Monday, September 22, 2008

Focus On: Turnin' Tricks for Kenny Loggins

You oughta be in pictures: Cheap Trick makes some noise for Hollywood
I was racking my brain trying to think of a different way to say something about Cheap Trick since I'm planning on seeing the famed power poppers this weekend. They've had a unique career arc where very little ever went as planned (with the exception of 1988's Lap of Luxury record, that went exactly as planned) and had a mix of highs and lows. After a couple of throwaway ideas, I decided it would be fun to cover their career from strictly a movie soundtrack perspective.

That's where Kenny Loggins comes in. Until the 90's Kenny Loggins was the undisputed king of the movie soundtrack. He could rock, but in a streamlined and inoffensive way. He could do wimpy ballads or bellow his way through a rocked out love song. All with a finely trimmed beard and a smile. Kenny was made for the big money movie soundtracks and often appeared on the most successful of them (Top Gun, Footloose). Make no mistake, Kenny Loggins is Nobody's Fool (Caddyshack 2 soundtrack).

Movie soundtracks grew and changed in the 80's as they became pop music samplers that were sometimes bigger than the films that spawned them. Like the Now That's What I Call Music series of today, when done right you got a cross section of current artists, classic tunes and cheap videos with film scenes inserted in. For current artists, it just meant they had to be willing to play the game: It wasn't about creating music, it was about filling an order on spec. And, not puttin' them down, that was something Cheap Trick did not have a problem with. The band's sound of classic Beatles choruses, driving Arena Rock guitars and odd sense of humor made them critics darlings and big rock stars in the 70's. But by the 80's their creative well suddenly dried up and they became more hit and miss (though I became a fan at this time and bought each album as it came out from One on One up to Busted, I even owned The Doctor once. Think I needed a doctor after hearing that one).

So I'm going to cover their soundtrack songs which sort of provided markers for different trends in the movies and the tunes that went with them. The focus will be on songs written for or promoted as new for a specific movie, meaning I won't be counting the millions of times "I Want You To Want Me" or "Surrender" have been used (except for one small exception towards the end).
Rock & Roll Fantasy

In the late 70's Rock and Roll was still considered outsider music even though it was getting more mainstream. As relatively clean cut Arena Rock bands dominated the airwaves the music was still associated with sex, drugs and/or Satan. So when Cheap Trick made the hard edged Everything Works If You Let It for the film Roadie (1980) it wasn't much of a stretch. A song I like a lot, "Everything" rocks in classic Trick manner with a raucous groove colliding with Magical Mystery Tour melodicism. Of all their soundtrack songs, this was the most natural and hardest rocking cut.

Animation Domination

For about a year cartoons were the answer to cinematic rock. Able to become more fanciful and dark with animation than live action, filmmakers focused on making movies like The Wall (1980) or American Pop (1981) allowing the music to help take viewers on a wild ride. Starting with the Sci Fi classic Heavy Metal (1981) the Trick gave two songs including their most pure backing tune I Must Be Dreaming which is mostly instrumental. The guitars are recognizably by Rick Nielsen and vocalist Robin Zander makes an appearance but most of it is this steamrolling groove dotted by keyboards like some high tech thing must be happening on screen. Three songs were written for Rock & Rule (1983) two of which hit hard but in a similar way. Born to Raise Hell and "I'm the Man" both brought fury and power to decent songs. The third one was the late night bar ballad Ohm Sweet Ohm which is excellent. But America's flirtation with pen drawn rockers ended fast as any sense of artistic highbrow was replaced by...

Cheap Trick Gone Wild

Teen sex comedies became the "in" thing as Porky's (1982) drew a ton of teens who wanted to see what they couldn't show you on tv. Rock and Roll and teens go hand in hand so movie music was adapted as light, feel good anthems of mischief to a series of low budget flicks. At the same time, Cheap Trick's commercial and artistic fortunes were sliding fast so they probably needed the cash. I haven't heard the title song for Spring Break (1983) but I have fond memories of Up the Creek (1984) because it's one of my favorite Cheap Trick songs. I just read Rick Nielsen considered this song one of the worst he's written, but I still love it and even had bought the soundtrack back then just for Up the Creek!

Kenny Loggins Padowan Learner

By '86 the band had sunk pretty low and it seemed like the record company began to dictate their actions as a result. In addition to using outside songwriters for more commercial material they adapted to the current film scene again. They followed the Sith Loggins to Top Gun (1986) and Caddyshack 2 (1988) , recording a tune I consider one of their worst: Mighty Wings. The song was your run of the mill fast rock beat encased in steely synthesizer carbonite as Robin Zander howled about sky or wings or some kinda crap. It wouldn't have been as bad if it had been billed to just Zander since he's the only recognizable part of the group in the whole mess. But it wasn't and so the best selling soundtrack Cheap Trick appeared on did zilch for their career. I'm overstating the case but it's tragic man! They also recorded mediocre songs for Say Anything (1988) and Another Way (1988). At least on their regular albums the marketing strategy paid off as The Flame burned its way to #1.

Mike Reno got a cool headband and all I got was this duet...

In 1989 Robin Zander finally got some soundtrack glory for himself. Teaming up with the Loverboy vocalist's partner from Footloose's Almost Paradise, Zander and Heart's Ann Wilson recorded Surrender to Me which actually was a sizable hit. A pleasant ballad with those awesome 80's glowing keyboards, it had a life separate from the Mel Gibson movie that spawned it. Rock ballads were just as important to movies as they were to Hair bands and everyone loves a soft rock duet. Hey, maybe they'll play this song this weekend! That would be killer.


As the makers of South Park noted, in modern film making you need to have a Montage. Why have writing and acting when you could play a rock song to boost energy and cut a bunch of images together? For training sequences it was a fast upbeat rock song and for love scenes a power ballad, as long as you got the feeling that the characters are working or lovin' it did the job. So nearly all soundtrack songs started to sound like it went to a montage even if it didn't. Taken at face value, these songs weren't bad and could be pretty listenable when you're in the mood. And I Will Survive from Gladiator (1992) sounds Rocky X ready with it's generic Go Get 'Em attitude (it's not the disco song). Meanwhile, a Diane Warren penned power ballad Wherever Would I Be was snapped up from their Busted album for the Look Who's Talking Too movie. Because John Travolta and Kirstie Alley need a song to love to. Makes you want to climb a snow covered mountain and yell, doesn't it?

Woke Up With A Monster

By 1992 Grunge and Alternative had taken over MTV leaving older bands scrambling for relevance. Already dealt a blow by the failure of the Busted album, Cheap Trick employed a movie move many of their peers had used - the gratuitously over produced cover song. The subject: Encino Man (1992). The song: Wild Thing. A clunky, frantic arrangement where the band tries to downplay and distort the famous song hook. Embarrassingly bad, even if it does keep the awesome drummer Bun E Carlos busy. Fortunately for Cheap Trick, alternative nation embraced their 70's stuff keeping their name around. That goodwill saved the band from joining the long list of has beens at that time.

Big Stardom

What goes around comes around, Cheap Trick's biggest break in the 90's came by way of a TV theme song. Going into the second season, That 70's Show brought in the Tricksters to cover Big Star's In The Street which was being used as the program's theme song. So Cheap Trick made it over into a song that, ironically, sounded as natural as their classic material. Their version of In The Street wasn't a monster smash but it got Trick their most press in years. Tagging the end with "Surrender" was a nice touch as well. The 70's revival fad was short lived but at least it lasted long enough for Cheap Trick. A great song well covered.

And we've come full circle. Cheap Trick played the soundtrack game well and occasionally fit in what made them distinct. While they could never keep up with Sith Loggins (I'm poking fun, I don't mind Kenny Loggins generally) Cheap Trick was able to adapt to the latest trends in music and film with some success. And movies utilized bands like Cheap Trick, at first to acquire Rock & Roll's rebel spirit and rambunctious life but eventually to sell product in an assembly line fashion. It's a trend that's lasted up to the present, as a slew of teenage singer/dancers sing "rock" songs in teen musicals. The larger debt may be to David Cassady or Shaun Cassady but the evolution of rock soundtracks is in there somewhere. Really! Da Do Ron Ron.
A bonus for me, while searching out these videos I came across a song I haven't heard in decades because it's from the out of print Standing on the Edge (1985) album. The sound and video quality isn't great but I'm really pumped that I get to hear "Little Sister" again.

Cheap Trick "Little Sister"


Jeannie said...

I never really paid attention to Cheap Trick until "The Flame". I really loved that song at the time. I began to listen to their other albums and found out I either love their songs or am rather neutral to them.

Haha- Heavy Metal. I can't think of that movie without remembering the cat spray/boob episode on South Park.

Mr. Mike said...

Hi Bunny! I think I found the clip you're talking about at:

Very funny!

Some Kinda Wonderful said...

Thank you so much, Mr. Mike. Cheap Trick's "Little Sister" is the only remake of an Elvis song that I will deign to listen to. They did a whale of a job on it, didn't they?

I'm so jealous you are getting to see them. I have loved Cheap Trick since well before my teen years. What I can't figure out is how did Robin Zander end up looking like that??? It's just not fair. He was so gorgeous, once...

Mr. Mike said...

Yeah, it looks like Zander has changed his look a little since his hey day.That last CD they had a drawing of the band so I didn't notice the difference. I hope you get to see them in the future!

Mr. Mike said...

And I agree with you SKW, they did a great job on "Little Sister", brings back nice memories of family vacations and the Standing on the Edge album.