The award-winning band that started in a Rockford garage is receiving an honor they never anticipated. Experience the journey through the eyes of lead guitarist Rick Nielsen.
Rick Nielsen can’t dodge his duties at home, even on the day he learns that his band, Cheap Trick, is named to the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I still had to take out garbage,” says the Rockford resident, laughing.
Yes, the long wait for Rockford’s favorite sons is over. Eligible since 2002, and nominated this year for the first time, Cheap Trick will be inducted into the hall of fame. Joining Cheap Trick in the class of 2016 are Chicago, Deep Purple, N.W.A and Steve Miller. This year’s class will be inducted April 8 in a ceremony in Brooklyn. HBO will broadcast the ceremony.
“It’s pretty darn cool,” says Nielsen. “We didn’t lobby for it and we didn’t expect it, which made it neater. I know a lot of fans were hoping for it. We had fans from Rockford drive 10,000 signatures to the hall of fame in Cleveland. But we had no control over if and when it was going to happen.”
For more than 40 years, Cheap Trick has been a mainstay in the music industry thanks to its ability to reinvent itself. Original band members include guitarist Nielsen, singer Robin Zander, bass guitarist Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos on drums.
“When a band influences bands that are already in the hall of fame, there is no question they should be in there as well,” says Jim Stone, morning host and program director for WXRX-FM. “Cheap Trick is an all-American rock band that wrote fun songs that you could sing along with. They were four totally different guys. They didn’t make sense as a group, but somehow it worked perfectly. It was pure rebellion.”
For the past six years, Nielsen’s son, Daxx, has been the band’s drummer, replacing Carlos. “He wasn’t hired because he’s my son, he was hired because he’s good,” says Nielsen. “He fits the bill. Besides, he’s brought the average age of the band below 100.” Carlos has also been invited to take part in the hall of fame ceremony. “He should be,” Nielsen adds. “He’s part of Cheap Trick history.”
Cheap Trick’s resume is impressive. The band has sold more than 20 million records, appeared on 29 movie soundtracks and received a host of awards and industry honors. Among hit songs are “Surrender,” “I Want You To Want Me,” “Dream Police” and “The Flame.”
Not bad for a group of guys that started playing in a Rockford garage. “When we started, it wasn’t about reaching the hall of fame,” says Nielsen. “We just liked to play. Then we made a record. Then we toured nonstop. We never stopped to smell the roses.”
Cheap Trick started as Fuse, a late ’60s Rockford band formed by Nielsen and Petersson. They recorded an album, which was released on Epic in 1969. After the record failed to get any attention, the band moved to Philadelphia and changed its name to Sick Man of Europe. The group toured Europe in 1972, returning to Illinois a year later. Upon returning to Rockford, Nielsen and Petersson renamed the band “Cheap Trick” after adding drummer Carlos and vocalist Randy Hogan. Hogan left the following year and Zander joined the group.
Throughout its career, Cheap Trick has enjoyed a huge international draw. It was the band’s live performances on the album “At Budokan” (1979) that best captured its energetic live show on a recording, resulting in a commercial breakthrough in the United States.
“We set our sights extremely high,” Nielsen says. “If you make it in Rockford you can make it anywhere. It’s difficult to do what we do but it never stopped us. Was it easy? No. But it’s what we love to do.”
Local fans are especially excited about the hall of fame induction. Whether he’s in the grocery store or at a local restaurant, Nielsen hears from dozens of fans, young and old. At a recent funeral he attended, even the pallbearers offered their congratulations.
“In a way this honor means so much to a lot of people,” he says. “It’s a recognition that other people can understand. This is a landmark.”
Jim Pieschel’s obsession for Cheap Trick started when he was 10. “With three older sisters, there was music playing in the house all the time,” says the Loves Park resident. “I can remember singing along to “Way of the World” from the Dream Police album. My sister Peggy said, ‘You know, most of the band went to Guilford High School.’ Of course I didn’t believe her, because when you’re a kid, rock stars are gods.”
Pieschel estimates that he’s seen Cheap Trick 40 times in concert. Recently, he took his 10-year-old son to his first Cheap Trick show.
“I just like their edgy sound,” Pieschel says. “They have the best singer in rock. Rick is the ultimate showman. Tom is so steady, and I love the sound of a 12-string bass. Bun E. and now Daxx sit back and impress. Even today, it’s still amazing these guys are from Rockford. I have friends across the country who are blown away that you can run into a guy like Rick at a restaurant. Even as adults, we think these guys are from another planet.
“Can you name another band that’s been around for 40 years, never stopped touring, and continues to put out new music? On top of that, just about every genre within the rock sound has a band that points to Cheap Trick as a major influence. They’re very deserving of the hall of fame.”
Artists are eligible for inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25 years after the release of their first recording. The 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Performer Inductees were chosen by more than 800 voters of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, as well as the aggregate results of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s online fan vote. The top five artists, as selected by the public, comprised a “fans’ ballot” that was tallied along with the other ballots to determine the 2016 Inductees.
Despite the honor, Cheap Trick isn’t resting on its laurels. Far from it. The band is busier than ever. In addition to regular tour dates, Cheap Trick plays for private parties, corporate events and radio conventions. Last year, it played on a riverboat in Nashville with country star Brad Paisley. Cheap Trick members flew to Boston to play a birthday party for Aerosmith guitar player Joe Perry. Recently, they spent another week in Nashville conducting business meetings and taking part in a photo and video shoot. There’s always something going on with Cheap Trick.
“That’s the exciting part,” says Nielsen. “But there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes that isn’t so exciting, like going through customs after a 17-hour flight to Europe. I’m closing in on 3 million travel miles on American Airlines. That’s the stuff that beats you up.”
Despite the hectic travel schedule, Cheap Trick is still on the road, with stops all the across the country and Canada this year. Its new album, ‘Bang Zoom Crazy … Hello,” is scheduled for release April 1, a date that is recognized as “Cheap Trick Day” annually in Illinois. A week later, the band will be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
As for retiring, Nielsen won’t hear of it. “I would rather be working,” he says. “It’s what I love to do. Could I retire? Sure. But no one is giving me a gold watch. I always wanted to be in a band, from the time I was in junior high school. I still do to this day. I have the best of both worlds.”