I guess to write a biography of a band you have to like them if not love them.
Brian J., short for Brian James, hails from Waukesha, where he was raised in two houses, one across the street from a bowling alley, the other haunted. The bowling alley was the Sunset Bowl, where Cheap Trick were ‘discovered’ by Jack Douglas. Douglas also happened to be the name of the ghost: a seven-year-old boy, one of the previous owner’s nine children, who fell off the roof of a neighborhood building.
In the mid-nineties, Brian attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where it seemed like every other person he met had a great Cheap Trick story and was eager to tell it. The band was legendary in that town and for Brian, an ardent rock fan and budding record collector, Cheap Trick pressed all the right buttons. Thirty years and thousands of records later, here we are: Brian is now the proud author of his first book, about his favorite band.
Based on extensive original interviews, This Band Has No Past reveals how the beloved American rockers rose from the rural Midwest to multiplatinum success. Published to coincide with the 45th anniversary of Cheap Trick’s landmark second album, In Color, it includes an exclusive foreword by Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and is on sale September 6th, 2022.
Brian takes some time from writing about Cheap Trick to, erm, write about why he loves Cheap Trick…
A county fair in the Midwest. Rows of rustbuckets parked in a muddy field. SUICIDE! Girlfriend beaters wearing wife beaters. The wafting aroma of pig shit. SUICIDE! A community gathering. The bustle of families. SUICIDE! Carnival rides and corndogs. An odd-looking band blasting a wall of sound from a makeshift stage. SUICIDE! The singer is literally howling, just that one word, over and over…
This exact scenario has unfolded hundreds of times. The song is “Auf Wiedersehen,” an oft-played staple of the Cheap Trick live set. Written in 1975 but not released until the band’s third album, Heaven Tonight, in 1978, this brazen blast of snide heavy metal wallows in the grim resignation of “No Hope” before careening to its inevitably chaotic, caterwauling conclusion. But performed here, in this venue? An ode to ending it all. Who could get away with this? Cheap Trick, that’s who. These pranksters clawed their way out of the underground to install themselves as respected fixtures on the classic rock scene! They have a few songs that almost everyone knows and a slew of crazy/brilliant songs (like “Auf Wiedersehen”) that only certain people know. But those people, they know.
The mad science of Cheap Trick:
- Test tubes of influence and inspiration tossed into a cauldron.
- Glass shatters.
- Genres mix.
- Light a fire underneath.
- Stir with guitars.
- Dump over the heads of the audience.
Rick Nielsen flails at his Gibson (wait, wasn’t he just playing Fender?) while the rhythm section, Tom Petersson (with an extra ‘s’) and Bun E. Carlos (né Brad Carlson), adroitly holds it all together. In this recipe, they’re the flour and eggs, Rick the sugar. And the frosting? Robin Zander’s voice, of course. Laid on thick. Is that a meringue? I think it’s a glaze. No, it’s a buttercream. This guy’s amazing. Hundreds of guitar picks rain from the sky as the crowd chants “Bunny! Bunny! Bunny!” Wait, are they chanting for the drummer? Who chants for the drummer? I don’t know, I’m trying to count the strings on that bass. Now I have to start over.
It’s tricky (not cheap), the simultaneous indulgence in self-deprecation and satire. Cheap Trick pull it off. Seasoned pros, as much as they pretend not to be. They never take themselves too seriously, even while many of the rest of us do. And part of the reason we do: they don’t. Meanwhile, look at that logo: modern art, in and of itself, brilliantly extrapolated to the checkerboard motif. All part of a humbly grand visual aesthetic that beautifully enhances the audio. Because yeah, it’s really about the songs, which run the gamut, from caustic and raw to polished and pretty. Whatever brand of rock or pop you like, it’s all here, albeit a skewed (but excellent) take on it. You’re never alone with a schizophrenic.
My friend Craig, with whom I’ve seen Cheap Trick live many times, once correctly answered a trivia question at a local radio station’s booth (we were at one of those aforementioned Midwest county fairs) and was offered his choice of prizes, but Craig had something else in mind. What about that stack of promotional comic books? Might they be his prize? All of them? The DJ thought for a second, shrugged, and asked Craig if he had anything to say to the listening audience. Craig bellowed into the microphone: “Free Cheap Trick comic books rule!” I still have one of those free Cheap Trick comic books. It does rule. Thanks, Craig.
With an embarrassment of riches from which to choose, here’s the classic Surrender from the classic Live At Budokan album:
Our grateful thanks to Brian who now resides near Madison with his wife and daughter. He has been a featured host on the long-running podcasts Cheap Talk (a podcast devoted to Cheap Trick) with Ken Mills; and Rock and/or Roll, a part of the Pantheon Podcast Network.
You can read more from our extensive archive of Why I Love pieces from a wide array of artists on an even wider array of subjects, here.