In the summer of 1980, Cheap Trick guitar virtuoso Rick Nielsen walked into a New York City recording studio to record I’m Losing You with John Lennon. A few months later, the Beatle was assassinated.
Working alongside Lennon is just one of the many astonishing plaudits Nielsen has received in his long career that started in 1965 but took off in 1977 with the mainstream success of Cheap Trick’s self-titled debut.
Today, younger musicians are standing in line to work with Nielsen, 69, and his Cheap Trick bandmates. The group’s singles I Want You to Want Me, Surrender and Dream Police — all penned by Nielsen — became the blueprint for both primitive power pop and over-the-top arena rock.
Four decades later, the band hasn’t abandoned the guitar-driven pop majesty that earned the Illinois natives 40 Gold and Platinum records and a 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. Last year, the work horses dropped two records, We’re All Alright! and Christmas Christmas. We talked with Nielsen about his eventful past.
I heard you’ve played around 5,000 shows since Cheap Trick formed in 1974 — has that become tiresome these days?
We said the 5,000 shows thing about 10 years ago. I don’t know what it is now. I love to play, so that part is fine. We’ve done that for years, now it’s just rough going through TSA and all that. The travel kind of beats you up, but we were beat up before we started, almost. We used to play six nights a week, three or four sets a night. The worst thing is you get up and look in the mirror — I feel like I’m 16 but look 116.
You’ve collaborated with Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. How did that friendship start?
He approached us. We knew him because Nirvana were Cheap Trick fans. Kurt Cobain said, ‘We’re like Cheap Trick except the guitars are louder.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, our guitars are pretty loud.’ They were fans of ours before we knew who they were. One day, Dave Grohl and (drummer) Taylor Hawkins showed up to our show wearing Cheap Trick shirts.
What do you recall about recording with John Lennon on his Double Fantasy LP sessions?
When John walked in and saw me, he was like, ‘Oh! It’s you.’ He knew who I was, but didn’t realize who I was until he saw me. My ongoing joke is he thought I was going to be Ricky Nelson. I told John I was going to take him guitar shopping.
You own almost 600 guitars, a serious collection. Do you recall what Lennon played?
He was playing a Veleno guitar, which is what Grand Funk and Marc Bolan played — but it wasn’t a great guitar. I told him, ‘You’re John Lennon, you should be playing something else.’ I gave him one of the guitars I brought with me that day. I got it back (from Yoko) three years later, after he was murdered.
Does Cheap Trick collaborate on the newer songs?
We all work on everybody’s songs. That’s not something we used to do. We try to make the best effort out of it. Sometimes something you don’t like turns out to be something. You have to work on them. The better stuff always comes to the top. Surrender and I Want You to Want Me, we had them but held them for a couple records because they weren’t finished yet.
When you wrote Surrender, do you recall where you were?
I was in Rockford, Ill. in my second-floor apartment. The lyrics were inspired by my aunt. She was in the Women’s Army Corps in World War II. When you’re 18 or 19, you really haven’t done much except go to school. My love life was no big deal, so I wouldn’t have had many songs to write about that.
Do you work on songwriting in or out of the studio?
We all write stuff on our own and then work in the studio. We were just in last week and did 12 (tracks) in one day. Are they all good? Yeah. But will they make the record? Maybe three of them.
What was it like working with the Beatles producer George Martin on Cheap Trick’s All Shook Up LP in 1980?
We asked him and he agreed. It was really odd. We had George Martin and Geoff Emerick, both the guys who produced Sgt. Peppers, come to Madison, Wisc. in the middle of the winter to do a pre-production. Can you imagine that? Years later, we got George’s blessing to do Sgt. Peppers live. He gave me the original orchestra charts. I had him sign them twice. He gave me a book and signed it, ‘Rick, you’re a great musician, how come you’re so nice?’
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