Putting Power Pop in Perspective, Part II

(Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a three-part series on power pop. To read the first post in the series, please go here.)

by Rick Rockwell

By the late 1970s, although The Raspberries remained the power pop band with the most chart success, another Midwestern group, Cheap Trick emerged as the band that would wave the banner of this genre the longest.

The band’s 2006 release Rockford was its first in almost two decades that drew much critical or popular attention. But from At Budokan (1978) until Lap of Luxury (1988), Cheap Trick was both interesting to critics, played on FM radio, and respected by a hardcore group of fans. After that, inconsistent releases, record company battles, and a sort of semi-retirement demoted the band to minor cult status.

Rewind back to the late 1970s. Amidst the explosion of punk and new wave, Cheap Trick arrived on the scene and most critics and music aficionados were unsure what to make of them. Lead guitarist Rick Nielsen’s jagged guitar lines raised the interest of some, and for a time the band was incorrectly lumped in with the punk and new wave movements. Cheap Trick’s tongue-in-cheek lyricism and satirical approach didn’t fit any genre at the time really. Sometimes they were serious. Sometimes, not. The pop side of the band was projected by pretty boy bassist Tom Petersson and the effusive Robin Zander on lead vocals/rhythm guitar. These two were what the Japanese schoolgirls loved and what pushed At Budokan on to the charts. But Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos (Brad Carlson) on drums represented the darker and quirkier side of the band. This embodied the trick of the band’s name: project a simple pop image (the band's critics often complained it was too simplistic although sometimes giving them backhanded respect for their musical chops) but underneath something much more complex and interesting is at work. Their lyrical references to Kiss records and other kitsch of the era were actually put-downs but Zander’s soaring vocals often sold the songs innocently. Fans of the band were in on the joke.

This was something different than the straight power pop of The Raspberries. It was power pop with an attitude. But because Cheap Trick was hard to classify, the band’s first few releases languished. Only the Japanese teens seemed to embrace them in any numbers. And that embrace, with the release of At Budokan, propelled the band forward worldwide.

For a brief pop moment the band was everyone’s darlings. Nielsen got the call to work with hit makers Hall & Oates. Band members recorded with one of their heroes, John Lennon, although their session work just before his assassination was erased from the final mix of Double Fantasy. The Beatles’ producer George Martin signed on to steer one Cheap Trick album. (The influence of The Beatles on power pop shown through during this period as Cheap Trick cut excellent covers of “Day Tripper” and “Paperback Writer.”) Queen’s producer Roy Thomas Baker and Todd Rundgren (someone who was a master of various styles including pop and power pop) would follow as studio guides.

But by the end of the 1980s, power pop's bubble had burst, and Cheap Trick was spent.

Interestingly, the grunge bands of the 1990s turned out to be Cheap Trick fans. Perhaps it was the influence of Nielsen’s slashing guitar, but bands such as the Stone Temple Pilots, and Pearl Jam cited them as an influence and encouraged them to get back out on the road. Alt rockers, the Smashing Pumpkins, also provided encouragement.

After a decade of rebuilding a fan base, Cheap Trick enters 2008, with renewed interest from its audience. The band was the toast of Japan again earlier this year, successfully touring to mark the 30th anniversary of the Budokan release. Last year, supported by an all-star cast of singers and an orchestra, Cheap Trick played The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in its entirety at the Hollywood Bowl, to mark the 40th anniversary of that release. The band is set to repeat that concert next month.

Through Cheap Trick, power pop has shown it has resilience and that its roots track back to The Beatles. So this musical form also takes on that Beatles aesthetic that popular music can be something more than a thin commercial tune and that sometimes music can transcend its initial shallow origins.

(This is the second part of a three-part series. To see the first part in the series, please go here. To see the final part of the series, please go here.)

(Promotional photo of Cheap Trick from CBS/Epic Records. To see Cheap Trick cover "Day Tripper" — assisted by two additional unidentified drummers — in Chicago in 1981, please check below. )

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Laura Faeth said...

Good post. As a Cheap Trick fan, it's nice to see an intelligent overview of the band's career. I'd only add that their 2006 CD release, Rockford, was hailed as the best thing they'd done in two decades by music critics and the press. I'd categorize it as Power Pop at its best.

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