Never ‘Surrender’: Rick Nielsen talks about Cheap Trick’s legacy
September 5th, 2003
By Mark Guarino | Daily Herald Music Critic
If rock ‘n’ roll worked like fine wine, Cheap Trick would be an exceptional vintage.
Twenty-six years after the release of their first album, the Rockford band proves they are one of the few endurable bands of the late ’70s and early ’80s still making music. Like the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash, Cheap Trick provided a breath of fresh air with songs that didn’t just define the generation they were playing to, but after two decades, they are helping score many generations since.
What separated the band even from their peers was their persona: more comical than angry and melodic without losing one iota of heaviness, the band’s power pop anthems like “Surrender,” “I Want You To Want Me” and “Dream Police” proved timeless. Although they never broke up, label woes and a shift in mainstream tastes kept them in hibernation until the mid-’90s when some of their fans formed high-profile bands and helped introduce them to an entire new audience.
Proving their resurgence is no fluke, Cheap Trick’s new album, “Special One” (Big3), boasts many songs that fit into their canon and performances that boil. It is co-produced by longtime fans Chris Shaw (Super Furry Animals), Steve Albini (Nirvana, P.J. Harvey), Dan “The Automator” Nakamura (“Gorillaz”) as well as Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, John Lennon), who discovered the band playing a Waukesha, Wis., bowling alley in 1976 and wound up signing them to Epic and producing their first album.
Twenty-two albums later, guitarist Rick Nielsen insists he’s just “a songwritger who plays guitar who happens to be in a cool band.”
We talked last week about the nuts and bolts of rock ‘n’ roll longevity.
Q. What prompted this new album?
A. We want to have new material … we’re going to work on another one, too. We have a lot of new material. When we went to do this, we co-produced it with Chris Shaw and we let him pick out of 45 or 50 ideas. We had let him decide what to do. The four of us made individual lists, but we only had three of same songs. We made him the good or the bad guy.
Q. It looks like there’s really a rebirth of creativity surrounding the band. You’ve been ruthless in releasing so much music lately on your own label.
A. We always wrote but … the problem was, we didn’t really have a venue for them. The last two studio records, we had trouble with the record labels and so it was like, “Hey do you want to try that again?” “No.” It’s like getting shot once in the foot is dumb, getting shot twice is really stupid. Do you really want to try for a third? I always say to people I do interviews with if we waited for a hit song to tour we’d probably have never toured. But what do you consider a hit – something that’s on top of the charts? Of course, that’s obvious. But like “Surrender” I think tops at number 68. But everyone in the world knows it. So it is a hit, it just didn’t chart very well. We’ve always been known as a live band, and that’s where we built our following. Cheap Trick – we’re slow learners and our records are slow climbers.
Q. An element of your resurgence is that every new band has named checked you as an influence.
A. I read about it and that’s great stuff to read. We were just in Japan two weeks ago, and a band called Zebrahead and the band Less Than Jake – they both had versions of “Surrender.” Marilyn Manson also did it. And Anthrax did “AufWidersehen.” And Dwight Yoakam did “I Want You To Want Me.” Lip service is one thing, but actually going and covering a song is pretty darn cool. Green Day, they do some of our stuff too. I just took my daughter to go see Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. I took them to sound check … And they came up to me and were like, “Oh man, what an honor to meet you, I love your stuff.” My daughter was actually nice to me for 30 minutes. So it’s cool. I think other bands think we’re kind of interesting because we’re like a real band, we’re not like one of these kind of fake ones where it’s all hype and there’s nothing behind it. We’ve made every mistake possible, but we’ve also had great success and we’ve had great failures. So it’s reality oppose to these guys that are big for a week. Everyone’s big for a week. (laughs)
Q. Was there ever a point when popularity was waning that you considered breaking up?
A. What would that have proved? Nothing. We still like to play. We played last night in Oshkosh, and tonight we’re in Marshfield, Wis. But three night ago we did a special for VH-1 in Seattle, and the review was unbelievable. Of course we only played eight songs, but we played five new songs in that. The reviewer said most bands like us wouldn’t think of playing new songs and having them get over. And then two days before that we did AOL Sessions, and a day before that did the Craig Kilborn show. And so we’re busy and there’s lots of stuff going on. That’s success to me. Just having longevity. There’s no really big thing, it’s all rolled into one. Good resume, you know? We’ve got some crappy reviews, we have some great reviews. If it’s all good, you know you’re paying off somebody. So you know we’re not paying off anybody because we get good and bad.
Q. Part of the appeal is, even though you tour the world, you are still based in Rockford.
A. We never were a Hollywood band. Think of how many bands made it out of New York City. Hardly any. Chicago people were known for … we have a good work ethic. That’s where we live. Not that big a deal. Our families are from the area. We’ve gone around the world. Before Cheap Trick, I lived in Europe for awhile, I lived in Philadelphia for a year. I think we’re kind of an international band. But at the same time you have to live somewhere. I’d always meet Hollywood guys who’d go, “Oh man, it must be so cool to live in the Midwest.” Well, yeah, it’s cold in the winter, it’s hot in the summer but you get used to it. You have to like what you do. I could live on an island, to tell you truth. If you have good family and good friends, who cares? I travel all the time. It’s kind of nice to come home. “Hey Rick, what do you want to do today?” “Nothing.” I’m gone all the time. I’m passion a million miles on American Airlines right now. Someone asked, “What are you going to do after you reach a million?” Probably go for two million.
Q. You guys play everywhere from rock clubs to casinos to theaters to festivals.
A. We still play a lot. I think we’ve played more shows than any American group. Maybe B.B. King’s done more shows. But maybe not, I don’t know. We’ve probably done about 5,000 shows. If you start to add it up, that’s something like 160 a year.
Q. Does that take a physical toll on your body after all these years?
A. Oh, I’m totally pummeled. If you like what you’re doing, it’s not torture. If you hate what you’re doing, it’s torture. Whoever said “Getting there is half the fun” hasn’t gone anywhere lately. Tom’s quote is “Nobody pays us to play, they pay us to travel.”
Q. How many guitars have you owned over the years?
A. Two thousand. I have about 300 or so now. A few made for me by Gibson. Fenders is making me stuff. I’ve been collecting guitars since the ’60s. Before they were called “vintage guitars,” they were just used guitars. I bring a different guitar up for everyone song. If you get the “Special One” CD, there’s a bonus DVD cut from us in 1976. It freaks us out. But you see in the background that basically I have the same amps I had then and lots of guitars onstage.
Q. Sounds like you’re one of the few bands left that sees rock music as a vocation.
A. Oh, face it, we’re too dumb to quit.