"The Flame" Burns Bright: Cheap Trick in the '80s

Cheap Trick in 1985
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Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Cheap Trick is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever to plug into amps and sing into microphones, a group that has spent decades making crunchy, catchy, melodic music that sounds just as good played through automobile speakers as it does blasting from the stage in a hockey arena. Since 1973, they’ve made records that become instant party platters, and every so often, they put out another one, just to remind us all they’re still around and can still do what they do, and do it well.

Much of their staying power comes courtesy singer Robin Zander (born Jan. 23, 1953), possessor of a tremendous voice and impossibly good looks, who offsets the geeky genius of guitarist Rick Nielsen (composer of many Cheap Trick classics). As a vocalist, Zander can elevate even weak material, though there’s not much of that in the Cheap Trick discography. Still, the ‘80s is considered something of a down period for the band, though there are many jewels to discover if you look for them. Let these half-dozen tracks start you off:

“Baby Loves to Rock” (1980): This cut from the George Martin-produced All Shook Up is puerile, juvenile, and oh, so much fun to listen to. Zander shouts, stutters, testifies and pretty much personifies the hormone factory that is the American teenage male, out in front of the band engaged in pure garage-y fun.

“If You Want My Love” (1982): The rough falsetto Zander employs in the pre-chorus (“And it’s a hole in my heart / In my heart”) has no real predecessor, and few voices succeeding his have tried to replicate it. This is one of several shoulda-been hits Cheap Trick released in the ‘80s, one that’s stuck with the band to this day.

“I Can’t Take It” (1983): Todd Rundgren’s tight production could’ve suffocated lesser bands, but Zander and the boys find spaces to breathe through, enough to make this power-pop confection a keeper, one of several on the otherwise spotty Next Position, Please.

“Up the Creek” (1984): So strange that the bad soundtrack from a bad film (Up the Creek, naturally) would yield such a great song (though co-writer Rick Nielsen hates it). It’s goofy and melodic, just like the band that performs it, and the late-song breakdown (where Zander handles the chorus all by his lonesome) is the icing on the proverbial cake.

“Tonight It’s You” (1985): Another shoulda-been hit, this one from the underrated Standing on the Edge. The dynamics of the song are really special, particularly the stormy pre-chorus that bursts into the soaring chorus (“All I want is a place in your heart / To fall into …”). Zander can ride the soft/loud/softer wave seemingly forever, but he only needs to go a tad under five minutes. That’s when you get up, lift the needle off the record, and play it again.

“The Flame” (1988): Perhaps the greatest of all power ballads, “The Flame” has a lot of great things going for it. First of all, the production is choice – the acoustic guitars ring and chime clearly, the drums pop and echo just so, and Zander’s vocal sinks into the mix perfectly. And what a vocal – the vulnerability of the verses yield to the mightiest of choruses, and Zander sings like he’s standing on a mountain with the wind in his face and a storm crashing all around him. It’s Cheap Trick’s only No. 1 hit, and it’s a monster.

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