Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009 | 4:37 p.m.
Cheap Trick teams with Lennon
When Rick Nielsen walked into The Hit Factory studios in New York City in the summer of 1980, there was one purpose for his appearance: to play music with John Lennon.
But when Lennon looked over the then-31-year-old rock guitarist, looking somewhat decrepit with his flipped-up ball cap and old-man pants in a look some have compared to Huntz Hall of the Bowery Boys, he seemed surprised.
“Oh, it’s you,” Lennon said, as if expecting someone else to join him for recording the song “I’m Losing You” and a song by Yoko Ono, “I’m Moving On.”
“The way he said it, I felt like he might be expecting someone else, like Ricky Nelson,” Nielsen said during a phone interview yesterday as he and his fellow Cheap Trick band mates prepped for their “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” orchestra-backed revival at the Las Vegas Hilton Theater. The show begins this evening and runs in three sets through the end of the month: Tonight through Tuesday, Sept. 17-19 and Sept. 21-23.
“I’m still not sure if he was kidding or not,” Nielsen recalled of his initial meeting with Lennon. It might well have been a coy reference to Nelson’s hit “Garden Party,” in which the one-time ’50s heartthrob obliquely sings that “Yoko brought her walrus.” Or maybe not.
Whatever Lennon meant, the recording session did take place with Nielsen playing guitar and Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos on drums. How they arrived to record with Lennon is a rock story for the ages and gives Cheap Trick unique insight to the material they will perform beginning tonight.
Nielsen, of course, is the unfailingly madcap lead guitarist who formed Cheap Trick in 1972. Most rock guitarists who assembled bands during that era were influenced by The Beatles, and Nielsen was particularly driven by “Sgt. Pepper.” But he was soon learning to play his own licks, “so when you make a mistake, you can say, ‘I meant to do that,” he says. The Beatles’ influence over him and the band would take on a more personal connection, in the form of Lennon, during Cheap Trick’s commercial peak in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
As Nielsen remembers it, before Cheap Trick achieved worldwide fame in the 1970s, they first needed to record an actual album and were seeking a rock culture giant to bring the release credibility. “We wanted John Lennon. This was in 1976, and he hadn’t done anything in so long.” But the rising artists got nowhere with that request, and the acclaimed first album was produced by Jack Douglas, a longtime studio master whose work over the years has included classic recordings by Aerosmith, Miles Davis, Alice Cooper and even Lennon, on his comeback album, “Double Fantasy.”
As Lennon hung out in his home at the Dakota in New York, famously tending to his new son, Sean, and making bread, Cheap Trick vaulted to worldwide fame with the stunning success of the triple-platinum “Cheap Trick at Budokan.” When Lennon dusted off his Rickenbacker and exhumed his legendary songwriting skills, he recruited Douglas to work on “Double Fantasy.” Recording commenced in the summer of 1980 in New York, and soon Douglas told Nielsen the sessions were “too studio musician-ish.” Lennon wanted some real, rough-around-the-edges rockers, and Nielsen was thrilled at the chance to record with a true rock legend. Problem was, his wife, Teresa, was about to give birth to their son, Daxx. “We were actually on tour, in Toronto, going to Japan the next day, when we heard about this, and the day of the session was the due date for Daxx. I asked (Teresa) about it, and she said, ‘C’mon, he’s your hero, you have to do it.' So on Aug. 12, we had a baby boy, and I was in Montreal. I smuggled a bunch of Cuban cigars out of Canada and flew into New York, showed up at The Hit Factory. After about an hour of setting up, in walks John Lennon.”
After the clumsy introduction, Nielsen realized Lennon was a big Cheap Trick fan and started showing him some of his old tools. “He was playing this old Veleno guitar with dirty strings. He opened this case with an old Rickenbacker in it, and the set list from the Shea Stadium concert was scotch-taped to the back.” Lennon showed him a truly rare instrument, the Mellotron he played on “Strawberry Fields Forever” for soundscapes on “The White Album.” Nielsen was privy to conversation between Lennon and Ono as they planned arrangements for “I’m Moving On.” “She was asking him, ‘Should I do it fast or slow?’ He says, ‘Do it however you (bleeping) want, Mother!”
“I’m Losing You” was knocked out in two takes but did not fit with the slicker material throughout the rest of the album and was left off the final printing of “Double Fantasy.” “It never fit with the continuity of the rest of the album. It’s like a lounge band, then this grungy song (“I’m Moving On” with Nielsen and Carlos also was left off). It was sort of embarrassing when people heard we were going to play on the album, then we weren’t on the album.” But the version surfaced on “John Lennon’s Anthology” in 1998, and Cheap Trick recorded a video to accompany the song several years ago.
At the end of the session, Nielsen passed around his ill-gotten Cubans. Lennon joked with Carlos, “Hey, Bun E., I’ll see you at the hop,” and also told the Cheap Trick drummer, “I wish (Rick) had played on ‘Cold Turkey.’ Eric choked on that.” The “Eric” is Eric Clapton.
“The whole time, it was just guy-to-guy, musician-to-musician,” Nielsen said. “Funny, I never got anything signed by him or anything like that.”
Nielsen and Carlos did mention to Lennon the idea of him recording “Cheap Trick” years earlier. “We tell John this, and he says, ‘I would love to have done that.’ We wanted to kill our manager, of course. It was one of those what-if, never-happened things.”
Playing the notes
More from the weekend, Matt Goss has ditched the rust-colored suit that didn’t quite suit him for hit shows at The Gossy Lounge” at the Palms. I met the man, finally, after last night’s media performance. Great guy. He can lead the bachelor party any night. He’s gunning for a bigger room, already, and he seems to be outgrowing his Gossy confines. Everything’s Gossy, right? It’s the new term. Goss-tastic. So ultra-Gossy. It’s catchy, in a Goss-istential sort of way. … Joining the Goss-meister onstage was Nicole Scherzinger, vocalist of Pussycat Dolls. Also in the audience, "Downtown Julie Brown," Deborah Gibson and Daisy Fuentes. As a friend remarked, whither Martha Quinn? … We’ll have more later on the opening of “CSI: The Experience” at MGM Grand, but series creator Anthony Zuiker says he was inspired, in part, by visits to the old “Star Trek Experience” at the L.V. Hilton. “I loved that you could be served a drink by a Klingon.” Or, if you will, Ferengi. Not much buzz from Neonopolis lately about that announced project in JoshiLand, and if there is a more depressing retail/entertainment center in the country than Neonopolis on a weekend night, I’d like to see it. Or not. … Mariah Carey requires editing authority over all photos used during her performances, and hundreds shot from the Palms' Pearl Concert Theater over the weekend were been deemed inappropriate for public consumption by members of her staff and, thus, deleted. I can’t believe the woman ever takes a bad photo, but that’s just me. ... Nevada Recovery Celebration drew between 3,500-4,000 to Cashman Center on Sunday, Chariwoman Lynn Tynan reports. We'll do it again, because we don't know anything better to do. ... Quote from Lennon, in his 1980 interview with Playboy magazine: I chose not to take the standard options in my business -- going to Vegas and singing your great hits, if you're lucky, or going to hell, which is where Elvis went."
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