In the beginning, Cheap Trick was lovable because they tried to pull off the toughest trick in the book: making rock that was both bonehead hard and intelligently witty. Rick Nielsen aspired to nothing less than the kind of working-class-hero reputation he'd found in role models like Pete Townshend and John Lennon. In the band's finest moments — Heaven Tonight, In Color and, especially, the awesome in-concert version of "Surrender" that's the centerpiece of Cheap Trick at Budokan — you can hear his absolute joy at discovering that such an approach worked. The live "Surrender" isn't rock & roll at the edge, but way past it. Cheap Trick sings and plays this nonsense story (which isn't really nonsense) with the same fervor that the Beatles brought to the live "Twist and Shout" on The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. And for a lot of the same reasons, which boil down to one: triumph.
For better or worse, "Surrender" also had the effect of raising the stakes: Cheap Trick must now deliver on the promise of their first three studio albums. While there's no question about Nielsen & Company's stature among American hard-rock bands — these guys are among the brightest ever — there are some doubts about what they can do with their potential. Dream Police is an unsatisfactory record mostly because it ducks such issues in favor of reworking familiar territory. (Perhaps if Cheap Trick at Budokan had been released in Japan only, as originally intended, this wouldn't be the case. Yet the group has had as much time to deal with the consequences of accidental success as its listeners have.)
Rick Nielsen has never been shy about letting his sources show, but maybe he's gone too far here. You can actually work Dream Police like a puzzle, ascribing a specific antecedent to almost every vocal and instrumental idea. The title track, for example, simply revisits "Surrender" with Ray Davies-style singing. "The House Is Rockin' (with Domestic Problems)" is derived from the dense, chordal rock of the late-Sixties Beatles ("I Want You," "Helter Skelter"), with the added fillip of a guitar tag from "Thank You Girl." "Gonna Raise Hell," another variation on "Helter Skelter," features a string chart and some Abbey Road-inspired layered voices. "Need Your Love" is a better version of the Who meets Free than Bad Company has ever managed — but that's about all it is.
It's not that these songs are bad. (Only "Voices," a ballad from a band that has absolutely no facility for ballads, is disastrous.) Indeed, several of them — particularly "Dream Police," "Way of the World" and "I'll Be with You Tonight" — are nearly as good as the earlier ones in which Cheap Trick used similar stylistic devices.
Still, Dream Police isn't as exciting as Heaven Tonight or In Color. The reason has something to do with the LP's production style. Previously, producer Tom Werman and the group created a sound that was both distinctive and about as discreet as a fist in the face. (And when somebody is punching as hard as Cheap Trick, you don't exactly have time to sit around counting the hairs on their knuckles.) The new album, on the other hand, is almost obsessively concerned with details, so you find your attention shifted to parts rather than the whole. As record making, it's state-of-the-art, but as rock & roll, it escapes boredom only because of the band's relentless charge: the way guitarist Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos work off each other will never be boring.
But one of the problems with Cheap Trick has always been that they're more listenable than compelling. (Another reason why the live "Surrender" is so great is that it makes you care that Mommy's all right.) You can't help admiring the sardonic humor and thrilling attack of these songs, yet it's a hell of a job working up much emotion about them. Maybe what I mean by saying that "Surrender" raised the stakes for this LP is that it's time for these musicians to move beyond their perfect craftsmanship.
They're trying, I think. Dream Police seems intended as a sort of statement (at least it contains a lyric sheet, which none of the group's other studio records have) and is organized around a couple of themes, mostly fame and paranoia. The altered production approach also seems designed to encourage a more "artistically serious" view of Cheap Trick, and to distance them from the shallow waters of Aerosmith, Foreigner, Kiss and Bad Company.
That's a whole other problem. Cheap Trick offers the illusion of substance — Nielsen's winking jests and sly nonsense tunes are a parody of what lunkhead rock is supposed to be about — but Kiss, to choose a particularly monstrous example, began as a kind of parody, too. It was success that let Gene Simmons, et al., claim that American culture was really about McDonald's and Gilligan's Island, pure consumption and nothing more complicated. What Nielsen would like to do is keep his humor intact and establish himself as a thinking-man's hard rocker — something no American, with the possible exception of Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd, has ever managed.
But the very knack Nielsen has for hiding out among the Steven Tylers and Gene Simmonses keeps him from writing with the sort of emotional commitment that Ronnie Van Zant (much less Pete Townshend and John Lennon) consistently provided. Dream Police isn't as bloated and glib as its conceits might indicate — the music cuts through a lot when it's as skillfully and intently made as this. Still, prattling about paranoia and whining about fame ("Writing on the Wall") aren't the same things as making a coherent statement about artistic identity (or anything else).
Rick Nielsen wants to be a great trash artist — and he could yet become one — but so far, the difference between the version of paranoia in. "Dream Police" and the version in Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" is the difference between a trash thriller like John Carpenter's Halloween and an expert one like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho: the latter keeps every promise it makes, while the former delivers on few or none. So Cheap Trick turns Dream Police into the one thing that rock & roll should never be — a cheat. On the surface, the album seems sour, jaundiced and self-important, like the petty rock aristocrats that Nielsen pillories with his stage presence. But perhaps that's too harsh a judgment. If Dream Police is an expression of anything, it's a statement about just how confused and hollow even the most skilled rock performers can feel when they're subjected to the accelerations of the star-making machinery.
The issue isn't whether Cheap Trick can become the great American rock band we lost when Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane went down, but whether Rick Nielsen has the guts to probe deeply enough to let loose what's there. Dream Police doesn't offer any answers, yet it does suggest some dire possibilities. I hope that the deterioration I think I'm hearing is something else — maybe Nielsen really is struggling to come to terms with rock & roll's central demons — because Cheap Trick is too fine a group to be buried in the circle of hell reserved for those who had potential and squandered it.