I Heart Cheap Trick! I'm no expert on rock music. I don't even really like most of it all that much, though I guess I could say the same about country. Anyway, for my money, the boys from Rockford IL are the shit. I'd rather listen to them than the Rolling Stones or the Who or Bruce Springsteen or et cetera et cetera, and though that's an opinion, I'll back it up. This group offers consistent rewards in its balance of interesting oppositions. The writing (specifically: hooks, melodies, and progressions) and arranging display cleverness, aspirational diligence, and clear formal skill, whereas the presentation of keyboardless ear-splitting guitar quartet -- or much of the time, essentially power trio -- brings it off of the page with minimalist animal vigor. Within each song there's equal affection for sweet major and natural-minor scales; I can't bring to mind a single one of their songs that doesn't deliberately offset both somewhere in its progressions. It means, in a rough emotional translation, that nothing in their catalog sounds 100% hard or soft. Another thing I can't bring to mind is another group that so consistently offsets cock-and-balls with comedy. Even the stylized look of the quartet stresses this weird juxtaposition, with the two you want to go to bed with and the two you want to go to lunch with.
Robin Zander is something else as a singer. His stratospheric range, his easeful sounding control, his ability at all levels of intensity from croon to shredding scream, and his interpretive imagination rank him with Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, and I can't think of who else. You tell me, I'm no rock expert like I told you. I do know hardly anybody can sing like that, even fewer past the age of about 35.
As for Rick's guitar playing, what makes it stand out for me, in a very crowded field of electric guitar badasses, is clarity. His riffs and most of his solos are mini-compositions embedded in and complementary to the main one going on. Not a ton of noodling.
In most of these songs, there are four distinct sections. For instance, in "Downed," there's the I/VII/b6/VII bassline figure (alternated, a little gratuitously in my opinion, with I/VII/VI/b6) over the chorus ("Downed....over my head"). That's one. The second is the verse where the chords change twice as fast, the third is a post-verse figure ("Oooh you think you're Jesus Christ") that starts on the V chord, and the fourth section is the power-rock guitar figure that pops up in the middle. In "I Want You To Want Me," the four sections aren't as dissimilar. There's the chorus, the verse (the changes happening 4x as quickly, once a bar), the "Didn't I didn't I" section -- I don't know what this might be called but it's like an alternate chorus, and definitely as catchy as the song's proper chorus -- with changes every 2 bars, and the intro/outro guitar riff, which is four bars of I, a split bar of VII and IV and capping with two more bars of A or I. This is the least-memorable and most tacked-on-feeling part of the song but it allows the VII -- the cock/balls -- a higher profile in the tune than its fairly brief appearance in the verse -- and it satisfies the rule of four.
The goal of the writing, in these two examples and in general, is to balance the soft/hard of the two scales, to balance the lengths with which chords are sustained, to have sections that play off against each other with contrast and an acceptable amount of unpredictability, to frame the song in an arrangement that proceeds linearly to subtly complexify and, again, to set up and gently tweak expectations, and to hit the listener with the usual stuff as well -- singability, hooks, emotional drama. If you listen critically to "Downed" and "I Want You To Want Me" side by side, you may agree with me that the latter achieves, by a method that goes to the minimal edge of complexity by this group's standards, resounding success, while "Downed" falls a little short, in large part because the one-time-only power riff, which takes the song into both another flavor and key, sounds imported from a different composition. Both killer songs in smart arrangements, though.
In rock music, commercial muscle matters, and so a factor that often comes up in discussing this group, and one that I'll admit endears them to me, is what appears as an imbalance between their sales and their wild talent and seeming accessibility. For some reason they didn't rock the charts like Abba, or drive the chattering rockist peabrains into ejaculatory raptures such as Led Zeppelin did and does. Oh well. I think it's safe to say that their confidence in indulging a predilection for goofiness and comic irony must have had the usual effect -- inviting the large plurality of the humor-impaired to deem them unserious and turn away. Another way they seem to have made both themselves and myself happy is to have ventured musically wherever they could and wanted to venture within their instrumental confines: sweet Beatle-y pop, AC/DC snarl, prog, something close to traditional rock-and-roll, and whatever category "Dream Police" might fall into. In the 1970s, when Bob Dylan and Neil Young were annually moulting, this wasn't such a crazy way to go; but then as now, it's not a strategy for the risk-averse or the capitalistically canny. Ultimately and always, reasons aren't needed to explain where an act falls on the spectrum of financial or reputational attainment -- for always, dumb luck, in concert with economically motivated actions and events obscure to us outside the circle of actors, plays the leading role.
I got Heaven Tonight when it came out in 1978 from the public library, attracted by the cover art and the attractive appearance of two of the cover figures -- I mean the two I'd like to lunch with. Some of the songs landed solidly enough in my skull that I had no need to hear them again after the three-week loan had expired. "Surrender" and "On Top of The World" I can sing by heart and play almost 40 years later without returning to the record because they're so splendidly written (and performed in-studio). I'm inviting catastrophic embarrassment by claiming that on the eve of a cover performance, of course, but we'll see. One thing about "Surrender" I think may have registered with my 15-year-old self is the rhyming and non-rhyming. The first verse and chorus have zero rhymes. That's over the course of 27 bars -- a lot of lyric not to be cozily chiming together. The effect is attention-getting ("you never know what you'll catch") but the means are subtle, and I'm not really sure why it works so well. The second verse has a near-rhyme (things/Philippines) and another non-rhyme (war/years), and the third lapses into what passes in rock music for plain old rhymes (year/disappear, couch/out). So the song develops toward a sort of normalcy as it goes, an unusual journey. I don't believe words are Cheap Trick's strongest suit, but audacity served them well.
I can't resist adding a personal footnote: I played in a little room in Rockford last year with Don Stiernberg, and Bun E. Carlos was in the crowd. Afterward, he bought all of my titles at the merchandise table. All of them. (And insisted on paying, over my strong objections.) I was humbled. I hope he liked something he bought, and hope I might run into him again when I return to the same place next month! And who knows, maybe lunch.