It’s no easy feat to follow the history of Cheap Trick, the rockers from Rockford, Illinois. Part of the reason is that the band has been making up their history as they go along. For instance, the liner notes on their self-titled first album from 1977 mentions that drummer Bun E. Carlos "hails from Venezuela." Ummm, he’s from Rockford.
The streamlined version of the supposed "real" story goes something like this: Guitarist Rick Nielsen, bass man Tom Petersson, and drummer Thom Mooney were in a Rockford band called Fuse. They needed a singer, and recruited Stewkey Antoni, former singer for Nazz. The band called themselves Fuse or Nazz, depending on what town they were playing. Thom Mooney was replaced by drummer Bun E. Carlos. The band changed its name to Sick Man of Europe. Stewkey was replaced by singer Xeno Hogan. The band changed its name to Cheap Trick. Hogan was replaced by singer Robin Zander. Carlos eventually left and was replaced by drummer Daxx Nielsen.
With that in mind, and with Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Cheap Trick currently in the midst of yet another national tour, this one running through the end of October, we caught up with founding member, main songwriter, and guitarist Rick Nielsen. Now 70, he still lives in Rockford.
Q: You’ve built your reputation as a songwriter and guitarist, but you started out as a drummer. What happened there?
A: I actually took one guitar lesson, but they wanted to teach me "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," and I said forget that! That was the last guitar lesson I took. But I took drum lessons from a few teachers. I was really good on drums, but that was kind of before the Beatles, and in the bands that were around, the drummers were sidemen. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or be. I remember one of the last times I played drums, there was just a flute player and myself. So, of course I immediately drowned out the flute player, and that was the end of that era.
Q: How did you end up strapping on a guitar?
A: I was playing drums in different bands, and although I didn’t know how to play chords on guitar, I had such a good ear, I knew a bad note from a good note. And there were so many times that the guitar players in the bands I was with would just play through things without realizing what they were doing was wrong. So, I’d get off the drums, walk over to them, figure out what they were doing wrong, then teach them.
Q: And then you got a guitar?
A: Yeah, my first was a cheap little burgundy Gretsch.
Q: What was your first really cool guitar?
A: 1955 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop that I bought for $65 in 1965, which I still have.
Q: Cheap Trick went through a lot of changes, but remains best known for the classic lineup of you, Tom, Bun E., and Robin. When Robin finally came onboard, did you realize that something had clicked?
A: I always liked what I was doing, even in the ’60s. But there was always something missing. Either the singer was this, or the drummer was too much of that. Tom and I stuck together no matter what. And later we worked with Stewkey because I liked the Nazz. Then even later we had another singer. We were playing and getting our chops down, but it wasn’t quite right. But when we got Robin it was like, ahh, there’s the voice that can sing what I can write. I knew right away.
Q: Cheap Trick is a band that has one of the cleanest sounds at live shows. You can hear every note and every word. Is that something you’ve gone after from the beginning?
A: Yeah, of course. And I don’t use any effects, except my beautiful face (laughs). Being a three-piece - guitar, bass, and drums with a vocal - we had to fill up the sound, and filling it up with effects and this and that was never what I wanted to do. So, we’ve always tried to have good sound men, and we still do today.
Q: Bun E. left the band close to a decade ago, then played with you at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. But I assume your son Daxx is still your regular drummer.
A: He sure is. He’s the "new guy" in the band, but he’s been here for 10 years!
Q: How deep do you go into your catalogue during the current tour?
A: Sometimes all the way back to the beginning.
Q: You’re finishing up a new album in the studio. Might you be performing some songs that no one has heard?
A: There could be. We write up a new set for every show every night right before the show. So, I don’t know yet.
Q: One personal question. You’ve been doing this for a long time, and you’ve reached a rare level of success in a tough game. Did your dreams about being in a rock band come true, in the way you envisioned it?
A: (pause) I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I wanted to head in this direction. And my life is pretty darn good. I know I’m really lucky. But I did work hard at being this lucky.
For more information on Cheap Trick tour dates, visit https://www.cheaptrick.com/tour-dates.html.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.