Cheap Trick are one of those legendary bands I’m supposed to really like. But, as often as not, their material seems either too screaming-guitar-solo rawk or histrionic power ballad for my tastes. When they do turn on the Beatlesque hooks and harmonies, however, the band are unstoppable. The essential winning formula appears on early hits like “I Want You To Want Me,” “Surrender,” “Dream Police” and pretty much all of their best-selling 1979 album Dream Police. But from there Cheap Trick seemed to lose their artistic footing, struggling over the course of their next 15 albums to match differing production styles with their reliably good songwriting. Despite sometimes uneven results, I think every Cheap Trick album has a least a few worthy poprock singles lurking inside. Today we melody test the 19 album catalogue of Cheap Trick to find those melodic gems.
I’m not going to dwell on the early ‘we’re gonna be stars’ period of the band. Rock writers have already penned countless columns noting their musical split personality, sometimes arena-noisy rawk gods, other times commercially slick Beatlesque hitmakers. The noisy rock roots defined their 1977 self-titled debut, with a few exceptions like “Oh Candy.” Less than year later In Color repeated the same formula, but with a few slick AM radio-ready exceptions, like the original version of “I Want You To Want Me” and “Southern Girls.” 1978’s Heaven Tonight saw the influence of new wave come to fore with the band’s first truly amazing single, “Surrender.” 1979’s Dream Police cemented their reputation as one of new wave’s most creative rock-oriented acts with the innovative title track and the more Beatlesque “Voices.” The band’s trajectory seemed to be following a classic rock and roll script, with every album improving on the last both creatively and commercially.
But something jarred loose on the way into the 1980s. The confidence of Dream Police seemed to give way to a fourteen year era of uncertainty about just who the band were and what they needed to do to succeed commercially and artistically. It wasn’t for lack of high profile collaborators. The next eight albums would see the band working with the likes of George Martin, Roy Thomas Baker, Todd Rundgren, Jack Douglas, Ritchie Zito and Ted Templeman. But the hits and previous rave critical reviews all but dried up. 1980’s All Shook Up failed to produce many standout tracks, other than “Stop This Game.” 1982’s One on One dialed up the rock vibe but the killer cut is undoubtedly the Beatlesy “If You Want My Love You Got It.” 1983’s Next Position Please was a much more melodic album overall, though critics complained that producer Todd Rundgren had the band sounding a lot like Utopia, particularly on “I Can’t Take It.” There are worse problems a band could have. Then the band reunited with Jack Douglas (producer of their debut album) for 1985’s Standing on the Edge and the results were brilliant. The songs and performances were back to Dream Police levels of confidence with highlights like “This Time Around” and the killer “Tonight It’s You,” a track that ranks with any of their best singles.
And then the wheels came off the comeback bus. 1986’s The Doctor stalled the band’s revival. Critics slammed the album’s cheesy drum and keyboard sound but the real problem was the songwriting, with only “Kiss Me Red” catching my attention. Under pressure from their record company to turn out some hits, 1988’s Lap of Luxury bears all the marks of a corporate ‘album by committee’. The band were forced to work with outside songwriters and the production style was essentially a slick FM kind of bombast rock. The gambit worked: the record ended up second in total sales for the group behind Dream Police and a power ballad single, “The Flame,” did go to number one. But the best songs in my view are still the ones written by the band, e.g. “Let’s Go,” “Never Had a Lot To Lose,” and my fave “All We Need is a Dream.” Producer Ritchie Vito returned for 1990s Busted but the formula failed to work a second time. Instead, the standout track here is the throwback sixties-influenced “Had to Make You Mine.” Working with Van Halen producer Ted Templeman brought back the rawk on 1994’s Woke Up With a Monster but a few melodic surprises make an appearance, like “You’re All I Wanna Do” and “Never Run Out of Love For You.”
By mid-1990s Cheap Trick were without a major label deal for the first time in their career. This allowed the band to retake control of their musical direction, once again writing and producing most of their albums and releasing them on smaller, more independent labels. The results have generally been applauded by fans and critics alike. 1997’s Cheap Trick marked a creative reset, with stripped back poppy rock and roll numbers like “Hard to Tell” and the sixties-ish “Carnival Game.” Seven years later 2003’s Special One was less rawk than previous efforts but still strong songwriting-wise – case in point, “My Obsession.” 2006’s Rockford was another solid effort, with the single-worthy “All Those Years Ago” and the fab Bill Lloyd co-write “Dream the Night Away.” In 2009 the band delivered another melody-heavy package with The Latest. This one is particularly Beatles stamped – check out “Times of Our Lives.” Another seven years would pass before Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello in 2016 but the record has many highlights like “No Direction Home” and “When I Wake Up Tomorrow” (with its slight Bond theme undercurrent). One year later the band would return to their rawk default with We’re All Alright! but more melodic tunes appeared as well with “Floating Down” and “She’s Alright.” And then earlier this year album #19 arrived with In Another World, a collection that almost seems to showcase the band’s stylistic range across their whole career, including quite a few hooky numbers. My faves include “The Summer Looks Good on You,” “Another World,” and the more mellow “I’ll See You Again.”
I can’t say I love all of Cheap Trick’s albums but with every release there’s always been something to like. This melody test just proves that no matter how lost the band gets you can always find a good hook somewhere on any album. And some more than others! Who knows what surprises album #20 will bring. Don’t miss out – keep up with Cheap Trick news at their website and Facebook locations.