Given Cheap Trick’s boisterous indebtedness to rock & roll history, you could argue that the members of this foursome are not so much creators as dedicated fans. Exactly. Heaven Tonight, the band’s third and best album, practically synthesizes the music of the Beatles, the Who, et al., into a series of superbly crafted and cleverly arranged original songs. While Cheap Trick may not be remembered as lovingly as its primarily British antecedents — the price one has to pay for musical kleptomania, I suppose — the group’s intelligence, verve and charm will do just fine for now.
Not since the Move (whose “California Man” is covered here) or the Raspberries has a band hammered out power pop as irresistibly and snappily as Cheap Trick. Heaven Tonight has enough gorgeous harmonies, zealous melodies, two-fisted riffs and heavy-metal chords to scare the kitsch right out of Queen or Kiss. However impressive last year’s In Color was, it merely anticipated this record. If Cheap Trick now plays with more force and precision — guitarist/chief songwriter Rick Nielsen slashes away with Pete Townshend vengeance — it also comes on with more innocence in its bubbly harmonies. And that’s where the tension in the group’s music resides.
There is probably not one melody, vocal harmony or chord pattern on Heaven Tonight that honestly belongs to Cheap Trick. So what. Listening to this LP makes you feel as frenzied as a contestant on Name That Tune. Some of the vocals on “Surrender” (whose electronic guitar effects and power chords re-create Who’s Next) duplicate those from the Hollies’ “Carrie-Anne.” “Stiff Competition,” which borrows its chords from Pete Townshend’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” contains harmonies that are reminiscent of the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine.” The vaudevillian frivolity of “How Are You” bears a suspicious resemblance to the bouncy part of “A Day in the Life.” Further, lead singer Robin Zander successfully impersonates John Lennon (not to mention Lennon’s clone, Jeff Lynne). So it’s no wonder that “Heaven Tonight” and “Takin’ Me Back” suggest “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” respectively. And so on.
Yet for all its stylistic meticulousness, Heaven Tonight never comes off as detached or lofty. Such compellingly moronic verse as “Sayonara oh suicide hari kari/Kamikaze you won’t/See another evening/Goodbye” makes Cheap Trick, along with the Ramones, ardent practitioners of Andy Warhol’s finest philosophy: “We should really stay babies for much longer than we do, now that we’re living so much longer.” Consider the phallocentric “Stiff Competition,” on which Zander sings “The bigger they are — the harder they fall.” Or “On the Radio,” whose Pampers harmonies brilliantly satirize and celebrate the Bay City Rollers in their prime.
However admirable Heaven Tonight may be as an aural rock & roll encyclopedia, one wonders if Cheap Trick will continue to swipe its musical ideas from the past — an approach that could become tedious — or eventually carve its own initials. I’m willing to find out.