In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about songs we loved from our first favorite bands.
Many might have wondered what Cheap Trick, a band now rocking into its fifth decade, was doing on the 2014 Riot Fest lineup, but I never did. The band has always been the perfect sum of the excellence of all its parts: the rare combination of solid drummer Bun E. Carlos (sadly now estranged from the rest of the band), dreamy vocalist Robin Zander, inventive lead guitarist/songwriter Rick Nielsen, and equally savvy bassist Tom Petersson. After getting discovered in a Wisconsin bowling alley in 1977, the band doggedly kept releasing albums like In Color, and more importantly, touring and touring and touring toward live perfection. And, as Nielsen told Time recently, they still do, saying, “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.”
Cheap Trick’s legendary live show helped cement the band’s solid rock reputation way back when. In the ’70s, concerts seemed like a rarer occasion than they are now, which meant that artists could hook entire careers onto albums like Frampton Comes Alive or The Who’s Live At Leeds. The Rockford, Illinois quartet had put out a few stellar albums, but nothing really clicked for them until the 1979 live release At Budokan, wherein a mass of Japanese teenagers screamed at the world to wake up to the mastery of the Trick, already. Budokan’s “I Want You To Want Me” and cover of “Ain’t That A Shame” made an impact, but the anthem “Surrender” was absolutely made for a live show full of screaming young people.
One of Nielsen’s more straightforward creations (unlike a track like “Downed,” which I love, but still don’t understand), “Surrender” grapples with the generation gap, as the young narrator can not believe his parents were ever cool. But by the end of the song (after one of my favorite dramatic moves from the schlock toolbox, the key change), the parents are “rock ’n’ rolling” on the couch, and even embrace the kid’s own music. The live show adds a necessary rawness to the rebellious track, making the crowd noises a vital part of the song (the studio version now sounds depressingly tame in comparison). “Surrender, but don’t give yourself away” —years will pass, but you can still rock out, and the longevity of Cheap Trick has proven this to be true.
I don’t think my 12-year-old self absorbed any of that when I bought Budokan on vinyl, and played it so much and got it so scratched up, I had to buy another one with my meager allowance. At the time, my friends and I were in love with the stone cold foxes Zander and Petersson, who were always displayed on the front of the album covers, and In Color and Heaven Tonight added a peppy pop-rock soundtrack to our almost-teenaged angst. Over the years, I continued to be happy for Cheap Trick’s success, although the band lost me (and so many others) around the time of “The Flame.” (There are limits to schlockiness.) I got to interview the band years ago (Nielsen is… not the easiest interview), and have since been able to see Cheap Trick live several times. Whenever my favorite song arrives, I scream my fucking head off just like those Japanese kids on Budokan. “Surrender,” naturally, killed at Riot Fest, and its rock message will last as long as there are young people growing up and older people who want to remember what that feels like.