Popdose Flashback ’90: Cheap Trick, “Busted”
Where I grew up, the kids weren’t into Cheap Trick all that much. Try as I might, I could not convince anybody, save one like-minded friend, that this band was worth more than a casual glance. Other than that, I remember one dude who wasn’t a friend who admitted to me that he liked “Ghost Town,” which really surprised me. This was one of the more macho, pushy dudes of 6th grade who was prone to antagonizing me in the meanest of ways. If he was going to admit to liking any of their hit songs at the time, I would have guessed “Never Had A Lot To Lose,” or even “Don’t Be Cruel.” But “Ghost Town”? Way to hint at your underlying sensitivity.
My problem back then was I had gone off on a tangent, having heard Casey Kasem recite the names of a couple of Cheap Trick’s earlier hits – “Voices” and “Surrender.” So I searched through some local used record shops, and for a few dollars, I uncovered the holy grail of unsung rock n’ roll. I became a fan mostly on the strength of the 1978 album Heaven Tonight (which included that evergreen hit “Surrender”), and from that point on, there was no turning back. Even though playing these old songs for friends and classmates inevitably drew jeers precisely because they sounded so old, I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – stop listening, even if it meant I had to listen alone.
Strangely enough, by the time Busted was about to be released in the summer of 1990, I still hadn’t picked up 1988’s Lap of Luxury. “The Flame,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Ghost Town” and “Never Had A Lot To Lose” were so inescapable at the time, that I held off. The radio and MTV kept me satiated with the sound of glossy, contemporary Cheap Trick, which admittedly I loved. After all, it was “The Flame” that hooked me in the first place, at the same time that I was secretly falling for Sade’s “Paradise,” Boz Scaggs’ “Heart of Mine” and Breathe’s “Hands to Heaven.” I might have trotted out my rock credentials when asked to name my favorite bands, but deep down, I was just as much of a pussy as my macho “Ghost Town” loving classmate.
So anyway… with the big CT hits overexposed, I was more interested in picking up the stuff I hadn’t heard yet, and two of the cassette tapes I was enjoying the most in the months leading up to the release of Busted were 1985’s Standing On The Edge and 1986’s The Doctor. I actually really liked both of these albums, for different reasons. Standing had some lame songs (um, “Rock All Night”?? Why was Cheap Trick trying to be Def Leppard when they were so much better at being Cheap Trick?), but the sound was pretty bad ass for a mainstream, Top 40-aimed rock record (maybe too bad ass, as “Tonight It’s You” failed to make the top 40, stalling at #44). The Doctor, on the other hand, was so synthesized and glossed up that it was ridiculous, and understandably turned off a lot of long-time fans. However, the songs were great – at least I thought so. I’ll put “It’s Up To You,” “Take Me To The Top” or “It’s Only Love” up against anything from Lap Of Luxury or Next Position Please any day of the week. Even the song the band hated, “Kiss Me Red,” was pretty decent as far as guilty pleasure pop songs go. I wouldn’t be caught singing it myself, but then again, I’m no Robin Zander. And if I was, I’d sing “You Light Up My Life” just to prove that it might not suck that bad in the right hands.
Anyway, all this is to say that my expectations were high for Busted.
When the needle touched down into the groove of the first track on side one, “Back ‘N Blue,” I was greeted with some moderately cool rock guitar riffage, some well placed na-na-na’s and a tough Robin Zander vocal. The title of the song continued CT’s tradition of having fun with words (in this case, altering a cliché for their own purposes), but the song itself didn’t reflect that fun. It plodded, and probably would have been better off in the hands of Bon Jovi. But it was Cheap Trick, dammit, and I wanted to stand by this opener on first listen. Now, not so much.
“I Can’t Understand It” came next. This power pop also-ran was much more in the classic Cheap Trick mold than “Back ‘N Blue,” but just like the song before it, “I Can’t Understand It” was plodding. In another life (say, in 1979), and with a lot more adrenaline, this song could have been a hit single, or at least a fist-pumping album track. It was, after all, deemed worthy enough for inclusion on the 1996 boxed set Sex, America, Cheap Trick. But to my 1990 ears, this ready-for-the-weekend-so-I-can-mack-that-girl song was kind of a pale, lame, unnecessary imitation of Cheap Trick, performed by Cheap Trick themselves. We weren’t doing so hot here.
Now we’re in the middle of side one, and a big Diane Warren ballad assaults my ears – anyone who ever dissed “The Flame” could be shut up in half the time it took “Wherever Would I Be” to finish, maybe even less. This was exactly the kind of song I loathed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and still loathe today – that desperate earworm of a pop ballad that screams “obsessive,” that screams “mental illness,” and makes great pains to hide that fact by dressing it up in fancy, tried-and-true pop song formula rather than making it honestly ugly (actually, some songs of this ilk I do enjoy, but for some reason, when Diane Warren writes them, I can hear it coming from miles away like a warning siren to run to the hills). Fortunately, it would all be uphill from here.
It was but a small step up, however, with the next tune, “If You Need Me.” And if this song sounds more like Foreigner than Cheap Trick, well, perhaps you can chalk that up to Foreigner’s Mick Jones having co-written it with Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander. Oh, and he plays guitar on it too. What was that all about? I was not impressed.
And then the side closes out with the big hit single, “Can’t Stop Fallin’ Into Love” (it actually only topped out at #12, but still, not bad). It has a lot going for it – those guitar harmonies are a real ear-grabber, Tom Petersson’s bass is mixed high as he plays a lot of trebly notes (always a good thing as far as I’m concerned), and that line about the girl in the corner with the jacked up dress who’s got legs for miles (but her face looks a MESS!) finally linked a little humor (just a little) with the fun they had messing with words in the title. They’re not falling in love, they’re falling into it. Maybe even falling into it after having had a taste of their recreational substance of choice? And what exactly is that “itch” they got, anyway?
All in all, I was pretty underwhelmed with side one of Busted. But there were six songs left to go. Flip the record over, and we got…
“Busted”! Now this is more like it. Rick’s guitar screams in the opening seconds, unaccompanied, and then the whole band kicks in. Even those cheesy synths that were so popular back then couldn’t mask the fact that this was a supremely kick-ass, positive, energetic Cheap Trick rocker, and it was criminal how Epic relegated this song to B-side status in favor of “Wherever Would I Be.” The lyric “now I’m faced with another mistake / Every step I take, and every move I make” could have easily referred to that error in judgment, or side one of this very album. But with this song, and much of the rest of side two, Cheap Trick definitely showed they could still at least try really hard to turn it all around.
I didn’t appreciate the next song nearly as much at the time as I do now – “Walk Away,” in hindsight, was far and away the best ballad on the album, something the band itself recognized by adding it to their Authorized Greatest Hits collection in 2000. And it’s in waltz time! And Chrissie Hynde sings with Robin Zander on it! Best of all, Robin actually sounds like he really means what he’s singing here. It’s sad, but the good kind of sad. And I emphasize good.
“You Drive, I’ll Steer” is another song that Epic unfairly relegated to B-side status, in favor of “Can’t Stop Fallin’ Into Love.” But perhaps it was inevitable. This song would only mean something to the Cheap Trick fan, and being that I was (and still am, can you tell?), this easily became my favorite song on the album. It’s a fun, silly rocker that’s filled with more self-referencing lyrics than the band ever committed to one song. They started this semi-regular tradition on Heaven Tonight when Robin sang “I want you, need you, love you, want you to want me / Remember?” in “How Are You?” Here, they’re just totally ridiculous: “I’m in color and you’re black and white / Let’s start the rumors from heaven tonight” is the kicker for a song whose hook in the chorus is, wait for it: “I’m in the lap of luxury.” Priceless. It helps that the main riff is infectious, and that Robin is singing in an unusually low register that could easily be mistaken for The Cars’ Ben Orr. The album could have ended here and I’d be happy.
But oh, another boring ballad… “If You Need Someone” is actually kind of OK on its own merits, but by this time, I was sick of hearing ballads. I wanted this record to ride out on a steady wave of rock n’ roll.
And, well, “Had To Make You Mine” comes kind of close to that, but no cigar for me. This is another one that made the cut for Sex, America, Cheap Trick, as it was probably the best indicator of just how much CT appreciates the early Beatles – imagine the song re-done with a fab Mersey beat and Paul McCartney singing lead, and really, how could this not fit right in on With The Beatles? But much like the start of this middling LP, the song kind of plods. Not enough adrenaline, though the intent is there, and admittedly it does sound a heck of a lot better now than it did in 1990.
Ah, but here’s that rock I was waiting for, right at the very end. “Rock ‘N’ Roll Tonight” was written by the band’s hero, ELO and The Move co-founder Roy Wood. Whenever Cheap Trick covers Roy Wood, they sound positively boisterous. They love the dude’s music, and it shows. “California Man”? Classic. “Brontosaurus”? Awesome. “Rock ‘N’ Roll Tonight” is no exception, and Rick Nielsen totally lets loose with the Chuck Berry riffs and the kinds of manic guitar solos that were commonplace on their early records, the sound that always comes out at their live shows.
When the record was over, I felt a bit of shame, but not because I was listening to a band that got no love in my school. I was a fan, and I felt terrible that this band I loved had just made an album that had such a high ratio of “eh” to “yeah!” Fortunately, they wouldn’t ever sink this low again, but it would be a while before Cheap Trick returned to what they did best. Fortunately, the wait would be worth it.
In true Cratedigger style, this edition of Popdose Flashback ’90 was reviewed using a real vinyl record.