Last week, Billboard ran an illuminating article about the process by which a band or individual musician gets elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. In particular, the piece shed light on the secretive nature of the balloting system, and the mafia-like code of silence surrounding it: Nominating committee members only spoke on background or not for attribution. Still, one person who did talk on the record was Jann Wenner. In fact, the erstwhile Rock Hall Foundation chairman and Rolling Stone founder/editor/publisher was candid with his remarks, particularly when discussing inductees. "It was easy enough in the beginning," he said. "But at this point, all the clear, obvious people have been inducted, and it comes down to personal taste."
Rock Hall haters--and there are many--probably have a bone to pick with Wenner's assertion that "all the clear, obvious people have been inducted." Up until recently, that group didn't include inarguable rock stars such as Rush, KISS, Hall & Oates and Joan Jett; as of this year, classic rock titans such as Deep Purple, Yes and Iron Maiden still haven't made the cut. Yet perhaps the biggest exclusion to date involves a group that's never even been nominated for the Rock Hall: Cheap Trick, the pride of Rockford, Illinois.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly why the band's always been snubbed. Sales-wise, they stack up fine: two gold albums, four platinum albums, and one, 1979's immortal "Cheap Trick at Budokan," that's gone triple platinum. They've had eight Top 40 singles spread out over three different decades (including a No. 1 hit, the 1988 power ballad "The Flame") and have toured with nearly every big rock band of the last few decades, including KISS, Def Leppard, Aerosmith, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, the Ramones and Boston. Ask nearly any musician to wax ecstatic about Cheap Trick, and you're likely to get an earful of praise. (An amusing 1997 interview with guitarist Rick Nielsen, soon after the band played Lollapalooza at the behest of headliners Soundgarden and Metallica, revealed some of this fandom: "[Soundgarden frontman] Chris Cornell helped write the song list for us," Nielsen said, "although we were going to use the songs he suggested anyway, and I just gave a false sense of security to that guy.")
Peer respect and record sales have never been dominant metrics where it comes to being inducted. Yet countless existing Rock Hall members have openly admitted to being influenced by Cheap Trick-- including shoo-ins such as the Ramones, Guns 'n Roses, Nirvana and one of this year's honorees, Green Day--and Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos even had the chance to play on John Lennon's "Double Fantasy." (That song was cut, but later surfaced on the "John Lennon Anthology.") But beyond facts, figures and creative hobnobbing, few bands exude the insurgent, raucous spirit of rock & roll more than Cheap Trick.
Musically, that's because the band--which, in addition to Nielsen and Carlos, featured golden-voiced frontman Robin Zander and bassist/guitarist Tom Petersson during their '70s heyday--expertly cherry-pick and meld premium influences: the bluesy swing of '50s rock pioneers, the harmonies and well-crafted hooks of the Beatles, the garage-y jangle of British Invasion stalwarts, glam's swagger and flashy riffs, Midwest power-pop and punk's primal energy.
With so many disparate sounds coming together, Cheap Trick stood (and continue to stand) out from their peers, and aren't easily pigeonholed. The band's music is poppy without being lightweight, aggressive without being overly indebted to hard rock, dangerous yet not threatening. Above all, their songs are empathetic, as they epitomize the universal teenage roller coaster of lust, longing, restlessness, disaffection and skepticism. Yet the members of Cheap Trick also ooze bulletproof cool despite their adolescent bent: They're both older brothers who know a thing or two about rebellion and the type of guys you can bring home to mom.
Like their beloved Beatles, Cheap Trick have also never stopped moving forward and challenging themselves. Their music has evolved with the times--at various junctures, they've adopted characteristics of muscular hard rock, as well as slick, keyboard-dominated pop--but they aren't afraid to go grittier if it's warranted. In the '90s, they recorded with Steve Albini (and ended up releasing a few of these songs as a 7-inch single on Sub Pop) and toured with Guided By Voices. Frontman Zander even recently went on a low-key acoustic tour, playing solo songs and select covers. Despite their success, Cheap Trick still operate like they're an hungry underdog whose success feels unsteady--perhaps because for many years it was, due to label shenanigans and chart disinterest. And what's more rock & roll than being an ambitious outsider doggedly subverting the status quo and pushing forward in spite of setbacks?
Of course, this passion has also always marked the Cheap Trick live experience, which is perhaps the best argument for the band belonging in the Rock Hall. Back in the day, the quartet blew onto the stage like a band possessed, full of live-wire energy and magnetic charisma. And improbably, Cheap Trick are still one of the best live bands around today. Zander's voice remains pristine, while Petersson is subtly awe-inspiring, someone almost nonchalant about his skills. Nielsen, meanwhile, is ace at doling out appearances by his splashy guitars and telling choice historical stories from the band's archives. (Carlos no longer tours with the group; their current drummer is Rick's son, Dax Nielsen.)
Unlike other classic rock bands set in their ways, Cheap Trick also almost defiantly keep things fresh. Not only is their setlist never obvious--sorry to those who love "The Flame," but the song might not make an appearance every night--but it also isn't a hits tour de force. Deep album cuts such as "Big Eyes," "Clock Strikes Ten," "Baby Loves to Rock" and "Way of the World" are always a possibility, while the creepy, psychedelic dirge "Heaven Tonight" tends to be a staple. A Cheap Trick concert is always for hardcore fans, not casual listeners.
As Zander put it in a 2014 interview: "We’re playing out there all the time – playing with Aerosmith and other bands of that ilk that are powerful and we kick their ass every night as much as we can." Yet the band manage to possess this self-confidence without being arrogant about it. Playing shows and trying to blow the headliner off the stage is just what the band does, and what they've always done. Perhaps it's hard to enshrine Cheap Trick because they still feel (and sound) so much like a spry young band with something to prove.
For me, it's mandatory that I see Cheap Trick play live at least once a year; in recent years, this pilgrimage has encompassed a club co-bill with Squeeze, a too-brief Aerosmith opening slot, a casino show and an extended headlining performance at a Columbus, Ohio, radio station-sponsored event called the Wing Zing. The latter show stands out to me the most, simply because the band was in incredible form. The set crescendoed through the requisite album tracks ("High Roller," "The Ballad of T.V. Violence") and fan favorites ("ELO Kiddies," "California Man"), but also included the 2009 song "Sick Man Of Europe," a seamless addition to the Cheap Trick catalog. It didn't matter that the band was performing at a show whose premise involved patrons chowing down on copious amounts of chicken wings; Cheap Trick sounded as if they were dominating an arena rock crowd instead.
The Billboard article mentioned that in recent years, younger additions to the nominating committee have helped acts such as Hall & Oates and KISS get elected to the Rock Hall. Perhaps to receive the same honor, all that the band needs is an influential champion — someone like Dave Grohl, who asked them to open Foo Fighters' Wrigley Field date this August. Either way, Cheap Trick in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a long overdue honor — and a well-deserved one at that.