#426: Cheap Trick, "At Budokan" (1978)

Cheap Trick’s At Budokan confirms that the shrieking sibilant hysteria of teens sounds the same in every language. Recorded in Tokyo on two nights in late April 1978, it endures as one of the quintessential live albums of the seventies, an honor it shares with The Who’s Live at Leeds, Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive, and Kiss’s Alive! Cheap Trick was, and remains, a pure product of the seventies, as they married macho riffs with a Beatles-esque sensibility that favored whimsy and artful arrangements over grandeur. Tracks like “Hello There,” “Goodnight Now,” and “Clock Strikes Ten” echo the buoyancy and meta-narrative of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while “Come On Come On” and the Fats Domino cover “Ain’t That a Shame” sound like outtakes from The White Album. Less ambitious than Led Zeppelin, less ostentatious than Rush, Cheap Trick wanted the best of pop and rock, and in their definitive work, they unified the frivolity of a summer road trip with the snarl of a band still working out their angst.

At Budokan spawned two massive hits that are still classic rock standards nearly forty years later—“I Want You to Want Me” and “Surrender”—and these remain the band’s signature tunes. It’s strange to realize both had already been recorded in the studio for 1977’s In Color and 1978’s Heaven Tonight, respectively, yet the realm of radio would have us believe they only exist amid the crowd roar. What does that iconic chorus mean when it entreats us to surrender, surrender, but don’t give yourself away? I think it means the idealism of the sixties is over. Gone are the days when we threw ourselves into causes or new loves with swooning abandon. America is no longer a dirty beach we can pick clean in an hour with our first grade class on a service learning field trip before we sit, kicking our heels on the dock, with cheese sandwich crumbs tumbling out of our mouths. “Surrender” reminds us that our parents rummage through our records. Our parents smoke dope and lie about how they met. Our parents are the remnants of a war that almost blew the world to smithereens. No wonder they just seem a little weird. Under the bleachers, in the back seat, as the stars shine, when no one can see, our hearts exploding in our chests, you never know what you’ll catch.

There’s a case to be made, and I’ll make it, that neither of these famous ditties are the album’s best. “Need Your Love,” the closing cut on side A, clocks in at nine minutes, and its infectious, chugging syncopation, liturgical falsetto hook, and crunchy, punchy riff make it unforgettable. Like other extended space-outs of the decade, its lyrics are a thin excuse to jam, but “Need Your Love” dodges the spiritual bombast of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” the tedious clichés of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” and the neanderthal misogyny of Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold.” Like The James Gang’s magnum opus “The Bomber,” “Need Your Love” has more in common with Ravel’s “Bolero” than it does with rote rock gestures, as its central melody meanders through subtle permutations until the whole shebang builds into an orgasmic crescendo of awesome. Seriously: someone should sample those last eight bars and drop a beat. “Need Your Love” is a haunted farmhouse of a song, full of nooks and crannies to explore. It’s the kind of song record executives and ex-girlfriends hate. It’s the kind of song no one ever hums for the music store clerk with their wide, embarrassed eyes imploring, do you know the one I mean?

For two years in high school—as well as my first winter break from college—I was one such clerk at the Annapolis mall. Though our retail outfit didn’t sell vinyl—it was the heyday of compact discs—the ambiance was similar to the shop spoofed and celebrated in High Fidelity. We did our best to assist our yuppie customers while simultaneously despising their wealth and lack of taste, cursing them as they left with Yanni or Blink 182 or TLC albums they could have easily bought for $5 less at the Best Buy down the road. For several months, whenever business slowed to a crawl, we lethargically packed away the wall of cassettes, letter by alphabetized letter, and sealed them shut with squeaking tape guns that wafted everywhere the pungency of industrial adhesive. We shipped each box off to some distant warehouse none of us had seen but which, in my imagination at least, became the long eerie corridor in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Maybe palettes of Bel Biv Devoe and Teena Marie rot in a secret government bunker after all, right next to God’s gilded radio to humanity. During the holiday season, we defaulted to that robotic lethargy all too familiar to retail employees, as the lines snaked past the registers’ last-ditch displays of empty jewel cases into the stacks. It verged on a religious experience whenever someone returned from their food court pilgrimage to Sbarro, at the far distant end of the mall, with a round of cheese slices and Cokes. On warm summer days, when inventory was done and customers were few, I read Rolling Stone and Spin, filling my mental gaps in the rock canon, gleaning the latest industry gossip, and embellishing my deluded adolescent fantasies of stardom.

It was on one such day that I read an interview with Billy Corgan espousing his Cheap Trick fanaticism. Though I loved The Smashing Pumpkins’ early work, they had already begun their precipitous decline, and the unexpectedness of Corgan’s comment—coupled with the colossal aesthetic gap between the two groups—sent my head spinning for the rest of the afternoon. The Pumpkins’ implosion followed a stereotypical trajectory: their collective energy was smothered by a megalomaniacal front man, their success made them cripplingly cynical and self-reflective, their sound and subject matter grew monotonous, and ultimately, their insecure bid to remain relevant saw them churn out mediocre material rather than wait for inspiration to find them again. Whatever happened to all this season’s losers of the year? Homer said it best when the band made a cameo on The Simpsons in ’96: “Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Whatever failings Cheap Trick had, they didn’t take themselves that seriously. Rick Nielsen’s quintuple-neck Hamer and trademark flipped-brim cap made a mockery of rock’s pretensions. “Look Out” and “Big Eyes” reflect a songbook from a band that wants to be blasted with the windows rolled down as you drive through the ruin and glory of teenage Friday nights, cruising the strip for someone, anyone, to catch your gawking stare and smile. Even in their darker songs, such as “Dream Police,” the sickly-sweet melodies and jangly arrangements resisted the ethos of the lyrics themselves. I pondered all of this as I found Cheap Trick’s Greatest Hits in the discount bin, sold it to myself with my employee discount, and fed the disc to the house system that had, moments earlier, been blasting Ricky Martin’s warbling dross. There wasn’t a single customer in the joint. Every time I got to thinking, where’d they disappear? I checked the track listing for the Budokan numbers. I skipped ahead until I heard the screams.

—Adam Tavel