How Cheap Trick’s ‘Heaven Tonight’ Set the Groundwork for Stardom
Cheap Trick released one of the all-time great debut albums and its terrific follow-up in a span of less than six months. The group then delivered a rock 'n' roll triple play with the release of Heaven Tonight in May 1978.
Cheap Trick had already hit the road with Kiss, the Kinks, Queen and Be-Bop Deluxe, steadily picking up fans. But they were still finding their sound: Jack Douglas produced a self-titled debut that was a raw, hard-rock powerhouse; Tom Werman's approach on their sophomore LP In Color was more polished and less to the band's liking.
"We told him we wanted it to sound like the Sex Pistols' first singles," guitarist Rick Nielsen later said on the "Off the Record" radio program. "He said he didn't like the Sex Pistols, and I said, 'I don't care what you like!'"
Werman won the battle in the end and, for better or worse, gave Cheap Trick their pure pop sound. He was back for Cheap Trick's third album, but this time they met halfway, leaving the pop shine but adding some grit to the mix.
"I think of myself as having popularized Cheap Trick," Werman told Record Review magazine. "Those are great productions, among the best things I have ever done. Then of course I ate shit for all the work I did: 'Werman's slick production has taken the hard edge off the band,' and all that."
This left Cheap Trick's record company a bit confused about how to market the group, as they weaved various influences until they got to a sound that was all their own. Everyone from the Beatles, the Move and Alex Harvey to the Pistols, the Yardbirds and the Who can be heard in Cheap Trick's music, which is why they were labeled as power pop, New Wave, hard rock and straightforward rock 'n' roll back in the day.
Heaven Tonight was stocked from start to finish with great songs, great performances and a great sonic charge. Songs about love, death, life, sex, suicide, weird parents and drugs made up the LP. And any album that kicks off with "Surrender" has a head start to greatness. It's lyrically brilliant and musically unforgettable. Nielsen came up with a genuine classic in "Surrender" that has lost none of its punch decades later.
Listen to Cheap Trick Perform 'Surrender'
The next song, "On Top of the World," remains one of Nielsen's finest, with a killer hook at its core. Robin Zander sings about sex, religion and ego – not your average Top 40 fare. A cover of the Move's "California Man" follows, and it's a better version of the song than the original. (Cheap Trick even tosses in a riff from another Move tune, "Brontosaurus," for good measure.) "High Roller" is powered by a simple but dynamic guitar riff and a killer Nielsen guitar solo.
As side one comes to a close, Cheap Trick deliver one of their greatest moments: "Auf Wiedersehen," a top-flight hard rocker with a lyrical nod to Bob Dylan (via Jimi Hendrix) and a lingering refrain of "suicide" delivered by Zander in one of his most effective snarling vocals. Meanwhile, Nielsen, bassist Tom Petersson and drummer Bun E. Carlos drive it all home. Petersson's 12-string bass also adds a new sonic element that would figure heavily into Cheap Trick's sound from here on out.
"Takin' Me Back" and "On the Radio" get side two going in pristine pop form. Sweet melodies and great arrangements elevate their pop game to new heights here. The album's title track takes Cheap Trick somewhere else entirely; it's a brooding, psychedelic tour de force.
Tom Petersson admits in the band bio Reputation Is a Fragile Thing that they "tried to make it sound like 'Kashmir,' like a Led Zeppelin sound." The use of cello, harpsichord and Nielsen's mandocello helps create the song's haunting mood. "It's kind of an anti-drug song," Nielsen added. "I wrote about things I saw. I knew Tommy Bolin and Jimi Hendrix. You might never come down."
With "Stiff Competition" – and a riff somewhat inspired by the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" – we're back to hard-riffing terrain, with Zander singing more of Nielsen's double- and triple-entendres. "How Are You?" wraps the album in another moment of pure pop greatness. It's a bouncy little tune with an insanely catchy chorus that name-checks In Color's "I Want You to Want Me." As the last grooves spin out, the band comes surging back with "Oh Claire" and a powerhouse riff underlining the Japanese greeting of "Konnichiwa," the band's message to its rabid following overseas.
Heaven Tonight was released in Japan a few weeks before its U.S. debut, since Cheap Trick were on tour there. Treated as superstars, their success in Japan would ultimately lay the groundwork for their stateside domination the following year.