Rick Nielsen, big in Japan

By Sergio Ariza

Kurt Cobain, one of Cheap Trick's biggest fans, once said that Nirvana sounded like them, albeit with louder guitars. Almost anyone receiving such praise from one of the greatest icons in rock history would be proud, but Rick Nielsen is not just anyone, so he did not hesitate to say that he found it offensive, saying: "my guitars sound fucking loud!” He was right, Cheap Trick became a beacon for all those bands that wanted to play 'beatlelian' melodies with loud guitars and power chords, halfway between the strength of Black Sabbath and the aggressiveness of punk.  

Their formula proved to be perfect, making them one of the great names of Power Pop, although to reduce them to that would be to forget their tremendous mark on the alternative rock of the 90s, with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer and Foo Fighters all taking them as references. Cheap Trick was, in short, one of the great rock & roll bands of the late 70s, and it was thanks to the songs and guitars of Rick Nielsen, the 'freak' who adopted a ridiculous comic book appearance, with backwards cap, bow tie - and the strangest of grimaces almost permanently sketched across his mug.


Nielsen was born on December 22, 1948 in Rockford, Illinois, near Chicago. His parents were both opera singers and his father also conducted symphonies and recorded 40 albums. In this environment it is understandable that little Rick was attracted to music from an early age, although he was more passionate about Chuck Berry and Elvis than Verdi and Puccini. His absolute love was electric guitars and soon he saw his dream come true when, as a teenager, his father opened a musical instrument store – and Nielsen was like a kid in a candy store.

Before he was 20 Nielsen had already owned a Gretsch Duo Jet, some Fender Esquires, Telecaster Customs, Strats, Les Paul Juniors.... It was the beginning of a lifetime of collecting guitars and selling them. As soon as he was old enough he got behind the counter and even sold his second Les Paul Standard to the guitarist he most admired in the world, Jeff Beck. But what he liked most was to play them. He got his first Les Paul, a '55 Goldtop for 65 dollars and with it he would go to a little place called El Dorado where the musicians who played there all knew him from the store - and when they needed a guitarist the young Nielsen would accompany them. That's how he learnt his trade, by playing with legends like Del Shannon, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry himself. Nielsen confirmed that the mythical bad temper of the father of rock & roll was not a legend, Berry didn't even deign to tell them the notes of the songs; they had to look at his hands and guess what fret he was on.


After playing in several cover bands, the first serious band Nielsen was in was Fuse, formed in 1968, where he coincided with Tom Petersson who played bass. They recorded a rather mediocre album, which appeared in 1969, with three songs composed solo by our protagonist who, in addition to playing guitar, also played the melotron. The band went nowhere but Nielsen and Petersson hit it off and went to Europe in the early 70's with a new band called Sick Man Of Europe, in which Bun E. Carlos played drums. In 1973 they returned to Rockford and changed their name to Cheap Trick.

At this time Nielsen was still making more money selling guitars, now as a private collector, than with the band. In 1973 he got a call from Paul Hamer who was looking for a Les Paul Standard Sunburst. Nielsen had one and a lot of financial problems - his wife was pregnant with their first child - so he decided to sell it to him for $2,500. Hamer resold it shortly after for much more money and with the proceeds he started his own guitar company: ‘Hamer’. In 1974 they released one of their first models, the Hamer Standard, which drew on the design of the Gibson Explorer - Nielsen was one of the first to own one and it would become his best known guitar. His relationship with the brand would be totally symbiotic.


In 1975 Nielsen decided to fire Cheap Trick's singer up to that point, Randy Hogan, to make room for Robin Zander. The new singer had the presence of a rock star and, more importantly, a voice to match his handsome physique. With his arrival Cheap Trick found its definitive line-up and the most contradictory image in the history of rock: two Adonis, one blond, Zander, and the other dark, Petersson, added to the lunatic Nielsen, and his cartoon look, and the ineffable Carlos, who more than a member of the band looked like its accountant.

For two years Cheap Trick played on every possible stage, playing more than 200 concerts a year and opening for bands like AC/DC, The Kinks, Kiss and Queen. They were unstoppable on stage and had an incredible repertoire, mainly written by Nielsen, which included almost all the songs from their first three albums. This work paid off and in 1976 the band signed with Epic and started recording their first album. After so much time on the road the band was a gold mine of great songs, and the producer, Jack Douglas, opted for the most controversial material, the songs that talked about psychopaths, pedophiles and gigolos who are only interested in money, and musically managed to transfer the energy of their live performances.


More than twenty songs were recorded, among them future hits like I Want You To Want Me and Lookout, but in the end they stuck with ten songs. The band had so much confidence in them that they named the two sides of the album as such, side one and side A - as there was no ‘B material’ here. They were absolutely right, that first album was a marvel that opened with the glam energy of ELO Kiddies and contained gems like the unstoppable He's A Whore – it is understandable that Joey Ramone was a fan - and the more power pop songs like Taxman Mr. Thief and Oh Candy. The only ballad on the whole album was Mandocello, based on that instrument of which Nielsen, of course, had a copy.

It is on this album where that mixture between metal and punk with melodies typical of the British Invasion that Nirvana would end up perfecting in Nevermind was born - and it is the studio album where they sound most similar to their incredible live performances. But at a time dominated by Californian soft rock, the album received enthusiastic reviews but poor sales. So for the second album, the company assigned producer Tom Werman, who sought to enhance their pop side, something that can be seen to perfection in the cover version of I Want You To Want Me, which is close to bubblegum. The thing is, despite this less sharp sound (Nielsen said they told Werman they wanted to sound like the Sex Pistols, but he told them he didn't like them and got away with it), the guitarist delivers the best collection of songs of his career, Hello There, Big Eyes, Downed, I Want You To Want Me itself, Clock Strikes Ten, Southern Girls and Come On, Come On had all the potential to become hits in their own right. More than half of At Budokan came from this incredible album.


The amazing thing is that six months later the band was to outdo themselves and release the best studio album of their career, Heaven Tonight. The album opened with their best remembered classic, Surrender, a song in which Nielsen's Les Paul, through one of the first Orange amps, and Zander's Rickenbacker 450, set the perfect sonic background for the best melody ever written by Nielsen to shine. His outstanding version of The Move's California Man again demonstrates his love for British Invasion bands but with an extra dose of power and energy, while Auf Wiedersehen sounds like a lost Grunge classic, although released twenty-something years before that movement was even talked about, while Stiff Competition opened with power chords from The Who, another of their great influences, but played at much higher revs. The album was a perfect combination of the strength of the former and the melodies of the latter, resulting in one of the essential albums in the history of Power Pop.

On the cover, as with In Color, only Zander and Petersson appeared again, relegating Nielsen and Carlos to the back cover, making them look like two totally different groups. But even this strategy did not help them to sell records. The band was demoralized and without energy, they had delivered three outstanding albums in just a year and a half but their sales were still mediocre, far below the potential of their incredible songs. It was then that it was suggested that they play in Japan; they had never played there - but in Japan they became a sensation by pure chance. When they released their first album Queen had invited them to open two concerts for them and had invited numerous journalists from all over the world. Well, the Japanese journalists went back to Japan and started talking about Cheap Trick, making them a phenomenon there.


When the band landed at Tokyo airport there were 5,000 hysterical fans screaming as if they were the Beatles. The band members could not believe it, Nielsen himself admits that he thought they were traveling on the same plane as the president of the country or something similar. The fact is that in Japan they offered some of the best live performances of their career in front of more than 10,000 enthusiastic fans. Cheap Trick At Budokan was recorded with the thought of releasing it only in the Japanese market, and it was released on October 8, 1978, but it sold so well that 30,000 import copies were sold in the USA. So the label decided to release it there as well in February 1979, two years after the release of their debut album, with I Want You To Want Me as the debut single. Suddenly the record began to sell like hot cakes and the group became overnight stars, hitting number four on the album chart and number seven on the singles chart.

They had made it, but seldom has success been as bad for a band as it was for Cheap Trick. They only had one more great album left, Dream Police, which they released on September 21, 1979, which was an even bigger hit than At Budokan and produced another good clutch of classics, such as the title track, Voices, the best ballad of their career, and Way Of The World. To their usual weapons, Nielsen's power chords and their catchy melodies, they now added a more luxurious sound, with orchestra included.


But that was the swan song creatively of the band, as they entered a spiral of mediocre albums during the 80s, although with some songs that recalled their excellent past, with Nielsen more interested in the ‘new toys’ that Hamer put in his hands, like his five neck guitar, than in writing great songs, and even resorted on several of those albums to bringing in external composers. Although it must be recognized that All Shook Up, produced by George Martin in 1980, still maintained a good level.

In recent years they have again released quite interesting albums and in 2016 they were included, with total justice, in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. But it must be recognized that their essence is still locked in those first five albums, something that even Nielsen himself recognized: "we have not evolved - but we started in an unbeatable way". Cheap Trick managed to weave the magical thread that united the pop of the 60s, heavy metal and punk; becoming the benchmark for all subsequent bands that wanted to create aggressive pop built on three chords.