Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Trick Tuesday: "The Doctor" (1986)

Sure, I can talk all the smack I want about the album - but if this shirt were (a) an XL, and (b) less than $100, it'd be gone from eBay and on its way to me by now. 
Apart from the business end of things, I think that the internet has been pretty great for music.  I love the fact that, for those simply looking to hear as much as they can rather than collect piles of junk, the word “rare” and the price tag that comes with it have left the average music geek’s vocabulary.  I doubly love that those things have never even entered the vocabulary of enthusiasts of a certain age in the first place.  Regardless of what crotchety old collectors will tell you, access is a very good thing – as is the ability to hear whatever you want to on a whim.  Other than missing record stores from a social standpoint, and allow me to stress that that’s a big “other than”, I’m not a guy who’s particularly nostalgic for the olden days of yore.  Nothing is perfect, though, and any discussion of The Doctor immediately reminds me of one thing that was better before we all moved down by the newfangled Information Superhighway: a lack of preconceived expectations.

Here’s a little experiment: Google the words cheap trick the doctor and see how long it takes you to come across words or phrases in the vein of “terrible”, “awful”, “worst” or “sucks monkey balls.”  In my case, having done just that right now, the second hit was the charm.  Quoth Wikipedia: “It initially sold 88,000 copies and is widely considered the band's worst album.”  Most likely, that’s tame compared to what I would have found a few more hits down the line. Every great, long-running band eventually releases their punching bag, I suppose.

Still, the fall of 1988 was a different era, and neither Wikipedia nor Google were available in the dirt-encrusted interior of White Plains’ Music Plus Movies.  The deal with acquiring music back then was simple: you pays you money and you takes you chances, kid.  For better and worse, actually: while you can argue that it’s better now that you know exactly what you’ve signed up for before you even sync the damned files over to your iPhone, you can also make the case that by not knowing how you were supposed to feel about music in advance, you had a chance to actually end up loving something you’re supposed to hate.

Unfortunately, however, it’s not likely that you’ve got much of a chance of that with The Doctor.  Even my naive little teenaged self thought it mostly blew way back in the autumn of my fourteenth year.  To summon his spirit, then: “Fuck, if I wanted to hear a bunch of synthesizers, I’d buy Information Society or some shit like that.”  It’s a big, bad world out there folks, and sometimes all of the naysayers are right.  Also, sometimes asshole bloggers set you up for a nice Pollyanna ending and then bait-and-switch the hell out of you.  Harsh climes, indeed.

Back at the time of my pubescent buying spree, I thought it was a mostly lousy album with a few good songs buried along the way, mostly on side two.  It spent most of its time after about two weeks of so of ownership languishing on the bottom of the pile of cassettes, down there with All Shook Up.  While I’ve long since one-eighty’ed on that album, my opinion of The Doctor remains more or less unchanged.  Weirdly, it’s the ballads that are worth hearing this time around: “Take Me to the Top” is a gorgeous little bit of shameless heartstring tugging once you learn to hear around the synthetic clatter, and the loud/soft hybrid “It’s Only Love” is the album’s sole lost classic, closing out the record as both palate cleanser and exception that proves the rule where the inadequacy of the other material is concerned.  One of these days, some smarty pants will rescue it, place it on some well-considered compilation, and let it retire with some long-deserved dignity.

It’s worth noting that “It’s Only Love” is successful mostly because it sounds like it wandered in from another album and got stuck here by accident.  The rest of the album is plagued by some of the most ham-fisted, pandering, headache-inducing production gimmickry I’ve ever heard.  You can’t really blame albums for sounding contemporary when the production job is at least competently done.  Say what you want about Bon Jovi for example (and lord knows I do), but their albums sound exactly as they should: everything bigger and more reverbed than everything else in that 1986 sort of way that sounds quaint now but packed the stadiums back then.  Tony Platt’s production on The Doctor sounds like an undergraduate attempting to achieve the same sort of result by way of some class’s final project and failing miserably.  Synths blare mercilessly without doing anything that might be remotely described as musical, while all manner of electronic effects boom, clank and clatter at what seem like completely random intervals.  If Bun E. Carlos was upset enough last time about the treatment of his drum tracks to insist on “acoustic drums and cymbals” as a credit, lord knows how many expletives he must have strung together upon hearing the first finished mixes for this album.  By most accounts, he simply played his parts and then played hooky from the rest of the sessions, opting to be literally gone fishing instead.  As wise a man as he is a fine drummer, once again.

Still, you can’t blame a hacky producer for lame songs.  Nine of the ten songs on The Doctor are credited to some permutation of R. Nielsen and R. Zander.  The tenth, a song-factory clunker embarrassingly titled “Kiss Me Red” and added to the album at Epic Records’ always-brilliant insistence is honestly – and sadly – no better or worse than most of what Cheap Trick’s own team came up with, but I love them enough to spot them one badly-needed mulligan this time out.  What makes The Doctor fascinating for serious fans is its home-brewed nature; while the band would record its fair share of questionable outside material over the span of its next few albums, The Doctor marks the one and only time that Zander and Nielsen blew it so big with their own material.  Look at it this way: a song as worthless as “Are You Lonely Tonight” was born to the same songwriting team responsible for Dream Police’s brilliant “Way of the World” less than a decade before.  In all of these years, I’ve never been able to figure out what accounts for the difference between them; honestly, it’s a question that only Nielsen and Zander can answer.  Conjecture about such a thing, though…that’s what die-hard fans are made of, I suppose.

It’s also what makes The Doctor Cheap Trick’s second­-worst album, Wikipedia (and most of the rest of the internet) notwithstanding: as we will learn in the next few weeks, it is far better to die on your own sword than someone else’s.

Next week: don’t call it a comeback.

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