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Trick of the Litter : Unlike Its '70s Peers, This Band Survives Without Cheap Gimmicks Like Splitting Up and Reuniting


It's taken more than 20 years, but Cheap Trick has finally figured it out. The key to success, that is.

"All of us are going to quit the band," reveals principal songwriter, lead guitarist and resident madman Rick Nielsen. "But we're re-forming immediately. That way you can say the whole band is back together.

"I feel like such an idiot . . . you know, that our band didn't break up just so we can re-form and become more and more popular."

There is some obvious humor in his comments, but with so-called classic rock groups such as Styx making a killing this summer by regrouping with their original members, you can almost hear the veins bulging in Nielsen's 50-year-old neck.

"It's sickening; I hate it, and it makes me very angry," he continues during a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Fort Worth, Texas. "I mean, if you're going to stick to your guns, then stick to your guns."

Now wait a minute.

One could argue that Cheap Trick, which just released a four-disc, 64-song boxed set, is being hypocritical. Bassist Tom Petersson was tossed out of the group in the early 1980s, replaced by two different players, and didn't return for seven years.

The difference between that musical reunion and some others, Nielsen is quick to point out, is that his band played on in the interim.

"Even when Tom was gone, we never broke up," he asserts. "We still gigged, night after night, and we've always been Cheap Trick. Besides, he's been back with us longer than he's been away."

To be sure, Cheap Trick--which also features singer Robin Zander and drummer Bun E. Carlos (born Brad Carlson)--is no Styx. In fact, the quartet was one of the most influential pop-rock bands to come out of the 1970s.

Formed in 1974, the popsters from Rockford, Ill., produced a couple of sparkling albums ("Cheap Trick" and "Heaven Tonight") and hit it big commercially with the triple-platinum "Live at Budakan" in 1979. Their energetic concerts were often sweaty, exuberant affairs marked by both polished, three-minute pop songs and longer, freewheeling guitar excursions.

But internal strife, bad management and eroding self-confidence plagued the band through much of the '80s, and a series of inconsistent albums featured less pop fare, more power ballads and harder, arena-rock anthems. In 1988, at the urging of their label, Epic Records, they recorded the drippy, middle-of-the-road song "The Flame," which was a commercial hit but cost them credibility among critics and many long-time fans.

Still, the band continued to thrill concert audiences, drawing from a predominantly strong catalog of timeless tunes. That guitar-driven, melodious power-pop, coupled with Cheap Trick's defiant attitude, has inspired many in the new rock generation, including the Gin Blossoms, Posies, Soul Asylum, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins.

In fact, the Pumpkins' Billy Corgan is a huge fan. As Nielsen tells it, the singer-songwriter is impressed with Cheap Trick's boxed set ("Sex, America, Cheap Trick"), but over the phone recently with Nielsen, he nonetheless griped about what was missing from the collection.

"I really just called him to say 'hello,' and he winds up practically interviewing me," says Nielsen, whose stage image includes baseball caps and geeky-short hair.

"He says, 'Why didn't you include "I Was a Fool" and a live version of "Oh Boy" and this and that?' Then he tells me he has some bootlegs of our live work. That shows you the guy really knows our stuff. Man, it's, like . . . wow!"

With a slew of old gems--"Surrender," "Dream Police," "I Want You to Want Me," "On Top of the World," "Southern Girls," "Tonight It's You" and "Hello There" among them--Cheap Trick is often viewed as past its prime. But the band is undeniably linked to today's scene, whether jamming on stage with members of Metallica and the Ramones during a recent Lollapalooza gig in their hometown, or preparing to cut a new single with former Nirvana producer Steve Albini for Seattle's hip Sub-Pop label.

So what is it about Cheap Trick that merits the respect and praise of such modern, younger rockers?

"You tell me," Nielsen says with a laugh. "Maybe it's our attitude and work ethic. We've been around a long time; we've had our ups and downs, but I think we're proud of every album we've made. We may not be proud of every song we've ever done--or been forced to do--but I believe we've done more than meets the eye."

In contrast to some of their more popular, catchy tunes, rarities on "Sex, America, Cheap Trick" showcase a versatile, sometimes raw side of the quartet. Several live cuts taken from a 1977 performance at the Whisky in L.A. include a darkly paranoid version of "Violins," a lengthy guitar workout during a cover of Bob Dylan's "Mrs. Henry" and the chilling "Ballad of TV Violence," a true tale of mass murder.

According to Nielsen, the band has amassed nearly 40 new songs and plans to record in the fall. This time, the group's not interested in working for a major label.

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