There’s nothing progressive about In Color, Cheap Trick’s second album. On the surface, the group is distinguished by its eccentric appearance: the pair of Rod Stewartstyle “punques” are standard enough, but lead guitarist Rick Nielsen, a bug-eyed Bowery Boy, and drummer Bun E. Carlos, who looks and dresses like a mustachioed Panamanian Sydney Greenstreet, are out of some other movie altogether. Musically, the group is less eccentric: this is mainstream rock & roll, utterly without outrage or excess.
In a way, Cheap Trick is Beatleesque. But not in the sense of the Raspberries or Elton John or (God knows!) the Bay City Rollers. What sets this group apart is that these guys actually imagine that the important music of the later Beatles was the almost heavy metal (but still melodic) hard rock of “Birthday,” “Helter Skelter” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” on the White Album and “I Want You” and “Come Together” on Abbey Road.
Reference points are scattered everywhere: “Hello There,” the opening track, evokes the manic verve of “Birthday”; “Big Eyes” opens with a direct quote from “I Want You”; “Oh Caroline” and “So Good to See You” have the slightly narcotic feeling of Abbey Road‘s best rock. Nielsen is a superbly inventive guitarist, though, and while rhythm guitarist Robin Zander’s singing owes a large debt to both Lennon and Harrison, Trick isn’t merely derivative, Like Boston, Trick is more than the sum of the elements it manipulates, mostly because it manipulates them so skillfully.
A list of the group’s antecedents is surprising both for what it includes, but especially for what it leaves out: the Who and Yardbirds are obvious enough, as is certain garage — nee punk — rock, like the Music Machine’s “Talk Talk.” But there’s almost no reflection of Cream or Hendrix here, an amazing omission for a band so completely dominated by guitars (piano pops up on only a couple of tracks). Those omissions, though, are part of the strategy: Nielsen’s songs are tightly written, and the group’s arrangements place absolutely no premium on solos. Even Zander’s voice and the group’s excellent, tough harmonies are used instrumentally, rather than verbally; I’ve heard these songs 40 times and have no idea what the subject matter of any of them might be. But the sound of the voices and Nielsen’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of chords and effects keep you coming back.
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Something similar might be said of Steely Dan, but Cheap Trick has the added advantage of accessibility, precisely because it exercises imagination on mainstream terms. Nielsen seems to have as specific of a notion of what rock & roll is as John Lennon or Pete Townshend, and a consequent conception of where it ought to go and, just as importantly, where it must stop or become something else.
Which is to say that Cheap Trick has already won the battle against the formulaic and pedestrian that punk rock is trying to fight. That vision of the music is also the source of the group’s other most salient and appealing characteristic: its humor. Perhaps people who look like Nielsen and Carlos have no choice but to become self-deprecating wits, I don’t know. But plenty of these songs are plain funny: “You’re All Talk” is a brilliantly titled exercise in pure incoherence. “Clock Strikes Ten” opens with a silly imitation of Big Ben, then rips into a song that can only be compared to Little Richard playing “Rip It Up,” easily his silliest song, on guitar. “Southern Girls” could be a crapshooter’s monologue.
Ultimately, the group’s sense of humor may be what I find so attractive about In Color: it’s never grim. At a time when almost everything — even proclamations of joy — is so determined, it’s nice to find a bunch of guys who can take it easy without having seven women on their minds.