40 Years Ago: Cheap Trick Goes From Bowling Alleys to the Big Leagues on Their Debut
Cheap Trick were discovered in a bowling alley. Well, that’s not quite true. The band was “discovered” by lots of rock fans in the mid-’70s, who packed Cheap Trick’s shows all through the Midwest circuit – Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, any city within driving distance of the group’s home of Rockford, Ill.
Before that, the members of Cheap Trick – guitarist Rick Nielsen, bassist Tom Petersson, drummer Bun E. Carlos and singer Robin Zander – had discovered each other, forming proto-versions of the band. There was Nielsen and Petersson’s failed band Fuse (which briefly had a record dead) as well as the Cheap Trick precursor Sick Man of Europe (later to become the title of one of the power pop group’s songs). But after finalizing the now-classic lineup, Cheap Trick was playing a bowling alley in suburban Milwaukee in 1976, when fate intervened.
“I was visiting a relative in Waukesha, Wisconsin,” remembered producer Jack Douglas. “And this guy said to me, ‘You gotta come down the bowling alley and hear this band play.’ And I went down to the Sunset Bowl, I’ll never forget this place. A bowling alley, they had a lounge and the place was packed to the rafters. And the band was Cheap Trick and they did, like, a show that was part carnival, part circus and part rock ’n’ roll show. I was knocked out.”
Douglas, who had engineered recordings by the Who and John Lennon and produced Aerosmith albums, called Epic Records’ head of A&R Tom Werman and beckoned him to Waukesha to sign Cheap Trick – under the threat that the producer would take them to RCA if he refused. Werman came out, and the band agreed to a deal with Epic.
Cheap Trick began to work with Douglas on the quartet’s debut the same year, recording a bevy of material at New York’s famous Record Plant studio. Years of playing bars, clubs, warehouses and bowling alleys had kind of served as the band’s Hamburg (to reference Cheap Trick’s ultimate idols, the Beatles). It not only honed the members’ abilities for playing and performing, it gave primary songwriter Nielsen the chance to craft a catalog of songs. Cheap Trick wasn’t just gigging around, playing bar-band covers; these guys were presenting original material.
“You’ve got to remember that ‘I Want You to Want Me,’ ‘Dream Police’ and ‘Surrender’ were written already for that record,” Zander told Rock Cellar Magazine, “and didn’t make that first album.”
None of those future hits made the cut for Cheap Trick’s debut. That’s partially because the band hadn’t quite figured out to record them (a 1998 re-issue displays this with a stunted, shuffling version of “I Want You to Want Me”) but also because there were so many other options: “Elo Kiddies,” “Mandocello,” “Taxman, Mr. Thief,” among others. There’s a reason the band elected to name one side of the LP “Side A” and the other “Side 1.” As far as the guys were concerned, this was all top-notch.
In making Cheap Trick, Douglas and the band favored Cheap Trick’s harder edges – both in the form of “He’s a Whore”’s punky drive, as well as lyrics about suicide (“Oh Candy”), pedophilia (“Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School”) and Chicago serial killer Richard Speck (“The Ballad of T.V. Violence”). The record was hard, but melodic; dark but sweet; beautiful and haunting.
“Our first record... that was a cool record. We were just happy to make that,” Nielsen told Noisey in 2016. “We didn’t care about the sales of it. They were playing one of the songs on a station in Chicago and Detroit was playing something. That was cool for us.”
Epic released Cheap Trick in February 1977. Although it wasn’t a flop, it wasn’t a success either – barely missing the Billboard Top 200 albums chart. With the benefit of hindsight, the music press has suggested numerous reasons why the LP wasn’t a big hit – often centering on how the record wasn’t easy to categorize for FM radio. Was this punk, new wave, pop, rock? Radio programmers didn’t know where to play it, so it didn’t get much play at all (although “Elo Kiddies” was a minor hit in Europe). Undeterred, the band played on.
“Even before our first record came out … the guys in Queen heard our album, liked it and asked us to open for them on their U.S. tour for the first two shows before Thin Lizzy took over,” Nielsen remembered. “Nobody had heard of Cheap Trick but they put us on the first two shows. They knew we were good. … When our first record was out it was out... that was all we cared about. So we just went and made another record real quick after that.”
It would take a couple of years, and few more records, before the live album At Budokan made Cheap Trick full-blown rock stars. Still, the band never left its first album in the dust. To this day, the Rockford foursome continue to perform songs from the album, which has become beloved by fans and critics in the ensuing decades.
“Looking back,” Zander said, “I think it’s one of our definitive records.”
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