The Rick Nielsen Interview
By Shawn Perry
When I think of the hours I spent in my youth, listening to Cheap Trick's slick and infectious brand of pop rock, I figure what's a few more weeks in between short chats with the band's guitarist, chief songwriter and fearless leader, Rick Nielsen. I'd bumped into the wide-eyed Bowery Boy look-alike over the years, but never had the chance for a lengthy chat. Finally, on the eve of the release of the Budokan!: 30th Anniversary Edition box set, a phone interview was scheduled. Unfortunately, Nielsen was suffering from sleep deprivation in Australia, and we only spoke for a few minutes.
Two weeks later, Nielsen called me from Florida and our conversation resumed. Acutely aware of Cheap Trick's place in the world of music, Nielsen apologized for the brevity of our previous encounter, and went on to fill in the blanks to each and every query I had. We touched on other bands, the legacy of Budokan, the band's current efforts and Nielsen's work on John Lennon's Double Fantasy album. The guitarist also had a few words to share about Barack Obama, the former Illinois senator elected President of the United States. With a new record in the can and ready for release, it looks like Rick Nielsen and Cheap Trick are in for the long haul.
Hi Rick, how are you?
Hey Shawn (groggily).
We just got to Australia not long ago. Plus the time change and we did a show and I was actually asleep when they woke me up to talk to you. What a pleasure it is to be woken up just to speak to you. I'm just half-kidding, but it's like, if you need more junk later, I'd be happy to do it during daylight hours. I'm not a wuss about that, but I'd rather give a good interview, then some token piece of crap like I'm the bass player of Uriah Heep or something. I want to do better than that.
That's funny because I recently interviewed the guitar player for Uriah Heep.
I don't know who that is (laughs).
It's Mick Box, the only original member left and a very nice chap indeed. Anyway, you're playing in Australia with Def Leppard. Is this the first time you've toured with them?
No. We've been to Europe with them. And all over the United States with them. So I guess they liked us enough (yawns) to ask us to come over here. Oh, excuse me. Plus we've had some hits here. "The Flame" was huge. "If You Want My Love" was huge. Dream Police did real well. "Surrender" is well-known.
You finish up in Australia and come back to the States?
We finish up here around the 13th or 14th. Then we come back to do a show in Florida, then about five or seven more shows until the end of the year.
Is it home for the holidays after your swing through Southern Califonria?
We may be playing somewhere over the holidays, maybe in Vegas.
Thirty years ago Cheap Trick made this big splash at the Budokan in Tokyo, Japan. What do you think it was that the Japanese found so damn appealing about Cheap Trick?
Good looks? No, I think it was the music. We had three Number One songs, from our first and second records in Japan. So that surely added to it. We went there in '78 and the record company said we're gonna put a record out for these fans because they're crazy fanatics about Cheap Trick. So we recorded about three or four different shows.
To celebrate Cheap Trick's At Budokan, you returned back to the scene of the crime this past April (2008), and you have this big fat box set.
It's pretty cool. I haven't seen it yet.
I just got a copy last night. It's very cool. You'll love it. Is this the last we've heard from Budokan, or is there more?
I suppose. We recorded that show and all the shenanigans that go along with it. I don't think there will be a live Budokan 2008, but there's material if we need it.
"I Want You To Want Me," "Ain't That A Shame" and "Surrender" — those were the songs that really won over the Japanese audiences, but you played heavier stuff like "Auf Wiedersehen" too. How does a song like that go over?
It goes over great. We played it tonight, for a second encore song. It was basically pretty obscure. The fact is that we do it and people go nuts over it.
When the original album came out, there were only 10 tracks. The box set has over 30. I know there was talk of a double album and there were recording glitches, but none of that stopped it from becoming this monster hit. If you could go back, would have changed anything?
The only thing I would have changed is we had the second half of the show (coughs). We should have put it out, instead of waiting of 20 years to put out the complete show. We should have put it out in a timely fashion.
When we last spoke you were in Australia, getting ready to play a few dates with Def Leppard. How did that go?
It went great. Good tour. We played to the throngs.
You've played in Australia before, haven't you?
Maybe five to seven times.
And you've toured with just about everyone.
Never with the Rolling Stones.
Would you like to?
Yes and no. I've seen bands that open for the Stones, and the only time they got any applause was when they finished.
Do you have any favorite bands you like going on the road with?
We just got done with Journey. That was a fun tour. I like to play. I don't really care who we play with.
So you don't really hang out with the other band or check out their set?
Oh no, I do. We toured with AC/DC back in the day, and we'd do flip flops with those guys — one night they'd headline, the next night we'd headline. We were both doing fairly well at the time. That was one band I could sit and watch every night. We toured with Aerosmith, and other bands, but the one I could sit and watch every night was AC/DC. They were just so good. Pure, rich rock. The show was fine, but musically, it was just my cup of tea.
When you first played in Japan, were you on tour with another band?
Every time we've been to Japan, we've been on our own. We did Summer Sonic, which was like a hundred bands, and we did a couple festivals, but for the most part, we've been the headliner there.
Have you had a chance to check out the new Budokan box set yet?
I got it on my way down here. I'm in Florida right now.
What's the deal with the footage on the DVD? It was just sitting in a vault some place?
Yeah some place…in a vault or on a curbside, for all I know.
Did you know it existed?
Yeah, we knew it existed because it had been a TV show. I have a lot of videos of Cheap Trick and different stuff we've done, but does that mean everyone's gonna see it? Probably not. I never thought about it coming out. It seems as though it should have come out ages ago. Past that point, it's like…well does anyone care to see this? But the interest about seeing it got to be quite good. Enough people said, "Wow! This is cool. We got to do something with this."
It happens and it didn't just happen over night. Over this past year, with Legacy and getting Jack Douglas back involved again…it's not like something we had to have done. I guess the moon and the planets all aligned correctly. How else can you explain it.
I've noticed a lot of footage has come out of the woodwork ever since DVDs have been introduced. Maybe it's the technology.
Oh yeah, the technology. Originally, it was like watching Amos n' Andy on kinescope. You don't exist unless they get the transfer to a different format or it's kind of lost.
And now you can add a 5.1 surround mix to it?
Right. Thirty years ago when we did it in 5.1 sound and it wasn't even there (laughs). Remember when it used to be all mono records, and let's go to stereo, then quadraphonic and it's like, whoa, that's not such a great idea, let's go back to stereo.
When you listen to the album and see the video, is there anything that sticks out in your mind about those shows?
Well, just that it was fun to do. The thing known from the Budokan record, the original one had "Ain't That A Shame" with the drum intro. If you watch the video, it's from a different night. When they start the song, a girl jumps out of the balcony onto the stage and grabs me, and there goes the drum solo.
With Cheap Trick, every night we play the same tunes, of course, but we're not "studio guys" where every note and every take is the same. It's not perfect; it's rock and roll music. It's never supposed to be perfect. Once it is, then you're just a copycat and that's a good excuse for me to be sloppy. I can't replicate it over and over and over. Once I have a riff down perfect — whatever the definition of perfect is — then it's like, hmmm…maybe I should try it in a different position. Or gee this is not good in this octave or if I bend this note, it might sound better. It's never ending.
So every night's different.
Yeah. We make real mistakes. Sometimes, they're good ones.
One good mistake you made was your last studio album Rockford, which was probably one of my most favorite albums of 2006. And I saw a show behind that at the Wiltern Theater here in Los Angeles.
That's where we got kind of scouted out for what we're doing tonight, the Sgt. Pepper thing.
And that's what you're doing in Florida tonight?
We got Donovan out of retirement, and we got the Florida Rock Symphony.
You played Sgt. Pepper at the Hollywood Bowl, right?
Yeah, so we got asked to do it here. So we're doing it tonight. It's sold-out. So it was back at the Wiltern where the people from the Hollywood Bowl came to see us. They were looking for a band that could actually do Sgt. Pepper. I mean, there's cover bands with their Sgt. Pepper outfits. All of a sudden they have an English accent and that kind of stuff. We're not like a cover band. Have you ever heard our version of "Magical Mystery Tour"?
Yes, I have.
So you know it's not the same tune. It's the same tune, but it's not us trying to do it...
... It sounds like Cheap Trick.
There you go.
Just like your version of "Day Tripper." That sounds like Cheap Trick too.
It's like Roxy Music, when they play a Bob Dylan song, they're not trying to sound like Bob Dylan at the Monterey Folk Fest. At the Wiltern, when they came to see us, it was kind of like an audition because Robin can sing the heavy stuff and he can sing the sweet stuff. And the band, we can actually play. You know what I mean? Let's ask Van Halen to do Sgt. Pepper. I don't think so. The songs are doable. But to play and use the original George Martin orchestral charts — I think we were the perfect fit for that.
I agree. You have that same melodic sense that the Beatles had. And, of course, that's in your songs, including the batch on Rockford.
We also have another album we've already finished.
I was wondering about a follow-up. When can we expect that?
I don't know exactly, but it's done. Just this past year.
Do you have a title?
Not really. We've been calling it kind of a trilogy because it's got three songs, then three that kind of go together, then three, and three, then one. So it's four trilogies and a bastard (laughs).
You're one of the few bands from the 70s that has all its original members. Tom left for a period and then came back. How do you keep it all together?
We never speak to each other. I really don't know. I mean, why do you break up? Or how did you get together? All of them don't make any sense, so why try to figure it out. We just enjoy what we do.
You're well-known for your eclectic arsenal of guitars, especially your customized Five Neck.
I actually have three of those.
How much does one of those guitars weigh?
I don't have a clue. I could make up something. Stack up three, four, five Les Pauls around your neck, and do the math.
And you play all five necks, right?
Oh, of course. All equally terrible.
I read you've owned over 2,000 guitars?
That's right. Two-thousand musical instruments.
How many are currently in your collection?
Four-hundred and something.
Do you have a favorite?
No, not yet.
You're also famous for throwing stuff into the audience.
The first time I saw Cheap Trick, it was a New Year's Eve show at the Long Beach Arena, around 1979, 1980.
Didn't we play with Kansas?
You might have, I don't remember. I was sitting about 30 rows back and there were picks flying all over the place. When you flick a guitar pick into the crowd, are you going for distance or accuracy?
Both. Not always distance. When I shoot one out, I'm usually aiming at something that I'm looking at. It's hard to throw a little of piece of something accurately, even a couple of feet. Here's my only skill I can put on my resume: I like to play music and I throw stuff occasionally. That's not a very good resume to try and get a job with. I'm proud of playing with Cheap Trick, but my other skills are quite limited.
How accurately can you throw a KISS record?
I have no accuracy at all. It just goes all over the place.
Rick, you've had an incredible run with Cheap Trick, but you've also done a few high-profile sessions outside of the band. I think probably the most famous of those was when you and Bun E. Carlos worked with John Lennon. What do you remember about that experience?
I remember everything. It was a secret. We couldn't tell anyone about it. I remember it was August 12, 1980 — the same day my son Dax was born. I remember smuggling Cuban cigars from Canada into the studio and smoking them with John and Yoko and Jack Douglas. And returning with a guitar I had made for John. That's at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that guitar I had made for him at Hamer. I loaned him my Fender StringBender, that's what it was called, and I got it back three years after he was killed.
What was he like in the studio?
It wasn't like, "Hello Mr. Lennon, what would you like us to play." It was like, musician to musician. Me, like a fool, I never asked him for an autograph. We didn't even get pictures taken. Bob Gruen was supposed to be there, and he didn't shoot any pictures. He was asking me questions, instead of, "What was it like to be in the Beatles?" I didn't ask him that kind of stuff.
Bun E. said that when I was doing the "Losing You" guitar stuff, he (Lennon) said, "Oh, I kind of wish I would have had him" — meaning me — "doing 'Cold Turkey.'" He said, "Clapton choked up." That's what he said. Bun E. knows more about that than me because I was in the other room. It was just an honor to play on it. Even to this day, if it would have been, "Hey Rick, you get to play with Elvis, you get play with Paul McCartney, you get to play with Mick Jagger, or you get to play with John Lennon." John Lennon is the only one I would have picked out of that bunch.
You ever jam with any of the other Beatles?
At one point, I was going to be producing half a Ringo record, and David Bowie was going to be doing the other half and that didn't happen. George Harrison — I never met him but he was best friends with one of my best friends, Pete Alenov from St. Paul, Minnesota. He's a guitar dealer. And he actually saw George when George went to the Mayo Clinic, toward the end there. So that didn't happen. When we worked with George Martin in London at AIR Studios, McCartney was downstairs, waiting for him to go to dinner, he and Linda. And they were gonna come up after, but didn't. We were supposed to meet another time, but didn't. Paul McCartney's left-handed Les Paul that he plays — that was mine. They only made three in 1960, and he got it from me. And we played together at the Super Bowl down in Florida, but we never sat and chatted, so there you go. John's the man.
We just elected a senator from Illinois for president. Does that mean Cheap Trick has a shot at playing the inauguration?
They haven't called yet, but I don't know, we're down in Florida right now, so maybe there will be a message when we get home. You know, Obama signed a piece of paper because we got an award in Chicago from the Grammys. We got it a year ago, last October. It was Kanye West, Joe Shanahan and Cheap Trick. We got it from Mayor Daley and we got it from Obama.
Last year, I went down to the state of Illinois, to the Senate, and we were voted in unanimously and bipartisan via the senate so that April 1st is Cheap Trick Day in the state of Illinois. So I don't think Obama owes us too much any more. I'm just happy, from traveling around the world, that people look at us — at American people like this is something great. Nobody's a magician, but he seems less like the politicians that we've been having for years. You know, spend, spend, spend. I believe there's gonna be a future for my children and my grandchildren. As opposed, to what my father told me 40 or 50 years ago, how far we were going in debt with the country.
Obama wants to strengthen the infrastructure of the United States, and I think that it was a pretty good thing when they put the picture of him as a Roosevelt in the car. It's hard to imagine that from the time I was in grade school and high school, the complexion, in more ways than one, have really changed. I think it's a step in the right direction.