Rick Nielsen has been home from tour for two days, but his battered red suitcase still sits packed near the front door of his Rockford, Illinois, home. The Cheap Trick guitarist just returned from playing the Florida Strawberry Festival, where the band shared the bill with a strawberry-stemming contest, a corn-dog-eating contest, and Donny and Marie. Soon, Nielsen will fly to Seattle to perform at the 50th-birthday party for Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, just one of 150 Cheap Trick gigs this year.
“I haven’t unpacked since Budokan,” says the 67-year-old. He’s referring to Cheap Trick’s career-making stand at Tokyo’s Budokan Hall in April 1978, which spawned a triple-platinum live album – including the versions of “I Want You to Want Me” and “Surrender” that have been in rotation on rock radio ever since. But Cheap Trick’s moment as pop stars was brief, and even though they will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 8th, they’ll spend every night of their summer-amphitheater tour opening for Joan Jett and Heart, taking the stage while the crowd is still drifting in and the sun is still out.
Right now, Nielsen and his wife, Karen, are focused on more pressing matters: Their daughter Scarlett needs help installing carpet in her new home, and their son Miles needs one of them to babysit his 10-year-old daughter, Sydney (who refers to Grandpa Rick as “Grumpy”). Rick and Karen have been married since 1969, and all four of their kids, along with their many grandkids, live nearby. The other members of Cheap Trick got the hell out of Rockford not long after breaking big. “Living someplace like L.A. seemed awful to me,” Nielsen says. “I bought my previous house in Rockford for $175,000. In L.A., it would have cost 6 to 10 million.”
Nielsen and his family moved just down the street to an even nicer house in 1989. The basement doubles as a Cheap Trick museum, with more than 200 guitars and boxes full of memorabilia. In one photo, the band is shown meeting Andy Warhol in 1977, right before Nielsen gave him an impromptu guitar lesson. Was Warhol any good? “Oh, sure!” Nielsen answers sarcastically. “After a few minutes, he was playing like Yngwie Malmsteen!”
Every scrap of paper Nielsen pulls out of a box has a story, like the receipts from the Traveler Motel in Bettendorf, Iowa, on August 14th, 1973. It shows the band checking in as Sick Man of Europe and checking out the next night as Cheap Trick, marking the exact moment they came up with the group’s final name. Then there are the handwritten lyrics to “Surrender” on official Cheap Trick stationery, and his parents’ copy of the band’s sole Rolling Stone cover, from 1979. “Please return!” Marilyn Nielsen wrote on the bottom.
After about two hours of rooting through his past, Nielsen collapses onto a couch on the porch and grabs his laptop. He pulls up a clip of Beavis and Butt-Head watching Cheap Trick’s ludicrously cheap-looking video for 1994’s “Woke Up With a Monster.” “I bet when that drummer dude is drinking beer with his friends, he bogarts all the beer,” says Butt-Head. “He’s pretty cool.” Nielsen seems to have memorized every word, but he still laughs so hard his whole body shakes.
The four classic members of Cheap Trick – Nielsen, singer Robin Zander, bassist Tom Petersson and drummer Bun E. Carlos – played in bar bands for about a decade before forming a Rockford supergroup in 1974. This was the height of prog-rock, but Cheap Trick had come of age during the 1960s. They liked their songs short, powerful and full of hooks. “People go to bars to pick up girls and dance,” says bassist Petersson. “They didn’t want to hear Emerson, Lake and Palmer.”
The band signed to Epic Records in 1976, and released Cheap Trick, In Color and Heaven Tonight in a span of 15 months – three of the best power-pop albums ever. The records tanked in America, but, somehow, began flying up the charts in Japan. When the band arrived in Tokyo to play two shows at Budokan Hall in 1978, thousands of screaming fans met it at the airport. “We thought the president or someone was coming,” says Zander, who’s married to Pamela Stein, a former Playboy Playmate, and lives in Tampa, Florida, with their teenage children. “We didn’t realize it was for us.”
A year earlier, “I Want You to Want Me” stiffed so badly as a single that they dropped it from their set, but at the urging of their manager, they added it back for the Budokan set. “I want yooooouuuuu,” Zander said in introducing the song, stretching out each syllable so the Japanese fans could understand him, “to want meeeeeee.” The fans shouted along to every word of it, and the show was taped for a Japan-only live album. Eventually, it got a worldwide release. “Surrender” began to get a lot of radio play, even though the lyrics double as a warning about venereal diseases that soldiers can catch during wartime.
Still, Cheap Trick’s popularity in America never got close to what it was in Japan, and the hits began drying up. In 1988, their label envisioned an Aerosmith-style comeback and insisted that Cheap Trick hire outside songwriters for their Lap of Luxury LP. They cut “The Flame,” a slick power ballad written by British songwriting duo Bob Mitchell and Nick Graham. It shot to Number One, far and away the biggest hit of their career.
But once again, in typical Cheap Trick fashion, success boomeranged right back on them. Epic Records insisted on more songs like “The Flame,” even as grunge was huge and groups like Pearl Jam and Nirvana cited Cheap Trick as an influence. “All those bands would say, ‘We love Cheap Trick, except the stuff they’re doing now,'” says Petersson, who lives in Nashville with his wife and family and devotes his free time to autism awareness (one of his two children is autistic).
But no matter how dismal their record sales got in the 1990s and 2000s, the tour never ended. They opened for Journey and Mötley Crüe. They played state fairs, casinos, rib cook-offs and private corporate gigs. “Once, we played a ski lodge in Park City, Utah, for some multibillionaire, to about 10 people at a table drinking wine,” says Nielsen’s son Daxx, who became Cheap Trick’s full-time drummer in 2010. “We’re just bashing away and going, ‘What the fuck is going on?'”
The day after the Strawberry Festival, Cheap Trick are in Nashville eating steaks and sipping wine in a private room at the Palm. They have much to celebrate. A week before their Hall of Fame induction, they released Bang, Zoom, Crazy … Hello, their first album on a major label in 22 years. Much to their surprise, last year they signed a deal with Big Machine Records, home to Taylor Swift.
Big Machine founder Scott Borchetta is a lifelong fan. “I met them four years ago, and it was heartbreaking,” he says. “The touring wasn’t what it should’ve been. They’d make great records, but they weren’t distributed. There was lots of attention on lawsuits that should’ve been cleared up. They weren’t able to focus on just being a band.”
Borchetta sent them a passionate e-mail outlining all the problems he saw with the group at the time. “I call it my Jerry Maguire letter,” he says. “It started, ‘If you never see or speak to me again, it’s OK. You’ll still be my favorite band. But here’s what’s messed up, and here’s what I think we can fix if we’re able to work together.'”
He didn’t have to beg. Cheap Trick not only signed to Big Machine, but also to their management firm Vector. One of the first orders of business was settling a lawsuit by Bun E. Carlos. The drummer left the group after years of tension boiled over in 2010; the band had agreed to extend a Las Vegas residency where it performed Sgt. Pepper straight through. The casino wanted to add 100 shows. Zander, whose daughter was very young at the time, wanted to do only 50.
“I said, ‘Why do you only want to do 50?'” Carlos recalls. “He said, ‘[Whiny voice] I don’t want her to go to school in Las Vegas.’ I replied something like, ‘We’re scheduling shows around your daughter’s kindergarten classes?’ Then he was like, ‘Fuck you, you fucking asshole.'” (“Oh, God, he’s such an asshole,” Nielsen says of Carlos. “I always said the band was three men and a baby.”)
Cheap Trick are already booking gigs for 2017, starting with the 80s Cruise, where they’ll find themselves on a boat bound for Cozumel with Debbie Gibson, Men Without Hats, Berlin and Survivor. And even though Nielsen will be just one year shy of his 70th birthday when the ship leaves the dock, retiring, or even slowing down, is the last thing on his mind. “We do what we do, and we do it good,” he says between sips of milk at the Palm. “We’re too dumb to quit.”