Unveiling their latest Trick
Only Cheap Trick would dare start a power pop record with a sugary sweet anthem about the inherent superiority of women.
"A man can't do what a woman can do," Robin Zander sings, amid buzzing guitars and soaring yeah-yeah-yeahs that make the listener want to scream, "Hello Wisconsin!"
The song, "Scent of a Woman," marks the return of Cheap Trick. The band, now in its 29th year, has just released "Special One" - their first batch of new material since 1997.
It's been more than two decades since Cheap Trick was in vogue, but they've never gone away. A constant touring act, the band's absurdist pop won a legion of loyal fans, as well as indie-cool cachet from the likes of Kurt Cobain.
In a recent phone interview, Zander says the band - nerd-supreme guitarist Rick Nielsen, blue-collar drummer Bun E. Carlos, and bassist Tom Petersson, who, like Zander, actually looks like a rock star - had no choice but to stay together as their popularity went up and down over the years.
"It's all we know," Zander says. "We don't have a backup plan. It's just like when we were kids. We don't want to do anything else."
Inspired by early American rock 'n' roll and the British Invasion, Cheap Trick has specialized in guitar-driven songs tinged with off-kilter sentiments. Thus the hallucinatory paranoia of "Dream Police," the parents-as-kids, kids-as-parents anthem "Surrender," and the serendipitous pairing of Fats Domino and amped-up guitar licks in"Ain't That a Shame," the band's raucous concert staple.
Cheap Trick's combination of goofy sensibilities (Nielsen's knowing winks at rock stardom included tossing picks into the crowd while playing a five-necked guitar) and crisp songwriting gave the band a glorious run during the late-'70s.
Their fourth album, the concert gem "At Budokan," became so popular that, like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," it's since become the hoariest of rock clichés. "I Want You to Want Me" can be hummed by just about anyone on the planet.
But the band lost its way during the '80s. The arrival of hair-metal inspired a full-fledged power ballad, "The Flame." Crass and blatant? Without doubt. Stuck in your head throughout the summer of 1988? Also without doubt. "The Flame" gave the band its first No. 1 single, but the short-lived resurgence faded.
In 1997, Cheap Trick put out a new album that sold a mere 60,000 copies. Released on Red Ant Records (the band members now dub it Dead Ant), it suffered when the label foundered almost as soon as the record hit stores.
For the past six years, the band has subsisted on touring and the occasional live compilation, releasing discs under their own imprint.
Last year, using their own money, the band went to Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, N.Y., to record an album without a contract. Coproduced by Chris Shaw, "Special One" recalls Cheap Trick's halcyon days of the late-'70s. Maybe it's maturity (doubtful) or their insidiously addictive theme for "That '70s Show" (possible). Either way, Cheap Trick has managed to sound both vintage and contemporary on "Special One."
Nielsen strums the gamut, coaxing a jangly melody here, ripping off a power chord there, and throwing in a few guitar-god heroics for good measure. Carlos holds down the bottom end; Petersson proves an unassuming and reliable anchor on bass; and Zander delivers vocals with the ineffable confectionary power of cotton candy: They're addictive for no apparent reason.
For the first time in nearly a decade, Cheap Trick also has a record label helping promote its latest album: Big3, which is licensing the album through the band's Cheap Trick Unlimited. The deal calls for at least one more studio release.
"We thought we'd give Big3 a chance, you know," says Zander with his typical dry wit. "We got tired of being record moguls and riding around in limos and making the big bucks. Why not give someone else a chance?"
Sustaining a rock band for 30 years - without losing drummers and bassists along the way - hasn't posed much of a challenge, either. "It's clean living and perseverance, buddy," he says.
While the band plays in clubs and theaters almost nonstop, Zander acknowledges the difficulties of winning over radio stations. Cheap Trick hasn't been shy about its alliance with "That '70s Show." The band also accepted a cameo in Eddie Murphy's "Daddy Day Care." Such deals are necessary, given the industry's state, Zander says. He characterizes the consolidation of radio stations as devastating. "There are five companies that own every station in America. That's sad. Because how ... does a guy in Los Angeles or New York know what a guy in Des Moines wants to hear?"
Zander responds to a question about what bands he's listening to - Foo Fighters and Linkin Park come to mind - by discouraging people from supporting his livelihood. Buying albums, he says, isn't the greatest idea. Better to just borrow them, hear what you want, and return them. "If you like something, you can just copy it," he says.
Frustrated by radio and wondering how to garner more airplay, a solution is offered. Why not get a slot on VH1's "Behind the Music" and confess to the agonies of fame? "I don't think we could do 'Behind the Music,' " he says, "because we haven't killed anybody. Nobody's a drug addict. We don't have anything to talk about."