How Cheap Trick Survived the ‘80s
Few bands were in a better position to dominate the ‘80s than Cheap Trick. Typically for them, they instead went through their darkest period before eventually rising to the occasion shortly before the end of the decade.
The ‘80s are synonymous with MTV, and the band was tailor-made for videos. With Robin Zander, they had a big-voiced, blond god of a rock singer, and guitarist and primary songwriter Rick Nielsen’s stage presence was built around clowning around in brightly colored outfits.
In addition, Cheap Trick hit their commercial peak as the ‘70s came to a close, albeit in a fluke manner. Their first three albums saw them slowly build a following, but without the hit single needed to break them in the U.S. Then a live album they recorded in 1978 for their Japanese fans, Cheap Trick at Budokan, began to sell in the U.S. as an import. Their record company, Epic Records, released it domestically and, boosted by the Top 10 single “I Want You to Want Me,” reached No. 4 and went triple-platinum.
As a result of Cheap Trick's newfound success, the record they were preparing to put out when At Budokan hit was put on hold until September 1979. Dream Police kept up the commercial momentum, going Top 10 and providing Top 40 singles in “Dream Police” and “Voices.”
Watch the Video for Cheap Trick's 'Dream Police'
But then, at the dawn of the new decade, it all went pear-shaped. "Everything Works If You Let It," a single that appeared on the soundtrack to the movie Roadie, got things off to a decent start.
That summer, Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos had gotten what seemed to be the gig of a lifetime when they got called in to do session work on John Lennon’s first album in five years. They performed on two cuts, “I’m Losing You” and a song of Yoko Ono’s called “I’m Moving On.” However, by the time Double Fantasy was released, their parts were re-recorded by session musicians.
Then shortly before the release of Cheap Trick’s next record, 1980’s George Martin-produced All Shook Up, bassist Tom Petersson quit, citing internal conflicts within the band and being burned out from nonstop touring. “We just had a few misunderstandings about some things,” he said vaguely years later. “We had been on the road for a long time, and we just ended up separating without discussing it.” Petersson was replaced by bassist Pete Comita.
On top of that, All Shook Up failed to live up to commercial expectations. It went gold, but it didn’t even crack the Top 20, and its first single, “Stop This Game,” stalled shy of the Top 40, and “World’s Greatest Lover” didn’t chart at all.
But their attempt to rebound hit a snag. In the summer of 1981, CBS, Epic’s parent company, sued the band and its manager, Ken Adamany, for $12 million each, claiming that they were refusing to record in the hopes of renegotiating their contract, which stated that the band still owed two records by the end of the year. As a result, the only new Cheap Trick music issued in 1981 came on the soundtrack to Heavy Metal. “Reach Out,” which was written by Comita, was released as a single, with Nielsen’s “I Must Be Dreamin’” as the B-side. It failed to chart.
By the time the problems with CBS were settled in early 1982, Comita was gone. Nielsen handled bass chores for most of the new album, with Comita's replacement, John Brant, playing on only three songs. Although One on One had plenty of arena-friendly choruses, there was definitely a lack of inspiration, as if Cheap Trick had forgotten to write the rest of the song. The main exceptions were the two singles, “If You Want My Love” and “She’s Tight,” both of which, again, didn’t make the Top 40.
Watch Cheap Trick's Video for 'If You Want My Love'
The band next contributed the title tracks to a pair of forgettable raunchy college comedies (Spring Break and Up the Creek), which sandwiched the Todd Rundgren-produced Next Position Please. Released in 1983, the album de-emphasized the guitar crunch in favor of the band's melodic side -- not too far removed from 1977's In Color -- and there was plenty of weirdness to be found on the second side. Even though it was their best record since Dream Police, it couldn’t stop the downhill slide.
In an attempt to stem the bleeding, they brought in keyboardist and songwriter Mark Radice for 1985’s Standing on the Edge. It helped a bit; the ballad “Tonight It’s You” peaked at No. 8 at rock radio, which helped push the album up to No. 35.
Watch the Video for Cheap Trick's 'Tonight It's You'
The problem wasn’t that Radice, who co-wrote eight of the album's 10 songs, modernized their sound with synths – the band had used them to great effect on “Surrender” and “Dream Police,” after all – but that it didn’t sound like Cheap Trick. They had struck big in the late ‘70s with a distinct blend of hard-rock crunch, unpredictable melodies and a warped sense of humor. But now all that remained were the power chords. “Rock All Night” could have been recorded by Def Leppard, while “Wild Wild Women” had an AC/DC feel about it. And the drum programming on “She’s Got Motion” was borderline offensive for a band that had Bun E. Carlos in its ranks.
Everything bottomed out a year later, first when “Mighty Wings” from the Top Gun soundtrack failed to chart, and then with The Doctor, a collection of forgettable, formulaic songs with cluttered production. It was their first record since their debut to not even make the Top 100.
Help finally arrived in the form of a pitcher of beer that was poorly carried by an old friend. “It was at a birthday party for Julian Lennon in New York City here,” Zander said. “And we were invited, so Rick and I went. We were sitting at a table. Tom came in with a pitcher of beer and tripped, and spilled the beer in Rick’s lap. And then, from that point on, we had Tom in the band again.”
Petersson’s return proved to be what they needed, but it also helped that for Lap of Luxury, Richie Zito’s high-gloss ‘80s production fit in perfectly with the hard rock of the day. This time around, they ceded a lot of the writing chores to outsiders. Nielsen, who had handled so much of the songwriting since their inception, was restricted to four co-writes, and the only song fully penned by the band was Zander and Petersson’s “Never Had a Lot to Lose.”
Watch Cheap Trick's Video for 'The Flame'
The material, while not stellar, was just enough of an improvement over their last two records, and, more importantly, the performances rose above the dross. “The Flame” may have been a cheesy power ballad, but Nielsen’s tasteful solo and Zander’s soaring vocal make it work. In the summer of 1988, the band that for the previous nine years couldn’t find the Top 40 with a Sherpa had the No. 1 song in the nation.
The follow-up, a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” hit No. 4. Lap of Luxury became both their first Top 20 and platinum album since Dream Police. It helped that both songs came with videos that had plenty of close-ups of Zander.
Watch the Video for Cheap Trick's 'Don't Be Cruel'
While Cheap Trick took a lot of flak for doing whatever was necessary to top the chart, the other side of the argument was that, after 15 years of sporadic hits, they were entitled to it. Like, say, Al Pacino’s Academy Award for Scent of a Woman, the success of “The Flame” was recognition for all the hits they should have had the past 10 years. Besides, other rock bands from the ‘70s, like Aerosmith and Kiss, were working with outside writers to stay commercially relevant.
But Cheap Trick were unable to sustain their commercial upturn. They brought back Zito for 1990’s Busted, but it lived up to its title, artistically and commercially, and their relationship with Epic was over.
Even though they struggled through the ‘80s, some people were listening to the band. In the ‘90s, a new crop of musicians weaned on the combination of loud guitars and sunny melodies led to the rise of power-pop. Material Issue’s 1991 debut International Pop Overthrow sounded like a lost Cheap Trick album, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain once said, “I'm the first to admit that we're the ‘90s version of Cheap Trick.”
These endorsements brought the group’s seminal records to an audience that knew only Lap of Luxury, and that’s helped the band achieve the multi-generational status it enjoys today. In 2016, Cheap Trick were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
30 Most Outrageous '80s Rock Fashions