The latest installment of an ongoing feature. Also could be construed as the first fruits of my self-declared Year of Power Pop.
Today’s subject: Third studio album by snarky power-pop-cum-hard-rock band from Rockford, Illinois. Released May 1978, to middling commercial success in the U.S. and stark raving mania in Japan.
And here’s why I like it:
1. The entire first side. Choosing the best album side of the Seventies would be a monumental task, even if you broke it down into categories (singer-songwriter, hard-rock, soul, etc.)
I think Side One of Heaven Tonight can hang with just about anyone in the hard-rock category — even with Side One of Aerosmith’s Rocks, a long-beloved favorite of mine.
Side One starts with the definitive Cheap Trick song, “Surrender;” moves on to the powerful stop-start riffing of “On Top of the World;” then into the loose-jointed boogie stomp of “California Man.” Any of the three of these could have been a separate reason I like this record.
We also get “High Roller,” a portrait of a self-important sleazeball, in which the AC/DC swagger of the verse gives way to a Lennonesque chorus; and “Auf Wiedersehen,” a song about suicide whose thorough lack of sentimentality is either callous or kinda refreshing, depending on your point of view.
Side Two, unfortunately, isn’t quite as memorable a ride. If it were, Heaven Tonight would rank as an unquestioned classic, rather than just a very good Seventies riff-n’-roll record.
2. The faux teenage mania. I have a certain affection for the late-Seventies and early-Eighties teensploitation genre — all those movies and songs that presented slices of teenage life (often sun-kissed Californian) with a practiced adult cynicism and tongues planted firmly in cheek.
(And well-toned teenage arses planted firmly in short-shorts … gotta think of the box office, after all.)
This genre could include everything from “Rock N’ Roll High School” to the “Grease” movies to “Gorp” to “Up The Academy” to “The Van” to Celebration’s “Almost Summer” … feels like I’ve only scratched the surface, but if you’ve seen a few of these, you get the idea.
Cheap Trick’s cynical attitude and fondness for catchy hooks creates a natural affinity with the genre. It’s probably no coincidence that “Surrender” ended up on the soundtrack of “Up The Academy,” for instance.
Heaven Tonight features a classic teensploitation song, “On The Radio,” which combines brilliantly polished pop production with a baldly dumbheaded teenybop lyric (“Hey, mister, on the radio / You’re really my best friend / Please play my favorite song for me.”)
Maybe a song about music on the radio was just a little too meta to score with the general public in ’78. But it would have played bee-yoo-tifully over the opening credits of a teen film, perhaps while the heroine gets out of bed, puts on her satin jacket and roller skates, and heads off to school.
3. The title track. I would have imagined — nay, I did imagine — that a song called “Heaven Tonight” would have been a blissful Friday-afternoon pop romp in which a letter-jacketed suitor dreams of the pleasures to be had that evening with his lissome significant other.
Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. In Cheap Trick’s hands, the title track of Heaven Tonight plays like the warped love-child of Alice Cooper and the Beatles.
It’s a slow, menacing, Halloweenish horrorshow of a song, apparently about death by drug overdose, set to an effective combination of harpsichord, strings and heavy guitar.
Frontman Robin Zander gets to yowl and croon on other songs; but he’s at his most effective on the chorus here, whispering, “Would you like to go to heaven tonight?” like a devil on someone’s shoulder.
To those of us who grew up in the relatively uptight 1980s, the ’70s have a reputation as a time of widespread and casual drug use. Set against that background, “Heaven Tonight” plays like a eulogy — maybe even an anthem — for a lost generation of longhaired kids who took too many barbiturates and kicked the oxygen habit.
4. The bits and pieces. For whatever reason, I find it especially easy to play spot-the-influence on Cheap Trick records.
I’ve already mentioned Alice Cooper and the Beatles (who show up several times, none more so than in “On The Radio,” when Zander sings a quavery line about “at night I turn you on” that’s instantly redolent of “A Day In The Life.”)
Listen carefully — through my ears, anyway — and you might just hear Jeff Beck, Jeff Lynne, Dylan, the Who, Paul McCartney, and maybe the Raspberries make cameo appearances.
On some records, that would be annoying. But I’m willing to let it slide here, because these guys don’t claim to be geniuses or craftsmen … they’re just four irreverent scrubs from Chicagoland, trying to make their way in the crazy-quilt corridors of Seventies rock n’ roll.
5. The ending. Heaven Tonight ends with “Oh Claire,” a barely minute-long track that consists of Zander bellowing, “Oh, konnichiwa!” over a slamming series of power chords. (The songlet purports to be live, though I’d bet it’s really a studio construction with overdubbed crowd noise.)
It’s not all that engaging … but it’s just random enough to make me wonder: What is it? A random nod to the Japanese market? An inside joke?
And whatever it is, why close the record with it?
(I’m one of those geeks who believes that the sequencing of a record actually means something, and the song you choose to end a record should be some sort of Grand Statement that sends the listener off in style.)
Maybe Cheap Trick’s rejection of Grand Statements is the entire point here. Heaven Tonight is a rock record custom-made for a time and place when Grand Statements were passe, and all that counts are some Big Riffs here and some clap tracks there.
(And in the end, the love you take is equal to konnichiwa.)