Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Trick Tuesday: "Cheap Trick" (1977)

This was it: album zero.  It wasn’t my first popular music acquisition (relax, we’ll be discussing Rock ‘n’ Soul Part One soon enough), nor was it even in the first thirty or so (plenty of other classic rock/pop of the time in my cassette collection in 1988), but it was the one that turned me from a casual listener to an obsessive.  It is the album that made me both listen for and demand more than just a passing good time from my music.  It is the album that convinced me to grow out my hair (a good idea at the time, maybe) and wear more ripped jeans (ditto).  It is the album that I still use as a yardstick for anything else I listen to, and it is the one I’d save from my collection if I were only able to save one.  Most big music geeks claim they could never whittle down a desert island top ten.  Truth be told, neither could I, but I can name the number one without a moment’s hesitation.

It has been this way for me since the first week of September, 1988.  Before that, Cheap Trick was just another band I had a tape of; the preceding summer, they’d experienced a comeback with the album Lap of Luxury and its attendant prom theme of a number-one single, “The Flame”.  Then as now, power ballads weren’t really my thing; to be completely honest, I was gifted Lap of Luxury by my mother, who insisted that regardless of the hit single, I’d “probably like these guys.”  More prescient words were never spoken; to this day, I probably owe her for the copies of Heaven Tonight and At Budokan that I later purloined from her vinyl stacks.  As it turned out, I liked Lap of Luxury well enough at the time; hell, I even did a flip-flop on “The Flame” and kept half an eye on MTV throughout the summer for the video, which was usually found somewhere ‘twixt Bon Jovi and Debbie Gibson.  Those, as Lou Reed once opined, were different times; times in which, for me, my Lap of Luxury cassette was rewound and replayed more than once.

Flash to September: it was my first day of High School.  That sounds like a setup for a good story, but it really just isn’t; while it was as traumatic as anyone else’s, I’ve no good melodramatic tale to show for it.  Just a sense of dislocation and the uneasy feeling that these were going to be four long years.  Once my mom had taxied me home (“So, how was your first day of High School?”  “Okay.”  “What did you learn today?”  “Nothing.”), it dawned on me that I’d palmed enough lunch money to go buy a tape at Music Plus, the semi-sleazy local indie store in town that probably made a lot more cash on porn than records now that I think about it as an adult.  Off I went, with a vague thought of “maybe something else by Cheap Trick” in the back of my mind.

At the store, facing the rack of tapes, I was struck with a dilemma: in those days, my preferred method for checking out another tape by a particular band was to go backwards; that is, to grab the next-to-most-recent album to the one I already had.  There I stood, staring a copy of The Doctor right in the white-and-red of its spine.  Price tag: $8.99.  Cash in hand: $7.50.  Damn.  “Well, how ‘bout that Japanese live album everybody talks about?”, I thought to myself.  $7.99.  Not my day.  Then, I noticed the self-titled first album.  $4.99.  Sold, with enough left over for a greasy slice of pizza on the way home, and to hell with my usual work-backwards routine; time to be a high school rebel, damn it.
The tape in question.  Probably doesn't play very well anymore (besides which, it's a cassette in 2011), but some things you can never let go...

 [Allow me to pause here and get a bit ahead of myself for a sentence or two: often, it has occurred to me that my life might have been vastly different had The Doctor’s forty minutes of blather been reduced to a cheapo title a bit sooner than it was.  Perhaps there is a god; we’ll discuss this idea further, oh, about eight or nine weeks from now.]

Back home, pizza duly digested, I slapped my new tape in the trusty ol’ walkman.  The first two songs were good: heavier than Lap of Luxury had led me to expect, but that agreed with my newly high-schooled hormones just fine.  The third song*, though: first, there were the drums.

BOOM BOOM BANG BOOM BOOM.  THWACK!  Repeat.

Then the guitar: same rhythm, loud as hell, equally and completely obnoxious and sexy all at once.  Then the vocals: sleazy and sarcastic and full of knowledge my hormones wanted to share in.  Have you seen her face?  She’s got a face that could stop a clock.  Given how many of those I’d seen earlier that day, I got the message loud and clear.  And with that face I surely won’t stop to look her in the eyes.  Huh?  What the hell was this song called, anyway?  I take a look at the case: “He’s a Whore.”  Didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I knew that it might be a bit on the, ahem, naughty side.  My face and my hormones smiled wide: I may not have completely understood it, but this was certainly my music.  I hit rewind, and let the drums start again.  Boom boom bang boom boom.  Thwack.


And so the story goes: every song was then played over and over at stun volume, until I began to think I might have a line on what it all added up to.  Bit by bit, the sordid lyrics began to unravel.  Slowly, it dawned on me that “Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School” was a character study of a pedophile; that “Oh, Candy” wasn’t exactly a love song, that school was indeed for fools, that the nearly inaudible rant buried at the end of “Hot Love” had something to do with Aerosmith.  Some of these discoveries came with a bit of a price: in the pre-Wikipedia days, it was somewhat difficult to be a fourteen year old who wanted to find out who Richard Speck was without raising a few unwanted eyebrows.  That was all in the weeks to come, though: that night, I went to bed with the most wonderful headache I’d ever earned in my entire life.

As I write this nearly twenty-three years later, I still can’t tell you that I’ve ever completely unpeeled the onion that is Cheap Trick.  Every now and then, something new will catch my ear: a sound buried in the brilliantly dense mix, or a turn of phrase in the lyrics that I’d never thought of in a certain way before.  Nor has its luster diminished a bit with familiarity: while I may know full well who the subject of “The Ballad of TV Violence” was and what he did without having to discuss it with the school psychiatrist, it doesn’t make the song any less mesmerizingly menacing.  What has become clearer with time is that there are few records of Cheap Trick’s era that anticipated the next couple of decades of rock music with more accuracy.  From punk and post-punk to power-pop and hair-metal, the seeds of all of it are buried in these grooves somewhere.  I doubt that Steve Albini and Nikki Sixx have a lot of records in common in their respective collections, but I’d guarantee that this is one of the few.  The fact that Cheap Trick anticipated all of those things without being itself catagorizable as any of them is both what makes it great art and what keeps it relevant to fresh ears all these years later.  For all we know, we may not yet have heard all of the music it will go on to have influenced; how many thirty-four year old records can that truly be said of?

And if influence means nothing to you, well, that’s okay, too: if you love loud, raucous rock and roll, boom boom bang boom boom THWACK will always be in style.

* Before the 1998 remaster presented the album in the band’s intended order, the “Hot Love” -> “Ballad of TV Violence” side always ran as side one, with the “ELO Kiddies -> Oh, Candy” side second.

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