Cheap Trick – In Color

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

My theory is that Cheap Trick is the band KISS wanted to be but couldn’t. I say that knowing almost nothing about KISS. I still think it’s a good theory.

What I Think of This Album

While Heaven Tonight is the best Cheap Trick album, In Color is my favorite Cheap Trick album, and probably also their most fun and free-spirited work. Unlike the dark and messy debut, this album views primary songwriter Rick Nielsen’s melodic sensibility as a strength to be emphasized, not some embarrassing feature to be covered up or apologized for. Accordingly, In Color is a heady mix of power pop, glam, and hard rock, all cleanly presented by producer Tom Werman. 

There are at least five great songs on this record. My hot take is that the studio version of “I Want You to Want Me” is a million times better than the live Budokan version. It’s not even close. The original is a nearly perfect pop song, with a pristine guitar tone, some great string bends, a jaunty old-timey piano, an irresistible rhythm, and Brill Building lyrics. And fingersnaps. 

If I’m being honest, “Downed” is a better song than “I Want You To Want Me,” even though I feel more of an affinity for the latter. “Downed” is a darkly glittering power pop song wearing hard rock armor, with some psychedelic flair. Robin Zander interprets a set of lyrics about confusion and hopelessness with a hint of malice. The whole thing is a colorful windmill powered by Nielsen and Tom Petersson’s chord changes.

Bridging the gap between the overt prettiness of “I Want You” and the density of “Downed” is “Southern Girls,” which boasts a first-rate melody, a great beat from Bun E. Carlos, Zander’s impassioned singing, handclaps, a critical piano part, and I think a guitar playing a harmony tone behind Zander’s vocals (though it may be some (artificially?) held out “ooooh”s). Throw in a hard rockin’ bridge and you’ve got an expertly constructed and arranged song.

On par with these three standouts is singalong “Come On, Come On,” which is somehow equally evocative of the ‘50s and the ‘70s, as if Chuck Berry had joined Sweet. The band goes back to basics on the straightforward “Clock Strikes Ten,” which is exciting and loud and just plain a blast to listen to, even if it is kind of dumb.

A couple more tracks are really good, as well. The thunderous “Big Eyes” succeeds because it pairs its heaviness – and sort of metally guitar solo, to say nothing of Zander’s gritty take – with a winning melody. Considering that it lasts not even two minutes, the glammy “Hello There” makes a hell of an impression, setting the tone for the rest of the album with an energetic, melodic, and tough sound.

Nielsen gets a showcase on “You’re All Talk,” which is not much of an actual song. It’s  basically just a bluesy groove over which Nielsen can show off. Frankly, it reminds me of ZZ Top. Similarly, it seems like “So Good to See You” was specifically designed for Zander; regardless, it’s among the weaker songs here. I think “Oh Caroline” doesn’t work at all – this is basically filler, though Zander layers a nice whine onto his voice.

Producer Werman has a long history of working with metal and hard rock bands (Blue Öyster Cult, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, Molly Hatchet, L.A. Guns), though apparently not without complaints that his results are too polished.

The band supposedly started re-recording In Color with Steve Albini in 1997 and whether the recording was ever completed, it was never officially released.

My reissue adds instrumental B-side “Oh Boy,” two demos, and two live tracks. The demo of “Southern Girls” is less glossy than the final version, and upon hearing it I can understand why some might have preferred that In Color have been more carefree and natural. I can’t fault Werman for adding some sheen, but the rougher version has a lot of charm, too. The demo of “Come On, Come On” leads me to the same conclusion. The live version of “You’re All Talk” is exactly what you’d think it would be. The live version of “Goodnight” is just “Hello There” with different lyrics – silly, but not offensive.

The Best Thing About This Album

The appreciation of and reliance on melody.

Release Date

September, 1977 (original); 1998 (reissue)

The Cover Art

Sigh. Very disappointing. The good-looking band members get a magazine cover shoot, complete with motorcycles, leather jackets and cowboy boots, while the freak and the shlub are hidden on the back cover, upside down for some reason, and, in a final emasculating twist, on bicycles. I do like that Nielsen is wearing a Cubs cap.

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