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Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick

 
by Jeb Wright

"All right Tokyo, are you ready?" With these words, shouted out to a sold out, mostly female teenage audience in Japan, by the band’s tour manager, Cheap Trick took their first steps to international stardom. Oddly enough, international stardom, at least in the Land of the Rising Sun, came more swiftly than in their home country, or even their home state of Illinois. The band had chart success in Japan long before America and when they arrived by plane, they could not believe that the thousands of people waiting on the runway were there to see them. The band had to be sequestered to their hotel rooms and were asked not to even look out the window, as the crowd below would spot them and run into the streets. This is amazing considering Cheap Trick were on the 28th floor!

Now, thirty-years down the line, the foursome from Rockford have teamed up with Sony and, on November 11th, will release a special Live at Budokan box set. The most exciting part of the box set is the first ever DVD release of the band’s set at the legendary Budokan. The video was found and original producer Jack Douglas even mixed the sound. In addition, there are a couple of songs from when Cheap Trick returned to Japan last year, and all new interviews with the band, as well as some of the people in Japan who made the entire event happen in the first place.

Cheap Trick went on to massive fame and fortune and are still both touring the world, and releasing incredible new music that can be found on the albums Special One and Rockford. It may never have happened though, if it weren’t for the happy accident that is Budokan. The album was to be released only in Japan but when rock deejays started spinning the imported live version of "I Want You To Want Me", the record company took notice. When Live at Budokan became the best selling import album of all time, they released the album in America. It was a cheap trick that worked out well for Cheap Trick. Within a year, they were headlining arenas and have never looked back.


Jeb: I watched the DVD, listened to the CDs and watched the interviews. You have Bruce Dickinson and Jack Douglas back on board doing the technical stuff—this is the ultimate Live at Budokan release.

Rick: It is fun looking back on this stuff. The fact that we had Jack Douglas doing a 5.1 mix for it certainly ads to the joviality of it.

Jeb: And you get a free poster!

Rick: You do? I haven’t seen it yet. The last poster I got had Farrah Fawcett on it.

Jeb: I think I had the same one. Back when you first went to Japan, did Cheap Trick realize they were that popular?

Rick: Probably not. In 1977, Queen asked us to go out on tour with them. They had press at all of their shows—especially in Japan. They would come to see Queen and they happened to like us. The next night we would do another show and when we played in Japan, the Japanese people came out because they loved Queen. I don’t think I had ever met a Japanese person before, well, not many anyway, although I used to go to Benihana’s quite a bit.

A writer for a magazine in Japan asked me to write an article on what it was like being on tour with Queen. I told them I was not that kind of writer but that I would do it. A couple of months later, we started getting magazine clips with little caricatures of us. We had seen little clips before for bands like Kiss, Queen and the Beatles but these were of us. They were from kids, who must have taken a lot of art in school, as they were quite good artists. We started getting fan mail from Japan after that. It started out as one piece here, and one piece there, but after awhile we were getting a hundred pieces a day coming into our office in Wisconsin from Japanese people. I wasn’t getting fan mail from people who lived across town, let alone from people living halfway around the world.

We also toured with Kiss in 1977, and the Japanese press were there. During that time, we had three hit singles in Japan. "I Want You To Want Me" was # 1 there. It was from the studio record, which was never a hit anywhere else because it had that dopey piano on it. "Clock Strikes Ten" was a # 1 song, as well. We got asked to go Japan, which at that time was unheard of. All four of us road in coach.

Jeb: I was going to ask if you flew to Japan in coach.

Rick: Oh yeah, we were on Northwest Orient Airlines. When we landed, we saw all of these people screaming and yelling and we thought somebody famous was on the plane. We were on coach, so we were the last ones to get off the plane, and they were there to see us. Tom and myself shared a room, and Bun E. And Robin shared a room at the hotel. We haven’t shared a room since 1978.

Jeb: You were actually instructed to stay in your hotel room due to the mass pandemonium caused by Cheap Trick being there.

Rick: It was crazy. We stayed on the 28th floor. I have not seen the finished artwork for the release, but there is a picture of some room keys from the hotel. They were actually mine. You were not supposed to take them, but I took mine; stole them right from the hotel.

You would look out the window and the fans would know where you were. Every time we looked out the window, it was pandemonium. We couldn’t leave unless we were driven away from the hotel. Once we were away from the hotel then we could walk around a bit. Thirty years ago, going to Japan was like landing on the moon. Back then, it was all Japanese people. There were no Caucasian or black people. We stuck out like a sore thumb, or a sore Illinoisan.

Jeb: Did you sneak out?

Rick: Of course we did. "No, you can’t go there" makes that the first place you want to go. We didn’t sneak out too often. We had never been there and we spoke no Japanese at all. We really stood out. Now, when you go, there are people from the United States, Russia and every other country. Back then, there were no foreigners and you really stuck out. When we were riding from the airport to the hotel, there was cab after cab after cab chasing us down the street. They would try to pass us and be hanging out the window yelling at us. It was very dangerous but it was also pretty darn cool.

Jeb: What did the Japanese see in Cheap Trick that took the rest of the world longer to catch up with?

Rick: Four great guys; three great chords.

Jeb: "I Want You To Want Me", according to legend, was dropped from the set list and was only added back in at the last minute for the Japanese concerts. Is that true?

Rick: It is half true and half story. We quit playing it in the United States. It came out as a single and it didn’t get enough air play to keep doing it. It was our silly pop song—I wish I could be that silly and stupid more often. For Japan, we had to do it because it was one of the songs that was a big hit over there.

Songs don’t resurrect themselves. It just doesn’t happen where a song comes out and a few years later it becomes a hit. We brought that out sort of as our last hurrah for the thing. Lo and behold, it took off. The United States started getting the live version from Japan, instead of the studio version. I think the Budokan stuff is kind of interesting because it happened the back-ass way around. We had to go to Japan to be known in Chicago.

Jeb: I love the song "Lookout" but that had never been on a Cheap Trick album before Live at Budokan. Was it a new song or one that had never made the cut before?

Rick: We had a lot of material. We had been playing for a number of years and it was just some of the other material we had to pull out. We went from playing in bars to being an opening act to being a headliner in Japan. We couldn’t just go out and do thirty minutes. We pulled out that song and we pulled out "Ain’t That A Shame." When we did "Ain’t That A Same" we had the long intro, with the drums, and we added more soloing kind of junk at the end that we probably wouldn’t have done if we were doing a thirty-minute set opening for the Kinks. It only happened because we were headlining the shows.

Jeb: Tom Werman was your producer. Another legend holds that when he heard the tapes, he hated the sound and wanted you to re-record the album in the studio and put on fake applause. Is that true?

Rick: He could have said that. We asked him to go to Japan but he didn’t want to go because he was working on a Ted Nugent record. We knew it was going to get recorded no matter what. When we got back to New York, we took the tapes to Jack Douglas, who did our first record. He wasn’t the record companies choice because they thought Jack’s first record of us was too raw. That is why In Color sounds the way it does; they toned us down. When we recorded it, it sounded fine but when we left and heard the music later, there was a honky-tonk piano on "I Want You To Want Me."

Jeb: Did you really have to redo the tapes?

Rick: Not really. Budokan sounded more like our first record. Werman didn’t want to go with Douglas. It was only going to be released for the Japanese market. It is just like the photo for the cover. Robin [Zander] and Tom [Petersson] didn’t like it but they were told that it was just for Japan, so know one would ever see it.

Jeb: After a week spend it Japan being treated like the American Beatles, what was it like to come back and play small venues?

Rick: The record came out in 1979, but we actually recorded it in 1978, so we were back to playing clubs. I remember we were playing in some big rock club that held maybe 150 people after we were just over there playing to 10,000 people. It was a while before the record took off, and the fact that it even took off at all was amazing. Who knew?

Jeb: We you aware of the fact that the album was climbing the charts in the US or were you too busy slogging it out on the road?

Rick: A little of what you just said... I remember being on stage in Japan and thinking, "Finally, somebody likes us." We had gone from doing pretty well in the clubs, and then we were an opening act playing a half hour for people who had never heard of us, to that. We were getting absolutely no air play either.

One of the reasons I wrote the song "Hello There" was because we needed a song to start the set. It didn’t need to be a real song, either. We needed something to use as a sound check. It was written that way. Now, it is the lead track from Rock Band.

Jeb: A standout example of the difference at the time between how Cheap Trick sounded live compared to how they were captured in the studio is the live version of "Surrender." The live version is much better.

Rick: The song is good, but I agree. We are like the first album and we are like the Live at Budokan record. It is what it is.

Jeb: When you penned the line "got my Kiss records out" did you know that you were going to be tossing Kiss records out in the crowd around the world?

Rick: Well no! At that time, I just thought, "What is the ultimate horrible thing for a kid?" It would be your parents rolling around together on the couch. My parents are weird; your parents are weird; everyone’s parents are weird, no matter who you are. To think that they would be rolling around listening to Kiss—it is not Satan worshiping, it is worse. It is Gene Simmons worshiping.

Jeb: How much money to you think you have spent on Kiss albums?

Rick: The only reason that Gene has got a house in Beverly Hills is because we tossed out Kiss records to our crowds every night. We can’t even get rid of those things; we have to toss them out.

Jeb: You recorded Dream Police when Budokan accidently became a huge hit in the USA. You had to sit on the album in the can waiting for a time to release it since you had such a huge live record on your hands.

Rick: Dread the luck! The worse thing about that was that people knew about it and actually cared that we had a record coming out. By the time the record came out people said it was old. It was not old. It was recorded but it had not been released. It was delayed in coming out.

Jeb: You have said that you feel more intimate playing in front of large crowds.

Rick: I think playing to a small crowd is cool, but I am more at ease in front of a lot of people than I am walking into a room with only three people there, and I am one of them.

I lived in Rockford, Illinois but I thought of being in Tokyo. By the time I was in Tokyo, I felt more at ease there. Then I go back and blend in where I live. I always thought internationally—it sounds like I am tooting my own horn. I was the only kid in the United States that got Melody Maker airmailed to him. It was $120 a year, which was a lot of money then. I didn’t want to have six-week-old news; I wanted to know who was playing Tuesday. I always dreamt that I was playing in these places. I didn’t sit around and daydream, and have little birdies flying around my head, but I wanted to know what was going on, and that is where I wanted to be. I used to read the writers like Chris Welch and I knew what the music sounded like before I heard it. Writers today just blast the guy. If you can’t make fun of them, or say they are dating Lindsay Lohan, or in rehab, then it doesn’t matter. Back then, they actually talked about the music and I could psychically will myself there.

Jeb: As you re-live Budokan, what do you think your band mates brought to the album? What does Robin Zander bring?

Rick: One of the greatest voices in rock. On our first record he was called the ‘man of a thousand voices’ which he is. He can go from singing really ballady junk to being a heavy duty serial killer. He is the singer I was always looking for; someone who could interpret what I wrote.

Jeb: Tom Petersson.

Rick: He is the inventory of the 12-string bass. He started off as a guitar player. So he and I could be in the same band, he took up bass and developed it. We were a three-piece band with a singer. He took a 4-string bass and then took it to being a 12-string instrument; that is pretty impressive. He is not Jaco Pastorious, but he doesn’t need to be.

Jeb: Let’s talk about Bun E. Carlos.

Rick: He is a human beat box. He is a human drum machine.

Jeb: What about you?

Rick: I am the annoying guy who gets to do the interviews.

Jeb: You ended up, through the success of Live at Budokan, getting on the cover of Rolling Stone and being photographed by the amazingly talented Annie Leibowitz. What was that experience like?

Rick: It was great, but she has never spoken to us since. We actually did a few shots with her but I wish she would return my phone calls. Although, I have not called her either.

Jeb: Let’s just hope it was nothing you did.

Rick: I can’t go there. She is great and that is another cool thing in the Cheap Trick resume, which has a lot of cool little ditties and doo-dads.

Jeb: Last one: If I wanted to get a sweater made like you are wearing in the booklet of the new release, who would I call?

Rick: Sally Walton in London, England. She made them, but now she is a marriage counselor. It was right after her divorce, but I would use her advice anyhow.
 

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