Saturday 18 November 2017

Let's give another high five to rocking Rick

That '70s show: Rick
Nielsen and Robin
Zander of Cheap Trick
toured with the likes of
The Kinks and AC/DC.
Inset: the band during
their heyday with
Rick left
That '70s show: Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander of Cheap Trick toured with the likes of The Kinks and AC/DC. Inset: the band during their heyday with Rick left

Rick Nielsen has some neck. It's what Cheap Trick's guitarist is famous for. The likes of Jimmy Page and Slash think they're flash by faffing about with poncey twin-necked guitars, but Rick blows all rivals out of the water: the 64-year-old plays a guitar with -- count 'em -- five necks. Sometimes more is more, as we're about to find out when Cheap Trick play an all-too-rare Irish gig at the Olympia next month.

Rick's trademark look -- bow tie, baseball cap, moustache ... and five-necked guitars -- mark him out as one of the lovable eccentrics of rock 'n' roll. But behind the props lies a brilliant power-pop tunesmith who has created some songs for the ages in 'Dream Police', 'I Want You To Want Me' and 'Surrender'.

Since they emerged from Rockford, Illinois, in the mid-to-late 1970s, Nielsen and his Cheap Trick bandmates Robin Zander, Tom Petersson and Bun E Carlos have connected with successive generations of music fans who've fallen for their ballsy brand of maximalist power-pop -- how many other bands can say they've worked with both George Martin and Steve Albini? Or toured with AC/DC, Queen and The Kinks in their prime on the one hand and The Smashing Pumpkins on the other?

"George Martin? He was the best," says Rick down a phone line from New Orleans, about working with Martin on Cheap Trick's 1980 album All Shook Up.

"They call him the fifth Beatle, but I reckon he was the third -- there was Lennon and McCartney -- and the other guys were the fourth and fifth!

"He is a gentleman, he knew what he was doing and musically he was the smartest guy I've ever worked with. We did a version of the Sgt Pepper album in 2009, with string arrangements.

"I went out to his house in the country to get his blessing. He invited me and my wife and some friends over to his house and he and his wife Judy cooked for us. (His record producer son) Giles was there too. It was lovely.

"George said: 'I don't know if you remember, but you gave Giles some drumsticks when he was three years old -- and now he's pretty messed up!"

In the 1970s, Cheap Trick toured with The Kinks, a band who some think could have been as big as The Beatles in America.

"The Kinks were one of my favourite bands ... until I met 'em," he laughs.

"Everybody was great, but Ray (Davies) was difficult. He was the maddest multi-millionaire I ever met. I remember Ray pushed (his brother) Dave over an amp one night and knocked him down. This is where Oasis got their lessons."

A better behaved set of rock 'n' roll brothers that Rick's crew hit the road with were Malcolm and Angus Young of heavy rock legends AC/DC.

"AC/DC were the only band we toured with that I stayed and watched every night," says Rick.

"We did flip-flop shows: some night's we'd open; some nights they'd open. It was always a tough show to follow them -- but it was also a tough show for them to follow us. There's a couple of videos of us doing a double-encore together. We did 'Johnny B Goode'.

"I took Bon Scott (AC/DC's original singer, who died in 1980) off for some Mexican food. He'd never had it before. They mustn't have had it in Australia when he was growing up."

Fans of nostalgic American TV sitcom 'That '70s Show' -- famous for launching the careers of Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis -- will know that Cheap Trick performed the rousing title tune, a cover of Big Star's 1972 classic 'In The Street'. How did that come about?

"Before the show started, they contacted us and wanted to use either the Big Star song or 'Surrender'," remembers Rick.

'They picked the Big Star song, but then after a year they said, 'well, we can't change the song, but would you guys be interested in recording it?' They said it had to be the same tempo.

"We said okay, but we'd like to change the arrangement. So we did our version of it and then at the end we sang 'we're all alright, we're all alright', just like 'Surrender'.

"We did a tribute to Big Star singer Alex Chilton because he died the night that we played SXSW last year. Big Star were supposed to appear the next night but he died that day. We played 'In The Street' in homage to him. And we also did a song for Alex that was on our latest album Sleep Forever.

"I went to the funeral of a friend of ours. They played this ghastly music, which they do at most funerals. I thought there's got to be a song which pays tribute to someone you know, rather than 'Rock of Ages'. So I wrote 'Sleep Forever'. It's almost a capella, with just Robin singing and a keyboard or strings accompanying it."

Finally, will Rick be bringing his five-necked guitar to Dublin?

"Of course! Are you kidding? I'm not allowed out of the country without it! They're custom-made. I have three of them now. They're hell to carry around, though -- my stock line is 'I used to be two inches taller' (laughs)."

So why all the guitar necks? Are they all tuned to different keys?

"No they're all tuned to regular straight E. But the top one is a 12-string; the second one is a six-string that has a Les Paul sound; the third one has a vibrato bar on it; the fourth one is a mandocello with eight strings on it and sounds like a Fender; and the bottom neck is fretless. So in total I have 38 strings to choose from. I'm totally confused!"

Cheap Trick play the Olympia, Dublin, on June 15

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