Launched from clubs in Rockford, Ill., Cheap Trick are championed by power pop/rock ‘n’ roll fans from close to home and around the globe, while somehow maintaining status as scrappy underdogs. The quartet returns to Chicago next week, supporting a 40th anniversary tour by its multi-platinum friends in Foreigner.
Considering Cheap Trick’s own four decades of top-selling records like “Live at Budokan” and suitcase full of sing-along radio hits including “Surrender,” “I Want You to Want Me” and “Dream Police,” you might think the homegrown heroes would headline everywhere they go. Guitarist Rick Nielsen isn’t bothered by who gets top billing. “I’m just happy that we get to work,” he says. “I like to say that I don’t expect to be everyone’s number one band. If people like music and we’re their fifth favorite band, that’s fine with me.”
In 2016, the quartet was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A year later, has anything changed for Cheap Trick as a result? “Well, I’ve gotten better looking, as if anyone thought that was even possible,” says Nielsen, wryly. “I’m not sure you could credit the Hall for that, but who knows? It’s a nice milestone that lends some credibility to the whole venture. Quite an honor, really.”
Cheap Trick’s barnstorming new album “We’re All Alright!” shows the electrifying range of the band. Vocalist Robin Zander shines, moving from an Elvis Presley croon on the surging “Radio Lover” to a sky-piercing howl during the heavy swing of “Brand New Name on an Old Tattoo.” Nielsen praises his partner. “He’s the voice I always wanted to have,” he says. “Robin can be real sweet, and he can be real nasty. If it’s a good song, he’s all over it.”
As a studio guitarist, Nielsen’s wide-ranging influences include Jeff Beck, twang king Duane Eddy, and the Beatles. Feral single “Long Time Coming” finds Nielsen taking pages from other favorites, while remaining true to himself. “There’s a little Who, a little AC/DC, a little Kinks,” he says. “And a little Cheap Trick, too. Every band has the same twelve notes, and it’s all about how you interpret them.”
Onstage, Nielsen’s antics draw equally from the Who’s Pete Townshend and Bugs Bunny. Fans up front often walk away with souvenirs, as Nielsen flings guitar picks into the crowd by singles or the fistful. During a tour, he’ll go through a pile. “Let’s put it this way,” says Nielsen. “I order 60,000 at a time, and I order at least a couple of times per year.”
In addition to its new album, 2017 marks the 40th birthdays of Cheap Trick’s self-titled debut and sophomore album “In Color.” The band may celebrate by drawing deeper, fan-favorite cuts from both.
“We change our set list every night,” says Nielsen. “Last night, we did ‘Big Eyes.’ The night before, we did ‘Come On, Come On.’ We’ve done ‘Elo Kiddies, too.’ We still like those records.”
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.