The Number Ones

July 9, 1988

The Number Ones: Cheap Trick’s “The Flame”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Legend has it that Rick Nielsen listened to the demo tape of “The Flame” once and then crushed the cassette under the heel of his boot. Nielsen didn’t just want to pass on “The Flame.” He wanted to eradicate it from existence. Nielsen, the man with the cap and the bowtie and the quadruple-neck guitar, had been gigging for decades, and his band Cheap Trick had tasted arena-rock glory. Nielsen had written or co-written most of Cheap Trick’s enduring classics, but by 1988, Cheap Trick were in an extended slump, and Epic Records, their label, was forcing them to bring in outside songwriters. Nielsen was not happy about this, but it worked out for him. “The Flame,” the song that Nielsen hated so much, would become Cheap Trick’s first and only #1 hit.

By the time “The Flame” reached #1, Rick Nielsen was pushing 40. The other members of his band were younger, but they weren’t much younger. Cheap Trick had helped invent a form of trashy rock theatrics that were colonizing the pop charts in the late ’80s, but the band hadn’t been able to take advantage of that. “The Flame” is a thoroughly average song, and it can’t touch the freewheeling melodic brightness and outsized personality of Cheap Trick’s best music. But “The Flame” did what it needed to to do. It did what “Surrender” and “I Want You To Want Me” and “Dream Police” couldn’t do. It took Cheap Trick all the way to the top.

Cheap Trick wanted to be at the top. They spent a long time trying to get there. Nielsen had started playing in local Chicago-area bands in the early ’60s. In 1968, Nielsen started a hard rock band called Fuse with bassist Tom Petersson, a fellow native of Rockford, Illinois. The band, which eventually included drummer Bun E. Carlos, released one album on Epic in 1970. It didn’t sell, and Nielsen and Petersson didn’t like it. Fuse went through a bunch of lineup changes, moved to Philadelphia, and changed their name to Sick Man Of Europe. (Truly great name.) Eventually, Sick Man Of Europe returned to Chicago and changed their name to Cheap Trick. (Also a great name.) After playing with singer Randy Hogan for a little while, Cheap Trick invited Robin Zander, a good-looking singer with a striking blonde mane and a distinctive yowl, to join the band.

By 1974, Cheap Trick had their classic lineup, but they didn’t have a deal. The band played Midwestern bars for a few years before finding their way to Epic, the label that had once been home to Fuse. Cheap Trick’s early albums were some of the sharpest, brightest arena rock to come out of of the ’70s. The band didn’t play punk or new wave, but they liked punk and new wave, and you can hear distant echoes of those sounds in their juiced-up, efficient power-pop ragers. There’s also an early-Beatles sense of excitement. Cheap trick were ready to go. But those early records didn’t sell, and Cheap Trick only got to play arenas as openers for bigger bands like Kiss and Queen. None of the singles from Cheap Trick’s first two albums made the charts. Their 1978 album Heaven Tonight had “Surrender,” a straight-up undeniable monster of a song, and even that only made it to #62. Cheap Trick couldn’t win.

But then something funny happened. Cheap Trick did win; they just had to go all the way around the world to do it. Some members of the Japanese press had flown to Milwaukee to see Queen, and they saw Cheap Trick open the show. Nielsen told the whole story in a great Uproxx interview a couple of months ago. Some Japanese magazine asked Nielsen to write an article about touring with Queen, and the Japanese press soon started covering his band: “There were caricatures of ourselves in the Japanese magazines. We were kind of easy to draw funny.” Cheap Trick’s single “Clock Strikes Ten,” which wasn’t even released in America, became a #1 hit in Japan. When Cheap Trick flew over to play some shows in the country, they were greeted by thousands of screaming fans at the airport.

In 1978, Cheap Trick taped the live album At Budokan in front of a huge and extremely fired-up Tokyo audience. The album was originally intended as a Japanese-only release, but import copies started selling in the US, so Epic gave it a proper release. At Budokan went triple platinum, making it by far Cheap Trick’s biggest album. The live version of “I Want You To Want Me,” a flop single that the band had released a couple of years earlier, became Cheap Trick’s first top-10 hit, peaking at #7. (It’s a 7. I’ve never really understood why that became the general-consensus classic Cheap Trick song when “Surrender” is right there.)

For nearly a decade, “I Want You To Want Me” was also Cheap Trick’s only top 10 hit. The success of At Budokan spurred sales of Cheap Trick’s back catalog, and their follow-up Dream Police — which came out later in 1979, its release delayed because At Budokan was such an unexpected success — made the album-chart top 10 and went platinum. Cheap Trick continued to crank out albums through the ’80s, even working with Beatles producer George Martin on 1980’s All Shook Up. But their sales dried up. By the time they made 1988’s Lap Of Luxury, Cheap Trick had released three flops in a row and almost lost their Epic deal. Lap Of Luxury, recorded just after Tom Petersson rejoined Cheap Trick after leaving in 1980, was the make-or-break record. Epic was quite insistent that Cheap Trick, like ’70s hard-rock vets Heart before them, should adjust to changing times and work with songwriters like Diane Warren. Cheap Trick weren’t happy about those orders, but they played ball.

There are a lot of different stories about “The Flame,” but the general consensus with all of them is that Cheap Trick were not interested in recording the song. The Rick Nielsen crushing-the-demo-tape story is the most dramatic, but there are others. Bun E. Carlos later said that Epic vice president Don Grierson brought the band two different power ballads and told the band that they had to pick one of them. Cheap Trick went with “The Flame,” and the other song would also go on to become a #1 hit for Chicago soon afterward. (I can’t say that this particular VP had good taste, but he at least had smart taste.)

For Lap Of Luxury, Cheap Trick paired up with producer Richie Zito, who was coming off of Eddie Money’s hit 1986 album Can’t Hold Back. (Eddie Money’s highest-charting single, 1986’s “Take Me Home Tonight,” peaked at #4. It’s a 7. Zito’s work will appear in this column again.) In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Zito admits that he and Cheap Trick “had some pretty good arguments” over “The Flame.” To make the song, Zito had to work on the members of the band, one at a time. He started out with Robin Zander, recording Zander singing over a keyboard: “I figured if I was going to expose the band to this song, it had better be as right for [Zander] as I thought. It became screamingly obvious that the song was tailor-made for him.” One by one, Zito convinced the members of Cheap Trick to record their parts, until “The Flame” was a whole song.

If Cheap Trick had passed on “The Flame,” the wouldn’t have been the first artists to do it. Bob Mitchell and Nick Graham, a British songwriting team who never came up with another significant hit, wrote “The Flame” while working with the UK blues-rock singer Elkie Brooks. She turned “The Flame” down. Graham later told Fred Bronson, “[Brooks] didn’t like it. Her record company went mad because they thought it was an amazing song. But she refused to record it, and we were already halfway through producing it for her. So I put a vocal on it myself, and we mixed it and sent it out to a few people.”

One of those people was Epic’s Don Grierson, who loved the song and who basically forced it upon Cheap Trick. This is one of those cases where the label people hear a hit and the artists just don’t. In this particular case, the label people were right, at least insofar as “The Flame” did what it had to do. “The Flame” is far from the worst example of late-’80s pop excess, but it sucks that a truly great band like Cheap Trick scored their biggest hit with such a fundamentally mediocre piece of work.

Richie Zito, however, was entirely right that “The Flame” was tailor-made for Robin Zander. Zander had always been one of rock’s great injured-nut screamers, and he usually used that yawp in service of swaggering riff-rock exploders. “The Flame” pushes Zander toward sensitive moony-eyed romanticism, and he makes the transition admirably. On “The Flame,” Zander’s narrator sings about missing an ex so badly that he can’t even sleep: “I’m in too far, I’m in way to deep over yooouuuuu.” When he hits that “yooouuuuu,” Zander finds a vulnerable falsetto, and then he lets his voice sit there for a few second before dropping back down into his regular cat-scratch howl. Even on a big blank of a song, Zander brings some real personality. Without him, there’s simply no way the song could work.

The rest of the band doesn’t get a chance to do much on “The Flame.” The arrangement is dominated by a few plaintive keyboard notes, and even Rick Neilsen’s solo isn’t terribly distinctive. The song is a goopy mess of lost-without-you clichés, a solid but unmemorable prom-ballad sort of thing. Maybe Cheap trick were lucky to get this song, since it’s easy to imagine any of the glam-metal B-teamers taking this one on and having solid a hit with it. But Robin Zander finds ways to sell what’s otherwise a strictly replacement-level corporate rocker.

When “The Flame” took off, the band was conflicted. Around that time, Nielsen said, “We wish we’d written it because we know we had songs that were just as good.” Nielsen did not wish he’d written “The Flame.” He probably wished that one of the band’s own songs had been the single, though. Talking about the song earlier this year, Nielsen was mellower: “‘The Flame’ is a terrific song, and Robin sings it great, and my solo’s not too bad. It’s good. Probably more good than bad on it.”

On the strength of “The Flame,” Cheap Trick got to enjoy a serious pop comeback. Lap Of Luxury is a middling Cheap Trick album, but thanks to “The Flame,” it became the band’s first platinum LP in the eight years since Dream Police. The band’s follow-up single, a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” followed “The Flame” into the top 10, peaking at #4. (It’s a 6.) “Don’t Be Cruel” remains Cheap Trick’s last top 10 hit.

Cheap Trick followed Lap Of Luxury with the Richie Zito-produced 1990 album Busted. That one went gold, and lead single “Can’t Stop Fallin’ Into Love” got as high as #12. But Busted didn’t sell as well as expected, and Cheap Trick soon split from Epic. They released one album, 1994’s Woke Up With A Monster, on Warner Bros., and they’ve been indie ever since.

Cheap Trick haven’t been on the pop charts since their Diane Warren-written 1990 ballad “Wherever Would I Be” peaked at #50, but they remained a cool-kid touchstone through the ’90s. Kurt Cobain would say that Nirvana didn’t sound too different from Cheap Trick, and Steve Albini would get together with the band in 1998 to re-record their 1977 sophomore album In Color, though that Albini version has never come out. The Beastie Boys opened Check Your Head with a sample of Robin Zander talking to the crowd in At Budokan, and a whole lot of punk and alt-rock bands covered Cheap Trick’s ’70s songs. In 1999, Fox got Cheap Trick to cover Big Star’s 1972 power-pop classic “In The Street,” and Cheap Trick’s version became the theme song for the hit sitcom That ’70s Show. At this point, the retitled “That ’70s Song” might be the Cheap Trick song that the most people have heard.

Cheap Trick have continued to play big tours and crank out records ever since. In 2010, Bun E. Carlos stopped touring with the band, and Rick Neilsen’s excellently named son Daxx took over for him. Daxx Nielsen soon became a full-time member of the band, and Carlos sued in 2013. They settled, and Carlos is now a one-fourth owner of the Cheap Trick name, even though he’s not a member of the band anymore. Cheap Trick joined the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2016, and they just put out a new album called Another World last month. In the aforementioned Uproxx interview, Nielsen says that Cheap Trick are “a lot of people’s fifth favorite band,” which seems exactly right. “The Flame” is a small part of the band’s legacy, but it’s technically their biggest hit, and it’s the reason I get to talk about them in this column.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1998, Carol Burnett’s daughter Erin Hamilton recorded a cheesy Euro-dance cover of “The Flame,” which didn’t make the Hot 100 but which became a club hit. Here’s Hamilton’s take:

In 2008, Hamilton released “The Flame ’08,” a remixed version of her cover. That one didn’t reach the Hot 100, either, but it became a #1 hit on Billboard‘s Dance chart. Here’s that:

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