Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, a founding member of the group, once described the band as "America's greatest pop/rock garage band." Some would argue that after they conquered Budokan, they instantly nabbed international status as perhaps the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band.
Once you rise to that level of things, there are a few perks that come along with the gig. For Nielsen, that meant the arrival of his now classic Hamer five-neck guitar. It was an instant conversation piece that was actually built out of necessity. When he was playing shows with Cheap Trick, there would be occasions where he'd find himself using as many as five guitars for his guitar solo, playing each one and then tossing it away. It turns out that when you're wearing five guitars, that stuff weighs more than all of the heavy jewelry that Mr. T used to wear.
Although the Hamer five-neck didn't necessarily eliminate the weight issue, Nielsen was left with a visually unique axe that is without question totally rock 'n' roll. It's proof that sometimes the crazy stuff that you say actually does come true.
"It's hilarious that somebody listened to what I said and actually did something," he says via phone. "I don't know today if I'd even attempt to have somebody make it, because I've already done that."
When you've already "done that," eventually you move on to doing other things. Years later, Nielsen would get the urge to open his own pizza joint and when he found a willing collaborator for the project, Piece Brewery and Pizza was born.
"Chicago is known for thick crust pizza, which is not my favorite and instead, I wanted to have a thin crust," he explains. "It was just the business plan that Bill Jacobs, my business partner and I were talking about and I said, 'Well, great — I'm in' and then who knew, but we've been in business now over 12 years."
You won't find the guitarist behind the counter at Piece — chances are good that he's probably on the road. More than four decades into their journey, Cheap Trick remains one of the hardest working bands in the business. For Nielsen and the other members of Cheap Trick, they remain fiercely dedicated to making sure that people are still knocked out by each and every live performance that they do.
"We can't go out and be crummy now," he says. "I hate it when I hear someone say, 'I saw those guys and they stunk.' I never want to be that band that somebody talks about. You know, it's like, 'Boy, they're really old' and stuff, well yeah, but I don't think we were boring back then and I don't think we're boring now. It's good fun stuff."
Colin Gawel of the Columbus-based band Watershed launched his own personal crusade last year to get Cheap Trick inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He formed a tribute band specifically to play each year on the night of the inductions, appropriately enough, called "Why Isn't Cheap Trick in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?" As he writes in a blog entry, "If Cheap Trick were from New York City instead of Rockford, Ill., they would have been in the Rock Hall years ago. Show me someone who doesn't appreciate what Cheap Trick has meant to rock and roll and I will show you a dipshit." In a separate post on his site, Gawel makes a colorfully compelling case for the reasons why (and you don't need many, right?) Cheap Trick should be inducted. As he points out, the band has accomplished quite a bit, including album sales of more than 20 million in 30 years.
Nielsen says that he's not losing any sleep at this moment over the Rock Hall snub.
"I'm an insomniac, so I don't sleep that much anyhow," he says with a laugh. "What can I say? It's like, if we get in, great and if we don't get in, great, whatever. We're still playing, so that's more important to me. No offense to Cleveland."
The band’s most recent album,The Latest, was released in 2009. Once again proving that the group’s sense of humor is never too far away, that album was released in several different formats, including a limited number of copies on eight-track tape. While touring has kept the group pretty busy since the last album came out, they have recently begun to work on coming up with new song ideas. Nielsen was a bit tight-lipped on their current creative activities, but he did allow that “it’s a lot of fun as usual.”"
He was slightly more open when it came to discussing their approach to the album-making process. Like a lot of bands and songwriters, they take each album one song at a time and try not to get hung up on things.
"Every song is different," he says. "We just try to grab the mood and grab the feeling and see what we can do with it. That's the fun of making records, you know? We're not just in there churning stuff out. We're actually working on it and thinking about it and some stuff hits the bar and some stuff the bar hits us."
He's similarly humorously eloquent when talking about his own methods.
"I play more for the song and the feel," he says. "The solo has to mean something as opposed to just being a bunch of noise in between a verse and a chorus. So that's why a lot of the solos that I do — they're standalone kind of things that it has something to do with the song. It has something to do with the melody or something to do with a rhythm or something to do with the sound of a chicken crossing the road, getting run over by a steamroller."
The band's Live at Budokan release delivered an unexpected steamroller effect upon its release in 1978. Originally planned to be a Japanese-only release as a gift to their fans in Japan, the album became a huge seller on import and finally was released in the U.S. a short time later; it would chart in the Top 5 and eventually become one of the band's bestselling albums.
It's hard to believe that with the success of Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive, that the label suits wouldn't have had bigger plans for the Budokan release, but the album was reportedly recorded on a shoestring budget for a few thousand dollars by the band, which itself was in bad financial shape at that time. The guys couldn't afford to do much more than package it and put it out as planned in Japan only. Nielsen confirms that things were done on a pretty small scale and that there was really not a grand plan in place for the album's eventual worldwide success.
"If you think about it, the record company, if they would have been that smart, they wouldn't have waited 20 years to put out the second half of the Budokan record, so it wasn't so thought out," he says with a laugh.
However it happened, all that really matters is that it did happen and it set the stage for Cheap Trick to continue to play shows for many years to come. They're still riding the wave of that momentum, which will carry them back to Cleveland for a show this week at Hard Rock Live. Nielsen is pretty happy that the Cheap Trick rock 'n' roll machine keeps on rolling
"Every now and then, I feel lucky that I'm in Cheap Trick," he says. "We're a pretty good band."
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 10, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., 330-908-7625. Tickets: $35-$65, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.