Last week, Sony Legacy released a 30th anniversary edition box set of At Budokan, Cheap Trick’s remarkable entrance into popular culture. Sure, the Illinois quartet had released three previous albums that had received some critical kudos, but Budokan sent Robin Zander, Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos into the rock and roll stratosphere. Not only did Cheap Trick’s songs gain strength in front of thousands of screaming Japanese fans, the live effort has remained the band’s magnum opus since its release in 1979. Contemporary rock radio was shitsville in those days and Cheap Trick provided a light-hearted but hook-heavy respite against the constant, boring barrage of Journey, Styx and Kansas. Going strong well into a fourth decade, Cheap Trick is still touring and making new records. The band seems to play the area about every six months or so, oftentimes in oldie packages which don’t do the band justice. Speaking after a show in Perth, Australia, guitarist and uber-nerd Rick Nielsen spoke about the recent DVD + 3CD reissue, Budokan!
Why do you think that Budokan became such a defining moment for Cheap Trick?
It has its place in music history. The import version sold so well that the label had to release it in the states. For a lot of people, fans, the guys in the band, it was the defining moment. It’s one of those records where people ask themselves where they were when they first heard it.
My 11-year-old son was listening to the box set this morning and he was digging it. Does the music hold up across generations?
I think it does. I mean, it tells you something that a kid who’s eleven can get something from “Surrender.”
When you first went to Japan, did you have any idea of the hysterical reception you were going to receive?
Not really. We played in Iowa and the next day we were on a plane to Tokyo. It was such a culture shock for us. We had played for large crowds before, but as an opener. We had basically been playing clubs in places like Ohio. We knew the records were popular in Japan, but we couldn’t have expected what happened at the shows.
Some of the screams on the recording almost sound overdubbed.
Not that I know of. Before we went over there, our manager told us to talk slowly. We were told that the Japanese audiences wanted to hear what the band had to say. At least they didn’t want us to walk out in a kimono. I mean we don’t wear cowboy hats when we come to Texas. They wanted to know all about the band, hear your voice. If you listen to the record, you can hear the audience, particularly the girls, screaming and then it gets amazingly quiet. They wanted to actually hear what we had to say.
With the audience so loud, did it make playing more difficult?
We just had the monitors up there. That was before all this inner ear stuff. We had to have everything turned up so loud to combat the screaming. It was cool to hear the screams, to feel them. And when they stopped between songs, it was kind of creepy.
Did you think that Asians had better taste than Americans?
Yes, I thought that right away. I thought, hell, if we are so popular here in Japan, and they do not like me because of my good looks, why shouldn’t we be big in our home country?
There seems to be so much irony in the Budokan set. Cheap Trick’s biggest single, “I Want You to Want Me” was an out take from the first album and it ends up, in its live form, as the lynch-pin of your American popularity. Is it true that the live album wasn’t even supposed to be released in America?
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Yes, that was some great planning on our part, huh? Not knowing if it was even going to come out and then having it become so popular. I mean, that’s the coolest thing I could think of. You do something for one reason, for a different audience completely and it ends up even better. Our manager and the record company back in those days told us not to worry about the cover photos because we didn’t like the photos. They told us, “Don’t worry. Nobody’s going to see the record.”
Bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Green Day and many others list Cheap Trick as an inspiration. Does the continued influence of the band surprise you?
We get name checks, but at the same time, it’s like it would be cool if some of these bands would do some of our songs. Our stuff sounds easier to do than it is. To do the songs right, you have to be a band that has its chops in order. You just finished a show in Australia. Are the fans there as enthusiastic as the Japanese?
Yes they are. We played this soccer stadium. We played with a lot of energy. I mean, we cannot rest on our laurels. I don’t know if any of your readers know what a laurel is. Of course, I don’t either. --Darryl Smyers