Cheap Trick: 'Heaven Tonight' (1978)

Rediscovering lost music via the vinyl bins at secondhand stores

Album: Heaven Tonight, Cheap Trick

Place: Oak Ridge Goodwill

Price: $1

The world didn't end in 2012, but to some people it probably felt like it did. Hurricane Sandy killed more than 200 people and upended the lives of thousands more. The inevitable benefit concert followed. It's easy to be cynical about events like the 12-12-12 concert. Watching wizened millionaire rock stars ask us to open our wallets raises the question, "If this is so important, why don't you donate your own money?" But I actually respect the performers who donate time to events like 12-12-12. If, as many Americans believe, the government shouldn't help people in a hurricane's path, who better than famous rich people to do the job?

But there is one thing about the 12-12-12 concert that bothered me—its Englishness. Sure, we got Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel and Kanye West. But the big draws were Roger Waters, the Who, the Rolling Stones, and Paul McCartney. (Okay, make that two things that bothered me—why McCartney played "Live and Let Die" after a storm that killed a bunch of people is baffling). Hell, Kiss is from New York—where were they? And frankly, I'd rather see the revivified New York Dolls than a shirtless Roger Daltry continuing the unsettling trend of performing with dead people.

This all came to mind when I came across my latest thrift store find—Cheap Trick's explosive Heaven Tonight. I'm pretty sure the still vibrant Cheap Trick would've put on a better show than the latest person to fill the "corpulent guy" role on Saturday Night Live did. And Cheap Trick is one of America's greatest bands. They are criminally underappreciated. As proof, consider that Cheap Trick can't sniff the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, even though it has inducted the likes of Donovan, Jackson Browne, and the Lovin' Spoonful. That's right, the Lovin' Spoonful!

"Surrender," which leads off Heaven Tonight in all its anthemic, bourgeois glory, is the apotheosis of melodic rock music. Youth, optimism, sex, fun, and intergenerational conflict—they're all in there, and they're all part of what rock music is supposed to be about. Oh, and the song rocks hard. Here, and throughout the album, singer Robin Zander manages to sound like John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the same time. The man has a perfect melodic rock voice—rangy and sweet but just a little bit edgy. And Rick Nielsen—the band's only guitarist—blasts chunky power chords like a poppier Steve Jones, and throws in some lead lines now and then as bassist Tom Petersson throbs away.

After "Surrender," the monster hooks are everywhere, especially on "On Top of the World," "Takin' Me Back," and "On the Radio." Then there's "Heaven Tonight," a serious power ballad about drug use that sounds like a mix between "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Dream On." Cheap Trick is often goofy (note the album jacket's juxtaposition of pretty boys Zander and Petersson on the front, and nerdy drummer Bun E. Carlos and Nielsen on the back), but this song is serious if facile in its depiction of drug use. When it repeats "You can never come down/You can never come down," it's a little bit disquieting.

Cheap Trick comprises four fine musicians, playing boogie-woogie and blues ("Hello There" and "California Man"), straightforward hard rock ("Auf Wiedersehen," "Stiff Competition," and "High Roller"), and power ballads equally well. The adjective "Beatleseque" is often used to describe this album, and indeed this record is jammed with catchy, well-crafted, rockin' songs. In the end, I'm left thinking that if you want to get people fired up, get Cheap Trick to play for you.