Wait – what does a rock band from Rockford, Illinois have to do with creativity?
Well, frankly, maybe not much. And while I’m not the rabid fan I used to be, this band had a significant effect on my youth, inspiring me in a number of ways.
The band was in L.A. recently at the El Rey (btw – if you’ve never seen a show at the El Rey, you have to go. Trust me.) celebrating the 35th anniversary of their career-making concerts at Budokan Arena in Japan. The year was 1978 and Cheap Trick had made three albums and toured relentlessly throughout the U.S. While their fan-base in the States was still growing due to their raucous live shows, they had gotten huge in Japan, where they were welcomed as their generation’s version of The Beatles. The concerts were recorded on film and videotape, intended to be released as a special gift only for their Japanese fans. “At Budokan” captured what was lacking on their studio albums – the steady backbeat of Bun E. Carlos on drums, the rolling thunder of Tom Petersson’s bass, the frenetic guitar of Rick Nielsen, and the incredibly elastic voice of lead singer Robin Zander. The album was obtained by an FM DJ here in the U.S. who started to play, “I Want You To Want Me”. FM stations around the country started adding the song into heavy rotation and the album took off. Cheap Trick had, in the meantime, recorded another album (“Dream Police”) which was shelved for nearly a year while “At Budokan” zoomed up the charts.
I have seen Cheap Trick at least a dozen times since I was 17. The first time was on the “Dream Police” tour at an arena in Birmingham, Alabama in 1980 and the last time at a private party at the Anaheim House of Blues in 2006. The band has remained largely unchanged through the years. Though buffeted by record-company mismanagement, some bad late 80’s records, and (for a while) a revolving door of bassists, their live show has remained intact. They still, 26 years later, rocked the stage and looked like they were having a blast. So many bands don’t look like they’re having fun these days, you know? When did playing in a band turn into such hard work? Yes, they’re older and slower than they used to be. Yes, Robin’s voice is not nearly the powerhouse it once was. And yes, sadly, they still play too many of their older songs (which is a shame because their new material is on par with their “classics”). But they were still the definition of “three chords and a dream” that I experienced 26 years earlier.
Clearly influenced by The Beatles, their best material showcases a pop sensibility with rock underpinnings. The lyrics have never been too deep (though very often interesting) and the music appears simple, which belies the complexity of some of their best recordings. But the songs are full of life and the band is so passionate and committed that it overshadows those occasional shortcomings. I suppose that’s what inspired me the most. While my musical aspirations were cut short (mostly because of a complete and unfortunate lack of any musical talent whatsoever), I soaked up their passion, their drive, their determination, and their level of commitment. They’ve stated in interviews that all they ever wanted was to be a band and to play their music for people. I really admire that they have done just that for as long as they have.