Robin Zander Looks Back at Cheap Trick’s Rock Hall Induction: ‘I Was Nervous as Hell’
Cheap Trick certainly waited a long time for recognition from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When they finally made the roster of inductees in 2016, however, vocalist Robin Zander said the moment was over in a flash.
“Playing with Bun E. [Carlos] again, that was cool,” Zander says now. “To have Kid Rock give such a wonderful speech about us – I’d never really met him before, and he said some really good stuff. You know, for me, it went by too fast and I want to be inducted again, because I kind of forget what happened!"
Luckily for Zander, he can relive the evening’s events on demand with the pending release of The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: In Concert, a new box set out this week on DVD and Blu-ray that collects a cornucopia of highlights from the induction ceremonies for the past four years. Some 53 live performances are spotlighted, including Cheap Trick’s celebrated reunion with Carlos, the first time the drummer had shared the stage with his former bandmates in six years.
Looking back on the night, Zander remembers being “nervous as hell” – and that says a lot, when you consider that his main job requires holding a microphone and being the center of attention. “I was trying to think about, 'what the heck am I going to say up there,' more than anything else,” he says, with a laugh. “I probably rewrote my speech 10 times, and then forgot it on my way up there."
Zander found that being inducted into the Rock Hall was something that meant a lot to him personally, “just because it sort of gives you that feeling that what you’ve done has touched people’s lives,” he explains. “That’s the best feeling that there is, as far as what I do for a living.”
But Zander also freely admits that Cheap Trick had been eligible for so many years that they had each gone through a range of emotions, something that guitarist Rick Nielsen confirmed during a 2014 interview: "I'm an insomniac, so I don't sleep that much anyhow," Nielsen said back then, laughing. "What can I say? It's like, if we get in, great and if we don't get in, great, whatever. We're still playing, so that's more important to me. No offense to Cleveland."
By the time these power-pop legends got their moment in the rock and roll sun, however, they found that all of those feelings fell away.
“You know, after 25 years, you’re eligible. Then five years goes by and you’re thinking, ‘We’re going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame sometime soon!’ And then 10 years goes by and you’re thinking, ‘Well, maybe not, but there’s still a chance,’" Zander tells us. "And then 15 years go by and you’re thinking, ‘Well, this ain’t gonna happen. These guys don’t know what they’re talking about anyway. Look at all of the people that aren’t inducted and they don’t know what’s going on!’ But then you get the phone call and everything is forgiven, and it becomes this exciting event that you go to. Some people think you’re treated like crap and some people think you’re treated like a king. For myself, I couldn’t even tell you, because it went by too quickly.”
Zander also discussed sharing the stage again with Carlos, who stopped touring with the band in 2010. “I thought it was easy. Bun E. deserved to be up there as much as I did,” he says. “I mean, 35 years is a long time to be in a rock band. He’s still a member of Cheap Trick; he just doesn’t tour with us. It was pretty simple. We were happy to see him and he was happy to be there. His management used to be Cheap Trick’s management and they were all there. So, it was just an exciting kind of time. Everybody was cordial and nice to each other.”
Cheap Trick rehearsed only one moment: the closing all-star jam of “Ain’t That a Shame,” which featured members of the other bands who had been inducted that night. Beyond that, the foursome simply got on stage and knocked it out, sharing another stage and another night in the life of Cheap Trick. “We’ve rehearsed three times in our career,” Zander insists, “and that was in Rick’s basement before the band even went out and started touring.”
Not bad for a bunch of guys from a tiny Illinois town. To hear Zander tell the story, things came together pretty easily in their early days.
“We were all in separate bands in Rockford, Ill. Bun E. and Tom [Petersson] and Rick were in different bands, too. Bun E. was in a band called the Pagans, Tom was in a band called the Boll Weevils and Rick was in a band called the Grim Reapers,” Zander remembers. “I had a band called Butterscotch Sundae. So, the thing was, they were competitive. There used to be a place called Sherwood Lodge, there was this battle of the bands every weekend and people would throw their ballots in a box and bet on who their favorite band was out of that night. It was nice that we put everybody, the best of Rockford, all in one band. And it just jelled immediately. I thought, ‘This is it, this is the way it should sound. This is the band that we’re going to keep for a while.’ We didn’t know how long it was going to last, but look how long it’s lasted.”
However unlikely it might have seemed for Cheap Trick to break out of Rockford, he didn't view their location as an obstacle to success.
“Well, you’ve got to remember that Rockford is pretty well-placed. It’s not very far to go to Detroit, Milwaukee, Madison, Champaign, Dubuque, Des Moines,” Zander says. “You know, you can jump in your car and within five or six hours be in six different states. So, it wasn’t like we were isolated. Being from Rockford wasn’t detrimental to us. Rockford’s a small town, but you’ve got to remember that back in the ‘70s, there were lots of rock venues to play at all over those states. We would drive up to Ypsilanti, Mich., and all of these college towns. We made a pretty decent living back in 1974 through 1976 before we even had a record out. We had our own van and our own truck, and we had our own car that we could drive around in. It was a great time. During those traveling periods is where all of that music was written.”
They found kindred spirits in their early touring days with the members of AC/DC. “They were just great. Bon Scott was this great guy. At that time, they were struggling to make a dent in the U.S. market too,” Zander says.
“We’d go back and forth and we played mostly universities and stuff like that that were half-full. We would headline half of the shows and they would headline half of the shows," he adds. "I think that period is where we really struck a chord, so to speak – both bands – with the public. It was the very next year that the [At] Budokan album broke. The album broke in Japan and then it came to the U.K. on kamikaze yellow vinyl. We played Zeppelinfield [in Nuremberg, Germany in September of ‘79] with the Who and AC/DC. It just kept rolling from there. And all of the sudden, we paid off our debts – we were a million dollars in debt. We had made three records and didn’t make enough money on those three records to even pay for the recording of the records themselves. So, we were way in debt and Budokan really paid that debt off, pretty much."
The experience of recording the Budokan set – which was celebrated several years ago with a lavish reissue that added previously unreleased video and live recordings – took the members of Cheap Trick by surprise.
“When we got to the airport – I mean, you’ve got to remember, we came from Joliet, Ill., in some club with three people standing on their heads, to the airport in Japan and there was thousands of people standing on the roof of the airport itself and we’re looking at each other, thinking, ‘Well, gosh, the president must be here. Something’s going on,'" Zander remembers. “These people were there to greet us. It freaked us out. They threw us in the back of a mail truck and closed the windows off, and taxi cabs followed us all of the way to the hotel. People are trying to climb up the staircases, and it was pandemonium everywhere that we went. It was unbelievable. All of the sudden, you became the Beatles for a day. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience, but at the same time, we were awe-struck.”
Nearly 40 years past their Budokan moment, another busy year is on tap for Cheap Trick: They’ll be sharing the stage with Poison this summer, and additional dates with Def Leppard and Journey are also planned. They’ve cranked out three new albums of studio material in the past two years, including a Christmas-themed project, and will add an additional record of new songs to that stack later this year.
“We’ve already got a couple of songs mixed and ready to go,” Zander says. “In the last two years, we’ve been real productive and inspired, and it shows.”