The phrase “Big in Japan” is a universal punchline, and it may have been invented for the band Cheap Trick.
Following their 1977 self-titled debut, Cheap Trick – singer Robin Zander, guitarist Rick Nielsen, bassist Tom Petersson and drummer Bun E. Carlos – hit the road hard, touring incessantly, playing any gig that came their way, and eventually putting out two more albums, In Color (1977) and Heaven Tonight (1978). All three albums were critically acclaimed, but didn’t sell particularly well and certainly didn’t crack the Top 40.
Except, of course, in Japan. Cheap Trick was very big in Japan. All three albums had gone gold there, despite the fact that the band had never toured there. That all changed when Cheap Trick crossed the Pacific in April 1978 for their first Japanese tour. According to Nielsen, they were shocked when they stepped off the plane and saw that thousands of screaming fans were waiting for them at the airport. “We flew coach,” he laughed in a recent interview with TIME. “We had no idea what was waiting for us.” As fans thronged them, the band had to have 24-hour guards posted at their hotel.
They played for two nights at Tokyo’s famous Nippon Budokan and filled their sets with a fiery energy that was captured on the recording equipment set up to make a live LP. While the album, Cheap Trick At Budokan, was originally slated to be released only in Japan, the album made its way to the U.S., where the band’s raucous live performances of “Surrender” and “I Want You to Want Me” started making headway onto U.S. radio. When the label finally realized what was going on, they released Cheap Trick At Budokan in the States, eventually selling over three million copies and climbing the Billboard charts to number four.
To celebrate the show’s 35th anniversary, Cheap Trick played two shows, one in New York and one in Los Angeles, recreating the exact April 28th, 1978 Budokan set for their die-hard fans. Before the New York show, we chatted with guitarist Rick Nielsen about the life and times of Cheap Trick:
It’s the 35th anniversary of a record that, in many ways, wasn’t supposed to happen.
It was never supposed to be released in the US. For Epic/Sony, this was their first release. It was supposed to be for the Japanese fans only, but we hadn’t made any special recordings. It was just being taped while we were performing. It wasn’t really planned to be an album. We just played the shows. We recorded in Osaka, Nagoya, Tokya. And a number of months later, we were asked to mix it. It was Bun E, Jack Douglas and I who went to New York — and there was more material but we were just putting out a singles album. It was one of those ‘don’t worry, it’s supposed to be just in Japan; don’t worry, no one will ever see these pictures’ sort of deals. It was an okay big-hit in Japan. There were 30 or 40, 000 people who had seen us over there, who wanted the album. But then it started to get airplay in Boston and they started playing the live version of “I Want You To Want Me” and it started to be a hit — but it was just on this live Japanese album. It eventually became the largest-selling live album import ever, and the record label finally thought, ‘why don’t we release it domestically?’ I don’t remember what the price was, but people were paying four times the price. Something like $40 a copy. People couldn’t import them fast enough.
Is there something you would have done differently if you knew the show was going to follow you around for 35 years?
I wish the record company and the management and, well, I guess us — I wish we had pushed the record company to put out the other half [of Cheap Trick At Budokan] sooner. They waited 20 years or something. It would have put a different spin on Cheap Trick. It had more of a pop feel and had some heavier duty songs. It would have shown some different sides of Cheap Trick. Side A and B and C and D, specifically.
Do you think the album — and that set — has defined the band?
Sure, but when we go out and play, we play for an hour and a half, not 45 minutes. Luckily, when we recorded this album we weren’t just a terrible band. We could sell records. The songs were good, the performances were good. At least you don’t listen back and say, ‘Oh that wasn’t very good.’ We owned that material. We played everywhere we could, we toured constantly, we knew what we were doing.
You guys toured pretty industriously.
Still do. We play as much as we can. If we waited for a hit record to tour we would never have toured. No record? We go on tour. New record? On tour. Hit record? Flop record? Always tour.
What do you think touring teaches a band?
Probably everything. How to pace a set. How to write a set. How to write a new song to fill something that you’re missing in your set. The song “Hello There” was written because we never got a soundcheck. “Hello There” was our soundcheck. One instrument at a time — drums, guitar, bass, voice — kind of like doing a real quick soundcheck. By the time Robin started singing, our mix was usually in place and we sounded good. It’s less than two minutes long. That was written out of necessity. We didn’t start out with it.
Did you know that you were a “live” band? That your live performance would win audiences over?
We were a live band. That’s what we did. But we knew how to make records, too. Our band is rock n roll. We were never just a studio band trying to make everything perfect. It was never supposed to be perfect. It was supposed to be cool. We didn’t want to put in parts that we couldn’t play. We wanted to make them believable. When we do record, it would be one or two takes. We wanted it to sound real and authentic.
What songs do you think are underappreciated in the Cheap Trick discography?
Oh 90 precent of them. We recorded and released 250 songs, and I think most people know about 10.
“Surrender” is probably your biggest hit. And it’s still getting played and covered today. Bands like Green Day and the Foo Fighters and even Taylor Swift have covered it. What do you think gives it such longevity?
It’s got kind of a universal statement to it. I’ve never met anyone in the world who didn’t think their parents were weird. And if you don’t think your parents are weird, your friends do. There are just different varieties and different degrees of weirdness. I’m kind of making fun of everybody, but I’m telling them to keep their head up, too. Everyone has a different interpretation of that song.
What does it mean to you?
I wrote it not knowing it would be this popular and I didn’t really give it that much thought.
Do you wish you had given it more thought?
I’m glad I didn’t! I just played a bunch of shows with [Foo Fighters frontman] Dave Grohl and he was singing it and it always went over well. Krist Novoselic did it too. I always see different versions of it. Different acts taking it on and performing it their own way, it’s kind of cool. It’s the song that people usually tell us – or tell me anyway – that they grew up listening to.
In hindsight, do you have any idea what it was about this album that made people finally sit up and pay attention to Cheap Trick?
I think when Budokan came out, people realized that they had seen us. They had heard the songs. We opened for a lot of bands. We opened for KISS, we opened for Queen, we did a co-headline tour with AC/DC for a year. They would always do great and we would always try to do great too. People would come to our shows and we were both headliners. AC/DC was really good. That was the only band that I stayed every night to watch. They were just great.
What was one of the most memorable things that happened on tour?
I don’t know… We toured with everybody – Kiss Aerosmith, Motley Crüe, AC/DC. We played with AC/DC,there are actual recordings of us doing Johnny B Good together. One time, though Cheap Trick and AC/DC did a big show Fourth of July 1979 in Illinois, and after the show Angus and Malcolm came to my house, which was great. On their last tour, I went down to see their last show in Nashville. All these people were clamoring to see them backstage — and we were the only ones backstage. Angus came out and said, “Hey, Rick, still living in Rockford?” Then last year we toured with Jeff Beck — he’s my favorite guitar player. I’ve known him for years and I’m still a huge fan.
Are you guys still having fun?
Sure. Tomorrow we’re flying to LA to play. Then we do Jay Leno. Then we fly to Florida and do two shows there. We’re going back to Japan in August.
The Illinois State Senate made April 1 Cheap Trick Day, it’s flattering but it’s also April Fools Day.
They asked me and I said, not my birthday, not Halloween, how about April Fools Day? That way people will either believe it or they won’t. It was a unanimous vote by the state senate. 100 percent in agreement. It was the first time they ever agreed on anything. People laugh about it, but Cheap Trick was one of the first and one of the few companies or businesses that brought money back from Asia or the Far East back then. We earned it.