By Ken Sharp
Cheap Trick are one of the hardest working bands in rock and roll. Almost 50 years since they formed in Rockford, Illinois, Cheap Trick achieved everything the hard way. No easy breaks: They spent years struggling playing their heart out inside the confines of every crummy club dotted throughout the Midwest before being signed by Epic Records and releasing their self-titled eponymous debut in 1977.
Fronted by Robin Zander, one of rock’s greatest singers, and Rick Nielsen, rock and roll’s ultimate bowtie-wearing oddball (think the Bowery Boys’ Huntz Hall wielding an electric guitar), Cheap Trick’s power-pop-flavored songwriting smarts have remained consistent and impeccable for decades. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famers earned every shred of success, and their impressive new studio album, In Another World, is testament to their continued artistic excellence. Join us for a candid conversation with founding member and bassist Tom Petersson.
GOLDMINE: This is one of the strongest Cheap Trick albums in a long time. Listening to the songs like “Another World” and “Final Days,” it touches on the disconnect and isolation we’ve all felt from the pandemic. Was that a conscious theme for the band to draw from that?
TOM PETERSSON: Well, it wasn’t conscious because the record was finished in 2019. So we had the album done and it was going to be released sometime in early 2020. We had stopped touring then. We toured the first two months of 2020, January and February, and we were gonna take a little time off. So when the pandemic started, we had just stopped. It was like, “OK, (laughs) now what?” Nobody knew what the hell was going on. But this record was finished before the pandemic even started. I can hear what you’re talking about in reference to those two songs as it hadn’t exactly been smooth sailing up until that point anyway. But we just write about things that we’re thinking about at the time or take things that we’ve done in the past. You know how it is. Songs relate differently to different people or different situations. They’re not specifically about a certain event like (the) New York mining disaster or something. You know what I mean? It’s just in general terms. So our songs can relate to all sorts of things. And it just so happens that a lot of it sounded like it was written about what was going on, but it definitely was not.
GM: There’s also a sense of mortality that I’m hearing on the album with the song “I’ll See You Again,” a theme you’ve not shied from similarly with “Sleep Forever” from The Latest album (2009).
TP: Yeah, that’s a cool song, isn’t it? It shares a similar sentiment to “I’ll See You Again.” The songs “Final Days” and “So It Goes” really came in right at the end. In fact, “Final Days” came in after we were done. Not during the pandemic but it was it was one of these things where, we’re done, but you’re not really done. It’s not released or mixed or anything. So it was still a work in progress so you can do whatever. “So It Goes” was a song that Robin had come up with; I think he’d had that song for a long time. Some songs come from a long time ago, but not many. The ideal thing is if you’re gonna do an album with 10 songs on it, you should have 10 of them that you’re gonna throw away. You can’t really think ahead how things are going to turn out, because they really take on a life of their own. They’re not completely done when we start and they take on a life of their own, good or bad. There’s times when we think we’re gonna really nail a song and we’re not as happy with it. And then it’s like, “Yeah, that’s kind of weak, that’s not that great or that needs something else.” We like to have things you can throw out, especially things that you don’t want to throw out. So it’s not like it’s thrown out because it’s not good. It’s just for some reason you’ve got too many songs and it doesn’t fit, but well, what the hell? You got it recorded so there’s no harm in having something in the can.
GM: You picked a great batch for this record. This is one of the strongest ones. Do you feel it’s one of the strongest ones of recent note?
TP: I can only speak for myself, but we generally like the same sort of things. I think that’s why a lot of it really works, because what we’re doing is we put out music that we personally would like to hear. So it’s that kind of a thing. We all have similar taste and it all kind of goes in the same direction naturally.
GM: In the formative years, Rick Nielsen was the primary songwriter in Cheap Trick and then in the last 25 years, you and Robin have really been stepping to the fore as songwriters. Let’s talk a bit about how that evolution happened and how the cumulative effect of you three now contributing as writers impacted the overall material.
TP: I think it really helped because we each basically have each other’s back — if somebody (is) falling short or whatever it might be, or you’re not inspired 100 percent of the time or 100 percent of your ideas are not great. We don’t do songs that one of us doesn’t like. If one of us hates something, we won’t do it. It doesn’t usually come to that and we generally agree. But usually if somebody hates something, they’ll have an idea about how to change it. “I’d like it better if it went this way.” A lot of the things we’ll do, we’ll sit down and it’s like, “OK, what have you got?” “Oh, that’s really great” and a lot of times the original idea is almost nothing like what the final product turns out to be. It’s rarely finished from the beginning. It’s not like somebody comes in and says, “OK, I’ve got everything completely finished here, so just play along.” It’s usually not like that.
GM: Because Rick was the primary songwriter for the first batch of albums and with Cheap Trick’s body of studio work of the last two decades, it’s the collective songwriting voice of three original members.
TP: Yeah. You don’t have to rely on one person. If it’s just one person, you run the risk of running out of ideas. But the thing is when you’ve got other people and you like their ideas, too, then you’re inspired. We want to inspire the other guys in the band to work on it and go for it. “Oh, I think Rick will like this.” We all work on each other’s stuff and it just kind of falls together. But, you know, the most important thing to us is recording and having records out there because they last a lifetime. So it’s always been like that; we’re always on to the next one. It’s hard to say, “Oh, what’s your favorite thing on this record, or what do you think about this overall album?” ’cause you’re so close to it while you’re doing it and then when you’re done, and it’s really done, you can’t change it. We’re just always thinking, “OK, what’s the next one?” We’re thinking about the next record, not about this current one.
GM: Tom, the band started out with a singer named Xeno. How did Robin come into the picture, and how did his addition elevate the band?
TP: Well, we were just playing nightclubs, five sets a night, six nights a week. We weren’t a Top 40 band, so we weren’t successful at all. (laughs) People didn’t want to come see some band where they didn’t know any songs they play. You know, we did a lot of cover songs and stuff, but it was more obscure songs. I had come in right before Xeno left or maybe a year later. But he just decided to leave. We had seen Robin in a club and were like, “Man, this guy is great, like John Lennon and Robin Gibb combined, and he can sing like Steve Marriott — this guy’s perfect.” And it turned out he was.
GM: You’ve been friends with Rick for most of your life. Tell me about the trip you took with Rick in 1968 to visit London for the first time.
TP: I graduated high school in ’68 and then in the winter of that year, we went to London together. Rick graduated a year ahead of me. In London we were footloose and fancy free. We’d already been into that music scene anyway. That’s what we grew up with. That was our whole life. You know, bands like The Small Faces, the Stones, The Who and The Kinks and, of course, The Beatles. We loved the whole British Invasion gang, The Animals and The Yardbirds, so we were all deep into it, and here we are in London. We went to the Marquee club every night to see bands. The first band we saw at The Marquee was Jethro Tull. I think their first album had just come out. We’d never heard it before. We thought, these guys are hilarious with that album cover where they looked like they were 200 years old. You know, it was so funny to us. You had all these bands trying to look as cool as possible, and here was this band that looked as terrible as possible. (laughs) But we felt these guys had got the right idea; it seemed funny to us. They were hopefully humorous. We also saw the group Family and these other bands. They were just friggin’ great. But when we first started people always said to me, “Is this what you wanted to do since you were a kid?” Well, no, because it was just a hobby and something that was fun. We weren’t thinking of ourselves on the level with The Rolling Stones or The Beatles or Hendrix or whatever. No, we did not. But then eventually groups started to come through that were having hits that we thought sucked. We were like, these guys suck in our opinion, (laughs) maybe we should take a shot at it. So from the beginning, especially around ’67, ’68, we realized, look, we’re going to be in a band, let’s just do all original material or at least cover songs that people don’t know and let’s get an original music band going. That’s the only way you’re going to get anything going on at all. You know, the downside of that is nobody wants to come and see you because you’re not a Top 40 group, which were the only bands making a living. (laughs) People always said later, “You guys were so lucky. You got to do all your own songs.” Well, lucky is not what I’d call it. We’d be doing shows with eight people in the crowd and the guys that were doing disco covers were making $1,000 a week each and we could barely eat.
GM: For every artist that makes it, there’s either a pivotal moment or a few things that really go right where you choose the right door to walk through. Looking back can you pick out one or two of those pivotal moments where you guys chose that right door to walk through and it really set you on the course to make it?
TP: After Rick and I went to London in ’68, we decided we were going to work together. We were both in competing local groups. So we ended up working together in ’69 and we got lucky. We opened for Terry Reid in Chicago at the Kinetic Playground, which is a great place. Everybody played there and we were thrilled to be there. Terry had just signed with Epic Records, and the whole label from New York flew in to see him play in Chicago and saw our band, Fuse, open for them, so we got a friggin’ record deal with Epic Records (laughs) out of the blue sky! It was like, whoa! We were doing all original songs. It gave us the false impression that this is not that hard. Half of us were underage, so we had to have our parents sign our record deal because we were too young.
GM: Well, that was Fuse, how about with Cheap Trick? What was the right door you walk through that really pushed you guys over the top?
TP: It was a combination of things. We just kept going. We actually built up a following, and people didn’t want to hear just Top 40 hits. It was kind of this underground scene that we got on top of in our area of the Midwest — Chicago, and Madison, Wisconsin; Champaign, Illinois; Detroit. We started to do really well in those regions and then eventually what really helped was we got really big in the Chicago area. Chicago is so much bigger than Milwaukee and these other places, so it really meant a lot. We still never had any traction in Los Angeles or New York, which we kept going to. We’d save enough money to be able to drive out to Los Angeles and play at the Starwood to 20 people in hopes of getting a record deal, but that never panned out. It really just got back to what we were doing, and then Jack Douglas came to see us when we were playing in a bowling alley out of the blue. His in-laws were from there; his wife is from Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was there for Christmas vacations, and he came to see us in a bowling alley. He said, “Man, I love your band. If you get a record deal, I’ll produce your first record.” Well, all of a sudden, all the people who didn’t think that much of us now thought we were brilliant. (laughs)
GM: In 1977, Cheap Trick landed the opening slot on KISS’ 1977 Love Gun tour. What are your memories of that tour and what did it mean getting that slot?
TP: Well, what happened was right before that, we’d done two or three shows opening for Queen, and they were huge worldwide, and they were really huge in Japan and the Japanese would have journalists to cover from magazines like Music Life and Ongaku Senka. They’d follow groups like Queen around wherever they were worldwide, not just in Japan. So there we were in front of all the Japanese press opening for Queen. And so they’d write about us and the other Japanese kids just got a kick out of our look and they loved this music, too, and one thing led to another. Then we got that KISS tour, and it was the same thing. The Japanese media were at every show. And all of a sudden we started getting all this fan mail, and we were like, “What the hell’s going on here?” You know? One thing led to another. It was like, hey, you guys are really successful in Japan, and you’ve got hit singles and stuff. We had no success anywhere else, so we went to Japan and ended up doing that live record, basically as a greatest hits for the Japanese, and that thing took off so well.
GM: The band’s live stint at the Whisky in 1977 has been released as a two-LP vinyl, Out to Get You: Live 1977, and garnered massive acclaim from the band’s fan base, some venturing it was way better than the Budokan record. What do you remember about those shows at the Whisky?
TP: We were averaging about 290 live shows a year and at the same time putting out two records a year in our spare time. To us, it just was one long gig, really. We were all over the place. We were kind of burned out from playing all the time. But that’s what we did and we were used to it; at least we were working a lot and at least we didn’t do five sets a night anymore. So that was good, but we have played a lot and we were ready for action. For us, whether it was the Whisky or playing at Budokan, every gig was basically a battle of the bands. You had to outdo the other. You had to just be as good as possible and to fight your way to the top. Most people didn’t get anywhere and they had to give up, but we got lucky and were successful enough to be able to keep going. I think the real reason we did those shows had to do with money. You know, our manager was like, “OK, you have this show to do.” You know, he didn’t have to go out there seven nights a week so like, what the hell, you know? We were running around all over the place. But we were so used to working all the time. So my memory of The Whisky and any other stuff from that period is it was almost one big, long gig. It all kind of runs into each other. We were playing all over the place. We’d go from the Whisky to Budokan to Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Bettendorf, Iowa, the night after you get back from Japan. All I know is we were jumping around from one level of success to the next.
GM: Cheap Trick and AC/DC enjoyed a close friendship playing shows together in the ’70s.
TP: We were working a lot in the beginning with AC/DC, who was equally unsuccessful and so we were flip-flopping headlining. We were doing theater shows back then. AC/DC were great and we had so much fun working with them. We loved it because when we got to open the show every other night that we could hang out and watch them play. I probably saw them play 70 times! Cheap Trick and AC/DC were on bills for stadium shows like Day on the Green. Ted Nugent was the headliner. AC/DC went on at 10 a.m. (laughs), and we were on around 10:30 a.m. We’d all be backstage at eight o’clock in the morning (laughs), and Bon (Scott) would be back there drinking Jack and Coke. (laughs) We were like, “God!” And he was like, “Well, I’ve got to loosen my voice up.” We were like, “Jesus, it’s eight o’clock in the morning, oh my God!” (laughs) But we were both out there, and there was no way that was our only gig of the day. You just kept going.
GM: Are there any Cheap Trick tracks you’re particularly proud of with your bass guitar contributions? I’m partial to your work on “Stop This Game” and later with “Sick Man of Europe.”
TP: That’s difficult to say because I think really all of us try to do whatever works with the song. It’s not a matter of making yourself look good. It’s usually something really subtle: “Aw, that was a great note you played there!” or “Wow, that’s a great change you didn’t expect.” You think, “Wow, that’s really cool, I wish I had thought of that!” So it’s just little things really. It’s not like, “Oh, listen to this, I’m playing a bass solo.” On “Sick Man of Europe,” in particular, I was told, “Just go wild on this thing.” I wouldn’t normally do that type of thing as it would take away from it, but that song lends itself to that. Yeah, let’s just make this as crazy as possible.
GM: As a bass player, I’ve always felt you mixed a Paul McCartney melodic sensibility with the virtuosic ability of John Entwistle.
TP: Yeah, but both those guys were so much better than I was. I didn’t start out playing bass, so I never learned all The Beatles songs on bass. I was a guitar player. But then when I switched over to bass in ’67, I loved Entwistle’s playing and his tone and McCartney, of course. I loved Jack Casady’s with the (Jefferson) Airplane. He had great style. I also loved Ronnie Wood in The Jeff Beck Group. He was a guitar player and they said, “OK, you’re on bass now.” And man, that guy’s got a cool style. It was really more like a rhythm guitar player.
GM: Tom, you pioneered the sound with the 12-string bass. How do you think playing live and in the studio impacted on the texture of the songs because you brought something really unique to the table?
TP: Well, it just suited my style of playing. The only bass I owned at that time was a Gibson Thunderbird. So I had a 64 T-bird and basically when I play a 12-string, it’s the same rig. It’s fuller with a 12-string, because it’s 12 strings rather than four strings. It’s a combination of Casady and McCartney and Entwistle and Ronnie Wood. So it’s a combination of those bass players and George Harrison playing 12-string guitar and Pete Townshend on “I Can See for Miles.” I always wanted to be a combination of all those things, not just the bass players, but a combination of Entwistle and Jeff Beck, both those sounds. I want both those sounds. I want that Hofner sound, too, in addition to it. So it just ended up where it’s kind of an orchestrated thing just naturally. I mean, it’s like I want to sound like a cello that’s going through a Marshall and a grand piano and a B3. (laughs) Can we get all those things at once?
GM: I think that that’s a little bit of the secret sauce that makes Cheap Trick so unique.
TP: Yeah, so often it’s some quirky style that people have that doesn’t really fit with other stuff and it’s not standard things. Most people would kind of poo-poo it, “Can’t you just follow the kick drum or just do whatever? Well, that’s not the way I want it to be. Here’s what you’re supposed to do.” It wasn’t like that. We were just making sh*t up off the top of our heads. “But Carol Kaye wouldn’t play it like that.” But what does it matter? I’m not like that, so usually it’s something that doesn’t fit somewhere else. So it just kind of works in the situation we’re in. I might be in the studio and someone will go, “What’s with that bass tone? I’m just gonna put you in direct without using an amp.” And I’d be like, “What? This is bullsh*t.” I was always battling it out with engineers. You know, everybody always knew better than you. It was a constant war with engineers and producers, except we were kind of spoiled because with our first album produced by Jack Douglas, and he just liked our sound. Jack really just loved our sound, and that’s really what we sound like on that first record. And it’s ironic. That’s why Budokan works, because honestly there wasn’t any thought in it. You know, we always kind of joke, if we knew that record was going to be a such a big hit, we’d have put a little more thought into it. You know, we show up in Japan and it’s like, “OK, we’re playing Budokan, we’re playing Osaka, we’re playing all these different places.” And, you know, it was just another gig which wasn’t a lot different than a Shakey’s pizza parlor. We had just come from being at Budokan, but still it was just another gig. It turned out to be our most successful record because that really was the way we sounded.
GM: You touched on the sound of the first Cheap Trick self-titled album. And ironically, that album didn’t connect initially either commercially or sales wise. But years later, it’s often picked by fans as perhaps the definitive Cheap Trick studio album. Looking back, what is the magic of that first album?
TP: Well, Jack Douglas is great. He’d put little touches on things. Little stuff you’d hear in headphone mixes like a triangle on there and “What’s that over in the corner?” You know, he loved all that sort of stuff. And he was a bass player himself, so he loves bass and that was a big part of our sound. We’re a small four-piece group. He just liked the way we played and the way we sounded, and he just brought out the best in us. And after we did the first record, we didn’t work with him again on the next few records. So it was kind of like, “Well, you guys didn’t have any success with that first record and people don’t know what to make of you. You look weird. It doesn’t make any sense to people in music. You have songs talking about suicide, and then you’ve got something that sounds like a love song, and then the next thing you know it’s about a mass murderer (“The Ballad of TV Violence”).” (laughs) They were like, “What the hell is going on?” They did not understand this. It didn’t seem that hard for us to understand, but that’s just the stuff that we liked.
GM: I loved when Rick would write these really weird, off-the-wall lyrics. It made the band stand out from the groups singing about sex, drugs and rock and roll.
TP: I know what you mean; I don’t like that stuff either. We could do a song that really sounds sweet but has dark overtones. And it’s like, wait a minute, what’s this about?
GM: Like “Oh, Candy,” for example.
TP: Yeah, there we go. That’s about a guy who committed suicide. Does it sound like that? No, it’s a sweet pop song.
GM: Lastly, how has your thought of success with Cheap Trick changed over the decades since you started off with the band? Has it changed in terms of what you consider success for you in your heart as an artist?
TP: I always kind of look at it like we’re just starting out, like we’re a new group and we’ve got something to prove. That’s why we’re always on to the next record. That was always a big running joke because our first three albums had no success. They had a little success, and we got critical success. But I think if we hadn’t had critical success, we would have been thrown off of the record label right after the first record. (laughs) I think they felt we should be successful, but what is the record label doing wrong? I think they hung in there with us because they were kind of embarrassed. Like, they’re getting all these great reviews, but what’s going on? Why is nobody buying this stuff? I was like, don’t know, and they didn’t know either. But we are always kind of looking to the next one. People would say to us, “OK, get ready for the ride,” and we were like, “OK. Yeah, right” and then a couple of weeks later, they’d be like, “Well, the next one’s the one.” (laughs) And we’d be like, “Wait a minute, what do you mean?” So we were always kind of looking for the next one, and we still really do that. We’re still searching for that perfect sound, that perfect record, something that’s really great that even surprises us. So I always kind of look as we’re still trying to make it.
GM: Well, I think that’s what makes Cheap Trick today. Your new material means as much to you as the oldies.
TP: Yeah, with the oldies where we had a sufficient amount of success we’ve been able to keep going. You know, most people don’t have enough success to continue. So they have to go back to whatever they were going to do or get a job or become a dentist or whatever you do normally. You would have a life and you wanna be able to eat and pay rent.
But we got lucky enough where we could continue. We didn’t have to stop. So that was good. You know, we never got to the level of The Rolling Stones or U2 where we were headlining and selling out stadiums everywhere. And we could never afford to stop, but we also could afford to continue, so we keep at it. You know, you kind of look at yourself as to how people view you. You kind of look at yourself as that nimrod that was in high school at the Battle of the Bands at Sherwood Lodge. (laughs) It seems silly, but I always feel that we’re a new band and we’re out there trying to get ahead.