Cheap Trick: “Downed”
I don’t know why, but I sometimes hear people lumping Cheap Trick in together with bands like REO Speedwagon, Styx, and Journey, clearly by people who simply don’t know any better (*coughmywifeElisabethcough*) and don’t care to look close enough to see that Cheap Trick was nothing like those other bands. The only similarity is that they were all at the height of their respective popularity in roughly the same musical era and had some overlap in their fan base. I remember classmates who liked several or all of those bands simultaneously — but hopefully they at least understood the differences in the music.
One very clear thing that is not the same about those four bands is that mostly the other three were lame; Cheap Trick was not. (Oh, come on, don’t take it so personally — we all have our guilty pleasures, and if you happened to like REO, Styx, or Journey back then, it’s okay, nobody’s perfect, right? I’m sure you like better music now, after all.) Oh sure, Cheap Trick put out quite a few bad albums in later years, but from 1977 to 1979, they were one of the best power-pop/rock bands going, putting out a string of 5 classic albums (if you include the live At Budokan). They had a sense of humor about themselves that those other bands simply didn’t have, and it worked very much in their favor. They were even one of the first links between punk and mainstream rock — just listen to their first album, 1977’s fantastic Cheap Trick, and it’s about as close to a cross between British punk and the Beatles as you’re likely to find. Rick Nielsen’s guitar chops and wails like the Buzzcocks, while Robin Zander belts it out like a poppier Robert Plant.
Cheap Trick’s later-1977 followup, In Color, was more polished sounding — for better or worse, depending on your preference — but still featured high energy, excellent songwriting, and great playing and singing throughout. Kicking off with the great concert opener, “Hello There” (familiar to anyone who’s played the Rock Band 2 video game as the introductory animation to the game), it’s loaded with great, melodic pop-rock, including the studio version of “I Want You to Want Me” (which I would almost have to say is the weakest song on the album — the live version from At Budokan is the version that takes that song to greatness). There really isn’t a bad track on the album…in fact, I would go so far as to say there isn’t a bad track on their third album, Heaven Tonight, either…it was only on their fourth, Dream Police, that they started to show signs of losing creative steam.
In Color‘s “Downed” is among my favorite Cheap Trick songs: starting with a dreamy guitar and vocal, it then kicks into heavy power-pop mode — this song lays out the blueprint for many bands that followed in later years: Guided by Voices, Fountains of Wayne, Weezer, and many more. You can hear them all in here. Incredibly melodic, tight, and with great singing by Zander, the somewhat psychedelic lyrics have a feel of drama to them, although on closer reading, it isn’t entirely clear what the song’s really about. It seems to generally be about feeling overwhelmed by the stresses of everyday life, and that’s the meaning I’m sticking with when I listen to it. And I will, again and again…it’s one of the great songs of the ’70s.