First off, let’s clear the obvious elephant from the room: how ‘bout that album cover, eh? In general, in these weekly posts, I’ve tried to use something other than the album cover for illustration: a single label, a promo-only something-or-other, a t-shirt, etc. I’ve included the album art for Woke Up with a Monster as-is for one reason: education. Just look at that mess for a second or two, and you can almost hear the musings of the fresh-outta-art-school doofus responsible: “No, no, forget that inky typewriting logo – it’s so 1978. What we need is something hip and edgy, something to announce that this ain’t your daddy’s Cheap Trick anymore. I know: a creepy clown, an ugly hooker, and a sampling of horrible-looking fonts! Yeah, the kids will love it! It just screams 1994 Alternative Culture, am I right?” The lesson here is simple, folks: screw too much with the successfully tried-and-true, and this is where you will end up. Ugh.
So, yeah, here we are: the cutout king of the entire Cheap Trick oeuvre, likely still available for five bucks in the dusty CD rack towards the back of a Walgreen’s near you, wedged between The Spaghetti Incident and Done with Mirrors. The surprise here is that it’s actually worth rescuing from that sort of purgatory: while it isn’t a complete return to form (that would happen three years later), Monster is still a huge step in the right direction from where we were by Busted’s end.
The thing that seemed revelatory at the time – and the reason why Monster sounded so much better in 1994 than it does now – is that the band finally sounded like itself again. The songs had their growl and overbite back; this was clearly the work of Cheap Trick, not Cheap Trick as filtered through the lens of some producer and record company trying to make them sound like Bon Jovi. Even if all of the songs were turkeys, this would be an amazing and wonderful development in and of itself.
In truth, about half the songs were turkeys. In particular, “Ride the Pony” is often identified by fans as the band’s single worst song, and with good reason. While I’d actually defer to Rick Nielsen’s opinion that the moldy mid-80s soundtrack contribution “Up the Creek” stands as Cheap Trick’s absolute recorded nadir, there is no getting around the fact that the “Pony” should probably be taken behind the barn and shot. While none of the remaining songs are quite in that league, thankfully, Monster remains the one Cheap Trick album where I can’t simply scan the back cover and immediately know what every song sounds like. “Never Run Out of Love”, “Girlfriends”, and “Let Her Go”? Hmm. [Pause while author distracts audience with puppets or something and clicks on Winamp with his other hand.] Right: pro-forma ballad, go-nowhere rocker, better than I remembered but really needs a strong pre-chorus, in that order. Forget what they sound like? Moi? How silly of you to even suggest such a thing.
Still, when Monster clicks, it kills: “My Gang” is just the kind of rousing, infectious opener the band hadn’t managed to come up with in years, maybe not since “I Can’t Take It” on Next Position Please. “Didn’t Know I Had It” is the sort of hybrid not-quite-ballad-or-rocker that no one in rock ‘n’ roll does better than these guys; think “Tonight It’s You” without the production gauze. “Cry Baby” is a sledgehammer blues that tips its hat to the first album’s “Cry, Cry” without embarrassing itself in such esteemed company, and “You’re All I Wanna Do” is pure, gooey, cavity-inducing power-pop of the best kind. Although it’s a divisive cut amongst fans, I’ve always been partial to “Love Me for a Minute”, the album’s closer: that funky beat that drives the song is something they should really play around with more, and the pre-chorus build (the “it seems like she’s not ever going back again” part) is an arrangement touch to die for.
So, right, the album’s mostly pleasant-to-very-good. What went wrong commercially, then? Two big mistakes: first off, the cover. Not to beat a dead horse, but would you see that and think “oh, wow, impulse buy”? Of course not. Secondly, poor choice of lead-off single: the title track attempts to re-write another first album song, this time “The Ballad of TV Violence”, failing to layer in much of a melody underneath the noise, as that 1977 classic did so brilliantly. As a statement of intent, choosing “Woke Up with a Monster” as a single was laudable; as an actual song, unfortunately, it’s mostly a LOUD but tuneless drone; an unpleasant, hook-less wall of impenetrable noise. Clearly, this wasn’t “The Flame” anymore…but was it anything a casual fan would want to hear instead? It was a question that a strong second single could have answered; too bad Warner Brothers Records didn’t see fit to actively promote one.
Seventeen years later, Cheap Trick has continued to sound like itself ever since Monster announced their homecoming. The fact that subsequent albums have done so with the benefit of far more consistent, inspired songwriting has left Monster as little more than a budget-priced footnote in the band’s history, and that judgment is largely correct. Still, it’s a footnote worth spending a few minutes with. Just whittle it down to the great six-or-seven song EP that it should have been, and you’ll be good to go.
Next week: now that’s what I’m talking about.