Monday, November 4, 2013

VINTAGE VINYL (Pt. 4) - Cheap Trick "Heaven Tonight"

Cheap Trick 
Heaven Tonight

This is the fourth of my five-part
series in which I revisit the long-
lost vinyl LPs that uncovered
recently while rummaging through
my garage. In short, Cheap Trick
is America's all-time greatest rock
treasure, and Heaven Tonight is
the band's crown jewel.

In my younger days, I was a naïve church boy. And when it came to the music of my rock idols as a teenager, I took their song titles quite literally. Despite crystal clear lyrics to the contrary, for the longest time, I really thought that KISS' "Deuce" merely was a tennis reference and that "Cat Scratch Fever" simply was Ted Nugent's personal tale of an encounter with an unfriendly feline. However, later in life, I began associating with a more worldly group of "associates" who were all too willing to school me in the realities of rock and roll.

One of my early band managers was a rather dubious character named "Hank" who moonlighted in the distribution and sales of recreational substances. Hank possessed an uncanny gift for interpreting song lyrics. One day, while hanging out together at my apartment, Hank began revealing to me how every line in every song from my beloved Cheap Trick actually was about drug use. When I challenged his assertions, Hank shoved a bag of cocaine in my face and encouraged me to "wake up." And although I still dispute (most of) Hank's interpretations, I now do concede that there perhaps might be more to Cheap Trick's seemingly innocent brand of "Mommy's all right" pop / rock than meets the eye (or ear). 

Produced by Tom Werman, Cheap Trick's third record, Heaven Tonight, arrived in stores during the spring of 1978. At the time, the Rockford, Illinois combo was spitting out new records like a pop Pez dispenser. Released in early 1977, their self-titled debut was raw and punchy — and it tanked. However, it offered the blueprint that such chart-busting bands as Green Day and Good Charlotte would follow decades later.  

Just six months after the release of their debut, the prolific new band dropped their sophomore effort, In Color — it too failed to gain significant (U.S.) traction. But despite intra-band maligning, In Color was, in fact, a perfect pop / rock record. Featuring such subsequent signature staples as "I Want You to Want Me," "Southern Girls," and "Clock Strikes Ten," the record possessed a polished Revolver-meets-Ronson style that would serve as a blueprint for their own future success. Then came Heaven Tonight — the record that combined the dark mystique of their debut with the pop charm of their second effort — and in the process, inspired a legion of up-and-coming superstar rock musicians. 

"Heaven Tonight" changed my life.
-C.C. DeVille / Poison (June 2006)

Heaven Tonight kicks off with one of guitarist and chief songwriter Rick Nielsen's two most recognizable compositions, "Surrender." With its iconic, hooky chorus, this song of teenage discovery will never die, and it remains as fresh and relevant today as ever before. We're (still) all, all right, indeed!

Another Neilsen treasure, "On Top of the World," seems like a bona fide inspirational teen anthem (on the surface) — You're on top of the world and you can't get any higher. But it soon becomes clear that the song has much more to do with angst than celebration. Not that "hating school" and "having no dreams" are necessarily bad — just sayin'.

Ironically, given the band's impeccable reputation as master song craftsmen, one of the record's shiniest gems is a cover tune. Written by Roy Wood, "California Man" was the last UK hit for The Move back in 1972, just before morphing fully into the Electric Light Orchestra. Originally rather goofy and clunky-sounding, Cheap Trick took this diamond in the rough, polished it, spanked it and made it their own. Even Hank would have to concede that this one actually is "just" about rock and roll-fueled, teenage sex. Well, at least it's not about cocaine.

A songwriting collaboration between Neilsen, frontman Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson, "High Roller" is one of my personal favorites. Oh sure, it's a clear-cut sex tune (I think), but with Zander's chivalrous promises — "I'll tuck you in tonight" and "I'll take real good care of you," how nasty can sex in his "love car" really be — right?

Whether its lyrical viewpoint actually is pro or con, the Neilsen / Petersson-penned "Auf Wiedersehen" is an angry-sounding (yet catchy as heck), high-energy punk song about suicide — articulated in as many different languages as necessary to convey the message to their minions everywhere. It's become one of the band's true blue classics, but be sure kiddies (of all ages), contrary to the lyrics, there IS hope. Through Jesus Christ, there's always hope. Just sayin' (again). Oh, and BTW, drummer Bun E. Carlos' "Love Gun" tribute at the end is still badass.

One of the tastiest and happiest-sounding break-up songs ever, "Takin' Me Back" opens Side Two. And buried within the lyrics of this snappy, yet cynical post-relationship masterpiece lies one of my all-time favorite Neilsen lines: You thought that you could make a fool of me. Don't be so sure that the fool was me. I held up, I could take it. Now my heart, it's a-breakin'. Good solid stuff, Rick. 

"On the Radio" recalls a time of innocence, when  many of us raised during the 1960s and '70s lived by, and for, the radio. Heck, when I was a kid, that "Mister on the radio" really was "my best friend." I so could and should have written this one.

As for the title track, I'll have to give this one to ol' Hank. The haunting and Beatle-esque, "Heaven Tonight" is a drug song — and a darn dark one at that. Zander's eerie and quite convincing delivery sounds as if he's only seconds away from choking to death on his own vomit. You practically can hear the syringe dangling from his arm and the lines of blow being chopped out on the control room mixing console. Wow, what happened to "I Want You to Want Me?"  Anyway, through the thick layers of darkness, an effective anti-drug message seeps through — at least it scared the crap out of ME when I was 15.

Down inside — you're getting
nervous. You've never been
this high before — oh no. 
You can never come down.
You can never come down.
 From "Heaven Tonight"
(Rick Neilsen / Tom Petersson)

Neilsen's "Stiff Competition" is a straight up rocker with a Mack Truck-sized guitar riff, a powerhouse vocal and plenty-o-brash lyrics: I screw you, you screw me, they screw us, here we go again.

What sounds like the sluttier twin sister of "I Want You to Want Me," Neilsen and Petersson's "How Are You?" also is one of my favorites. And bathed in warm, rich, snap and crackle, the LP comes to an upbeat conclusion.

But just as much as for their songs, Cheap Trick is known as a musicians' band — and that aspect of their appeal shines throughout Heaven Tonight.

Rick Neilsen was, and still is, one the most creative and psychotic songwriter / guitarists going. In fact, if it weren't for rock and roll, he'd most likely be on meds, locked up somewhere. And "On Top of the World" and "Heaven Tonight" are just two prime examples of his musical genius.

With a seemingly limitless vocal range and undeniable pop star poster boy good looks, Robin Zander IS rock's all-time greatest singer / frontman. Yep — I said it, I'll stand behind it and his dynamic performance throughout Heaven Tonight proves it!

Tom Petersson is more than just the bassist in this legendary band — he is, himself, a legend. Considered by many enthusiasts as the "Thomas Edison" of the modern electric bass, Petersson invented the twelve-string bass around the time he recorded Heaven Tonight. And it's that distinctive twelve-string sound that helped so beautifully fto rame the record.

I've interviewed many rockers over the years, and (very) few names ever are discussed that meet with as much universal respect and admiration as drummer Bun E. Carlos. He possesses the chops to play anything, yet leans on his wisdom not to. Both his sound and style always have been tight and crisp. Simply put, Heaven Tonight likely would have suffered greatly, had the tracks been cut by anyone else.

I’m so happy that 
Bun E. Carlos is in the world.
-Rikki Rockett / Poison (September 2003)

So in closing, I've gotta ask — was Hank right? Are all of Cheap Trick's songs really about drugs? Hmm, doubtful. Look, I might not ever know exactly what they all truly mean, but doggonit, they still sound great (especially on vinyl). And Heaven Tonight will be eternally cool.

Stand by, the fifth and final installment of my "Vintage Vinyl" series is on the way!

-Christopher Long
(November 2013)

Check out my entire 
"Vintage Vinyl" series: 

Chicago - X



C'MON! -

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