A fan doesn’t care if his favorite act is on the chart, doesn’t care if someone else is the flavor of the moment, a fan joins the club, goes to the convention and listens to the albums nobody else knows, like Robin Zander’s solo debut on Interscope.
That’s Arvind’s favorite album. OF ALL TIME! The one he plays most at his house. He went on about this backstage Saturday night, and asked Robin when he was going to cut ANOTHER!
You see in Arvind’s eyes, Cheap Trick is still valid. It’s his favorite band.
You wouldn’t expect it. You see Arvind is a bigwig at the L.A. Phil. The Chief Operating Officer in fact.
We met in the bowels of the Orpheum, at the Margaret Cho gig. Having broken the ice, six weeks ago at a charity event, we caught up. And all Arvind wanted to talk about was rock music. Huh? He said I HAD to come to the Bowl to see Cheap Trick do "Sgt. Pepper". He started talking about rare recordings, reciting album history, I told him OF COURSE I’d come. Because, I too, am a fan.
"Mandocello" is the best track off Cheap Trick’s debut.
Actually, Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson had a previous effort on Epic back in ’69, the band was called Fuse. And, unlike today’s wannabe musicians, they stayed the course when that album failed, they eventually reconstituted as Cheap Trick and released their Epic debut in 1977, produced by one Jack Douglas. The same wiry-haired bloke introduced to me by Robin backstage.
Jack Douglas? Do you know who Jack Douglas is? Let me tell you… He produced not only Aerosmith’s "Get Your Wings", but "Toys In The Attic" and "Rocks". Doesn’t matter to me that he recorded John Lennon’s last work. There are no better American rock albums than those three discs. They’re why the Boston-bred band can still tour to such prodigious numbers today.
And my second favorite track on "Get Your Wings" is "Seasons Of Wither". Which has a similar vibe to "Mandocello", a similar magic. But only fans know "Seasons Of Wither", and with the release of its debut disc, Cheap Trick garnered very few fans.
But then came "In Color".
We wanted a new Beatles. And just when we gave up ever getting them, Cheap Trick releases "In Color". Tom Werman burnished off the hard edges and what we were left with was pure pop. But with even better material than Nick Lowe. Suddenly, there was a buzz on the band. In an era before singles, we loved the album closer, "So Good To See You". There were so many magical tracks on the album. The second side verged on masterpiece quality, also containing "Oh Caroline", "Clock Strikes Ten", "Southern Girls" and "Come On, Come On". And, if MTV had existed back in ’77, Cheap Trick would have broken through. But, when "In Color" petered out, they went back to the studio and recorded a four minute classic that had absolutely no traction with anyone but the cognoscenti. But then, after the FOLLOWING album was already in the can, the audience finally surrendered.
I Want You To Want ME!
That’s how Robin Zander introduced it on the live album. Which was made only for Japan, but started selling as an import in the band’s home country. The live take on this "In Color" track was picked up by radio, a domestic version of the album was released, and suddenly Cheap Trick were stars.
For a minute or two.
By time "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" came out, they were seen as has-beens. They’d been sacrificed at the altar of Top Forty radio. The new fans had moved on, nothing on Top Forty is built to last, at least not in the casual listener’s mind, and only the hard core remained. And, unlike Peter Frampton, Cheap Trick did not wimp out to fulfill the audience’s theoretical expectations, they rocked harder, and became a cult item.
There are great tracks in this lost period. Jack Douglas was brought back and cut a rocker that exploded. Just not out of radios. Listen to "Tonight It’s You". It’s part of the lost trilogy, containing "Good Vibrations" and "Bohemian Rhapsody". This may be slight hyperbole, but "Tonight It’s You" has an operatic quality, with a harder rock edge than the Beach Boys and Queen ever employed. There was melody, Robin Zander hit the high notes like an angel, but no one noticed.
Having worked with every great producer in the book, having had no hits with George Martin, Roy Thomas Baker or Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick decided to play the game. They worked with hitmaker Richie Zito and not only employed cowriters, they did a cover. And had a monster hit with "The Flame".
I guess that’s why a label stays with a band. Who could foresee that MTV would sell records back in the seventies, who could believe a band at it for a decade, years after their last hit, could have a monster single.
"The Flame" is a brilliant track. But in the press, the band disowned it. Rock bands want to succeed with their own material.
Broken-hearted, however more rich, MTV started airing game shows and Cheap Trick faded away. In everybody’s hearts but fans, like Arvind.
Arvind wanted to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band". He has that power, to mount an idea on the Hollywood Bowl stage. He knew he had the orchestra, he just needed the band.
In his mind, there was only one choice. Cheap Trick. They sold out two dates in 2007. Arvind brought them back for a return engagement Saturday night.
Solo turns were taken by Ian of Gomez, Rob Laufer, Simone and Billy Corgan. If you’d asked me Friday my opinion of the chief Pumpkin I’d say I hated him, but he nailed "Julia" and "Good Morning Good Morning". But, the man of the evening was Arvind’s favorite, Robin Zander.
The opening set was a cornucopia of covers. The highlight being Cheap Trick’s performance of the last flourish of side two of "Abbey Road". From "Golden Slumbers" through "The End". I was waiting for "Her Majesty", alas, this coda was not included. But Bun E. nailed Ringo’s solo and the orchestra added a majesty that only exists…ON THE REAL RECORD!
Actually, the guy who engineered the real record, Geoff Emerick, mixed the sound at the Bowl. Funny cat. Or funny that he’s still alive and working. I asked him if he was going to be at the George Martin shindig at USC in two weeks and he rattled off a list of gigs that was overwhelming. These guys are still around, they still exist, can we expose them and their magic to the younger generation, can we give them a victory lap before they die? I think we should.
But, the funny thing about the music at the Bowl was that it was live. There’s a power in a full orchestra. We’re used to synths on record. Sitting there as the music enveloped me, I was thinking how the record is now a blueprint at best. Music lives live, as it has for not only generations, but millennia. If you want to get the hit, you don’t turn on the radio, you go to the gig.
Unfortunately, this gig can’t be distributed because of archaic union rules, but in an era where it’s impossible to get noticed, you have to do something very good and wait for internet word of mouth to break you through. A mixed down version of this show would have a life online, would generate many more live gigs. But the orchestras are behind Doug Morris in the march to the future. They insist on burying their heads in the sand and living in the past. Not knowing that their only hope of SURVIVING is having the word spread online.
Within You Without You
As spectacular as Robin and his band of merry men, including sidework by Gov’t Mule, were…the absolute highlight for me was "Within You Without You".
Yup, the second side loser. George’s cut. We only knew it because in this pre-MP3 era, we dropped the needle and experienced the whole side.
We knew the sitar from "Norwegian Wood" (also performed Saturday night), it was not new. But all these years removed, with a posse of Indian musicians sitting on a rug at the side of the stage accompanying Rob Laufer, who once starred in "Beatlemania", the music revealed its true genius, it came alive.
Live you got the sense of adventure. It’s like the Hollywood Bowl was picked up by a magic carpet and started flying above the Earth. You could see unfamiliar instruments on the big screen. You could see the notes being picked out by the sitar. "Within You Without You" was a dream.
Remember when bands were about exploration, testing limits? When the label listened to the artist, not vice versa? The result was timeless music. It’s forty years later, and we’re listening to our classical music performed, the Beatles.
A Day In The Life
As the song unfolded lugubriously, I was reminded of the genius of John Lennon. Sure, he started off writing ditties, but the imagery here conjures up a whole scene. People are still blowing their brains out. People are still leaving home.
And Paul McCartney is finally playing this number live. And his jaunty middle section provides the counterpoint that makes Lennon’s sections come alive. That’s how life is, dreamy and contemplative, then rushed and mindless.
And, after a cast rendition of "All You Need Is Love", they were done.
I wanted more.
But Arvind said, that’s the cardinal rule. To leave them wanting more.
Takin’ Me Back
The most famous track on "Heaven Tonight" is the afore-referenced "Surrender". But it’s not my favorite. The one I still sing in my head opened side two. It’s entitled "Takin’ Me Back". It’s got the heaviness the metalheads desire, but a sweetness the Beatles could understand.
Sometimes I wonder where it all went. How an adventurous business became so calcified. How it went from seat of the pants to board room formal.
The music has suffered.
Many have given up.
But not you and me and Cheap Trick.
The Illinois band is still plying the boards. Usually to a much smaller audience than the one that filled up the Hollywood Bowl.
But real musicians can never give up. They do it for the fans.
And in this one case, a fan picked up the phone and rescued them. Flew them to Hollywood for another moment of glory.
You might not be in the public eye, but you’re a still rock star. Robin, Rick, Bun E. and Tom were joyful and triumphant. But they still had attitude. That’s what rock and roll is all about, that’s what we revere about John Lennon. He just didn’t give a fuck. He needed to do what was right. And listening to this legendary music, we’re inspired to do the right thing too. May it and its performers reign forever more.