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Critics' Choice
ROCKHALL CLASS OF 2016: THE OLD
IN (CHEAP TRICK) & OUT (THE CARS)
4/8/16

By Bud Scoppa

Discerning rock fans had cause for celebration when it was revealed in December that Cheap Trick had made the final cut in the voting for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the voting pundits and tastemakers got this one right. They blew it, however, with The Cars, who’ve been eligible for the last 11 years and were finally nominated for the class of 2016 but were puzzlingly passed over. It would’ve been incredibly cool for both of these great American bands to be onstage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center tonight for the induction ceremony, because they belong together on so many levels.

Emerging out of Rockford, Ill., and Boston, respectively, in the mid-’70s, the two bands had much in common: an intricate, high-torque, readily identifiable sound, stylish imaging, a gift for concocting irresistibly hooky songs and enthralling albums projecting a sparkling, clearly defined underlying sensibility. Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and The Cars’ “Just What I Needed,” to cite a pair of signature examples, indelibly defined moments in time for their generation with virtuosity, wit and heart, while sounding as fresh and vital today as they did blasting out of car radios four decades ago. The two bands stood out by refusing to jump on bandwagons, hewing instead to the blueprint drawn up by The Beatles, while ornamenting the classic guitarchitecture with details that were up to the minute and all their own. The oft-used term “power pop” doesn’t begin to describe Cheap Trick’s fusion of Marshall-stack power chords, pummeling drums and choirboy vocals, or The Cars’ sleek hybrid, with its interplay of guitars and synths in lockstep with machine-tooled grooves.

Just days before their induction, the Tricksters released their 17th LP, Bang, Zoom, Crazy... Hello—their first for Big Machine, whose Scott Borchetta is a devout fan and was reportedly deeply involved in an A&R role. From the squalling guitar note that kicks opener “Heart on the Line” into gear, this muscular, expertly crafted batch of tracks overtly (and fittingly, given the occasion) invites comparisons to the band’s quartet of classics—the self-titled 1977 debut, followed months later by In Color, 1978’s Heaven Tonight and 1979’s Dream Police. It’s a ballsy move, given the monumental level of their achievements of four decades ago, but these guys have demonstrated during the last two decades that they can still make convincing Cheap Trick albums, while continuing to kick ass on stage, and they’re clearly not lacking in confidence. It’s a drag that drummer Bun E. Carlos (who has an album of his own, Greetings From Bunezuela, coming out 6/24 on eOne) is no longer in the lineup, but Daxx Nielsen, son of guitarist and principal songwriter Rick Nielsen, capably fills this key role on the new album.

Embedded amid the prevailing sturm und drang of Bang, Zoom, Crazy... Hello (whose “Long Time No See You” nods to the ’80s hair-metal bands that worshiped Cheap Trick) are two newly minted classics: the glorious anthem “No Direction,” which would’ve fit snugly on Heaven Tonight, and the poignant, elegiac “When I Wake Up Tomorrow,” on which Robin Zander seems to be channeling Bowie. “Sing My Blues Away” and “The Sun Never Sets,” the album’s other melodically rich tracks, further wrestle with issues central to the second half of life. A witty cover of “The In Crowd” patterned on Bryan Ferry’s remake/remodel of the Dobie Gray original is another delight.

If Bang, Zoom, Crazy...Hello confirms Cheap Trick’s undiminished vitality, Rhino’s just-released The Elektra Years 1978-1987, makes a compelling case for The Cars’ legacy. The set crisply boxes up the six LPs the group released before breaking up, each newly or recently remastered under the scrutiny of Ric Ocasek, with miniaturized replications of the original packages, right down to the inner sleeves and the gatefold of Heartbeat City. What’s particularly striking in perusing this body of work as a whole is its sonic and visual consistency, particularly the first four LPs, each impeccably produced by Roy Thomas Baker, and each boasting an iconic cover co-created by drummer David Robinson—the girl at the wheel of her convertible on the self-titled 1978 debut, the Vargas beauty on ’79’s Candy-O, the checked flag on 1980’s Panorama and the girl with the cocktail shaker on ’81’s Shake It Up. As framed 12x12s, these pieces would look awesome hung together on a bachelor pad wall. It’s worth noting that The Cars’ 2011 reunion album, Move Like This (Hear Music), produced by Ocasek, holds up well alongside the band’s body of work.While The Elektra Years serves as a vivid reminder of rock’s golden age, Bang, Zoom, Crazy... Hello makes a strong case for rock’s ongoing relevance—its undiminished ability to thrill and delight—even during an era in which the once-dominant form has been marginalized. As long as Cheap Trick is around making records as strong as this one, succeeding generations of rock bands will have a reason to believe.