There’s a new Cheap Trick record out, the group’s second in as many years, and I’ll just cut to the chase: it rock n’ roll is your thing – you know, the real basic stuff – then you’ve got to cue this thing up. It’s titled “We’re All Alright,” and that message is an understatement (it’s a reference to their late-1970s staple “Surrender”) .
Cheap Trick is one of those 1970s bands that, because it’s lasted so long, is hard to categorize or really even to know what to expect from. They’ve been a jangly rock unit, a garage-glam effort, a Really Huge Band thanks to extensive FM radio play in the ’70s and ’80s, an arena group, an MTV act, and true road warriors. Their live performance at Budokan in Japan hit hugely in 1978 and was thereafter inescapable.
Cheap Trick has also flirted with self parody, thanks to guitarist Rick Nielsen’s penchant for trotting out axes with a few too many necks. The group also don’t get no respect – not like bands that avoided pop flirtations at all costs. But then “I Want You to Want Me” comes on the radio and BOOM! you’re singing right along.
“We’re All Alright” isn’t exactly a return to form because Cheap Trick hasn’t ever lost its form, although the lineup has shifted a bit over the decades. Nielsen and singer Robin Zander have remained constant, but bassist Tom Petersson checked out for while, and these days Nielsen’s son Daxx is the drummer (it sort of the same idea as Eddie Van Halen’s son Wolfgang taking over on bass for Van Halen).
What “We’re All Alright” does achieve is a very tasty smorgasbord of thick electric-guitar licks with a definite garage-rockabilly vibe and just enough hair-metal in the mix to keep the whole thing appealingly gnarly. Cheap Trick is often labeled a power-pop band, but they’re got a little too much crunch on top of their whole debt-to-the-Beatles reputation to make that work.
Which isn’t the say that Beatles mainlining isn’t in the playbook. “Blackberry Way” from the new record is as pure a Fab Four homage as your likely to hear all year, right down to Zander’s twinge of British elocution and Nielsen’s George Harrison-derived moves on the six-string.
The real show here happens right at the top, with the straight-up Kinks/Led Zeppelin slammer “You’ve Got It Going On,” which its chugging chords rolling underneath some niftier lead guitar filigree while Zander belts it out in a lower, blues-y register and does a bit of screeching at the end.
Then we’re on to “Long Time” coming, which continues the the whole London circa 1971 feel and pulls it forward into Def Leppard territory. It’s a wonderfully dumb, blunt rocker that, like so many songs before, Cheap Trick redeems itself with a whole lot of really catchy music, including some cool keyboards in the backgrounds – the entire tune is a summary of the 1969-1989 trajectory of rock, right dow to a punky slap of non-sequitur noise from Nielsen as it conks out.
If you miss the Ramones, “Nowhere” is a classic punk grinder that explains why Joey was a fan of the Trick. My personal favorite number is “Brand New Name on an Old Tattoo,” the title of which speaks volumes about where Cheap Trick is at these days, but which like so much of this record grabs some pop licks, roughs them up, and performs some musicology by connecting Jimmy Page’s slabby chords and ringing fills with an overall composition that evokes Aerosmith.
If Cheap Trick had never existed as a group and pioneered this genre-defying pastiche style forty years, you’d listen to “We’re All Alright” and think that you were hearing the greatest cover band in human history trying out its own material.
As old bands releasing new records go, Cheap Trick’s latest doesn’t quite touch the highs of Blondie’s album from this year, “Pollinator,” and in particular the astounding “My Monster,” written by former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. But here’s the thing about Cheap Trick: I listened to the record via Tidal streaming and when it ended, my queue looped over to “Feel,” the epic opener from Big Star’s 1972 debut, “#1 Record,” which came out a year before Cheap Trick formed and established the power-pop mantle that Nielsen, Zander, and the band would take up.
Big Star’s failure is one of the great oversights in modern music, now well documented. Cheap Trick was paying attention back then and understood that heavier, punkier pop could attract a following. They ran with it – and they’re still running.