Monday, March 18, 2013

Now Hear This: Cheap Trick - One On One


     1980 was a tumultuous year for Cheap Trick. Following the multi-platinum success of their live album At Budokan and subsequent 4th studio album Dream Police they'd split with their production partner Tom Werman and recorded a mildly strange album under some duress with legendary Beatles producer George Martin. Bassist Tom Petersson had grown disillusioned with his role in the band and left that September before the new album All Shook Up was released to pursue a solo career (there was definitely a "Yoko" element at play, her name was Dagmar, but let's not get into that). The band replaced Petersson with a contemporary from the seventies Midwest rock scene, Pete Comita, whom they knew from bands like Stardriver and D'Thumbs, among others. Imminently problematic was the fact that Comita was a guitar player, not the bassist, in his previous bands, not to mention a primary songwriter. The bassist in both bands mentioned was Jon Brant, who will also play a pivotal role in our story.


     You might recognize Tommy Aldridge, D'Thumbs drummer (lower right), who is probably most famous for his membership in Ozzy's band and Whitesnake, and if you're extra nerdy D'Thumbs singer Cliff Johnson, who went on to front the mildly successful Chicago power pop band Off Broadway. Comita was in another band of note called Valentino with Tod Howarth (who would join 707 before becoming a member of Frehley's Comet and later Cheap Trick's keyboard player on tour) and future Quiet Riot rhythm section Frankie Banali and Rudy Sarzo. Comita toured with Cheap Trick in support of the All Shook Up album, which he did not play on. This included an appearance on Saturday Night Live, where the band performed "Baby Loves To Rock" and my favorite song from All Shook Up, "Can't Stop It But I'm Gonna Try."

     In early 1981 Cheap Trick booked some studio time and, with the help of producer Roy Thomas Baker, recorded two songs for the Heavy Metal soundtrack with Pete Comita on bass, including a superb fist-pumper called "Reach Out" which was supposedly only coincidentally co-written by Comita (with Bob James, the guy who replaced Sammy Hagar in Montrose). Check out Comita's very cool "Reach Out" demo here:

     The band also recorded several songs with Pete Comita for a Canadian animated film called Drats! which would be renamed Rock and Rule before its eventual release in 1983. The strange film, which also featured performances by Blondie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop, would (unfortunately for collectors) not have an accompanying soundtrack album and Cheap Trick's songs would not see an official release until fifteen years later on the Sex America Cheap Trick box set. The songs, which are performed by a band of cartoon rodents in the film, are harbingers of things to come on One On One, "I'm The Man" and "Born To Raise Hell" are both quite heavy and Zander really gives his lungs and throat a workout. The movie also features a mellowed out, alternate universe acoustic take on "Born To Raise Hell" entitled "Ohm Sweet Ohm."

     Even though All Shook Up made it to number 24 on the Billboard charts (higher than Dream Police, actually) and eventually went Gold I suppose that the album, for whatever reason, essentially failed to capitalize on the success of At Budokan and Dream Police. Perhaps the songs were not as immediately accessible as the songs on Dream Police but you can tell that the band was trying to evolve with the times and stay relevant and vital. No longer label darlings, Cheap Trick soon found themselves mired in litigation with CBS, parent company to Epic, over a contract dispute. The future of the band was up in the air for awhile but they wound up signing back on with Epic, at which point Pete Comita promptly left the band. His tenure was short-lived to be sure but at least he was around long enough to participate in the photo session for the popular children's toy Viewmaster.

     And so in late in 1981 an incomplete, battle-worn Cheap Trick found themselves once again working with Roy Thomas Baker, this time at Pierce Arrow Recorders in Evanston, IL. The band was still minus a bass player and guitarist Rick Nielsen would play bass on all of the tracks. Roy Thomas Baker was most famous for having produced Queen's first four albums and more recently the Cars first four but he had also produced Foreigner's hard rocking Head Games, Alice Cooper's new wavey Flush the Fashion, and Devo's quirky Oh No It's Devo. Considering this varied pedigree how exactly would Baker approach producing an innovative and schizophrenic rock and roll band like Cheap Trick? As it turns out, heavy is the word. The production on the album Baker helmed, One On One, is balls to the wall. Side note: Cheap Trick enlisted a new bass player just in time to have him slip into the studio and record over Rick Nielsen's bass tracks on a few of the songs. That bass player would be Jon Brant, Pete Comita's former bandmate in Stardriver and D'Thumbs.

     It's hard to believe that One On One was only five years removed from Cheap Trick's jarring debut album, which featured a chaotic brew of hard rock, glam and punk and had been recorded virtually live in the studio with Aerosmith mainman Jack Douglas producing. The band had then made three more classic, polished records with Tom Werman producing and the out of left field All Shook Up with Beatles producer George Martin but by the time One On One was recorded and released MTV had debuted and was poised to explode. The music industry would be forever changed and with the punk craze come and gone fringe rock and roll in the eighties would be dominated by new wave and then heavy metal. Seventies rock was history. Cheap Trick were unique enough to bridge that gap but where would the band fit into eighties? Well, they weren't new wave.

     One On One was released on April 30, 1982 (the very same day that Kirsten Dunst was born). The first song is called "I Want You" and it explodes from the speakers with unchecked aggression. Robin Zander shreds his vocal chords throughout the album, but especially on this song, which is a stomp your hands clap your feet blast of rock energy. I think Rick Nielsen has even admitted to borrowing, consciously or not, the "Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah YeahYeah" part that opens the song from Slade's "When I'm Dancin' I Ain't Fightin'."

     My favorite band ripping off my second favorite band? I can dig it. "I Want You" is a blistering opener and segues perfectly into the brilliant title track, another riff-heavy rocker. 

"Reputation is a fragile thing 
Fame and money don't mean much to me 
Don't go change to prove the point 
It doesn't matter"

     The third song, and the first single to be released from the album, is Cheap Trick's true shoulda woulda coulda power ballad for the eighties, "If You Want My Love." It's a wonderful song, masterfully crafted by Nielsen with an astonishing vocal delivery by Zander, whose voice really has no rival in the history of rock. Rick Nielsen is known to wear a shirt that reads "My Singer Is Better Than Your Singer" and he's not bragging or exaggerating, just stating a fact. Nielsen would pen four more spectacular ballads in the eighties, Next Position Please's "Y.O.Y.O.Y," Standing On The Edge's "Tonight It's You" and "This Time Around," and The Doctor's "Take Me To The Top," but inexplicably none would scale the charts. It would not be until the record company forced a cornball ballad concocted by outside writers on the band that they would finally score a hit. It's pathetic, because "If You Want My Love" is so much better than the band's 1987 number one hit "The Flame" that words fail me. "If You Want My Love" should be a radio staple today, one of those songs everyone knows. How could it not be?

     Next up is an awesome sax-laced punk metal romp (?) called "Oo La La La." I cherish this song. Lighten up, it's all in good fun.

      Side One's denouement is a frightening exercise in crunchy brutality called "Lookin' Out For Number One." Listen to the way Zander morphs his voice to fit the song. He sounds possessed, the man with the chameleon throat. He could quite literally sing anything and you can hear Rick Nielsen playing Robin Zander's voice like he played the guitar when he wrote these songs. Rick could be as ambitious as he wanted with his songwriting, knowing that Robin would always be able to pull it off.

     At this point I believe it is essential to point out that in the age of the album the first song on Side Two played a very important role. It wasn't just track six. It was the first song on Side Two, dammit! "She's Tight" is a perfect example of what I mean. When the band chose the order of the songs on One On One they were not placing "She's Tight" mid-album, but rather the song was endowed with a significance that is completely lost in the digital age. The song was quite intentionally assigned to play a pivotal role in the sequence of the album: it was the first song on Side Two! If you believe an album is a work of art then the first song on Side Two is more than just a brushstroke in that work, it is an important element of the work, and this fact must not be forgotten or ignored. I think the loss of the concept of "the first song on Side Two" is just as unfortunate as the demise of the gatefold sleeve, the lack of liner notes, etc. "She's Tight" was chosen by Cheap Trick to be the first song on Side Two of their album One On One and for good reason, it's an insanely catchy song and would also be the second single released from the album, with accompanying video. And yeah yeah yeah, "Talk Dirty To Me," yadda yadda yadda.

     The second song on Side Two is perhaps my favorite song on the album, although that's a Sophie's Choice for me, but "Time Is Runnin'" is two minutes and twenty seconds of sonic bliss. The "tryin' to beat the clock" bridge is melodic perfection.

     The album takes a detour with "Saturday at Midnight" which is probably the worst song on the album and inconspicuously its third single. I like the song alright and Zander of course is brilliant on the track, but the chorus leaves something to be desired. All is forgotten with the next song, a pop punk celebration called "Love's Got a Hold On Me." I know I said "Time Is Runnin'" is my favorite but...

     The song dates back to the band's early club days, probably even pre-Robin Zander. I have a recording of them performing the song live with Zander in 1974, it must be right after he joined the band, and it was just as brilliant then. The second to last song on the album is an oddball track called "I Want Be Man." The verse is great but the vocoder chorus reminds me of the weirder stuff on All Shook Up. Still, the song transcends itself on the absolutely brilliant, soaring "I want to live in your body" bridge. I watched through a chain link fence in Dubuque, Iowa as the band soundchecked with this song a couple years ago and it gave me goosebumps. Guess what, it's on Youtube.

     Did I say "Saturday at Midnight" was the worst song on the album? I guess I forgot about the last song, "Four Letter Word." "I Want Be Man" would have been a great way to close the record, ten songs and out, and maybe that's how I wanted to remember it. Sorry "Saturday at Midnight," you're better than "Four Letter Word."

     29 songs were whittled down to 11 for the album, meaning some killer material wound up on the cutting room floor. This would include a spectacular, upbeat pop punk number called "All I Really Want To Do" which would thankfully be released on the B-side of the "She's Tight" single. The song can also be found on the Sex America Cheap Trick box set, but apparently not on Youtube. Other notable outtakes from the sessions include "Don't Steal My Girlfriend," which would become the track "Girlfriends" on 1994's Woke Up With a Monster album, "Don't Make Our Love a Crime," which would be released as a bonus track on the Next Position Please cassette and then CD and can be found on the box set, "Ghost Town," which would find its way onto 1987's Lap of Luxury, "Get Ready," which would be released as a B-side to the 1983 single "Spring Break," "Twisted Heart," which would also be left off Next Position Please but finally surface in 1996 on the box set, and "I Can't Take It," which would become the first single from the next album, Next Position Please. In recent years Pete Comita has gone public with claims that he wrote "I Can't Take It" even though the song was credited to Robin Zander on the record. Who knows.

     Cheap Trick are my favorite band and when I am asked I answer that One On One is my favorite Cheap Trick album but honestly I could answer that question in a variety of ways. What does favorite mean, and is it different from best? Can I say that One On One is my favorite Cheap Trick album but that their self-titled debut album is their best? Does that make sense? One On One is definitely the Cheap Trick album that I have the most fun listening to and the one that makes me smile the most and the one I seem to want to listen to most often, but I could also say that the first album or even the second album, In Color, are better albums, that they contain better songs. So yes, favorite and best, or favorite and better, are different in my world, at least sometimes. I will say this, One On One was the best album of 1982 and like Rodney Dangerfield (who was ironically a huge star that year) it don't get no respect. Cheap Trick's entire eighties oeuvre deserves a hell of a lot more respect than it gets. 1983's Next Position Please, produced by Todd Rundgren, is an amazing record and the best of that year. 1984's Standing On The Edge, featuring the return of Jack Douglas, is another outstanding album and includes some of my very favorite Cheap Trick songs (I'm thinking future article). The Doctor was a bit of a misstep but overall I love the Jon Brant years.

It took ten years for One On One to go Gold. What's up with that?


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