As someone who moved to Yakima in September, my first event at the Yakima Valley SunDome should have been obvious.
Let’s see… a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame band, from my home state, whose first five albums I own and still love listening to. Seeing Cheap Trick at the Central Washington State Fair on Sept. 30 was a no-brainer.
Unless that was the night I had to leave town so my wife and I could pack up our belongings for the U-Haul and close out of our old house before moving that weekend to Yakima.
Instead of seeing Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson and Robin Zander live and in color, my first visit to the SunDome was several months later for an agriculture equipment show. Yet another near miss with a band I could have/should have seen multiple times. I surrender. …
With luck, many readers of this column were able to enjoy Cheap Trick’s Yakima show last fall. For those of us who didn’t, there’s always “Cheap Trick at Budokan,” one of rock’s greatest live records.
But because I own that one on cassette, I will choose the middle of the Rockford, Ill., band’s great opening trio of albums, “In Color,” to review here.
This record sets the tone for Cheap Trick’s great career in every way, from the music to the cover art, with their band name listed in its iconic Courier-style font.
Let’s start with the cover of the record: Petersson and Zander, in their sultry rock-stud glory, straddle motorcycles (in color) while guitar nerd Nielsen and rumpled accountant-turned-drummer Bun E. Carlos are displayed on little kids’ dirt bikes on the back (in black and white). The latter image is upside down from the cover, meaning you have to flip the LP’s gatefold sleeve to read the song titles and credits — and to see Nielsen’s and Carlos’s sneakers and loafers, soaked after walking their bikes through a puddle.
The boys would repeat this joke on their also-stellar third album, “Heaven Tonight,” with the glamorous boys out front and the other two staring into a bathroom mirror on the back.
Now for the music. Because their early albums were not bestsellers, many people were first exposed to Cheap Trick via their fourth album, “Cheap Trick at Budokan.” Half of the songs on that live album made their debut on “In Color”: “Hello There,” “Come On Come On,” “Big Eyes,” “Clock Strikes Ten” … and Cheap Trick’s biggest hit, “I Want You” to Want Me.”
The version of that hit on “In Color” sounds much different — with a jangly piano break, a more staccato beat, less heavy guitar and no Japanese girls chanting during the chorus. Which version is better? I’ve heard arguments for both, but to these ears the original sure sounds fresh after hearing the hit live version thousands of times on classic rock radio.
Three of the album’s best songs were not included on “Budokan” (at least not on the original 1979 version; an extended CD of that live album came out in the 1990s), and they’re all on side two. “Oh Caroline” and “Southern Girls” are great rockers that feature every member of the band at their peak: Zander’s powerful lead vocals, Nielsen’s power chords, and the thump and groove of Petersson and Carlos on bass and drums. The rhythm section particularly shines on “Southern Girls,” which Petersson co-wrote with Nielsen, who penned most of “In Color” by himself.
Then there’s the closing song, “So Good to See You.” I’m a sucker for album closers that dial it down a notch and send you off with a touch of light sweetness. You know, like a piece of lemon meringue pie after 35 minutes of meat and potatoes. Zander’s crooning melody carries the day, but the lean guitar parts and beat stay with you after the vinyl stops spinning.
Cheap Trick has enjoyed a long, successful career, and as they showed the Central Washington State Fair crowds last year, they can still deliver their hard rock and humor after 40-plus years of performing.
But the first three albums were their ticket out of north-central Illinois, bridging the gap between metal and rock, between Rockford and Los Angeles, between Midwestern dive bars and stadiums. Whether you enjoy rock in color or in black and white, Cheap Trick’s second album stands the test of time and is fun to revisit again and again.
Joel Donofrio is the business reporter for the Yakima Herald-Republic who, like Rick Nielsen, has spent some quality time in Rockford, Ill. — but unlike Rick, does not own a five-necked electric guitar. Contact him at email@example.com.