We might as well start at the beginning. With the debut. Which got little traction and I must admit I did not buy first. Produced by Jack Douglas, it’s got a different feel from the Tom Werman stuff. It’s more raucous, earthier. And to the degree anybody still references it it’s because of the opening cut, “ELO Kiddies,” which Cheap Trick has continued to play. But if you sit down and play the whole album, which we used to do, you discover this quiet, hypnotic gem.
Once upon a time music wasn’t for everybody, just for you. It was your escape. You put on a record and you felt the only people who understood you were the band. “Mandocello” sounds like this. It’s not made for the radio, but your bedroom, on headphones, squeezing out all the b.s. of the world. With “Mandocello” playing, your life works.
The riff hooks you. But it’s really a compilation of sounds, including Robin Zander’s voice. But the piece de resistance is the magical change at 3:09. It’s like you’ve driven through the neighborhood picking up all your friends and now you’re cruising. Or better yet, you’re riding with your beloved. Only she doesn’t know you’re in love with her, even though you think about her all the time, fantasize about just being near her, never mind touching her.
Furthermore, most people are completely unaware Concrete Blonde covered “Mandocello,” faithfully, on their 1994 album of loose ends entitled “Still In Hollywood.” Yup, that’s the way it used to be, even the stars were fans, they knew not only the hits, but the album cuts.
2. “So Good To See You”
And then came “In Color,” the band’s breakthrough. Word started to spread, you heard about it and purchased it and it became your favorite new album, everywhere you went you talked about it, you wanted to share the joy.
“So Good To See You” was the closer. Instead of fading out this was an unexpected encore that FORCED you to drop the needle and hear the whole album again.
How did they get it so right? With enough edge but also Beach Boys harmonies and exquisite changes. By this time bands could vamp over the same chord for the entire verse, whereas “So Good To See You” twists and turns like a roller coaster.
Once upon a time, a band had to have a great singer. You couldn’t fix it in the studio. Someone with power, and in Robin Zander Cheap Trick had someone who could do both rough and smooth, he could both prance and entrance.
“So Good To See You” is a tour de force. From an era when album tracks weren’t filler, but the main course.
3. “Come On, Come On”
Sure, it was on “Budokan,” but the polish of the studio take…it’s like someone from the seventies was jetted back to the sixties with everything he now knew but was forced to record in the earlier style. It sounds both dated and current at the same time!
And the chorus has you moving your jaw, singing along with the sweetness with bite.
4. “Clock Strikes Ten”
This was on “Budokan” too, but the best part of the studio version is Zander’s vocal, which has got the guttural roughness of early rock and roll, quite a contrast to the sweetness evidenced in songs like “So Good To See You.”
“Clock Strikes Ten” is a romp. Under three minutes, you’re instantly energized, dancing around the room, burning off all your everyday frustration.
5. “Oh Caroline”
Okay, now I’ve mentioned four of the five songs on side two of “In Color,” and “Southern Girls” is probably better than all of them. Yes, “In Color” is a classic. “Oh Caroline” has got the darkness of an English record translated through a midwest sensibility, it sounds like dancing in front of your TV during “Shindig” or “Shivaree” felt like.
6. “Takin’ Me Back”
Sure, “Surrender” had hilarious lyrics, it was a good ditty, but this was always my favorite cut on “Heaven Tonight,” the second side opener with the monster riff. You couldn’t help but CRANK IT!
This is like an AC/DC monolith, if the Aussie band ever featured any melody. It’s veritable wall of sound that single-handedly makes you feel life is worth living.
The elements are spectacular. From the oo’s to the break to the whirling synth “Takin’ Me Back” is truly a slice of heaven. It keeps going on, keeps twisting and turning, getting louder and softer, it never lets you down, it always surprises you. I never hear anybody talk about it, but “Takin’ Me Back” is my absolute favorite Cheap Trick track. It’s everything I love about rock and roll.
7. “Tonight It’s You”
So after parting ways with Tom Werman, and experimenting with everybody from George Martin to Roy Thomas Baker to Todd Rundgren, all huge hitmakers in their own right, Cheap Trick went back to the well, to their original producer, Jack Douglas.
If “Tonight It’s You” had only come out half a decade earlier, it would have been a radio staple. Oh, the track got some traction, even video play, but it was not a hit and is nearly completely forgotten. But “Tonight It’s You” is one of those rare tracks that keeps building and building to a towering height that you don’t believe can be maintained. Kind of like “White Punks On Dope,” it demands more and more energy, more and more focus, and then leaves you high and dry at the mountaintop, stunned.
First it’s the sound of the guitars, the picking in one speaker and the distorted echo emphasis in the other. It’s like the cavalry’s appearing on the horizon.
And then Robin Zander starts telling a story. He’s part of the mix. And then…
So stop what you’re doin’
Start on something new
It’s like a choirboy has risen above the troops, a sweetness you thought was impossible in this context.
And then the song swings down…
I don’t know why you mean that much to me
You don’t know what it feels like lovin’ you
We all know a change is good for you
That’s all right, gotta do what you gotta do
Wow, where did all this anger come from? Who’s this three dimensional singer who can go from smooth to intense so fast, who can evidence all the emotions of real life?
And then this angry pissed off person sings…
All I want is a place in your heart to fall into
All I need is someone to love
And tonight it’s you, tonight it’s you
He’s gone from pissed off to cunning enticement just that fast.
And then we’re back to that spacy intro dynamic once again. Whew! It’s like reading a book and suddenly finding yourself back at the beginning. Wiser, with another chance.
Then there’s a spooky interlude!
Come to my world
Come away with me
Huh? It’s like they stopped the action and the lead broke character and spoke directly to the audience. It’s unnerving…and so right.
And then finally, after four minutes, they settle into the groove, endlessly repeating, imploring you, and you can’t resist, because…
TONIGHT IT’S YOU!