After All These Years, Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen Still Wants You to Want Him
On the heels of a new album and ahead of entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the legendary guitarist gives a career-spanning interview.
Photo by Getty
There he is: Rick Nielsen, the Clown Prince of Rock & Roll, zipping into a parking lot, jammed tight into his Mini, a thumbs up through the Driver Side window. His personality practically explodes out of his small vehicle. In his sleepy hometown of Rockford, Illinois—where he was raised, formed his legendary band, Cheap Trick, and still resides—Nielsen might as well be royalty. So much so in fact that, he tells me, the blue-and-yellow shaded guitar that hangs on the wall at the Stockholm Inn, a Swedish-themed breakfast joint in town he co-owns, has only two owners: Nielsen and Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf. “You rub it for good luck!” Nielsen, wearing his modern-day getup—black sport coat, matching T-shirt and baseball cap, and checkerboard-framed glasses—informs me when we arrive there.
Nielsen has been coming to the Stockholm for as long as he can remember. His father, Ralph, used to eat here, back when it was located across from his local music store, Nielsen’s Music Shop. A few years back Nielsen and a few other locals pooled their funds together and bought it from the aging owner. “We didn’t want her to die making a pancake,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “We just told the new management they had to keep the coffee just as crummy.”
Nielsen remains every bit the wacky, chatterbox eccentric whose outsize personality, geek-chic persona, brawny guitar work and onstage hysteria helped propel him and three other lovers of British Rock all living in a ho-hum manufacturing town—vocalist Robin Zander, bassist Tom Petersson, and drummer Bun E. Carlos—to international acclaim. With a new Cheap Trick album, Bang, Zoom, Crazy... Hello—not to mention the recent announcement that his band is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, suffice to say—Nielsen is in good spirits.
He’s always been this way: a cartoonish, eyes-bugging, walking smile. Perhaps it’s because Cheap Trick could easily have never have taken off. It’s easy to forget now, but before the internet gave anyone with a WIFI password and an inch of talent the chance to reach an audience, it was something of a miracle that Cheap Trick’s no-nonsense, power-chord, punk-infused arena pop ever found a home.
“We thought we were pretty good when we started but we never tried to be something we weren’t,” Nielsen says, alluding to the fact that despite the band’s first few albums eventually being canonized among fans and critics alike, they hardly sold well when first released. Following the release of their second album, 1977’s In Color, Cheap Trick was performing upwards of 250 one-nighters a year, opening for the likes of Kiss, the Kinks, Santana and Boston. However only after the Japanese press took a special liking to the men behind “Surrender” and “I Want You To Want Me,” did the band begin to attract a fervent following—a feat immortalized on their now-legendary concert LP, 1979’s multi-platinum, Cheap Trick at Budokan. “Kiss and Queen and Aerosmith were most popular at the time. But they were too big; it was time for something new,” an editor for a major Japanese rock magazine said at the time.
For Nielsen, Cheap Trick’s unlikely rise to fame seems both a lifetime ago and as if it just happened yesterday. With the band’s 17th LP just released—and this week they'll be enshrined into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with an induction ceremony at Brooklyn's Barclays Arena—Nielsen finds himself feeling uncharacteristically reflective. “What an honor! It’s ridiculous! It’s the coolest!” Nielsen says of Cheap Trick’s HOF induction in a lengthy conversation with Noisey over Swedish pancakes and orange juice, that touches on his lifelong love of guitars, his band’s momentous run, and why he still can’t get enough of playing music
Noisey: We’re here in your native Rockford. Obviously you could have taken up residence in any major city in the world. But you’re still here after all these years.
Rick Nielsen: I’ve been around the world. Is this the greatest place on Earth? No. But no place is. I love going to Tokyo. I love going to New York. But when I got married my parents were here. My wife’s parents were here. Everybody was here. I never denied that I was from here: “We’re Cheap Trick. We’re from Rockford, Illinois.” “Oh, so you’re from nowhere, huh?” Big deal. People liked us in Tokyo. People liked us in LA. But we’re not from LA. When I go to LA people are like, ‘Hey Rick, great to see you!’ They’re happy to see me because they know I’m not out there trying to steal their job, steal their girlfriends and trying to impress people. And then New York: It’s so expensive. What kind of artist who is trying to build himself up can start out there? Same with LA. If you don’t look right or do this or that you can’t get it. Here? There’s rich people. There’s poor people. There’s people. We were all equal here.
Growing up in Rockford though I imagine it must have been especially hard to envision a life as a rock musician.
That’s what I always wanted to do. It was never about money. And any time I had any money I always invested in something I liked.
Hence starting your lifelong collection of guitars.
Yup. Guitars. I always bought used guitars. Any place I could find these six-string orphans. And I found them all over. I didn’t buy the expensive ones at music stores. This was before the internet. You had to travel around. I’d get newspapers and be looking at the want ads: “I’m a farmer living out in the sticks.” I’d go out to see him and get a guitar he bought in ’63 or ’59. Back in the day, people would come in to my dad’s music store and trade their guitars. They didn’t buy a new one. Even car dealerships would take guitars on trade for a Ford. So I’d get guitars from car dealerships, appliance stores, you name it.
And your love of collecting guitars evolved into a passion for playing?
One of the reason I started writing music was because the American charts were so bad. I thought: “I can write stuff this crummy.” And so yah, I made a career out of that. I started off collecting guitars because of my grandmother, actually. Both my grandparents were ministers. They graduated from the Moody Bible Institute. My dad had a radio show there too. My grandmother, she collected plates. But she also collected stamps. And I just liked the beauty of the artwork. I started with coins: little silver dollars, standing liberty quarters, mercury dimes. I just got interested in the intricacies of that stuff before I started caring about music. Then baseball cards. And then hot rods. And then I’d see guitars and think, “Oh, the Yardbirds had this one. Or the Who had this one.” It’s like when you get the new iPhone. There’s always something missing from the last model. So I invested in stuff I liked. And I never got rid of stuff. Before I knew it instead of collecting guitars I was collecting warehouse space. My house was full. Both garages were full. Then three warehouses were full of stuff. I was an only child so those were my baby brothers and sisters.
Tell me about the early days of Cheap Trick.
My first house, after I got married in 1969, I lived in an apartment. And then my first house I bought was a two-family home a few blocks away from here. I bought it for $18,000. This was 1970. I went to Europe in ’68 and ’69 and ’70 so this was in-between. I couldn’t afford the house though so I rented the downstairs to Tom Petersson’s grandparents. They were ancient when they came in there. Swedish bakers. They passed away soon after. And then right around that time I got some of the guys from the Nazz, my band at the time, and I brought them there. So now we had a band downstairs but I really couldn’t afford it. Because obviously I never got any money from them. But at least now we had a place we could practice and live. Then I went back to Europe and in the meantime I rented out the other half of the house to pay for it when I was gone. When I came back I couldn’t afford to kick them out so I lived in my mother in-law’s basement for awhile.
Was the goal at the time to get signed to a record label?
I’d already had a record deal in 1968. Tom Petersson was in the band. It was called The Grim Reapers. And then it got changed to Fuse. We put out one record on Epic, recorded it in Chicago at CBS on McClurg Court. Jackie Mills was the producer. He had produced Bobby Sherman and Telly Savalas. But we did the one record and it went nowhere.
You’ve said you knew next to nothing about the music industry back then.
We had trouble back then. So we got a lawyer to sue a manager. I was the only one who was 21 at the time. All the other guys had to have their parents involved. We got a lawyer from Rockford. He didn’t know anything about music law. Jump ahead 10 years I sued the same guy with a different lawyer and lost that one too. We didn’t know any better. We just wanted to play. I had to become a bit wise about stuff. Like most musicians, I just wanted to play. It’s good to know a little bit though about the business. Every year I speak to future music attorneys. I go in there and I say, “Don’t screw these musicians. Your fiduciary responsibility is to take care of them. Because they’ll sign anything. Trust me, I know. But in the long run it’ll be good for your soul.”
Soon after, in 1971, Bun E. Carlos joined Fuse on drums, the band moved to Philadelphia and you started calling yourselves Sick Man of Europe. After a European tour, you Nielsen and Petersson returned to Rockford with Carlos, recruited Robin Zander after initially having Randy Hogan on vocals, and Cheap Trick was formed.
We thought we were cool playing at Haymakers and Lollies and Weavers and Mothers and all the venues in Chicago. And we were playing Milwaukee too. We spent our own money to go to LA. Out attitude was: “Hey, if people don’t understand us what’s wrong with them? We’re not doing anything wrong.” Because of that, even before our first record came out—we recorded at the end of '76 and it came out in '77—the guys in Queen heard our album, liked it and asked us to open for them on their US tour for the first two shows before Thin Lizzy took over. Nobody had heard of Cheap Trick but they put us on the first two shows. They knew we were good. Freddy’s personal assistant ended up eventually working for us and now he’s Bon Jovi’s manager. So he’s definitely gone downhill [laughs]. But that was kind of our introduction to playing bigger places... although with nobody knowing us.
Cheap Trick’s self-titled 1977 debut, released on Epic, did next to nothing sales-wise.
Our first record... that was a cool record. We were just happy to make that. We didn’t care about the sales of it. They were playing one of the songs on a station in Chicago and Detroit was playing something. That was cool for us. When our first record was out it was out... that was all we cared about. So we just went and made another record real quick after that.
In hindsight, it would appear that albums like the next album, In Color and then 1978’s Heaven Tonight, launched Cheap Trick to international acclaim. But even those albums were not particularly well-received in the US.
Back in the day there wasn’t even a national newspaper for music. Starting in the 60s I was the only person that got Melody Maker airmailed to me because it cost about 100 dollars. It was 30 dollars to have it snail-mailed but it would come six weeks after the fact. I always wanted to have the news now. I wanted to know what’s coming up next week, not what already happened. There wasn’t a countrywide audience over here for rock music. It was never a coordinated thing. But in smaller places like Japan and England, because they were smaller countries, everybody knew what was going on there at the same time. The news and the music traveled real fast there. In the US it didn’t.
It was the Japanese press that ended up springing the band to widespread popularity.
When we played our first two shows in early ’77 with Queen the Japanese press was there seeing Queen, of course, but really liked us. We didn’t know anything about Japan. It might as well have been the moon. After the second night the Japanese press asked me whether I’d like to write for a magazine about my experience playing with Queen. So I did it. And right after that we started getting fan mail from Japan. It had pictures of us: little caricatures, which they had also done for Queen and also Kiss. And then coincidentally Kiss eventually asked us to go on tour with them for three months. And then, when we were out with Kiss, sure enough, the Japanese press were there for them but wound up writing about us again.
People like to compare the first time Cheap Trick went to Japan to when the Beatles arrived in America.
Oh yeah! It was extreme. We flew coach to Japan on Northwest Orient Airlines and we landed at Haneda AirPort, which was before Narita existed. It was close to the city as opposed to Narita, which is way out. So we land and we’re not the first ones off the plane; we’re not in first class. In fact, I doubt we’d ever ridden in first class [laughs]. We come off and all these people are there. We thought there was dignitaries around or something. There was like 5,000 people waiting for us and screaming and going nuts. I’m thinking, “Gosh, this is the smartest country I’ve never been to. This is great!” If you’ve ever seen any of the pictures from then we’re just mobbed. It’s crazy. These girls would chase us in taxicabs hanging out the window. They’re driving 70 miles an hour to where we were going. We thought they were going to fall out and get killed. So we get to the hotel and it’s a mob scene there. We had to go in the servant’s entrance and go in a back elevator. They had the windows closed because if we looked out the windows they were afraid the people would run out in the street to wave at us and get run over. It was totally crazy! And we of course took full advantage of it. [laughs]. But to give you a little idea of where we were really at in our career: I was sharing a room with Tommy and Bun E and Robin were sharing a room [laughs]. We didn’t even have our own rooms yet!
Cheap Trick at Budokan is what brought the band the American acclaim that had previously eluded you.
It was only going to be released in Japan; something like a thank-you to people for coming to see us and for the Cheap Trick fan club of Japan. It was going to be a live recording of what we did and then a taped TV show.
It wound up selling over three million copies and consistently ranks as one of the greatest live rock albums of all time.
Plus that was only half of the show we released!
Shortly thereafter Cheap Trick famously worked with legendary Beatles producer George Martin on 1980’s All Shook Up.
We met in 1979 as a result of the [Meatloaf-starring] movie Roadie. Jack Douglas, who we had been working with, he called up George and says, “Hey George, I hear you’re working with my band.” Meaning us. We told George we were about to do a record and it would be the biggest honor on Earth to have him work on it with us. He said, “Of course!” We couldn’t believe it. We ended up doing pre-production in Madison, Wisconsin in January or February. We got him and [acclaimed Beatles engineer] Geoff Emerick to come to Wisconsin in the dead of winter! That’s like getting the Pope to come to the Stockholm Inn in Rockford to come eat some pancakes [laughs]. I mean, we were working with George Martin! To me, as a songwriter, I kept thinking I’m working with George Martin on my songs! He wasn’t like “Here’s what we do.” We worked together. It was a great rapport between us. We ended up doing the record at AIR Studios in Montserrat and finished it up at AIR Studios in London.
And you stayed in touch until his passing earlier this year.
It never worked out to record together again but we remained friends. When George came to the United States in 1999 to discuss the making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at Park West, in Chicago, I was his interpreter because he was deafer than I am. Later, in 2009, we got asked to do the Sgt. Pepper Live album. The Beatles had never done that. They’d never played it live. We had gotten asked by the Hollywood Bowl people. We’re not a cover band per se, but Robin had the voice and we could play it so we did it. Later, when I was in England, I got in touch with George and I asked him for his blessing to do the Sgt. Pepper project as well as his advice on how play the songs live. I went to his house in the country and he gave me the original charts from the album. You can’t beat that!
Cheap Trick has endured many ups and down over the past decades. But you’ve continued to make albums and tour at a constant pace. In fact, your son Daxx has been the drummer for Cheap Trick over the past six years. That must be a thrill.
He’s the only one of my kids who had straight A’s in high school and National Honors Society and all that stuff and he wants to quit college after one year and play drums. What can I say?
Was he a natural fit in Cheap Trick?
Well, at one point, even back 16 years ago, I had a phone call in to Tommy Lee and I had a phone call in to Dave Grohl to play with us. They probably all would have subbed for us at least for a three-month period.
Grohl worships you as a guitarist.
There must be something wrong with the guy [laughs]. But the more I thought about it I figured: We’re a band. We don’t want somebody to blow us out of the water.
So how did Daxx get into the mix then?
He played with us back when Bun E. had a back operation about 16 years ago. It was an Aerosmith tour. Then he was the drummer for Dick Dale for three years and then Brandi Carlisle and then did some touring with Maroon 5 over in Australia and New Zealand. So he’d been around. He wasn’t waiting to work with us. We got him the night before he was going to Europe to work with Cory Chisel. And Cory owed me a favor because Daxx didn’t want to go back on his commitment. I called Cory and said, “Could you do me a solid. We need Daxx.” I had done him a bunch of favors. He said, “Well, sure. I can find a drummer in Europe.” We’ve kept Daxx six years now. He calls me Rick. It has never been like “Hey dad!” It’s not because he’s my kid he’s in the band. It worked out. It was a logical thing.
I’d be remised to not offer my congratulations on Cheap Trick’s upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That must have been an exciting feeling when you got the call.
Of course it was! What an honor. It’s ridiculous. Forget about it! It’s the coolest. I don’t even know if we deserve to get in there now that I think about it [laughs]. The more I think about it it’s like, Nah. This shouldn’t happen. This shouldn’t be. But OK!
And you have a new Cheap Trick that's out.
Nobody’s clamoring for a new Cheap Trick record.
I didn’t say that.
Yes you did [laughs]. But I never did it for money anyway and I still don’t. I just love to play. I just do stuff I like.
Does the motivation to keep playing still come from your lifelong love of music?
We’ve never progressed in a way. We thought we were pretty good when we started but we never tried to be something we weren’t. We were never going to be virtuosos. I knew that wasn’t my forte. My forte was in liking what I do and contributing to the craft. It’s about having a catalog of experiences. A catalog of people, great things and awful things. People I’ve met. People I’ve worked with. Projects I did do or projects I didn’t do. Why should I have sold any records? Why should I have had a career? I get to make music. There are 12 notes. Everybody’s got ‘em: I’ve got ‘em; you’ve got ‘em. It’s how you interpret them that counts.
Dan Hyman is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.