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Cover Story: Cheap Trick

| March 31, 2021 | 2 Comments

Cheap Trick (Photo: David McCalister)

At a seasoned 72, Rick Nielsen is the Frank Buck of the rock and roll world. By his own admission — and he’s not bragging, just stating the facts — the Cheap Trick axeman and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has bagged and brought home over 2,000 guitars in his lifetime. His trophy room currently houses roughly 500, several of which were put to good use on the band’s rollicking, Apocalyptic-themed new album In Another World, its 20th. And when he’s on the hunt, he knows the big-game instruments he’s stalking, down to every last sonic detail. “And actually, about a week ago, I bought another one, the guitar that I’ve been chasing for years,” says the Rockford, Illinois native of the Dwight Coronet model he purchased from Jam/Style Council mainstay Paul Weller over in England. “They only made 47 of them, and it’s the same one that Steve Marriott always used to play.”

But the meticulous Nielsen — ever since he sparked Cheap Trick to life with two stunning records in 1978, Cheap Trick and In Color, and a rapid-fire 1979 follow-up, Heaven Tonight — had a very clear picture in his head of what he wanted for his bubblegum-chewy rock and roll outfit, starting with its obvious visual disparity. Vocalist Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson were the handsome, feather-haired heartthrobs. Simultaneously, bespectacled drummer Bun E. Carlos and the baseball-capped, wrestling-booted, perpetually-mugging Nielsen played the awkward wallflower geeks. This campy contrast worked remarkably well, both onstage and in album cover photographs. Musically, the imagery was echoed by its breakthrough 1979 smash, the sing-song, almost Vaudevillian live version of “I Want You to Want Me,” culled from the Japanese-recorded Cheap Trick at Budokan. Opposites definitely seemed to attract.

And Nielsen’s standards are still high after all these years. The Julian Raymond-produced In Another World opens with a stomping “The Summer Looks Good on You,” with Zander’s charismatic wheeze-to-a-snarl singing voice sounding stronger than ever. Granted, the group’s power-pop-rooted style gets some tweaking here, as in the horn-peppered “Stop Waking Me Up,” an R&B pounder called “The Party,” a bluesy “Final Days,” featuring Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall on harmonica, and a swaying cover of John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth,” with guitar pyrotechnics courtesy of former Sex Pistol Steve Jones. But mostly, it’s just Cheap Trick doing what it does best, as on “Here’s Looking at You,” a subtly modern update of its huge, arena-pleasing sound. Old-schooler that he is, though, Nielsen is happy to note that World will be available in a special, Target-only picture-disc edition, as well, which is par for the retro course.  “A couple of years ago, we were No. 1 in the world as far as eight-tracks — I don’t think many people put those out,” he chortles impishly. “And it’s like, we know it’s not gonna sell, but it’s just kind of fun. I’ve saved all my old eight-tracks, although I’m not sure where they are. But I’ve never thrown anything out. I have over 5,000 boarding passes, and I haven’t unpacked since Budokan — I just buy more luggage!” The following interview finds him in a typically playful — but unusually reflective — frame of mind.


IE: Years ago, I gave you a silver square Kinks Misfits button backstage, and you wore it everywhere. How big did your promo-pin collection get? And what do you collect now instead?

RICK NIELSEN: Well, I started out as a coin collector and a stamp collector because of my grandmother, actually. She collected stamps in blocks of four, the corner four that would have the serial number on it that you would get at the post office. And I collected those until about 1963. But I collected coins, too, and this was in the day where you had to — I had the first day of issues, but I started getting overseas stuff from different countries, and you had to write letters and send mail, that whole process. It was way before the Internet, and I think my interest became more involved in music, as opposed to stamps. And when I was a kid, I was a boy scout, so I had boy scout stamps, too. And I still have ‘em — I still have all that stuff.

IE: What was your most prized stamp? I collected ‘em, too, and I had some Hitler ones.

RN: I’ve got a couple of Hitler ones. My mother-in-law lived in Germany back then, and she gave me some stuff. She was writing to her sister, and here’s the old Hitler stamp on the front of the envelope. And HER father was like a woodsman, a forester, and he was thrown in — like so many others were back then — into the Nazi party, which you had to join or whatever. And the grandmother, I actually lived with her in Nuremberg in 1971 and 1972 with my wife, and I actually learned how to speak some German. But back to that — I went from stamps to coins and baseball cards, and then I got rid of all my baseball cards. I sold ‘em to John Whitehead, a guy who worked for us — I didn’t want to, but I think I needed a guitar that I wanted to get. But my coin collection? I still collect because I love standing-Liberty dollars and half dollars, because I just like the artwork on those things so much. And probably my most famous coin that I have is, I have a 16D dime and a 1909 Ezra DB penny.

IE: I remember several years ago, as an only child, you were going through a tough time dealing with the deaths of both parents. I get it now. I’m now an orphan, too.

RN: Well, I grew up an only child, and in one way, it was good. It’s like, I make the joke, “There was nobody around, so I had to play with myself.” But I’ve never been bored to this day. I’m sitting here in my dining room, and I can’t wait to get done here so I can look through these coins that I haven’t looked at in 25 years. But the fact that there’s nobody here — my wife’s out of town, and the kids are all grown — so the mess that’s around here is all mine. But my parents went within nine months of each other. And I think it just shows your own mortality, you know? I mean, now I have friends whose parents are dying, and I wrote the song “Words” — “Words can never say” — because there’s no good way to talk about a kid or your parents or anybody dying, and if you come up with some speech or write a letter, it’s never enough. Until later, nobody gets it. It’s like writing a text today — anything can be taken in a different way. Is it sincere? Is it fake? And how do I reconcile it? I’m glad my parents gave something great to me. And some of that was leaving me alone, and some of that was believing in me enough not to try to force me to do something that I probably wouldn’t do anyhow.

IE: Ever since I started cutting classes to write for the college paperback in Indiana, rock journalism was just something I liked doing. And I still don’t really think of it as a career.

RN: Same as me. My parents were opera singers, and my dad sang with Billy Graham and was on 40 albums on Zondervan or Word records, which was a religious label. And he owned a music store in Rockford. We moved from Elmhurst to Rockford because my uncle — my dad’s brother — said, “You need to do something else besides singing for your supper. There’s a music store here in town — do you wanna get involved?” Because my uncle helped start Muzak, the old wonderful music system. And I used to have to change these huge reels — they were probably three or four feet across, big reel to reel things. So here I was — if I liked a subject or I liked a teacher, and I didn’t think I was smarter than them, I did really well.

But the ones who I thought were idiots — and made me feel like an idiot to be in school — I had no respect for these guys. So in seventh grade — and remember that my parents were heavily involved in music in Illinois and all over the place, and with our store — I was the first chair on two instruments. I was first chair on drums and first chair on flute. So I knew music. I knew good notes from bad notes from being around the operas, which I got, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I went up to the band director and said, “Mr. Bishel? You’re an incompetent, drunken fool who doesn’t deserve to teach music to me or anyone else.” And Boom! I was thrown out of the music program for the Rockford school system, For LIFE! So my parents, of course, were pleased, and I tell people, “That was the last time I told the truth,” because I got in trouble for saying what was right. And I got paddled and expelled.

IE: Ah, yes! Good old corporal punishment and getting whacked! Kids today have NO idea.

RN: Getting whacked! And they had those holes drilled in the paddle, so it was more aerodynamic. So here 40 years later, the school — and that was Lincoln Junior High School —they had a commemoration for the reopening of the same stained glass window that had been installed there during the Depression, and they had John B. Anderson  — who went to the same school and ran for president here — and Dr. Timothy Johnson, who was the ABC morning TV doctor — and myself as the three alumni. And I thought, “What did you get ME here for? For levity?” So I spoke to some of the students who were graduating then, gave ‘em the old pep talk, and at the end, the principal — who I thought was ancient when I went there — he was there! So he gave a little speech, and I went up to him and said, “You mentioned everybody except a couple.” And one was the dean of boys; the other was Bishel. And he said, “Rick, you were right. He was an incompetent, drunken fool who didn’t deserve to teach you!” My parents had both passed away, so who could I tell — “See? I was right! I stuck to my guns; I got in trouble for it, but what I always wanted to do was play music. I didn’t know I’d be in a rock band at 70 years old. But I kept at it. And there were always musicians who were better at what I was trying to do, in a way, but they gave up. I never went to a high school dance or a homecoming or a football game unless I was playing at it.

IE: There’s one interesting footnote about you that most folks don’t process — you always wear your own merchandise.

RN: Yeah! It’s good stuff! Like having your (Kinks) button. Now I make my own jewelry, and on my website — which I don’t work hard enough on — I sell pictures of myself. And people say, “Rick — how come you’re wearing this picture of you?” And I’ve had so many different varieties of stuff, and it’s not great art, but it’s my art. Like my picks — I’ve never sold a pick of mine. But if you go on the Internet, I’d make way more money selling picks than I do being in a band.

IE: Your mic stand was always studded with picks, so you probably threw 50 or so out to the crowd per show?

RN: Well, more than that. I order 60,000 at a time, which I pay for. And I give out picks all the time, and I got that idea — not for picks, per se — but from both of my grandparents, who were ministers. So I got churched up, and every Sunday, I’d have to be there at church. But this one guy who was a member of the congregation, he was a toy salesman. And after the service, we’d go out to his car, and he’d open his trunk, and he had toys in there. So that was my incentive — I could struggle through the hour of church because I knew there were toys at the end of it. And I just liked that idea. It made you feel good about whatever you were doing, even if you didn’t want to do it. And that’s kind of the idea behind “Surrender” — “Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright, they just seem a little weird.” You can give up, but don’t give up totally. For the first couple of years, everybody thought my name was Fender when I started doing that when I put my name on the picks. But that’s just one thing. I like the idea that you come to something, and you get something in return. Even if it’s just that stupid pick, which, like I said, a lot of ‘em sell for a ton of money now. And I just gave ‘em away. But we were kind of the perfect band to have tchotchke. Or swag, although we didn’t call it that at the time — it was just all the junk that goes along with it. And I like all that stuff, too. Like The Beatles — they were unbelievable, with lunch boxes, and this, that, or the other. But we were never popular enough, like Kiss, so we didn’t go hog-wild on that stuff.

IE: It looks like you even have a checkered Cheap Trick hearing aid prominently displayed.

RN: I do. And you’ve seen my teeth, right? It was about 15 years ago now — I broke a tooth, and the tooth next to the broken tooth was something that I had from when I was 10 years old, where the dentist put lead or something in there. I don’t know what it was, but it was kind of dark. So since I had to get a crown to fix the thing, instead of a gold grille or all pretty white teeth — which both were wrong for me — I designed it like I do my picks. I made a checkerboard, but I didn’t want the checks so big that it looked like a cavity, and I didn’t want it so small that you couldn’t see it. So I had a number of my teeth done like a checkerboard. And at my age, who cares what I do?

IE: Besides a hearing loss, how’s your health?

RN: Well, my dad had asthma his whole life, and I’ve had asthma my whole life, but not so bad where I worry about it. I just always worked my way through it rather than sit around and whine about it. And it helped me get out of the draft. There were three busloads of volunteers in 1968 or ’69, and we went from Rockford to Chicago for selective service. And out of the three busloads, a midget, a huge fat guy, and myself, [we] were the only ones that were rejected. So I knew I wouldn’t make it in. And I would fight for my country, but not for a war that was so wrong. I knew enough about right and wrong — my dad had graduated from college when he was 17, and he was a smart cookie. But he wanted to be involved in religious music, so he was never driven by money. And I’ve never been driven by money — I’m driven by doing what I want to do. And I’m still married to my wife — we got married in 1969. And there were always people that were better looking than me, but I never wanted to be — or tried to be — somebody else. I was always the goofy guy. I was the guy that got thrown out of the band — I was banned from band! In seventh grade! And you’ve gotta be pretty bad to be thrown out of band — they couldn’t get enough people IN there. But I shot my mouth off, and look what happened. Then to fast forward, I went to college here, and I had 59 credits or hours or whatever, and then I flunked the selective service, so I quit school. I wouldn’t go one more minute because I knew what I wanted to do, and that wasn’t learning it in school. And then 35 years later, the music department gave me the last credit to graduate, and I graduated with a Master of Arts degree or something. I don’t know what it was. But they gave me the credit from the music department, which I wasn’t involved with, but I guess they appreciated what I’d done for the city. So now I’ve got a degree. Now, what am I gonna do?

IE: Going back to The Beatles, there are two Fab Four connections on this record — your cover of John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth,” obviously. But “So It Goes” sounds very Beatles-like. And Cheap Trick can do The Beatles better than anybody.

RN: Well, I tell people that I’ve got perfect pitch. But I don’t have a good voice. My father was a lyric opera tenor who studied all this stuff. And he was a choir director, too, in WWII, in the Aleutian Islands, and Roswell, NM. So he was legit. And Robin is a trained singer — he was in chorus, and in fact, he took some lessons FROM my dad. But he’s a real singer. And if I sang as good as him, we would sound way different. So Robin’s good voice and my in-tune, crummy kind of voice really makes Cheap Trick. And I usually do the high stuff. Like when we did the theme song to “The Colbert Report” — that song is called “Baby Mumbles,” because that’s what we did. When I was going back to work with John Lennon, Robin and I were gonna do baby voices, that stuff that’s in the background but really kind of adds to the whole sound.

IE: And you worked with George Martin, too. But what made you want to cover “Gimme Some Truth”? Obviously, we’re not getting much in this alternative-facts era.

RN: Yeah, and that was one of the reasons. People ask us, “Are you guys political?” And we’ll do the song, but I said, “Let’s use John Lennon’s lyrics — let him take the brunt of this, rather than us saying what we really thought.” I met the Orange Man years ago. I did “The Joan Rivers Show” with my son Miles, and Ozzy Osbourne and his kids were on, and Miles was 14 or something like that. And went to New York, and Joan put us up at the plaza. And I walked in there — and I’d stayed there before with Cheap trick — and here’s Trump and Marla Maples, and they turned around and looked at me, and he gave me that same kind of look that Mr. Bishel gave me, that dirty fucking look, like from the gym coach that you hated. And I thought, “What? My money’s not good here? How dare you!” So I had met him years before. And later, I was the editor and publisher of Cracked magazine — I was the editor and publisher for two issues. I liked it because it was Mad magazine’s cheap sister. But one of the artists was actually FROM Rockford, and they had gone bust, so he was trying to sell it. And I loved the content, so I bought it, and I had Trump on the cover of one, and I was on the cover of the other, playing my five-neck. And somebody in New York liked what I had done with my two issues, and they bought it back from me for ten times what I paid for it. But then they ran it back into the ground. And I had no idea what I was doing, of course. But I just liked the content, the cartoons — it was like guy art, with the girl that’s over-endowed. They were just stupid, they weren’t mean and nasty, and it wasn’t like Hustler magazine or anything. It was just PC-incorrect art. But I’ve been PC-incorrect my whole life. So I hated (Trump) back then, and I couldn’t believe what’s been going on lately. So I thought choosing “Gimme Some Truth” was right, because how do you express yourself without every other person — because half the country, right — hating you? And I’m in a band, so half the people hate me anyhow. So things have gotten so far from the truth. And during his first election, I said that day, “We’re doomed.” It was just awful stuff. And as we traveled around, Everybody in Europe just laughed at us, like, “You’ve gotta be kidding! How did you get THIS guy?” He was hated way more around the world than he was here.

IE: Everyone wants to save the planet. But the planet will be just fine once we’re off of it. And that teetering-on-the-brink-of-extinction theme seems to be all over this record, on everything from “The Party” to “Another World” and “Another World, Reprise,” to “So It Goes” and “Final Days.”

RN: In a way, yeah. But we make it, so it’s kind of fun. Like fiddling while Rome burns — hey, one person’s having a good time! But if you think about our first album, it was like, “Here’s Cheap Trick. But are they a rock band? They’ve got this song ‘Mandocello,’ and that’s too nice for this!’ I got in trouble with “Taxman” — the only people that really listened to the lyrics were the people at the I.R.S. because I got audited every year for about five years. They didn’t like that song. So we have happy stuff. But I had to change “The Ballad of Richard Speck” to “The Ballad of T.V. Violence” because we were worried that the family of Richard Speck was gonna sue us. So I was just trying to tell the truth about that. So telling the truth is a dangerous thing sometimes.

IE: Given that, “I’ll See You Again” sounds like a graveside farewell.

RN: Well, it kind of was. Julian Raymond — his wife’s brother died, and he was a big Cheap Trick fan. So we just put together a song for him, not knowing it was gonna be on an album. We did it so they could have it, Julian’s family. And “Final Days” was kind of a blues song that we were doing, but at the end, we have Jimmy Hall playing harmonica on it. So it’s a blues song without being a blues song. Like I said — with Cheap Trick, we’ve never tried to be something that we weren’t. And we’re not a blues band. But we know how to play the blues in our own way.

IE: You always swore that you respected only two punk bands — The Sex Pistols and The Clash. So how did you track down Steve Jones for this record?

RN: Well, we’ve known him because we were fans of the Pistols, and I like the way he plays guitar — he’s such a good rhythm player, and I’m a rhythm player, too. And I’m self-taught, so I don’t know what the chords are, and I’ve never really practiced, like, “Here’s my solo!” I don’t know how to play a solo — if I were really good, maybe I would. But I’ve never really worked at that — I’ve worked at writing songs. And we had done Jonesy’s Jukebox, and we played some Sex Pistols songs. And I think he liked the fact that we knew what we were doing. And at another point, we were The Who for Roger Daltrey because we knew all the Who songs. So we’re not session guys, but we fit in with a lot of that kind of stuff because we play with attitude. So with Steve Jones, we did that, and then we came back another time to do his show; it was Robin and myself, and we said we were gonna be doing “Gimme Some Truth.” I brought a guitar, and he had a guitar there, so we played it live, and he had that same kind of sloppy feel like we had. So we said, “Do you wanna play on the record?” And he was like, “Yeah!” He jumped at it. So we sent the track to him, and he played on it. And it’s not like some virtuoso part — it was the feeling that he had that we enjoyed, and he liked us enough to say yes.

IE: The songs just keep coming, though. It’s pretty amazing.

RN: I agree with you. And I’ve said this, too — I don’t think we’ve ever progressed. And that’s a good thing. I still like my Yardbirds. I still like The Who. On one hand, I wish I would have practiced guitar. But then, I don’t know…I got invited to play with Hall and Oates. I got invited to play with John Lennon. And they wanted me for me — they didn’t want me like a Steve Lukather or Joe Bonamassa. They liked the feel that I have, so that’s why I got hired for these things. So I’m proud of what I did, but I’m also proud that I got thrown out of band. I wish I could have done it a better way, so my parents weren’t so humiliated. But that’s the way it was — I told the truth.

– Tom Lanham

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Category: Cover Story, Monthly

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  1. Jeff Elbel says:

    Loved this story, Tom. Your familiarity with Rick makes for open conversation and a good read, coupled with insight into the new work.

  2. Chris huston says:

    Wonderful. What a great man. Besides Jesus, he’d be The only I’d like to sit and eat with.

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