35 Years Ago: ‘The Flame’ Re-Ignites Cheap Trick’s Career
The first time Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen heard "The Flame," in 1987, he ripped the songwriters' cassette out of the boom box it was playing on and threw it across the room in a Los Angeles recording studio. It did not sound like a song he felt the band should do.
"I had to be talked into doing it," the guitarist told this writer shortly after the song had given Cheap Trick their first and only No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. "Guess that shows how much I know."
Cheap Trick had some success with ballads before "The Flame"; "Voices" from 1979's Dream Police album was a Top 40 hit. But this was another matter entirely, because "The Flame" was written by outside writers and felt to the band members like a formulaic '80s power ballad, with lots of melodrama and little substance, and certainly not of the kind of character Cheap Trick liked. "Or," Nielsen confessed, "we were just jealous. It was a damn good pop song - you didn't have to be a genius to hear that. We felt like, 'Gee, I wish we could've written that,' you know?"
The road to "The Flame" was surrounded by circumstance for the then 15-year-old band from Rockford, Ill.
Alongside '70s mates such as Kiss and Peter Frampton, Cheap Trick enjoyed its breakthrough with a live album, 1978's At Budokan, after a fairly unsuccessful run of studio releases. Budokan took the band to No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and triple platinum sales, while the live take of "I Want You To Want Me" gave Cheap Trick its first Top 10 single - their only one until "The Flame." The band did well with the follow-up Dream Police, which included two Top 40 singles, but the group's career soon went into a significant tailspin that left it in jeopardy by the time sessions began for 1988's Lap of Luxury with original bassist Tom Petersson back in the band after a seven-year departure.
Enter Don Grierson, who'd arrived at Cheap Trick's Epic Records label after helping to resurrect the careers of Heart and Aerosmith a few years before. He was a fan who wanted better for the band, but Grierson was also adamant that some things had to change. "People weren't excited about them anymore," he said in the wake of "The Flame"'s success. "Radio wasn't excited about the next Cheap Trick record. We had to do something to get them back on the radio in front of people so that people could remember it was a great band. What they needed was a hit song."
That, he insisted, would take listening to material from outside writers, an idea some band members adapted to quicker than others. "It's a means to an end," Nielsen acknowledged. "You align yourself with as good a group of people as possible: the best people in management, the best people to do the lights, the best people to write songs. It makes me look better. It makes the band look better."
Watch Cheap Trick's 'The Flame' Video
"The Flame" was written by British writers and producers Bob Michell and Nick Graham, the latter a former member of the '60s rock band Atomic Rooster. They'd written it for a singer named Elkie Brooks, who turned it down. So the duo recorded a demo and began sending it around, and it eventually landed on Grierson's desk. He took it to Cheap Trick, along with a Diane Warren ballad called "Look Away." The executive told the band it could have the first choice, and Chicago would get the other one; he felt "The Flame" was the better track for Cheap Trick. The band, which by all accounts didn't like "Look Away" at all, acquiesced to record "The Flame."
Lap of Luxury producer Richie Zito was also a strong advocate for "The Flame." "It became a little crusade for me," he told Billboard. "The band didn't want to do it, so we had some pretty good arguments over it. We recorded it one guy at a time because the band wasn't happy about it. I started with Robin [Zander] and a keyboard player. I figured if I was going to expose the band to this song It had better be as right for him as I thought. It became screamingly obvious that the song was tailor-made [for] him. And then one by one the rest of the guys came in and did it.
"When we played it for the label and their manager, everyone told them how great it was. They started embracing it a little bit more. It became more Cheap trick as the record progressed."
There was no questioning the results: "The Flame"'s No. 1 pop showing and the No. 3 position on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart propelled Lap of Luxury to No. 16 on the Billboard 200 and platinum sales, which Cheap Trick hasn't equaled since. "The Flame" also reached No. 1 in Canada and Australia, and in 1998 it was remade by EDM singer Erin Hamilton as "The Flame 08," which hit No. 1 on the Billboard dance charts.
"Look Away," by the way, was a No. 1 hit for Chicago, so the choice worked out well for all parties concerned.