I love Cheap Trick. Have done since 1980. I saw Cheap Trick live on Wednesday night in Sydney for the umpteenth time. The music was good. Its power pop perfection with a tenure of forty something years. How can it not be good? Zander was, as always, great. Yet I’m left with a few unanswered questions.
At what point, does a band cross over from “making a musical difference”, to the nostalgia side of things. Remember when a band like Cheap Trick were still concerned with selling a ton of records, and to do that – had to release carefully crafted pop tunes that would resonate with audiences, radio and record buyers alike? If you ask that question to the largely mid aged male audience that comprised tonight’s show, you will no doubt get an answer in the former. Cans of bourbon and coke, decked out in newly purchased Cheap Trick apparel and singing along to Surrender, a tune they quite likely discovered after seeing the band on That 70s show or Guardians Of The Galaxy. These fans are the same who attend KISS, AC/DC or any other corporate classic rock show without quite comprehending that they are feeding the whole rock nostalgia juggernaut.
Now that’s probably a little unfair. Yet having witnessed a ton of Cheap Trick’s shows since April 88 (pre the success of The Flame), where they were playing pubs and clubs and needed another hit to keep the coffers topped up, there’s a lot of distinction in that 30 year period. Back then, some of us were already hip to the band and saw them at Port Kembla or Queanbeyan Leagues Club or Tiffany’s at Blacktown or the Tivoli on a Tuesday night with the Candy Harlots. They were playing pubs. This was an age when the good ship ‘rock nostalgia’ and the associated gold it carried was still in the blue print stage. I’m not grand standing here, just establishing that I am a Cheap Trick fan before I cop any misguided slings and arrows. (Hey, I even had the FUSE album, the Cruising For Burgers 7” and the Tom Petersson and Another Language EP chum. I still have a Bun E Carlos drum stick!). Yet I am discerning. That’s the difference.
Back then – they were re-establishing themselves – after a 1983-1987 period that saw them dead in the water. They couldn’t get arrested. They did two tours of Australia in 1988 in fact, although in that six month window – The Flame broke and set them off on their 2nd period of rejuvenation. There were two nights at Selina’s at Coogee Bay in November 1988. These shows were captured on film and were released as an official video, ‘Live In Australia’. They also toured Australia in 1990 on a double-headed tour with The Angels. I recall seeing them at Jindabyne Hotel on that tour amongst a crowd of non-discerning, loaded skiing jocks.
This scene setting is intended to give some context as to where the band is nowadays – compared to where they were 30 years back. Australia has been good to the band and they have always had a market here. A lineage that extends back to 1980, with the success of Dream Police, and a nationwide tour with Mi-Sex. I bought the albums in the lean years. I loved The Doctor LP. Woke Up With A Monster and 1997’s self-titled CD (not released on a major label remember) is probably my favourite all time Cheap Trick record, with “Carnival Game” from that album my all-time favourite CT tune). 20 years back – they released an album of compelling, relevant, new material. Late last year they released an album of Christmas covers. Yep.
Like other bands of their vintage – the passage of time has allowed them to drift onto that classic rock nostalgia ship – where the cashed up audiences are free of kids, mortgage and as they may have missed the band the first time around cos of those and other aforementioned responsibilities, it’s now time to cross them off their bucket list before they finish up. Being firmly ensconced in the nostalgia domain means they play large size venues, fewer show on tour, have better guaranteed returns and fly between gigs. No problem there. For the three original guys aged between 65-70, they have earnt that position and entitlement.
Yet the jury is out when it comes to having a version of Cheap Trick that includes not one, but two of the band members sons in the line-up. Dax Nielsen is on drums and on rhythm guitar and vocals is Robin Taylor Zander, decked out in a matching pink suit like his Dad. Kids in the band? Hmmmmm. That is a slippery slope towards the inferior rock facsimile of franchising. Gene and Paul are doormen there already. Come in, Foreigner are on stage. Who’s next ? Go back to the start of the article: Does the aforementioned 50-something classic rock loving guy who now, free of kids and mortgage, care ? He can now indulge in rock moments he missed out on. Does he care about authenticity? Legitimacy? Who cares if Tommy is wearing Ace’s greasepaint right? Is that Michael Anthony ? No its Wolfgang . The flashing logo says KISS right, so its KISS. Its loud, there’s smoke and lights, the tunes are familiar. The cash register is working overtime and people are happy. Should perspicacity even come into it ? For some people it doesn’t matter. For others though………part of the appeal of Cheap Trick was the four distinct personalities. It gave them character and a uniqueness. Cheap Trick will always be the classic line-up – with chain smoking Bun E at the back.
Cheap Trick are in the twilight of their career. Rick Nielson is looking every bit his age and going through the motions. (and I ain’t alone here. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Michael Bailey thought the same in his review). Yet there comes a point when it’s time to finish up, put the feet up and retire. He has nothing to prove. The same can’t be said for Robin Zander, who at 65 looks great and still sounds great. That’s a unanimous assessment by all scribes. Yet to provide a little balance, for most of the night he did have his son Robin Taylor Zander singing along with his father’s vocal lines, not just the chorus’. Just saying. The SMH’s Bailey seemed surprised that Petersson sung a tune. No surprises there – he’s been doing a tune in the set for 40 years. I was surprised it wasn’t ‘I Know What I Want’. Great to hear ‘High Roller’ and ‘She’s Tight’ .
Are people cool with having band members sons in the band ? Does Tom Petersson have a kid too that could come in on 2nd bass ? Will Robin Taylor Zander eventually replace his father as front man in Cheap Trick ? You think people care that Lou Gramm ain’t out front of Foreigner nowadays ? Anything goes nowadays right? Or not. Musically, the band sounded great – although Rick Nielsen sounds like he’s going through the routine – except the zaniness and jumping have been hung up in the locker room. Yet does anyone care? It’s a celebration of the music right ? For most people – that’s all that matters. I am also too painfully aware that in the next 5 to 10 years – many, if not all of the bands from the classic era will have hung their guitars up and called it a day. Rockford’s finest included.