I'm not gonna pretend I was one of those ahead-of-the curve "coolsters" who caught Cheap Trick dozens of times in local dives and bowling alleys before they got signed to Epic Records in '76. Nope, I was a kid locked away in Shitouttaluck, Michigan listening to the very KISS records they would later sing about on "Surrender".
And it took the completely accidental success of At Budokan - an album the U.S. office of the CBS-affiliated label thought so little of that they aggressively blocked its Stateside release until a few enterprising radio stations took it upon themselves to play songs from the album, thereby forcing Epic's hand - to finally put the band on the global map, so to speak..
It was at this point that I, along with most of the rest of the country, became aware of Cheap Trick. Unlike a great majority of these "fair-weather music fans" who more than likely fell away by the time All Shook Up was released in late 1980, I have remained a huge fan of the band and most of the goodwill I hold for Rockford's Fabbest Four is derived from the joy that their self-titled 1977 debut album has given me over the past five decades.
But you can't really blame us for being oblivious. We were just kids. The real guilt lied in the hands of Epic Records, who completely botched the promotion of an album that could have and should have been fucking HUGE. In one sense, the band's cartoon-ish image was tailor-made for KISS fans, but the music itself was an actual embodiment of the promise of each new KISS album that Gene, Ace, Paul and Peter were never quite able to deliver upon, if we can be perfectly honest here.
Can you imagine if KISS had been capable of an "ELO Kiddies" or "He's A Whore"?
They'd have been more popular than Jesus. Oh, that's right, they were. Okay, what I mean is that their popularity would have been warranted instead of the result of a whole lot of smoke and mirrors...with a little blood thrown in for good measure.|
See, "ELO Kiddies" packs a more sinister punch than anything KISS ever recorded while "Mandocello" is ten times the ballad "Beth" was, but, here again we run into that pesky cock-blocker known as "shitty promotion". While KISS were grazing the Top 40 with "Christine Sixteen" (which I admittedly bought when it came out), none of the singles from Cheap Trick's debut came within a country mile of the pop charts.
Naturally, the suits at CBS figured it must have been the band's fault and immediately began forcing all kinds of bad ideas upon them beginning with the completely ridiculous (but much more affordable) prospect of switching from Jack Douglas, whose track record (The Who, Aerosmith, John Lennon, Starz, New York Dolls, Lou Reed. etc.) spoke for itself to "staff producer" Tom Werman.
Don't get me wrong, Werman's a nice enough guy, but his involvement with the band sent them down the path of "lukewarm slickness", from which they briefly recovered only after they returned to working with Douglas (who mixed At Budokan).
Beyond a couple tracks ("Stiff Competition" and parts of the Dream Police album), Werman's inability to find a proper place for Nielsen's guitars in the mix still infuriates me. The difference between the songs on In Color, Heaven Tonight and Dream Police and the live versions featured on At Budokan illustrate this point to perfection.
Of course, Epic Records, in their infinite delusion, didn't want those versions in the marketplace.
Listening to the album today, one can't help but wonder what would have happened if Cheap Trick had stuck to their guns and had not been so willing to "play ball" with the suits at Epic, thereby sacrificing their edge for the faint promise of commercial success.
Did I mention that I love this band so much that I went to see them open for Ratt? The year was 1986 and no Cheap Trick album better defines "lukewarm slickness" than The Doctor, which, despite every attempt to appease their label's every misguided whim, tanked upon release and resulted in this once monolithic headline attraction being reduced to an opening act.
To this day, every listen to The Doctor sends me screaming back to Cheap Trick's juggernaut debut album just so I can be reminded of the take-no-shit-or-prisoners quartet that got signed to Epic Records in the first place.