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Too Close to the Flame 

Cheap Trick's Tom Petersson explains why a No. 1 song isn't such a good thing.

Elo, kiddies: Tom Petersson, Bun E. Carlos, Robin Zander, and Rick Nielsen (from left) of Cheap Trick.
  • Elo, kiddies: Tom Petersson, Bun E. Carlos, Robin Zander, and Rick Nielsen (from left) of Cheap Trick.
Management says that Cheap Trick is in "stringent rehearsal," which is odd. Unlike most bands with any longevity, the Tricksters didn't follow the Behind the Music template. They didn't taste success and then have a mother of a fallout. Lawsuits weren't hurled at each other. No one became a gentleman farmer only to realize the royalty checks didn't cover the chicken feed. Save bassist Tom Petersson's six-year sabbatical, the members of Cheap Trick have stuck together and toured assiduously. If there's a rib cook-off or popcorn festival they've yet to visit, there's always next summer.

So what on earth could they need to rehearse? Last week, the band convened a three-day Trickfest just outside of Chicago. Fans were treated to autograph signings, clinics, question-and-answer sessions, silent auctions, as well as live performances. August 28, the band played a 25th anniversary show in its hometown of Rockford, Illinois. These events were not designed for the casual Cheap Trick fan. The band planned to play a song from each album at the anniversary show, including singer Robin Zander's little-heard solo album; one night at Trickfest was reserved for cover tunes by the likes of the Kinks and T. Rex.

Petersson says the band has had to learn the covers as well as its own songs. "If you don't play them for a few months, you kind of forget them, and especially if you don't play them for twenty years, you have no idea," he says. "But it comes back quick, like anything else. It's kind of like learning cover songs, only we did them. We figure we did them at one time, we should be able to do them again."

For his part, Petersson sounds as though he'd prefer to have razor blades stuck under his toenails than sit down and listen to the old material again. Asked if he has a favorite record, Petersson responds, "No, I listen to them all equally: never.

"After a while, it's like the last thing you'd ever want to hear again," he continues. "It's exciting right at first. When you're putting the record together, you can't hear it enough. You come home and you're working on it. You put on the headphones and it sounds great. You play it in the car, whatever. You're playing the shit out of that stuff. But I don't know when it gets to the point when you can sit around and listen to it."

Cheap Trick's history is one of rock and roll's strangest. They were glamorous (Zander and Petersson) and geeky (guitarist Rick Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos). They were equally skilled at Beatlesque pop and hard rock. They broke in Japan before the United States. They changed sounds with almost each album (blame the numerous heavy-handed producers the band has worked with) but kept a loyal, Trekker-like fan base. Every member but Petersson, who lives in New York City, has chosen to remain in Rockford.

Most unusual is that Cheap Trick is both a nostalgia act and a cult act, which makes picking a set list a challenge. "Some people want to hear "Dream Police,' and the other people who've seen us a hundred times are cringing," Petersson says. "You can't win, so you just have to do what you think you want to do yourself. You can't think of the audience, because every member has a completely different idea."

Petersson left the band in 1980, after Cheap Trick recorded All Shook Up with producer George Martin. When Petersson returned, Cheap Trick fans dreamed the band would recapture the glory of '70s albums like the self-titled debut and Heaven Tonight. Epic Records, figuring the Japanese girls who screamed through Live at Budokan were all grown up, thought otherwise. The result was the overproduced, undersonged Lap of Luxury. The band didn't write the treacly single "The Flame," which, excruciatingly enough, hit No. 1 in 1988.

"Epic Records was just intent on us getting some sort of a hit single," Petersson says. "They figured we didn't know how to do it. They may have been right, because we're not into writing Celine Dion and Michael Bolton kind of songs, and that's what they thought we should do. It was really kind of a nightmare. The only thing they were looking for is a hit, which turned out to be "The Flame.' But that type of thing, where it's kind of a schmaltzy, obvious song, we don't do."

Because "The Flame" topped the charts, Epic could foist even more outside-written songs on the band. Petersson remembers one that had been rejected by a made-for-cable movie before it reached Cheap Trick. "Having a hit record for a song you wouldn't normally have done is really not a good idea," Petersson says. "It doesn't do you any good. You don't make any money from it. And then you're stuck trying to live down something you didn't quite want to do. Your manager makes a lot of money — that's good for him. The booking agency makes more money — that's good for them. But then we get to hear how crappy it is for the rest of our lives.

"I never heard so much grief from doing one song in my life than from that damn song "The Flame.' Which I don't think is that bad; it's not a bad song. But it's not us. It became us because of Robin's voice. But that could have been any idiot playing my part. It could have been a hell of a lot worse; the original version was really ridiculous."

When Lap of Luxury's follow-up, the truly awful Busted, tanked, Epic cleaned out the Cheap Trick closet, releasing a greatest hits, a boxed set, and a second Budokan record. Unwilling to go into hibernation, Cheap Trick put out one album for Warner Bros. and one for the indie Red Ant, both solid if unspectacular efforts. About this time, alternative rockers like Billy Corgan started announcing their allegiance to Cheap Trick's peculiar brand of power pop. Corgan is like an adoring nephew, jamming with the band when it pulled a four-night stand — playing the first three studio albums and Budokan on consecutive nights — in a Chicago club. He, Everclear's Art Alexakis, and Slash appeared at the 25th anniversary show.

That descendants like Corgan and Alexakis aren't exactly young pups could make a band feel old. Petersson doesn't see it that way. "It still feels like we're just starting out," he says. "You're still trying to make that perfect record. We may have, but I don't think so. We're just trying to make the right album, to do the unbelievable. That keeps you going. It's really the songwriting and the recording which is everything."

That process will have to wait. There's a summer season to finish, followed by a tour of Japan. "Shit," Petersson says, "I better learn those songs."

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More by David W. Martin

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