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From Rockford to you: An oral history of Cheap Trick's early years

Long before "I Want You to Want Me" sent an audience at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan into a frenzy, the Illinois rock legends hustled for years on the scrappy midwest club circuit of the 1970s.

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This band has no past. Literally. We can tell you some things—a little of this and a bit of that but Cheap Trick is, in fact, a band without a history."

Those words open the liner notes to Cheap Trick's eponymous 1977 debut album. Straight answers never seemed to be something prized by Robin Zander, Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson, and Bun E. Carlos. A journalist inquiring about what made the group tick would be more likely to get a stock response: "Four great guys and three great chords."

But for Rockford's favorite sons, the past four decades haven't exactly all been great. After the singles "I Want You to Want Me" from In Color (1977) and "Surrender" from Heaven Tonight (1978) paved the way for their breakout '78 live album Cheap Trick at Budokan, the band weathered a rapid commercial decline in the early to mid-80s before rebounding with 1988's "The Flame," an uncharacteristic power ballad written by British songwriters that became the quartet's lone number one single. More recently, Carlos stopped touring as drummer in 2010, touching off a legal battle about his stake in the band's financial management. He was replaced that same year by Nielsen's son Daxx, who had previously filled in for Carlos, and settled with the other members in 2014.

Carlos will again play alongside his old bandmates on April 8, when Cheap Trick are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the heels of the release earlier this month of their 17th studio album, Bang, Zoom, Crazy . . . Hello.

"I never even thought about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until we were eligible and it was printed in the press in 2002," says Zander, Cheap Trick's front man. "Then ten years go by and you think, 'Maybe we're not as good as anybody else.' Then 15 years go by and you start thinking, 'Well fuck those guys! They don't know what they're talking about!' Then it happens and all is forgiven.

"The thing that I think is best about being inducted," Zander continues, "is that your fans finally get something they can grab on to in that record argument in the basement after drinking a few beers and smoking some pot. They can say, 'Cheap Trick is my favorite band because they're in the hall of fame, and yours is not.' "

Cheap Trick can no longer claim to be a band without a history, but their origins remain a bit murky. That's especially true of the unsung years they spent cutting their teeth on the midwest club circuit of the 1970s. To shed some light on the early years, we talked to Zander, Nielsen, and Petersson, as well as local radio DJs, promoters, clubgoers, and members of fellow power-pop groups like Shoes and Pezband.

Of course, as with any attempt at pinning down a history of Cheap Trick, this is merely one version of the truth.


Robin Zander
Lead singer, Cheap Trick

Tom had a band, Bun E. had a band, Rick had a band. We'd all be playing around the same places. I'd go to a battle of the bands at a place called Sherwood Lodge in Rockford and there'd be Bun E.'s band battling against Tom's band. You have your favorites, and eventually I hooked up with
Bun E.

Bun E. Carlos, then known by his given name, Brad Carlson, had been a drummer in a group called the Pagans that had a quiet hit on Chicago's WLS with a cover of the Beatles' "Good Day Sunshine."

Robin Zander
That was something else. A guy from Rockford on WLS radio, how about that?

Zander, Carlos, and a pianist named Brian Beebe recorded demos under the moniker Bun E. Carlos's Air Farce. Carlos eventually made his way to Philadelphia to hook up with his old friends from Rockford, bassist Tom Petersson and guitarist Rick Nielsen, who were struggling with their band, Sick Man of Europe. The trio had previously played in a band called Fuse that recorded a single record, which was released on Cheap Trick's future label, Epic.

Rick Nielsen
Guitarist, Cheap Trick

I was a bartender in Philly for about a month and was rehearsing in a band with Tom, Bun E., and myself, along with "Stewkey" [aka Robert Antoni], the singer. My wife was pregnant at the time, and I used to steal toilet paper from the place. After we did fairly well, I bought the guys who owned the bar a case of toilet paper.

Sick Man of Europe disbanded in 1973. Carlos, Petersson, and Nielsen formed Cheap Trick in 1973 with lead singer Randy "Xeno" Hogan, who would leave the band shortly thereafter. The origin of the name varies, depending on whom you ask: Nielsen has claimed it was spelled out by an Ouija board, Hogan says it came out of referring to a Nielsen guitar riff as a "cheap trick." The remaining members approached Zander, whose contract performing with Beebe at a Wisconsin Dells club was expiring. With the band in place, the first gig for the classic Cheap Trick lineup was booked for the Pewaukee Junior Prom in Wisconsin in 1974.

Robin Zander
That was after three rehearsals in Rick's garage, and that's the last time we rehearsed. One of the first songs Rick and I wrote together was "Cry, Cry." We began to influence each other when we started writing together. Rick just took off like a shotgun with the songwriting after we got the band together.

Lauree Rohrig
Former owner of Club Foot and an early Cheap Trick concertgoer

Robin was a great replacement for Xeno. Both had long blond hair and an androgynous look, but Robin was much prettier and had a better voice.

Cheap Trick came up among a scene of Chicago-area power-pop bands in the early to mid-70s that included Shoes, Pezband, d'Thumbs, and later in the decade Off Broadway and Hounds.

Mick Rain
Drummer, Pezband

I think it was the Buckinghams' fault. They played in front of that fountain in Grant Park in 1965, it got in the water, and these kids drank it. It turned every garage in the suburbs into a Fender amp store or a recording studio.

Robin Zander
There were some good bands, but I don't remember the names. They would last for six weeks and they'd break up.

People tried to pigeonhole us in some label and finally came up with a term called "power pop." It didn't bother me too much, since the term was coined by Pete Townshend.

Tom Petersson
Bassist, Cheap Trick

We're a bit heavier than those types of bands. We tend to have scarier lyrical content and subject matter. Darker and really heavy—it borders on heavy metal sometimes.

Lauree Rohrig
Their songs were somewhat sinister, which I loved.

Tom Petersson
When we started out, we would play anywhere we could, but we weren't a Top 40 covers band. That's what most people were doing just to make money. Nobody was really getting any traction doing original material, and because we weren't doing covers we didn't get hired to play in Chicago. We really got our first traction in the clubs in Milwaukee.

Humpin' Hanna's in Milwaukee was one of the regional clubs Cheap Trick regularly played.
  • Humpin' Hanna's in Milwaukee was one of the regional clubs Cheap Trick regularly played.

Lauree Rohrig
I first saw Cheap Trick at Humpin' Hanna's in Milwaukee in 1975. I think it was penny-beer night, so I fell in love with the band while standing ankle deep in spilled beer. I considered them a glam band. Xeno and Tom were wearing dresses and heavy makeup, but Bun E., always true to himself, was in his white shirt and tie.

Tom Petersson
For some reason in Milwaukee we started to draw a big transvestite crowd, so the club owners wouldn't hire us. "OK, you guys are not welcome here," they'd say. "Your audience is . . . weird." But Humpin' Hanna's let anything go, and we built up this following as an underground act.

Rick Nielsen
We had kind of a good crowd. Lots of rock kind of people, lots of straight people, lots of gay people—we had a whole bunch of stuff. We were a huge hit with the deaf people. The deaf school was right above the club we played, and we were so loud they loved us. They never clapped for us, but they liked us.

John Pazdan
Bassist, Pezband and Off Broadway

When I used to go see Cheap Trick in the mid-70s, there were people dancing and having a good time. They were having a blast.

Lauree Rohrig
Their fans consisted of women wearing handkerchief skirts, platform shoes, dramatic makeup, and glitter. Some men wore colorful jackets with long scarves and hair like David Bowie or T. Rex.

"We were a huge hit with the deaf people. The deaf school was right above the club we played, and we were so loud they loved us."—Rick Nielsen, Cheap Trick guitarist

Robin Zander
Somebody bought a big old white Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham with a white leather interior. Before that we had a hot-rod Lincoln with a U-Haul on the back.

You've seen the way Rick's amps look [beat up]? That's because we carried them around in the U-Haul on the back of the Lincoln. It was crammed in there. We were crammed in there. Then we bought the Cadillac and thought that was going to be better . . . and it wasn't really.

Rick Nielsen
We went to LA, North Dakota, South Dakota because we didn't want to keep burning ourselves out at Mother's and Lolly's and Beavers and all that other stuff around the suburbs.

I was the only driver. I drove everywhere. I drove nonstop to Denver. I was just the best driver, and I'm too antsy to sit in the backseat.

Robin Zander
We were struggling. We were just a rock band in the Chicago area from a little town trying to make a living. We didn't really think about how long our band was going to last or if we were going to record anything that would be released. We played for ourselves. We'd play shows to three people. The music that we were playing back then is the part of it I was most fond of. Traveling around in a car late at night for four hours to get to Detroit for the next show I was not very fond of.

Tom Petersson
We did have a hard-and-fast rule that everybody should have: We never got high or drank during our shows. We always waited until the end of the night, and then we could drink a few beers . . . or several hundred.

Rick Nielsen
I drank more beer than anybody I've ever met, but I never drank when I played. People always ask, "What's your favorite song, Rick?" I tell them "Goodnight" because then it was time for a beer.

Mimi Betinis
Singer/guitarist, Pezband

I do remember playing a couple of gigs together and then rolling out of Rick's place at five in the morning pretty messed up.

John Pazdan
Everyone has a story about stumbling out of Rick's place.

Robin Zander
Rick had a game he played called the Carnival Game.

Rick Nielsen
We used to play three, four hours a night sometimes. Out of boredom or out of necessity to spice up our show, halfway through a set I'd say, "I can guess the weight of any girl within four pounds . . . but you have to sit on my face."

Robin Zander
It happened all the time. One night, this girl got up there, and I don't know, but she must have not bathed too well or something, and that was the last time he did it. That was the end of the Carnival Game.

Rick Nielsen
Robin never did the Carnival Game . . . at least onstage.

Lauree Rohrig
Rick's stage banter often consisted of teasing Robin and introducing their soundman as "Les Manly." They had a hard-core following, and I would see many of the same faces. It was kind of like being in a secret society. When they played "Fan Club," the band often name checked some of these hard-core fans.

Rick Nielsen
We used to play that song at every club, and whoever we'd see we'd call out their names: "All right, Nancy!"

Brad Elvis
Drummer, Screams, the Elvis Brothers, the Handcuffs

Rick especially was one to not hold back when it came to running his mouth onstage. He would whale on local bands while they were in the audience. But bands almost felt honored, like, "Don Rickles picked on me!"

Rick Nielsen
I pushed Jimmy Sohns of the Shadows of Knight into the ceiling at Haymaker's in Wheeling.

Tom Petersson
We did a radio show. People didn't know who the heck we were. The club was filled, the disc jockey announced us—"Please welcome Cheap Trick!"—then had this stripper take her top off right when he said it. The crowd went wild.

Brad Elvis
I was at a show in the summer of 1976 in their hometown of Rockford at a club called Flight of the Phoenix. Rick had been wearing the cardigan-and-bow-tie look for a few months. At this show, somebody threw an old beat-up painter's cap onstage. Rick of course immediately utilized it as a prop. I saw them a few weeks later, and Rick had on his now-signature cap with a Point Beer badge pinned to the front. He never took it off.

Rick Nielsen
I never tried to be something that I wasn't. I never tried to be Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, or Joe Perry. I was I. Putting a cucumber down my pants—I never even tried it. I never tried to dress like some rock star.

COURTESY CHEAP TRICK
  • Courtesy Cheap Trick

Mimi Betinis
The thing with Cheap Trick is that we shared management for a while with Ken Adamany. We hooked up with him and he would book us. We would go up to Wisconsin—Janesville, up in that area—and he would put Cheap Trick in front of us on the bill, and the other way around later on. We would open for them, and they would open for us.

John Pazdan
Ken Adamany got Off Broadway a record deal without us recording a demo, based on his involvement with Cheap Trick.

Robin Zander
I always liked Pezband. I thought they were cool, and then they morphed into Off Broadway, which is a pretty cool band.

Rick Nielsen
I liked the feel of all of those bands, and there were lots of girls around, so that was fun. All we ever did was go out and play.

Lauree Rohrig
Pezband, Off Broadway, and d'Thumbs—those bands all played the same circuit of bars as Cheap Trick. My friends and I would go see them weekly or more.

Tom Petersson
We never really played in Chicago. Pezband was really big in the city and they were kind of doing the same thing as Cheap Trick. At that time—it was really funny—[Pezband singer] Cliff Johnson said to us, "We're quitting the Chicago scene, why don't you guys come in and take over if you want," and we were like "OK." By that time we had played countless shows, so we really had it together, and we showed up in Chicago and everyone was like, "Who the hell are these guys?" It just clicked.

Cheap Trick eventually began to develop a following in Chicago and the suburbs, playing regularly at several clubs, including B'Ginnings, which was located in a strip mall in suburban Schaumburg and owned by Danny Seraphine, drummer for fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Chicago. Another popular suburban club at the time was Night Gallery in Waukegan, where Cheap Trick shot promo videos for their debut record.

Tom Petersson
B'Ginnings was really good. It had a good stage and it sounded good in there. That's when we really started getting success as a local act. We weren't just playing for eight people in some Pizza Hut in Bettendorf, Iowa.

Gary Klebe
Singer/guitarist, Shoes

I remember my first Cheap Trick show at Night Gallery in Waukegan in 1977. I was unprepared for what I was about to experience. For days after, their tunes ran through my head, and their next show couldn't come soon enough. They seamlessly fused pop melodies with dark musical and lyrical undertones in a way I had never heard. Not since the Beatles was I more inspired to make music.

Tom Petersson
The only problem with Night Gallery was that they were open until six in the morning. You'd get there at 4 PM. We'd go on at 10 PM, we'd go on at 2 AM, and we'd go on at 4 AM. Then six in the morning rolls around. I don't have that many fond memories because it was such a drag with the hours.

John Pazdan
They had wooden shutters on the windows, and when you opened the shutters you expected half the club to evaporate like vampires. The Great Lakes naval base was nearby, and all of the drunken sailors would come in and try to pick up girls along with the typical rock crowd. It was kind of a dreadful place.

Robin Zander
It seemed like the bigger clubs were in the suburbs. You could get 1,000 people into a club in the suburbs, and with a cover charge, you're making some money. But in the inner city the clubs were smaller, they were more decadent, they were downstairs, like Kinetic Playground.

Mimi Betinis
There really wasn't anything in downtown Chicago, and it seemed like people were just opening up clubs left and right out in Downers Grove and Stone Park and Schaumburg.

John Pazdan
City audiences couldn't care less about going to see rock 'n' roll, because that was square music to them. The downtown audience was more into funk and jazz, and then later on punk.

Rick Nielsen
We always had a larger pool to pick from out there in the suburbs.

Tom Petersson
People wanted to see the Top 40 bands, but the audiences who'd come and see us, they'd be hooked. But we were making $50 to $75 a week, and the cover bands were making $800-$900 a week. We had enough to survive and buy guitars and strings. All those cover bands would come up to us and say, "You guys are so lucky, you get to play all your own material." And we'd go, "Lucky?" There was no way those cover bands were going to take a pay cut. We were dying out there.

Brad Elvis
I think Cheap Trick opened that up at the time by playing mostly original music. They changed a lot of things from how the clubs and bands had been. Some of the main clubs saw that working—an audience, a buzz—and they went with it for a few years until that scene petered out. Then it was back to cover bands.

Boris Boden
Promoter, designed show calendars and ads for local clubs

You knew there was something different, something special happening onstage. Something great. The look, the sound, they hit that stage with those shredded Sound City amplifier cabinets. I still consider those nights some of the best nights ever.

Mimi Betinis
Robin was just a gem of a guy and had wonderful pipes. You could tell—if anything—he was going to go somewhere. They really had a sound. Petersson could really hold the whole thing together, while Rick would fly off the handle. I really kind of looked at it that way. I liked them, and we were friends, and we partied together, but I did see them as competition.

Brad Elvis
I analyzed every move that the band made. Looking at their equipment, listening to their stage banter.

Mike Gorman
Bassist, Pezband and Off Broadway

They had—and still do have—a tough, stripped-down sound. Great songs. Great singer. Also, they are hysterically funny guys.

Cheap Trick's years of touring and playing three to four sets a night was finally rewarded in August 1976, when Epic Records signed the band. Cheap Trick was released in February 1977.

Lin Brehmer
DJ, WXRT

Their first album came out during a time when everything that wasn't Linda Ronstadt or Styx was considered punk rock. Working at a progressive rock FM station, we embraced "Mandocello" and "ELO Kiddies." In those days the music director would put a large index card on the album for DJs to make comments and suggest which tracks to play. I remember the first comment on Cheap Trick was simply "ELO Kiddies!" Which was shorthand for killer track.

The band released In Color in September 1977. Heaven Tonight hit record store shelves in May '78. The following month, the band did a two-night stand at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan, an indoor arena constructed for the '64 Summer Olympics. The album was intended to be a Japan-only release, but when an estimated 30,000 U.S. import copies sold thanks to radio airplay, Cheap Trick at Budokan was released domestically in February '79. The album peaked at number four on the Billboard 200.

Robin Zander
We experienced the dream over there. We became the Rolling Stones and the Beatles all wrapped up into one for a couple of weeks. That was quite an experience that changed our whole lives in many different directions, good and bad. Our demographics changed almost overnight when the Budokan record hit American shores. We went from an audience of 18- to 25-year-olds to even younger teenagers with one song ["I Want You to Want Me"]. I found myself next to Donny Osmond in 16 magazine, for god's sake.

Lauree Rohrig
When I saw a boy who looked about 12 or 13 wearing a Cheap Trick T-shirt, I realized they would no longer be just "my band."

Rick Nielsen
We're four guys from Rockford, Illinois, and then to go out and have the Japanese audience go crazy for us . . . But we had a good audience at the Brat Stop in Kenosha too. When we were in the States we couldn't wait to get back to Japan, and when we were in Japan we couldn't wait to get back to the States. v

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