When Cheap Trick 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, which allowed the Japanese division to release live recordings of Japanese 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 live LPs for fan affection.
In Cheap Trick's case, At Budokan was initially also something of a minor inconvenience; although they were already deep into preparations for their next studio set, Dream Police, the band's schedule slowly ground to a halt as executives at Columbia 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 later admitted, "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 later 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, with Nielsen calling it "10 days with a smile on my face." While they knew they were popular in Japan, where their 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 and spinning 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 an interview 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 for the band. Although Dream Police was met with no small amount of fanfare when it arrived in September 1979, breaking the Top 10 and spawning a pair of Top 40 singles, it didn't really build on the momentum created by Budokan, and by the time 1980's All Shook Up rolled around, sales were on the wane, while bassist Tom Petersson's departure signaled the start of a fairly turbulent 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," mused Nielsen in his NME interview. "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."