Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cheap Trick and the Myth of Young America

Cheap Trick- Self-Titled Debut (1977) - Epic Records

"Dina, can you honestly tell me that you forgot the magnetism of Robin Zander or the charisma of Rick Nielsen?"
"Eh, that's kids' stuff ..."
Fast Times at Ridgemont High, written by Cameron Crowe -1982

The 70's were a terrible time to be an American kid. The late 60's had spread from the cities and crash-landed all over a Suburbia totally unprepared for it. Many kids found themselves torn from a idyllic Leave it to Beaver existence and thrust into a world where their parents had gone quite insane.

Dads went from wearing crewcuts and button-down oxfords to sporting mutton chops and leisure suits. Moms burned their aprons and bras and threw on dashikis and kaftans to match their aviator sunglasses and afro perms. Your neighbors went from spinning Sinatra and sipping martinis to smoking grass and swapping wives. In the midst of this chaos, young kids were left to fend for themselves. Every negative social indicator among adolescents- crime, drug use, pregnancy- skyrocketed.

And if that were not bad enough, To be a kid in the late 70's was to be keenly aware that things were infinitely better for your older siblings, and certainly for your parents. Happy Days, Sha Na Na and Beatlemania only served to drive home the fact that Pop- the irreplaceable currency of American youth- had seen much, much better days. FM radio was spinning a turgid blend of "mellow" Adult Rock- everything from Fleetwood Mac to Steely Dan to Firefall and the post-biker Doobie Brothers. While kids made their own dinners and experimented with sex, their parents were out taking Disco dance lessons.

Even the pop culture pleasures of preadolescence- toys, cartoons, comic books- were shoddy, depressing, and slapdash. To look at a selection of toys or cartoons from the 70's was to be left with the sense that America hated its young. All we had was Star Wars, but even that was nothing but a recombination of earlier movies and comic books. It was no less retro than George Lucas' breakthrough, American Graffiti.

Rockford, Illinois' Cheap Trick came around in 1977, the same year as Star Wars, and they were every bit as nostalgic. And for a brief moment, they were every bit as important to the forgotten children of America.

It's hard to explain how important Cheap Trick were in the late 70's. One would have
to explain how deftly and seamlessly they synthesized "Boy Music" (Hard Rock, Heavy Metal) and "Girl Music" (Top 40 Pop). Any young Rock and Roll fetishist couldn't help but be mesmerized by their brilliant subversion of Rock iconography: two guys so gorgeous they were practically chicks paired with two homely dorks who looked they escaped from a 50's sitcom.

Any Rock gear-head couldn't help but be hypnotized by their dizzying assortment of exotic axes: multi-necked guitars and ten-string basses, all crafted by the then unknown luthiers BC Rich and Hamer. Robin Zander, perhaps the greatest all-around pure singer in Rock history, seemed to channel every great Rock song you heard on Top 40 radio in the arid years of the early 70's. You could easily imagine him singing "Stay With Me" by the Faces or "Ballroom Blitz" by Sweet or "Go All the Way" by the Raspberries, or all of the above and more, all at the same time.

Non-fans may not know the songs, but nearly every hardcore Trick fan counts the '77 self-titled debut as their favorite. In fact, It's almost redundant to delve into the individual tracks, because every single note of every single song is absolutely perfect.

There isn't a single song on that album that isn't one of the greatest Rock and Roll songs ever recorded. There isn't a moment on the album where your attention is not fully rapt. Guided by the expert hand of Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas, Cheap Trick would never be so perfect in the studio ever again.

Looking back, it seems like Cheap Trick were God's own answer to America's latchkey kids, all anxiously awaiting their very own Beatles. Drenched as we were in the decadent daze of the Me Generation 70's, little ditties about holding hands were weak tea. Lascivious tracks like "Hot Love" and "He's a Whore" were more in touch with our precocious longings.

But there was also something innocent and romantic about their music as well. We weren't blessed with MTV and its soft-slash-hardcore pornographic Snoop Dogg videos. Corporate America hadn't yet completely colonized our imaginations and our desires.

To a young Rock and Roll true believer, Cheap Trick's music was the sound of our dreams. It was the sound of a Camaro ragtop cruising down a beachside boulevard on a warm and soft summer evening. It was the sound of the wind whipping through your girlfriend's flowing blonde hair as she turned to smile silently at you and then turned back to watch the tail-lights of the endless American highway whip by.

It was the sound of the anticipation of young lovers for forbidden pleasure, but at the same time the sound of the boys out for a night of serious mischief.

If Punk Rock was an expression of British teenage rage and despair, Cheap Trick was the sound of the last days of American teenaged innocence. Cheap Trick was the sound of the longing of even better nights to come.

Cheap Trick peaked artistically with their debut and commercially with their 1979 landmark, At Budokan. They continued to rack up the occasional hit and remain relentless road warriors to this day, but the need for them passed as the Eighties dawned. The latchkey kids of the 70’s became the Punk and Grunge warriors of the 80’s and 90’s. But many of those kids who hit the big time- Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan, to name two- gave Cheap Trick their props for being one of the few bright spots in a very, very dark time.


  1. Thanks for this! Cheap Trick is one of the greatest American Rock bands of all time (IMHO)...Well done.

  2. I've recently been rewatching the early seasons of 'That 70s Show' on IFC and marveling at how well written the first 3 seasons of the show were. The main characters were fully realized and had fairly complex relationships.

    The show really contrasts the changing times you mention, with the more traditional Foremans, and their hipper, younger neighbors the Pinciottis. This is, of course viewed through the filter of their teenage children, Eric and Donna.

    Red and Kitty Foreman are Eric's slightly older parents. Red is a hard, emotionally closed off, authoritarian father and Navy Vet of the Korean War. Donna's parents are Bob and Midge Pinciotti, who never met a fad they didn't latch onto including wife swapping, nudism, and open marriage. The kids have sex, take drugs and drink, and it all comes across as authentic, written by people who were actually there.

    The plots became a lot more sit-commy and the characters more cartoony as the show wore on, as TV comedies are prone to do, to the point of becoming unwatchable as it passed its expiration date in around season 5.

    The second season (set in 1977) is notable for having the theme song 'In The Street' re-recorded and performed by Cheap Trick.