CD Review of The Essential Cheap Trick by Cheap Trick

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The Essential Cheap Trick
starstarstarstarno star Label: Sony
Released: 2004
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A metal head, a punk rocker and a power pop fan are at their 20-year high school reunion, and the DJ plays Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.”

“I love Cheap Trick!” says the metal head. “Their drummer kicked ass with about three drums, their singer could wail, and the guitars RAWKED, dude! ‘Mommy’s all right, daddy’s all right….’”

“I love Cheap Trick too!” echoed the punk rocker. “The songs were great, and the guitars were solid, with none of that bloated ‘70s crap. These guys were the shit!”

he power pop fan pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, looks at them both wistfully and says, “I can’t believe it. It’s 15 years later, and Mary Ann still won’t go out with me.”

That joke says everything there is to say about Cheap Trick. They appealed to nearly everyone. Their songs were simple and catchy like the best work of the Beatles. Singer Robin Zander is pinup cute with one of the most majestic voices in rock. Lead guitarist Rick Neilsen wore baseball caps, bowties and sweaters. Drummer Bun E. Carlos looks like a bored plumber with half a drum kit, but makes as much noise as Neil Peart. An odd group of guys, to say the least. But they rocked, dude, which is why you can find traces of their sound in everyone from KISS to Smashing Pumpkins to every power pop band in the 1990s.

Still, it took a live album recorded in front of a bunch of screaming Japanese teenagers for anyone to realize how good they truly were. Without Live at Budokan, Cheap Trick may have never made it out of the 70s alive. Thank heaven for small miracles.

Sony’s decision to release The Essential Cheap Trick, impressive though it may be, is not for the sole purpose of asserting Cheap Trick’s importance in rock music. No, Sony’s just trying to make some extra money on their back catalog (other Essential releases include Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Kris Kristofferson and the Jacksons), since so few people seem to be willing to buy anything these days that’s been on the shelves longer than six months.

That said, Essential Cheap Trick is one of those instances where the label got it right, delivering the compilation that the band deserved all along. Sure, the band’s Greatest Hits, released in 1991, had all of the hits, like “Surrender,” “I Want You to Want Me,” and “The Flame.” But many of the band’s best moments (“Gonna Raise Hell,” “Clock Strikes Ten,” “Auf Wiedersehen”) were skipped in favor of more successful but limp songs like “Can’t Stop Falling Into Love.” Not so, this: Essential Cheap Trick focuses heavily on the early years, when the band was at the peak of its powers, and wisely breezes through the lesser 80s material. It’s not perfect – there were some overlooked songs from both the 70s and 80s, and disc two leans oddly heavy on Busted, by all accounts one of the band’s worst albums – but for the uninitiated, Essential Cheap Trick is an excellent starting point.

Disc one starts with the super cool “ELO Kiddies” (as in British slang for hello, not the light orchestra), a gritty blend of Gary Glitter glam and Johnny Rotten attitude. The first half of the disc wasn’t heard much on the radio, but it’s some of the band’s best stuff, like the live versions of “Mondocello” (featuring Billy Corgan) and “Gonna Raise Hell,” recorded during a recent stint at Chicago’s Metro. The Budokan staples “Ain’t That a Shame” and “I Want You to Want Me” are present, though the cover of “Day Tripper” is sadly missing. “Surrender” sits in the dead center disc, a natural place for the band’s shining moment. Tracks like “High Roller” may sound too much like typical 70s rock, but for every one of those, there are two tracks like “He’s a Whore” that make you wonder how Bob Seger beat these guys into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Disc two has no choice but to be weaker, since it covers the period when bassist Tom Petersson briefly left the band (look at the cover for 1980’s All Shook Up – the guy looks like he just finished a three-day bender with John Belushi) and was replaced by the capable but unremarkable John Brandt. Yet it’s better than you might expect, thanks to “She’s Tight,” a previously unreleased version of “If You Want My Love,” and “Tonight It’s You.” Even the George Martin-produced All Shook Up, one of the band’s weakest, had “Stop this Game,” and while it may be a virtual rewrite of “Live and Let Die,” its inclusion is welcome. Ditto “Everything Works if You Let It,” featured in the 1980 movie “Roadie,” though “I Must Be Dreamin’”, from the 1981 animated film “Heavy Metal,” was left behind. Pity.

The second half of disc two is where things get dicey. By 1988, the well was so dry that the band was employing outside songwriters, much to the dismay of the band’s faithful, and even the band itself. (Producer Richie Zito insisted, and wouldn’t do the record any other way.) The irony is, it worked, producing the biggest hit of the band’s career in “The Flame” and a Top-5 hit in their cover of “Don’t Be Cruel,” “The Flame,” naturally, is accounted for here, but why exactly was “Don’t Be Cruel” left off in favor of commercially successful but artistically dull fluff like “Can’t Stop Falling Into Love” or the grunge-era embarrassment “Woke Up With A Monster”? And again, does anyone really need four songs from Busted? The Byrdsy “Had to Make You Mine” was a good choice, but it seems odd that they didn’t focus more attention on Lap of Luxury, easily Cheap Trick’s most successful record since Dream Police. If not “Don’t Be Cruel,” how about “All We Need is a Dream,” arguably the album’s best track? Or perhaps “Never Had a Lot to Lose,” still a set list staple?

But such is the difficulty of making a two-disc set of a band with as prolific a catalog as the one Cheap Trick possesses. There will invariably be selections that seem dubious at best. (Ask anyone who has that three-disc Essentials set by Bruce Springsteen. It’s about two CDs short of being remotely essential.) But overall, The Essential Cheap Trick, if not the end all be all of the band’s best work, is a superb example of why everyone from punkers to metal heads to pop geeks adore them to this day.

~David Medsker