"A man can't do what a woman can do," Robin Zander sings, amid buzzing guitars and soaring yeah-yeah-yeahs that make the listener want to scream, "Hello Wisconsin!" The song, "Scent of a Woman," marks the return of Cheap Trick. The band, now in its 29th year, has just released Special One -- their first batch of new material since 1997.
It's been more than two decades since Cheap Trick was en vogue, but they've never gone away. A constant touring act, the band's absurdist pop ("Mommy's all right, daddy's all right, they just seem a little weird ...") won a legion of loyal fans, as well as indie-cool cachet from the likes of Kurt Cobain, Art Alexakis and Billy Corgan.
In a recent telephone interview, Zander says the band -- nerd-supreme guitarist Rick Nielsen, blue-collar drummer Bun E. Carlos and bassist Tom Petersson, who, like Zander, actually looks like a rock star -- had no choice but to stay together as their popularity went up and down over the years.
"It's all we know," Zander says. "We don't have a back-up plan. It's just like when we were kids. We don't want to do anything else."
Inspired by early American rock & roll and the British Invasion, Cheap Trick has always specialized in catchy, guitar-driven songs tinged with off-kilter sentiments. Thus the hallucinatory paranoia of "Dream Police," the parents-as-kids, kids-as-parents anthem "Surrender" and the serendipitous pairing of Fats Domino and amped-up guitar licks in "Ain't That a Shame," the band's raucous concert staple.
Cheap Trick's combination of goofy sensibilities (Nielsen's knowing winks at rock stardom included tossing dozens of picks into the crowd during every single song while playing a five-necked guitar) and crisp songwriting provided the band with a glorious run during the late 1970s. Their fourth album, the concert gem Live At Budokan, became so prevalent and popular that, like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," it's since become the hoariest of rock cliches (is there any more sneering rock snobbery than a dismissive, "They're big in Japan, aren't they?").
All true enough, but remember this: "I Want You to Want Me" can be hummed by just about anyone on the planet, right down to Zander's spoken introduction to the Japanese audience: "I want you ... to want me." Critics may love Ryan Adams and Radiohead, but how many people can name any of their songs, much less hum one?
The band lost its way during much of the 1980s. The arrival of hair-metal inspired (caused?) a full-fledged power ballad, "The Flame." Crass and blatant? Without doubt. Inescapable and stuck in your head throughout the summer of 1988? Also without doubt. "The Flame" gave the band its first No. 1 single, but the short-lived resurgence faded.
In 1997, for example, Cheap Trick put out a new album that sold a whopping 60,000 copies. Released on Red Ant Records (the band members now dub it Dead Ant), it suffered when the label foundered almost as soon as the record hit stores.
For the past six years, the band has subsisted on constant touring and the occasional live compilation, releasing discs under their own imprint. (Sony/CBS retains the rights to Cheap Trick's glory-days catalog.) Last year, using their own money, the band went to Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY, recording a new album without a contract.
Co-produced by Chris Shaw (Sheryl Crow, Super Furry Animals), who won a Grammy for his work on Bob Dylan's acclaimed Love and Theft, the album recalls the halcyon days of the late 70s. Maybe it's maturity (doubtful) or their insidiously addictive theme for That 70s Show (possible). Either way, Cheap Trick has managed to sound both vintage and contemporary on Special One. The melodic rock of "Best Friend," "Too Much" and "Words" would fit comfortably with their earliest albums.
Nielsen strums the gamut, coaxing a jangly melody here, ripping off a power chord there, and throwing in a few guitar-god heroics for good measure. Carlos holds down the bottom end, Petersson proves an unassuming and reliable anchor on bass and Zander, well, he delivers vocals with the ineffable confectionary power of cotton candy: They're addictive for no apparent reason.
The new album also includes production credits from Steve Albini (Nirvana, The Pixies) and Jack Douglas (John Lennon, Aerosmith). For the first time in nearly a decade, Cheap Trick also has a record label helping promote its latest album: Big3, which is licensing the album through the band's Cheap Trick Unlimited.
Zander describes the move with typical dry wit. The deal calls for at least one more studio release, and perhaps another beyond that.
The alliance was prompted by Big3's status as an independent label, one willing to put some promotional pluck behind the band. And? "We thought we'd give Big3 a chance, you know," Zander says. "We got tired of being record moguls and riding around in limos and making the big bucks. Why not give someone else a chance?"
And sustaining a rock band for 30 years -- without losing a few drummers and bassists along the way -- hasn't posed much of a challenge, either. "It's clean living and perseverance, buddy. And you know that's true ..."
While the band plays clubs and theaters almost nonstop, Zander acknowledges the difficulties of winning over radio stations with new material. Knowing that, Cheap Trick hasn't been shy about its alliance with That 70s Show. The band also accepted a cameo in Eddie Murphy's Daddy Day Care and, several years ago, allowed a soft-drink company to use "I Want You to Want Me" in a TV commercial.
Such deals are often necessary, given the state of the industry. Zander characterizes the consolidation of radio stations as devastating for musicians and listeners.
"There are five companies that own every station in America," he says. "That's sad. Because how in the hell does a guy in Los Angeles or New York know what a guy in Des Moines wants to hear? What in the hell happened to the program director? Did they just kill all of those guys and bury them?"
After delivering such a serious soliloquy, Zander can contain his mirth no longer. He responds to a question about what bands he's listening to -- Foo Fighters and Linkin Park come to mind -- by discouraging people from supporting his livelihood.
Buying albums, he points out, really isn't the greatest idea. Better to just borrow albums, hear what you want, and return them.
"And if you like something," he adds, "you can just copy it."
Frustrated by radio and wondering how to garner more airplay, a solution is proffered. Why not get a slot on VH1's Behind the Music, confess to the agonies of fame, the demands of guitar solos and sound checks?
"I don't think we could do Behind the Music," Zander says. "Because we haven't killed anybody. Nobody's a drug addict. And nobody's screwed their band mate's mother. We don't have anything to talk about, I guess."
There is this business about mom and dad rollin' numbers, rock and rollin', got my Kiss records out, but, hey, that's a tale for another day.