But Rick Nielsen – the band’s co-founder, guitarist and chief songwriter – is almost overly modest when asked about the group’s longevity.
“I just like what I do. We’re not the greatest but we’re not bad,” Nielsen tells USA TODAY. “We’re not superstars. We’re a lot of people’s fifth favorite band. They say, ‘I’ve got Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne, the Beatles.’ But I don’t mind being fifth.”
The Illinois-based rockers put out their self-titled debut in 1977. On Friday, they release their 20th album, a sprightly 13-track effort titled “In Another World.” The album features longtime vocalist Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson, as well as Nielsen’s son, Daxx, on drums. It also includes a cover of John Lennon’s 1971 protest song “Gimme Some Truth,” which Nielsen believes is as relevant now as it was then.
Between “the pandemic and the politics of the last five years, it was not exactly an inspiring time, which is one of the reasons we added ‘Gimme Some Truth,’ ” he says. “We let John Lennon get the credit and the blame because we’re not a political band.”
USA TODAY talked to Nielsen, 72, about the new music, his memories of Lennon and Kiss’ Gene Simmons, and thoughts on ex-Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos:
Question: What sorts of ideas or themes were you drawing from for “In Another World?”
Rick Nielsen: We released “The Summer Looks Good on You” as a single a few years ago before we started working on the album. The chorus, “Here comes the summer,” (suggests) something good and positive that’s coming. The summer could be a metaphor for change, a new idea, something fresh, looking forward. So some of those words were in our mind and kind of flowed out (as we wrote the new music). We try to be a bit dark but then at the same time uplifting. Uplifting is a better thing than doom and gloom.
Nielsen: My wife knew that John Lennon was my favorite, so I got a hall pass. If it was Paul McCartney, I would’ve been back at the hospital. (Laughs.) And by then, it was her third baby, so she knew what was going on. I’m probably no comfort anyhow.
Q: Did you ever float any ideas by John about other collaborations?
Nielsen: While we were doing “I’m Losing You,” he said, “Man, I wish we’d had Rick on ‘Cold Turkey.’ (Eric) Clapton froze up.” I didn’t hear that directly from him, but I heard it from Jack (Douglas, Lennon’s producer). And actually after that, we had talked about Cheap Trick being the band for John Lennon. We were big fans of Plastic Ono Band and all the other spinoff bands he had, and we thought we’d be good at it. We’re not session guys, but we knew that stuff. It was kind of second nature to us. Not the huge arrangements that the Beatles had (later), but the Cavern Club mentality (from when they started out) because we had played so many shows in clubs.
Robin and I were going to do harmony on the record, which turned out to be “Double Fantasy.” But by the time we got back from Japan and went to New York, they had finished the record and we didn’t get to do that.
Q: Cheap Trick opened for Kiss on tour in 1977. Did you ever get to party with them?
Nielsen: I hung around quite a bit with Gene (Simmons). He was a totally unique man. Paul (Stanley) was kind of on his own all the time. Gene was the most level-headed while still totally eccentric, which didn’t bother me. So we got along fairly well.
Q: Eccentric how?
Nielsen: What I thought was most interesting was when we’d stay at a hotel. Instead of getting bothered by people, we had aliases (that we’d check in under). First I was Les Paul, then I was Neil Richards. Gene would always go under Gene Simmons because he wanted women to go up and see him. “Is Gene Simmons there?” “Yeah, we’ll put him right through.” “Whoa!”
Q: You also released “I Want You to Want Me” in ’77. How does it feel to see that song live on all these years later?
Nielsen: I always joke that I wish I was that stupid more often, to write something that’s gone on to put my kids through school. I probably wrote it in about five minutes and now it’s been around for ages. Everybody kind of knows it and it makes people happy, even tough guys with leather and spikes. They all have tender moments with their loved ones, too. For three minutes, they come together.
Q: Do you have a favorite cover of it?
Nielsen: Niko Flynn and The Holmes Brothers both do cool versions of it. And this band Propagandhi, a punk band, did it real fast. Taylor Swift actually did it, too. She played it live in Chicago, like, “Hey guys, here’s a song I like from some guys that live right around here.” And so there’s 18,000 (moms) in the audience and their kids singing “I Want You to Want Me.”
Q: Do you enjoy Taylor’s music?
Nielsen: Oh, she’s so talented, yeah.
Q: What did Cheap Trick’s 2016 induction into the Rock Hall mean to you?
Nielsen: That just validated us being in a band because when we started, there was no Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We were eligible quite a while back, but I felt all the shows we had done, those were the (true) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We continued to play no matter what happened. We’ve had success, we’ve had failures and it’s cool that it wasn’t all success because then our egos would be bigger than they are.
Q: How did it feel to reunite with Bun at the ceremony? (Carlos fell out with the band and was replaced by Daxx Nielsen as drummer.)
Nielsen: We’re pros so we do what we have to do. He’s a terrific player and it’s too bad that, at this point in our career, we didn’t end up with all the same guys but things just didn’t work out that way. He was of a different mindset and he thought we would never make another record. We would never change the setlist because he was like, “You can’t play that, you can’t play that.” And we didn’t argue, we just agreed with him. He was never comfortable playing more than the needed hour and 55 minutes. So it was just time.
Q: Have you been in touch with him since then?
Nielsen: Yeah, through lawsuits, obviously. But when we were together, we never really chatted or hung out.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cheap Trick guitarist talks ‘eccentric’ Gene Simmons, Bun E. Carlos