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‘The best rock band around’: A chat with Safety Harbor resident Robin Zander, of Cheap Trick

Bill DeYoung

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Cheap Trick, back in the day: Petersson, left, Carlos, Nielsen and Zander. Sony Music.

Robin Zander onstage in Clearwater. Photo: Bridget Burke.

Even rock stars get cabin fever.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Robin Zander, lead singer with the band Cheap Trick, has been rattling around the Safety Harbor home he shares with his wife, Pam, for weeks now. A lengthy summer tour – sharing bills with ZZ Top first, then Rod Stewart – has been put on temporary ice. And although plans are still on for Cheap Trick to visit Australia and New Zealand in the fall, uncertainty is, of course, hanging in the air.

The Zanders moved from Chicago to Safety Harbor in 2003, so Pam, pregnant with their first child, could be close to her mother in Clearwater. “It doesn’t matter where you live,” Zander says. “It’s who you live with that counts.”

Both Robin Taylor Zander and his sister, Robin Sailor, are safe-at-home with Mom and Dad. Sailor, the youngest, was visiting on her spring break from Emerson College when the pandemic reared its ugly head and shut everybody in.

Both kids are musicians, just like the old man. “We’ve got a jam session going on here all night and day,” Zander explains, adding with a laugh: “It’s a little irritating, to tell you the truth.”

Talking with a journalist on the phone, about Cheap Trick’s journey from and Illinois club act to Japanese demi-gods to the Hall of Fame and beyond, was a way to flex muscles the 67-year-old hasn’t been using while he sits at home.

So we talked.

“We just liked Safety Harbor,” Zander said. “It’s small, it’s got a spa … some of the best restaurants in the area are in Safety Harbor, believe it or not. And there’s one main street. You can walk down it. Everybody knows who I am, and it’s not a problem. It’s just a very comfortable place to live.”

Performing with Robin Taylor Zander. “If I get bored, that’s what I lean on, the music,” Zander says. “It makes me happy.” Photo by Bridget Burke.

And even though he’s a Midwesterner at heart, the Wisconsin native said he feels – very much – like a Floridian. “It only comes up during sporting events. When the Blackhawks and the Lightning play, I have to go with the Lightning. But I’m a big Blackhawks fan too.

“Same with the Cubs and Tampa Bay. I grew up a Cubs fan – my family were all White Sox fans – and I’m the biggest fan of the Rays. I love the Rays. When the Cubs are in town, for any reason at all, it tears me up. But I believe in supporting your local act.”

A quick history lesson: Blending hard rock with melodic “power pop” and cheeky humor, Cheap Trick (Zander, guitarist/songwriter Rick Nielsen, bassist Tom Petersson and drummer Bun E. Carlos) sold more than 20 million albums (the 1979 breakthrough Cheap Trick at Budokan was certified triple platinum, and the band’s lifetime resume includes more than 40 international gold and platinum certifications.) Cheap Trick had an unlikely number one single with “The Flame,” a power ballad written by an outside composer, in 1988. After a protracted legal battle, Carlos left the band, acrimoniously, in 2013.

The band’s 50th anniversary is right around the corner.

 

For years, Cheap Trick was the hardest-working band in show business. Don’t you feel like you’ve spent your whole life on the road?

Well, yeah, even before Cheap Trick there were bands that I was in with Bun E., and bands I was in with other people … from the time I was 14 on, I was in rock bands and we always traveled around. It’s been my life, and I’ve been so fortunate, because I never thought I’d be making a living anyway, doing it, in the first place. And then over the years, we had success – and that’s just so incredible to me.

Looking back, I don’t regret one thing. I’ve been so fortunate to still be alive, actually. I wake up every morning and I’ve got this great sun to look forward to.

 

During the first big rush of success, Budokan, Heaven Tonight, Dream Police, did you get a swelled head? Were you ever hard to deal with?

I was hard to deal with in the beginning, but not because of a swelled head. It was because of complete fear. Going to Budokan and being treated like John Lennon was a little frightening, when you can’t go out of your room. They blackened out the windows in your hotel room, and put security guards out in front of your room. And to get anywhere, you’d have to get into a postal vehicle with the windows blacked out. They would take you down the street, and there’d be 15 or 20 taxicabs following you everywhere you go.

It was a little frightening, even though I love the Japanese audience. And we go back there all the time now. But in those first couple years of playing there, it was a little frightening. And I was just a little pissed off about it, you know? I didn’t think that it was gonna be quite like that.

In fact, when we first got to the airport, I looked out the window of the airplane and I saw all these people standing around on the roof of the airport. They had signs in Japanese. And I thought to myself, “Oh, there must be a diplomat here, or the president of some country.” And when we got off the plane and walked into the building, we were just jammed.

After that, it calmed down a little bit. Then we came back to the United States to play in front of three people standing on their heads. THAT was the culture shock.

 

Was it an annoyance that your privacy was gone?

Yes, exactly. Your privacy is gone. Suddenly you’re isolated, in a big, major way. Almost like going to prison! So it’s a double-edged sword. You’re happy with the success, and Japan was so big, yet at the same time, you’re stuck.

 

You’re stuck being “that guy.”

That’s exactly right.

 

Speaking of that, I’ve always wondered about the personas that Rick and Bun E. had – were those works-in-progress until they got them fine-tuned, or did they emerge fully-formed at the beginning? “We’re going to appear like this”?

I think that’s something you’d probably have to ask them. To me, their personalities are there in the way they look. So you can figure it out from there, really. It’s an extension of who they are. I’m sure their look has changed over the years, as mine has. That tattoo on Rick’s head has changed now, but the baseball cap remains!

 

When the Japanese label first issued Cheap Trick At Budokan, they put you and Tom on the front, Rick and Bun E. on the back. Which you had done yourselves with In Color and Heaven Tonight, but I remember one of you saying in print at the time that you wished they hadn’t done that. It was like, enough already, we GET it.

The record company did that. It was not an interior decision by the group at all.  And neither was putting “I Want You to Want Me” on the Budokan record. “I Want You to Want Me” was recorded on In Color and, honestly, we had played that song over the first couple of years live, in clubs and stuff, and it got kind of an ehhh, OK response. We didn’t do it every night or anything.

When we got to Budokan, it wasn’t even in the set that we were gonna do. About 15 minutes before we were going to go on, our manager came up to us and said the Japanese production guy said we needed another song, because our set’s not long enough. He suggested putting “I Want You to Want Me” in the set, so we did, and that became the big hit off the album. Who knew?

 

And you’ve probably played it in every show you’ve done since. That and “The Flame.”

Pretty much after 1979, “I Want You to Want Me” had to be in the set. And it wasn’t until ’88 that “The Flame” had to be in the set.

 

Do you still play “The Flame”?

Not every night. I don’t know if you know this about our band, but we don’t do the same songs every night. We write the set just before we go on. And sometimes “The Flame” is there, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s there with “Voices” or another ballad. “Heaven Tonight” we play sometimes instead of “The Flame,” and it’s fine. People who know us have heard “The Flame” a dozen times or more. And our newer fans, the people who don’t know us, could care less about “The Flame” anyway.

 

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, 2016.

What did getting into the Hall of Fame mean to you?

That’s another double-edged sword kind of thing. It started out as being very exciting that after 25 years of being together – we’d just finished 25th anniversary shows, which were fantastic – we were “Hey, man, we’re gonna get into the Hall of Fame, can you believe it?” “Yeah!” “Wow!”

Then 10 years go by, and you’re thinking, “Well, maybe we’re NOT getting into the Hall of Fame.” “I don’t know.”

Then 15 years goes by, and you’re thinking ”F—k you, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, anyway.”

Then you get the call – “Hey, you guys are in the Hall of Fame” – it’s like “I knew it all along!” “All is forgiven!”

It’s a real honor, to be honest. The people that are in there deserve it, I think, no matter who they are. There’s this big argument about “Maybe it should just be called the Music Hall of Fame,” and I find it hard in my own heart to argue anything about any musician who’s in the Hall of Fame.

 

Has your relationship with Bun E. softened at all? I know it got nasty at one point.

Well, it might’ve got nasty on his part, but it wasn’t nasty on my part, or the band. The problem was, he sued us. And that made it nasty.

Bun E. is much older than me. And there comes a time in life when you’re not able, physically, to be able to fulfil your obligations. And I think that’s what the problem was. That’s what the core of the argument was. Of course, there are many other little things that go along with that, but that was the core of it. When you’ve got promoters coming up to you and saying things … it’s not a good idea. It just happened. It happened, and I’m glad it happened, and I haven’t talked to Bun E. since, really. Other than the Hall of Fame, he was there, and we played.

But I never was friendly with anybody in the band. I’m not like somebody’s best friend or anything. Tom and I talk maybe twice a year on the phone, when we’re home. It’s like that.

 

I think maybe people still have this notion from Help! where everyone in a band, especially when they’re young, lives together in the same big house somewhere. Or the Monkees’ pad.

Like some kind of weird commune or somethin.’

 

Certainly it was different in the early days.

Our whole thing was musical super glue. We connected, musically, after three days of rehearsal in 1974. And we immediately went out and started playing. We played all covers at that time, and maybe one or two original songs. But literally we knew at that time, all of us knew, that we were the best rock band around. We had similar influences, the British Invasion, the Kinks, the Stones and the Beatles and all that.

When you connect like that, in your heart you know. I think that’s what happened to us.

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6 Comments
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6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Joe Alvarez

    April 4, 2020 at 4:46 pm

    Best Singer in Rock n Roll Robin’s performance are spot on he’s a true HOFer

  2. Avatar

    Joe Stevenson

    April 5, 2020 at 5:23 pm

    I have loved Cheap Trick since around the age of eight. I am 53 now…still love their music. My band 3fixx just released a Cheap Trick tribute song called “Cool Aunt Kari.” On You Tube, Spotify and many more favorite music apps.

  3. Avatar

    EJ Spode

    April 5, 2020 at 10:10 pm

    Absolutely my favorite singer in rock, edging out John Lennon by just a hair. The length and breadth of their career has been nothing short of astonishing.

  4. Avatar

    Scar Pacifico

    April 7, 2020 at 7:42 pm

    “Bun E. is much older than me.” Is he kidding? They’re two-and-a-half years apart! I’m a huge fan, but that’s not cool.

  5. Avatar

    Gale Mauck

    June 12, 2020 at 8:43 pm

    Although I love reading any article on any of the Cheap Trick guys, it would be nice to see some fresh questions. These have all been asked before. Glad to know Robin is in good health. When you interview him again, I hope you take it outside the box. I have been a huge fan since 1975. Thank you.

  6. Avatar

    Sandi Levan

    June 19, 2020 at 5:46 pm

    My all time favorite talent. I found Cheap Trick in 1977 and been a huge fan ever since! I keep trying to make it up to The Dell’s to see him without the band. No luck yet. Hey Robin if your bored my 57th birthday is next month come to Virginia and sing for me!

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