Graded on a Curve:
Cheap Trick,
Heaven Tonight

What a cheap trick. Here Rockford, Illinois’ finest put out Heaven Tonight which I considered the coolest album in the galaxy, only to follow it up with Cheap Trick at Budokan and the heinous “I Want You to Want Me,” which I’ve had to suffer through like 80,000 times over the years. Every single person I know loves the damn song. I’d sooner listen to the death rattle of a unicorn.

That said, 1978’s Heaven Tonight–the band’s third–still makes me as giddy as an axe-wielding maniac at remote summer camp. It’s a knee-trembling, rock ‘em sock ‘em, wham bam than you ma’am classic, and it solidly established Cheap Trick amongst America’s Power Pop elite alongside the Raspberries, Big Star, and (my campy faves) Redd Kross.

What set Cheap Trick apart from the power pop pack was hard rock crunch. They infused their catchy melodies with steroids: had they been ML baseball players they’d have gone the way of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Songs such as “Surrender,” “On the Radio,” and “How Are You” may not be cement mixers, but “High Roller,” “Auf Wiedersehen,” and “Stiff Competition” all fall into Robert Christgau’s characterization of Heaven Tonight as “power-tooled hard rock product.”

Heaven Tonight is a case of eclecticism at work. “Surrender” is an ecstatic-making monument, like Mount Rushmore but with a better chorus. And it’s funny to boot. Robin Zander comes downstairs to discover his parents going at it, and with his Kiss records playing to boot. It’s a friendly bridge across the generation gap; if the kids are alright, so are the parents. Mom and dad aren’t out of it, they’re with it, and it’s a life-altering revelation.

“Stiff Competition” is AC/DC sans annoying screech. On “On Top of the World” Cheap Trick and the B-52s meet in a harmonic convergence. “On the Radio” isn’t as good as the Raspberries’ “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record),” but the vocals are killer and the DJ patter is a nice touch. The jive-happy rockabilly pastiche “California Man” sounds like a song by Move’s Roy Wood, probably because it is.

“High Roller” boasts a power chord capable of electrifying every fence from here to Wyoming, a chorus that is pure sugar sugar and the very funny opening line “Jump in my love car.” “Takin’ Me Back” has a New Wave feel via keyboardist Jai Winding. “Auf Wiedersehen” is a funny suicide note in four languages and reminds me of a grave marker I saw in Vienna’s Grinzing Cemetery a cheery “Auf Wiedersehen!” engraved on it. Who says your Germanic peoples lack a sense of humor?

Ironically, the pomp-rocking title cut is my least favorite song on the album. “How Are You” opens with some cheesy lounge piano only to go perky-quirky on you, and while it begins life as your standard love song it soon turns sour (“I heard your voice/I couldn’t stand it… you even scare my friends!”). Lionel Richie’s “Hello” it ain’t. LP closer “Oh Claire” is a snippet from what may or may not be a live show and gives drummer Bun E. Carlos a chance to strut his stuff.

I saw Cheap Trick once and Bob Pollard of Guided by Voices sauntered onto stage swigging from a bottle of tequila to join the band in a life-affirming rendition of “Surrender” and I will carry the memory to the grave. Which I intend to have engraved with the words Auf Wiedersehen!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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