Cheap Trick’s ‘Heaven Tonight’: They Just Seemed a Little Weird

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Robin Zander (l.) and Tom Petersson graced the front cover of Heaven Tonight

Heaven Tonight, Cheap Trick’s third album overall and second (of three) to be produced by Tom Werman, continued the band’s ascent onto the charts.

Their self-titled debut album had merely bubbled under the Billboard 200 at #207. In Color, also under Werman’s auspices, made it to #73. So Heaven Tonight’s finish at #48 was no slouch—even if shy of the live At Budokan’s #4 spot in 1978, and 1979’s Dream Police, the third and final album of the Werman production trilogy, at #6.

Forever to its credit, Heaven Tonight, released in mid May 1978, contained the track that would fast become one of the band’s signature songs, “Surrender.” The song, in which a boomer describes his army brat mother (“served with the WACs in the Philippines”) who warns her son to “stay away from girls” like the one he’s addressing because “you’ll never know what you’ll catch.” By the end of the song, the generation gap has been bridged, with “Then I woke up, Mom and Dad are rolling on the couch/Rolling numbers, rock and rolling/Got my Kiss records out.”

The back cover of the album, with Rick Nielsen (l.) and Bun E. Carlos

“Surrender” is a Rick Nielsen original that Cheap Trick had waited three albums to release—it was a standout in their three-sets-per-night shows in the Midwest as far back as 1975…two years prior to signing with Epic Records. It is also one of the catchiest power pop songs ever, with added interest from its mid-song key changes (from B-flat major to B major to C major). In his 2007 book Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide, author John Borack called it “a stone classic for the ages.”

Related: Our interview with Epic Records’ A&R exec, Tom Werman, about the band’s development

While the single made it only to #62, it is one of Cheap Trick’s all-time classics; it remains the band’s usual set closer (pre-encore) to this date, usually positioned prior to “Auf Wiedersehen,” also from the album, which is not a casual “see you soon” kind of goodbye but rather a song about suicide, one of two on the album. The second death-related song is the lush title track (“Heaven Tonight”) which, with a degree more subtlety, chronicles a drug-related death (“there’s a limit, you went over”).

Watch Cheap Trick perform “Auf Wiedersehen” live

(These, of course, follow in the tradition of “Oh Candy” from their debut album, in which the speaker attempts to talk a depressed photographer friend out of ending it all—sadly, that was a true song and the suicide was real.)

Heaven Tonight combines some of the last unrecorded songs from the band’s pre-record contract club days (“Surrender,” “Auf Wiedersehen,” “High Roller,” their cover of Roy Wood’s “California Man,” and the bonus track instrumental “Oh Claire” which is not listed in the sequence). The balance of the album consisted of six songs their early club-going fans hadn’t yet heard, which, with one exception, landed on side two (“On Top of the World,” “Takin’ Me Back,” “On the Radio,” “Heaven Tonight,” “Stiff Competition,” and “How Are You”).

Countering the old record executive cliché of “I don’t hear a single,” nearly every song on Heaven Tonight might have been a single—even if the overall sound was still a little left-of-center in relation to the corporate-rock sounds favored by FM rock stations of the day, while somehow more mainstream and radio-ready than the bulk of indie punk and new wave recordings also being released that year.

It probably hurt their radio relations none to have included an outright love song to radio, “On the Radio”: “All of the rock and roll DJs got their fingers on the world/‘Cause they play the songs that make you and me feel so good.” That song stood in stark contrast to Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio” (“I wanna bite the hand that feeds me/I wanna make them wish they’d never seen me”), released that same year. In this writer’s 1978 review of Heaven Tonight in Lively Times, the weekly entertainment newspaper in the band’s hometown Rockford, Ill., I wrote: “For Costello, radio’s a sad salvation, while for Cheap Trick, it’s peachy.”

Their willingness to kneel at radio’s alter, coupled with their decision to tour with mainstream bands (Kansas, Heart, Rush, R.E.O. Speedwagon), rather than punk-rockers (with notable exceptions, of course, like the Clash), helped endear them to late ’70s radio programmers.

The band paid homage to its musical roots with the Move’s “California Man,” penned by Roy Wood, Cheap Trick’s version famously punctuated with the guitar riff from another Wood/Move song, “Brontosaurus.” The song had double meaning as Cheap Trick by then had built a respectable following in the Golden State, one of their L.A. shows from the previous year having been released on vinyl and (as of this past December 16, as a 4-CD set) as Out to Get You! Live at the Whisky 1977. It depicts the electricity of the band’s early club days in a way the far-better-selling At Budokan does not. (I hold out the hope that they’ll one day release a live album recorded at the Brat Stop in Kenosha, Wis., the UpRising in DeKalb, Ill., Haymakers in Palatine, Ill., or the Phoenix in their hometown of Rockford, all of which set the stage for some of Cheap Trick’s most roof-raising live performances.)

Among the newer songs, the layered title track “Heaven Tonight” was a standout. The band’s love for the later-period Beatles was fully on display, with Nielsen playing mandocello, harpsichord and cello on the track, which he has described as an “anti-drug song,” and one of two songs about mortality on the album. Played in a minor key, it’s been likened to the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

“Heaven Tonight” was one of three songs on its namesake album that evoked the Fab Four, others including “Takin’ Me Back” and the closer (excluding the unlisted bonus track that follows) “How Are You.” The latter track playfully alludes to lyrics from “I Want You to Want Me,” the band’s single from In Color and the live version from At Budokan: “I said I want you, need you, love you, want you to want me…remember?”

Related: Our Album Rewind of In Color

One of the album’s deeper tracks is also one of the band’s earliest songs, “High Roller,” co-written by Nielsen, singer Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson. It’s reportedly the story of a drug dealer in Lake Geneva, Wis., a self-proclaimed high-roller, who “always get the things that I choose.”

While just about every song in Cheap Trick’s repertoire is a showcase for Zander’s voice, the track “On Top of the World” displays his gift for delivering Nielsen’s often humorous lyrics, especially in the line “I got lucky with the girl next door/She was lonely and didn’t care.”

Throughout the album, keyboardist Jai Winding, son of jazz trombonist and composer Kai Winding, provides a lilt that came to be associated with the three Tom Werman-produced albums, their second of four to be recorded in Los Angeles. Werman’s touch would later cause the band a degree of regret; they commissioned Steve Albini of the post-punk bands Big Black and Shellac—and producer of Nirvana’s multiplatinum Nevermind—to re-record In Color as a straight-ahead rock record. As for Heaven Tonight, we’ll just need to imagine what a stripped-down version might sound like. Or, we can bask in its intricacy, and its keen sense of space between notes. AllMusic wrote of the album: “Where In Color often sounded emasculated, Heaven Tonight regains the powerful, arena-ready punch of Cheap Trick, but crosses it with a clever radio-friendly production that relies both on synthesizers and studio effects.”

This ad for the album appeared in the July 8, 1978 issue of Record World

Can we also mention Bun E. Carlos, who continued his big-beat rhythms on songs like “Surrender,” “California Man,” “High Roller” and “Auf Wiedersehen”? Even if you seldom notice drum work, you’ll notice it here. Though Daxx Nielsen, Rick’s son, currently records and tours with the band, Bun E.’s rhythms remain honored and emulated.

I concluded my own real-time review in Rockford’s alt-weekly thusly: “Heaven Tonight is a solid statement from a band that will not stay in one mode longer than needed.” Perhaps I should have saved that judgment for the changes that would ensue when Cheap Trick, after its follow-up to Heaven TonightDream Police, moved from Werman (under whose auspices they’d scored their biggest hits until the power ballad “The Flame” hit #1 in 1988) to a variety of other legendary producers: Roy Thomas Baker, Todd Rundgren, Ian Taylor, Richie Zito, Ted Templeman, Julian Raymond, Steve Albini, even Linda Perry for one track.

As Zander sings in the closing chorale of “Surrender”: “Bun E.’s alright, Tom’s alright, Robin’s alright, Rick’s alright.” Truth in advertising—Cheap Trick sounds consistently alright throughout Heaven Tonight. Go ahead and surrender to its greatness. Just don’t give yourself away.

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  1. Da Mick
    #1 Da Mick 23 December, 2022, 19:29

    Loudest band I ever heard back in the 80s.

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