One on One: you know, that’s a pretty solid album. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
All kidding aside, though, the sentiment is right on: One on One is truly a bright start to Cheap Trick’s dark ages, generally considered to begin with this album and run through either 1990’s Busted or its 1992 successor, Woke Up with a Monster. It’s a period in which the band unquestionably lost their way and, seemingly, their confidence, bouncing like a pinball between producers for a series of albums whose quality and personality were wildly erratic. No band looks at forty without a few clunkers in their discography, folks, and Tom Petersson’s 1980 departure (after the recording of All Shook Up, but before its release) signaled Cheap Trick’s merge onto a far more pothole laden highway than the one they’d cruised down until that point.
Petersson’s replacement came in the person of one Jon Brant. He’s the unfamiliar looking gentleman with the unfortunate Camaro mullet in the upper left corner of the album cover. We’ll talk about him a bit more in our next installment: truth be told, most of One on One was recorded prior to Brant’s drafting and, as such, most of the bass on the album was overdubbed by Rick Nielsen. The results of this are predictable: it’s there, totally competent, and completely unremarkable compared to Petersson’s distinctive tone and upfront style.
In many ways, One on One has always seemed like a direct reaction to All Shook Up; whereas that album was about concept and sonics, One on One brings it all back to short, loud, direct and clever songwriting. Interviews of the period suggest that Nielsen envisioned One on One as Cheap Trick’s punk-ish album, and the songwriting for the most part bears that out: everything is loud and punchy, and nothing hangs around much past the three-and-a-half minute mark. While it’s a strong B-level album, two flies in the ointment keep it just out of front-line territory: one lousy song, and an unsympathetic production job.
Judging by the sound of the album, the usually reliable producer Roy Thomas Baker simply didn’t understand Cheap Trick or its aesthetic at all. This is not to suggest that Baker is either incompetent or some hack; actually, he’s generally a first-rate technician. “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Him – and whether or not that particular song is your cup of tea, it is an astonishing bit of production. Chalk it up to bad chemistry, I suppose, but it seems that Baker considered Cheap Trick essentially a metal band at heart, something akin to a poppier Judas Priest, and produced the album accordingly. The clash (pun somewhat intended) between the three-chord minimalism of most of the songs and the wall-of-reverb, screaming guitar and cannon-shot drum production style is completely disconcerting at first. Even once you’re used to it, it’s still a bit ill-fitting.
I’ve always been an advocate of not letting crap production get in the way of hearing great songs, though, and great songs are what comprise ten-elevenths of One on One. The two famous ones were the minor hits/early MTV mainstays “If You Want My Love” and “She’s Tight”, both of which still rank among the band’s finest singles. The former is one of the great Beatles pastiches of all time; had Paul McCartney’s actual solo material sounded as full and as ballsy as this, I might not recoil in horror at the thought of having to listen to any of it. The latter is pure fun: two minutes and fifty-eight seconds of clever double entendres and a guitar riff so perfectly dumb that four years later those hair-brains in Poison would claim they wrote it, apply far less clever, single-entendre-if-that lyrics to it, and launch their obnoxious, useless career with “Talk Dirty to Me.” That bit of thievery is probably the largest looming of the many reasons I’ve always considered them the lousiest excuse for a popular rock band of the last thirty years, but I digress.
Most of the album tracks are winners as well. I’ll never quite understand how the powers that be at Epic Records missed “Time is Runnin’” as a potential third single, and all of my Cheap Trick mix tapes, cd’s, and playlists through the years have had plenty of space for the likes of “Love’s Got a Hold On Me”, the horn-driven “Oo La La La”, and the roaring title track. Everything is at least good, and frequently great, until the next to last song, “I Want Be Man”, which is so bad that it actually manages to knock my overall assessment of the album down a peg. Hey, Rick: leave the robot stories to those losers in Styx, okay? Domo arigato. Even with that, One on One really is far better than its so-so reputation would have you believe. It’s their best second-tier album, the one to move on to once you’re through all the true classics.
My teenaged assessment of the album was much the same: very good, often listened to, just a slight notch below great. It was, however, the source of my first bit of collector-nerd disappointment: in the Encyclopedia of Rock-style book that served as my Sherpa through the initial stages of my music geekdom in those pre-internet days, it made mention of One on One having been available both as red vinyl and as a picture disc. For about a year, I looked inside every jacket I came across, coming away disappointed every time. Eventually, I figured out that the book in question was published in England, and that such treasures were not likely to be found in the el-cheapo US Nice Price reissues that populated the store shelves of the late ‘80s. I eventually came across the picture disc: at $75 on the wall of a store, it was too rich for my blood and, as such, my Dream Police picture disc still lives a solitary existence. As for the red vinyl, nope, still never seen one. On the other hand, Rhea did give me a particularly nice Japanese first pressing for Christmas a few years back, and it’s one of the best sounding slabs o’ wax I’ve ever heard; far less boomy-sounding than any other version I’ve listened to. If vinyl is your thing, I heartily recommend it.
|For all you vinyl-hounds straining to make it out, that catalog number is 25-3P-358. Happy eBaying!|
Next week: the downward slide gains momentum.