the cut.

I know I said in the blurb for At Budokan that if you were only going to own one Cheap Trick release, that'd be the one to have. But if you feel like springing for a four disc boxed set, this one is well worth owning and makes a great overview of the first couple decades of the band's career.

Cover image of the Cheap Trick 1997 album Back Cover image of the Cheap Trick 1997 album

Cheap Trick (1997)

By the time this album was released, I had kind of resigned myself to just buying any new Cheap Trick disc that came out and hoping that it'd have a decent song or two on it. So I was completely blown away by this album, their first one in ages that was really great from start to finish.

After the failed experiment with Warner Brothers, the band gave up on major labels altogether and went with an independent. That freed them to create an album entirely on their own terms, and they pulled out this hard rocking beast of a record. It was a real return to the band's roots - like their first album, they just called this one Cheap Trick (which caused some confusion, leading to this album becoming known as "Cheap Trick '97"). They also went back to a black and white cover, and having two band members represented on the front and two on the back, although this time it wasn't the guys themselves pictured, it was their instruments. And this time Rick and Bun E. got the front and Robin and Tom were on the back.

But enough about the cover, how's the music? The copy that I bought was packaged with a CD single of two non-album songs, Baby Talk and Brontosaurus (another Move cover), and you could crank those two songs up and peel paint off the walls. The guitar tone is just snarling, and Zander's vocals sound like he's pissed and the only thing that's going to help him is belting out these lyrics. Great stuff, and that's just a warm up for the album proper.

Every song on here is classic Cheap Trick, and a few of them I'd rank up there with the best the band ever released. "Wrong All Along" will rip your head off and "Baby No More" will stomp on it. There's an amazing energy to this album - these songs must have been great to see in concert, hopefully the band will do something from this album when I see them tonight (edit: the closest they got was Nielsen playing the intro to "Brotosaurus" as a lead-in to "California Man"). They only slow down for two tracks, the tear-jerker about orphans "Shelter" (which is the only song on the album that I'm not wild about) and the closing ballad "It All Comes Back To You".

The bad news is that shortly after this album came out, the company that released it went out of business. So it's probably hard to find a copy nowadays. But if you're a Cheap Trick fan and you haven't heard this disc yet, you need to seek it out. I'd rank it right up there with Dream Police, and if the strings on that album put you off, you might actually like this 1997 album even better.

Oh, and there's a neat trick to this album - on the original pressing, they hid a track before track one. If you start the album and then hold down the rewind button on your CD player, you'll hear a track that mixes bits and pieces of all the songs on the album. I've owned this album for over 15 years and just found out about that recently - makes me wonder what else might be hidden in my CD collection.

Cover image of Music For Hangovers album

Music For Hangovers (1999)

Despite the iconic nature of the At Budokan album, I think this might be an even better live album. The sound quality is good, the performances are fantastic and the set list includes songs from the Dream Police album (and one song from Next Position Please).

Other than that one later song, this live album could easily be an archive release recorded at the tail end of the band's 70s heyday, but it's actually from a tour they did in the late 90s where they focused on their first four studio albums, playing all the songs from one of those albums, in order, each evening. A multiple-night stand at the Metro was recorded and this live CD documents the highlights. Best of all, there are no Japanese girls screaming "Wobin!" to give the whole thing a kind of cartoonish air. And the album ROCKs from beginning to end.

If you can find a copy, this CD is well worth picking up.

Cover image of the Sliver album

Silver (2001)

The album's title comes from the fact that this disc documents the band's 25th anniversary concert. When this 2-disc set came out, I didn't know it was a live album and for years assumed it was a greatest hits package, so I didn't buy it because I already had all these songs on CD.

When I finally found out it was a live set, I immediately bought a used copy on-line (as of this writing, the album is out of print but used copies can be tracked down fairly easily). It must have been an amazing concert to be at - it was recorded in the band's home town of Rockford, IL in 1999. To celebrate their 25 years of making music, the band played at least one song from every album they had released up to this point and filled out the set list with hits and fan favorites.

Songs that you would never expect the band to play anymore made an appearance - "Who D'King", "She's Tight", "Woke Up With a Monster" and even "Take Me to the Top" from the Doctor album - hearing that song in the context of this live album was probably what gave me an appreciation for it. There's even a track from Zander's solo album, the band's rendition of the theme from That 70s Show and a version of the song the band had recorded with John Lennon, "I'm Losing You". This album really does cover pretty much every aspect of the band's first twenty five years, and even includes guest musicians - Jon Brandt came back to play the songs from the early 80s albums that he was on, Slash from Guns and Roses plays guitar on "You're All Talk" and Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins plays on "Just Got Back". Zander and Nielsen have a couple of their kids come out do guest spots on a few songs, and they even included a string quartet and children's choir to fill out a couple songs.

The only downside to the album is that it sounds really muddy and the mix isn't very good. If the sound quality was better, this would be the ultimate Cheap Trick live album. As it is, it'll certainly appeal to hard-core fans of the band, and might make a good introduction for new fans. I believe there was also a video released on DVD of the concert, but I haven't seen it yet.

Cover image of the Special One album

Special One (2003)

After the excellent 1997 self-titled album, it took six years for the band to put out another studio disc, and when this one finally arrived it was a bit of a letdown. I remember hearing a radio interview with the band around the time of this album's release, and they really talked it up. If I remember right, the DJ said she had listened to it and thought it was the best thing they had done in a long time. So maybe my expectations were too high, but when I finally bought a copy and put it in the CD player for the first time, I was disappointed. It's a fairly forgettable album - I just now finished listening to it and can barely remember how most of the songs go.

The track that was pushed as the single from this disc was the opener, "Scent of a Woman". I'm not sure why, as it's a fairly mediocre track with lyrics that I still don't quite understand after several listens. On the plus side it does sound like classic Trick - in fact, I can't shake the impression that they just took some guitar riffs from older songs and wrote new lyrics over top.

"My Obsession" is the album's requisite love ballad, and "Sorry Boy" is a rocker that wouldn't have been out of place on the 1997 album. The rest of the disc I honestly don't remember much about, even though I just listened to it. I couldn't tell you what "Too Much" or "Words" sounded like if my life depended on it.

And then there's the last two tracks, "Low Life in High Heels" and "Hummer", which are the exact same song, just different lengths and one has lyrics while the other has humming. It sounds like "Hummer" was the demo, and then "Low Life" was a working copy of the song that they never quite finished, and somehow both tracks were accidentally included on the tape sent to the CD pressing plant and both "songs" ended up on the album. Having those two as the final tracks just leaves the listener with the impression that this album was a rush job and was put out before it was even finished.

This write-up came out really negative, so I should say that the album isn't quite as bad as the above would indicate. There are a few good songs on this one, and the album overall grows on me a little more with each listen. I'd certainly take this one over, say, Busted, but this is definitely an album that only Cheap Trick completists need a copy of. If you're going to buy it anyway, look for the version that included a DVD of some of the band's music videos.

Cover image of the Rockford album

Rockford (2006)

About mid-way through this album there's a song with a chorus that goes "This time we got it, 'bout time we got it", and that's a pretty good description of the album. It's not quite as good as the self-titled 1997 album, but it's a huge step up from Special One. The band must have felt pretty good about this one, since they named it after their home town and gave it a bright yellow cover featuring cartoon versions of themselves. Rick Nielsen even had a square, yellow guitar made with a replica of this album's cover on it.

I've noticed that an album's cover can often color my impression of the music on the album, and maybe that's what's going on here, but this seems like the most upbeat, bouncy, fun album that Cheap Trick had done in ages. It's often fairly hard-edged and heavy like the 1997 album, but where that one sounded mean (in a good way), this one sounds like the band is having a ton of fun. Contrast this cover with the bland, meaningless paint splatter that was the cover of Special One, and that pretty well sums up the difference between the two albums.

Similar to the In Color album, the disc begins with a song that invites the listener in, "Welcome To the World". In fact, Nielsen has admitted that it's basically the same song as "Hello There", just with different lyrics and rhythms. I seem to recall reading somewhere that it was written for a newborn nephew or niece of one of the band members or something like that.

The next track is "Perfect Stranger", which was intended to be the hit single. It's a pretty good song, but the production makes me feel a bit seasick when listening to it via headphones - it seems to swell and recede with each beat. Another highlight is "Come On Come On Come On", a high-energy number that recalls "Come On Come On" from Budokan. The track that closes the album, the ironically named "Decaf", is another rip-roaring rocker.

My only complaint about the album is that it seems like a victim of the "loudness wars" that raged in the 2000s (and is still going on to some degree today). For some reason record labels became convinced that if they could make their album sound louder than other companies' releases that they would sell better. So they compressed the snot out of everything and made everything on every track sound super-brittle and LOUD. Listening to this album wears my ears out, even with the volume turned down. Compare this one to the 1997 disc and you'll hear the difference between how loud rock should sound (the 1997 album) and how to do it wrong (this one). Which is a shame, because musically this album is one of the band's better efforts.

Cover image of the Budokan boxed set

Budokan! (2008)

I don't actually own a copy of this boxed set, but I borrowed it from the local library just to see what it was all about. Apparently a long-lost Japanese television broadcast of the original Budokan concert had recently been found, so that was included as a DVD. The full audio recording from the night the DVD was recorded is also included as a CD. The other two CDs are a reissue of the Complete Concert recording that the band had put out (the one that combines the original At Budokan album and the Budokan II disc that Epic put out).

The liner notes are very confusing about what was recorded when. They kind of imply that the Complete Concert discs were from one night's performance, and the DVD and other CD are from a different night's performance, but they never come right out and say that. I have a suspicion that there's some overlap between the discs. In the end, I decided I could live with the original Budokan and Budokan II CDs and didn't need to buy the boxed set, but if you don't own any of the Budokan recordings, then this would be the way to get them all in one fell swoop. I was tempted to buy it anyway, just for the DVD, but I own a bunch of music video DVDs and I never have time to watch them, so I passed.

Cover image of Sgt. Pepper Live album

Sgt. Pepper Live (2009)

This was actually released a little after The Latest, but I'm listing it first because according to the AllMusic site, even though this was released in 2009 it was actually recorded in December of 2007. Probably took that long to get the rights worked out.

You can either look at this album a shameless attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Beatles, or you can look at it as a heartfelt tribute to one of Cheap Trick's primary influences. I'd like to think it's the latter, but I don't really see why it needed to be released on both DVD and CD (I think the DVD would have been enough, since a big aspect of the show was visual - they had Sgt. Pepper costumes made, guest stars performing on some songs, etc). The CD seems a little superfluous. I believe the band also did a lengthy stay in Las Vegas performing this cover show, which just seems...well...a bit tacky.

Anyway, if you really like the Beatles and really like Cheap Trick and want to hear the latter do an entire album of covering the former, I'd recommend picking up the DVD and only getting the CD if you're a collector. Otherwise you can fairly safely skip this one.

For what it's worth, a friend of mine who's a huge Beatles fan but never really cared for Cheap Trick watched the DVD with me and didn't like it. At all. He's usually the most polite individual I know and never has a negative comment to say about anything, but he really didn't like this performance.

Cover image of The Latest album

The Latest (2009)

The title of this one was a bit prophetic - here we are five years later, and this is still the latest Cheap Trick studio album. Until I just re-listened to this disc in order to do this write-up, I had forgotten how good this album is. Pretty much on par with the Rockford release of a few years previous. The cover picture is possibly the oddest from a band who have had a few odd album covers - it shows the band wearing suits on a beach, all searching the sand with metal detectors except Rick Nielsen who's buried up to his armpits in the sand. What the heck is that supposed to mean?

I've read that this disc is just a collection of demos, unused songs and commercial jingles that the band had piled up over the years, and when they decided to release a new album they just went into a studio and created polished versions. If that's true, it certainly doesn't show in the final product - these songs not only hang together well, they actually add up to one of the stronger albums the band ever put out.

The CD opens on kind of a down note, with the first song being a short one about a recently deceased friend, but then that segues into a rockin' cover of Slade's "When The Lights Are Out", which features a barely audible children's chorus singing along at the end. "Miss Tomorrow" is apparently an outtake from a Robin Zander solo album, but it doesn't sound like an outtake - it's a strong song. "Sick Man of Europe" is a great rocker that slyly references the band's early history. "California Girl" is a propulsive number that might be intended as a sequel to the Move's "California Man" (which the band covered early in their career).

In fact, there are a lot of winks and nods back to the band's history. The cover is black and white, like the cover of their first album. In addition to the "Sick Man" and "California" references, the song "Everybody Knows" has a line that might be a reference to the Next Position Please album. The track "Alive" has an orchestral string part (mixed low in the background) that sounds exactly like the one in "Dream Police", and the lyrics say "We're never gonna get out of this place alive, you know we'll never survive". Everything about this album from the title to all the nostalgic references to the finality of the lyrics seems to indicate that the band might intend this to be their last studio album. If that does turn out to be the case, they will at least have gone out on a strong note.

Cover image of Bang Zoom Crazy...Hello

Bang Zoom Crazy...Hello (2016)

So it turns out that The Latest wasn't the band's swan song (although it was probably their last with Bun E. Carlos due to the continuing fued between the drummer and the rest of the band). It took seven years and induction into the rock and roll hall of fame to get a new Cheap Trick album, but it was worth the wait. Similar to the self-titled release from 1997, this one harkens back to the band's early days and rocks hard. The comparison to the 1997 album is even sharper on the song "When I Wake Up Tomrorrow" - until the lyrics kick in, the song sounds an awful lot like "Say Goodbye" from that '97 album.

On "Bang Zoom", Nelson's guitar growls and sings, Tom Petersson's fuzzed-up bass still sounds like a second guitar, Zander hasn't lost an iota of his vocals over the years and Rick's son Daxx...well, it'd be a lie to say I don't miss Carlos on this album, but Daxx's drumming is solid and fits the tunes well enough. The production is slick but doesn't overpower the music. The end result is that kind of hard-edged bubblegum pop that Cheap Trick is so good at.

I've listened to the album a few times now and so far the standout tracks are the rockin' "No Direction Home", the Hendrix-like "Roll Me", the vaguely bluesy "The In Crowd" and the vicious "Long Time No See Ya". The only song that I'm not that wild about is "Blood Red Lips", with it's bouncy beat and annoying handclaps (who thought that was a good idea?) There's nothing on this album that's going to come as a surprise to Cheap Trick fans - they're not trying to reinvent the wheel here. They're just delivering a very solid record full of the kind of songs their fans have come to expect. Which is more than can be said about most bands that have been around for four decades.

You might be wondering about that odd album title - I can't explain why they chose it, but on the album cover it looks like they just cut four random words out of comic books and pasted them together.

Conclusion

Cheap Trick is a band that has had a checkered and interesting career. They're a really good rock and roll band that seemed willing to do whatever it took to reach the top of the heap and stay there. Because of that, they've swung between obscurity, huge hit songs and becoming the punchline of jokes, often going back and forth between those states in just a matter of months. They've maintained a sense of humor about it all though - at that Lancaster concert (which has come and gone since I started writing this page), before the band took the stage they played clips of references to Cheap Trick in pouplar culture, including one of Bart Simpson asking Homer if he's ever heard is own voice on tape, and Homer answering "I prefer to listen to Cheap Trick".

Speaking of that concert, it was an entertaining show, but unfortunately the sound quality was so bad that you couldn't really make out any of the individual instruments or most of the vocals. It just sounded like a big ball of echoey noise, like controlled explosions in a cave. It was way too loud (which, I know, means I'm way too old - but it really would have sounded a lot better at a lower decibel level), and the bass was cranked up far too much. So much so that as we were leaving the theater, the fire alarms started going off and I read in the news the next morning that a subwoofer had burst into flames just after the show ended.

But despite the poor sound, the band put on a good show. I was nervous about Bun E. Carlos not being there due to his feud with the band, but Nielsen's son Daxx did a fine job on the drums. And Rick was his usual entertaining self, running around and throwing picks by the handful into the crowd.

What surprised me the most was the set list - they concentrated almost entirely on the At Budokan and Dream Police albums throughout the set list. In fact they may have played every song from both of those albums. There were also a couple other songs from In Color and Heaven Tonight, and surprisingly two songs from All Shook Up ("Stop This Game" and "Baby Loves to Rock"). But they only played one song recorded after 1980, and that was "Borderline" (which Rick quipped "I think it's from Next Position Please, but I'm not sure because I didn't buy that album either"). None of the 80s power ballads, no "Flame", no "If you Want My Love", not even anything from their more recent studio albums like the 1997 disc or Rockford or The Latest. Not even any songs from the Sgt. Pepper tribute, which probably would have gone over well at that theater (which is known for oldies shows and acts that appeal to people who still personally remember World War II). If you had stopped following the band in 1979, you still would have been familiar with most of the set list. Zander even wore his white Dream Policeman outfit.

Oh well, it was still a lot of fun. Hopefully the band can keep it going, get another album out and give me one more chance to see them play a great live show. I'm hoping for better sound quality and a slightly more varied set list next time, but if it turns out that was my last Cheap Trick concert, thanks for the memories guys.