How Cheap Trick Finally Broke Through With ‘At Budokan’
The '70s were the decade of the live rock album, as a few concert sets such as Kiss' Alive! and Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive! helping trigger massive mainstream breakthroughs. But few were bigger – or seemed more unlikely – than Cheap Trick at Budokan.
Originally released in Japan during the fall of 1978, At Budokan existed only because of an unusual arrangement at Columbia Records, the corporate parent of the band's Epic home. The label allowed its Japanese division to release live recordings of local shows with a degree of impunity. Known for their beautiful packaging and impeccable sound, Columbia Japan's concert sets were widely bootlegged, with some (like Chicago's Live in Japan) rivaling artists' official concert recordings for fan affection.
In Cheap Trick's case, At Budokan was initially also something of a minor inconvenience: The band was already deep into preparations for their next studio set, Dream Police, when the recording schedule slowly ground to a halt. Executives at Columbia had noticed the rising tide of import orders, and quickly scheduled a U.S. release for February 1979.
The record would quickly become Cheap Trick's first full-fledged hit – even though, as guitarist Rick Nielsen would later admit, "when we heard the tapes of the concert, we thought it sounded hideous."
Not that the Budokan concerts weren't fun for the band. Drummer Bun E. Carlos described the experience in Trouser Press as being like "a deja vu" of the fan frenzy captured in the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night. Nielsen said he spent "10 days with a smile on my face."
Watch Cheap Trick Perform 'I Want You to Want Me'
They knew they were popular in Japan, but where Cheap Trick's earlier studio albums had sold well and the six-concert tour sold out in advance, nothing could have prepared the group for the level of adulation they enjoyed at Budokan. The screaming excitement captured on the 10-song LP soon spread, with At Budokan rising to No. 4 during its year-long stay on the Billboard chart. The LP also spun off a Top 10 single in the definitive live version of "I Want You to Want Me."
Suddenly, Cheap Trick were huge.
"The way I see it," Nielsen told NME in later in 1979, "we'd built up a following, slowly but surely, by constantly touring. The radio was getting into playing our music. So really, it was a matter of time – of waiting for that right moment."
Extending that moment proved difficult. Dream Police was met with no small amount of fanfare when it arrived in September of the same year, breaking the Top 10 and spawning a pair of Top 40 singles. But it didn't really build on the momentum created by At Budokan. By the time 1980's All Shook Up rolled around, sales were on the wane; bassist Tom Petersson's departure signaled a turbulent start of the decade for Cheap Trick.
The group eventually found its way back to the upper part of the charts with 1988's platinum-selling Lap of Luxury, but At Budokan remains the commercial peak – which is perhaps just as it should be.
"The emphasis on the live aspect worked perfectly, because we'd established ourselves as a strong, very consistent live act more than anything else," Nielsen told NME. "So here's this record of us 'live' with all the screaming and craziness: It sounds just like a Cheap Trick concert with a truly wild audience. Now I think about it, it appears obvious."