Cheap Trick’s ‘Live at the Whisky 1977’ Is an Electrifying Document of a Band About to Take on the World: Album Review

Cheap Trick
Courtesy Real Gone

It’s safe to say that more than one voracious music fan has found themselves thinking they might have been more careful in what they’d wished for: Experience has shown this recovering superfan that, with rare exceptions, we probably didn’t really need to spend countless hours tracking down that unfinished studio outtake or muffled concert recording. Yes, occasionally there’s something so astonishing you can’t believe it wasn’t released right away, like Sam Cooke’s “Live at the Harlem Square Club,” Neil Young’s “Homegrown” and “Live at the Fillmore East,” or some of the Prince and Rolling Stones concerts that have surfaced in recent years. But usually, even the die-hards basically cross these purported holy grails off of their meticulously maintained lists and then play them once or twice.

All of which is a longwinded way of saying that “Cheap Trick Live at the Whisky 1977” actually is one of those astonishing releases, and of softening the blow that this quietly released 4-CD collection — containing four full sets from the group’s legendary stand at Hollywood’s Whisky-a-Go-Go in June of 1977 — quickly sold out its limited pressing of 2,000 copies, with no plans for a reissue or a streaming release.

So why on earth are we reviewing an album you can’t get anywhere except for some ridiculous price on eBay? Because you can hear the best versions of every song on it on “Out to Get You! Live 1977,” the 2-CD distillation of the shows released two years ago (along with the five additional tracks released on the 1996 “Sex, America, Cheap Trick” boxed set), which you can listen to it right now.

But for those out to get even more, the 4-CD set is a kind of power-pop equivalent of Miles Davis’ “The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965.” While Cheap Trick has released just two truly classic studio albums during their entire five-decade-plus career — their self-titled 1977 debut and the following year’s “Heaven Tonight” — in a live setting, their wildly schizophrenic sound and look all made sense: Seeing such a weird-looking band — two rock dreamboats and two total nerds — shift between cute and crazy, pop and metal, the Beatles and Alice Cooper was an art in itself. It was also a steep challenge that the band set for themselves, and presumably a big part of what made them so good at winning over even the toughest 1970s rock crowds — when they opened for everyone from Kiss and AC/DC to Queen and Santana — and why their breakthrough came with the hastily recorded “Live at Budokan” album just 18 months after these shows. (More than 45 years later, it’s still happening, as evidenced by this Pitchfork review.)  

Cheap Trick, 1977. Left to right: bassist Tom Petersson, drummer Bun E. Carlos, guitarist Rick Nielsen and singer Robin Zander. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images) Getty Images

Of course, the main reason why they dazzled so many crowds is because they were (and still are) an explosively exciting rock band who’d honed their skills the Beatles-in-Hamburg way, playing four or five or six hours a night to drunk and/or indifferent audiences — and these four shows capture the end of that chapter. Recorded during a break in the sessions for their second album, “In Color” (which included the limp studio version of their first and biggest hit, “I Want You to Want Me”), a couple of weeks after these shows the group would begin a summer-long tour supporting Kiss, playing arenas on a nightly basis and getting even better (anyone seeking evidence should check here and here). After 1977, Cheap Trick would never be a bar band again.

But what a bar band they were. These wildly varied sets include not only most of the band’s first and second albums but a pair of songs from their third; four hot originals that weren’t officially released for years; and four covers that show the band’s eclectic taste and influences: There’s the familiar version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame”; “Down on the Bay,” a Jeff Lynne-penned song by their heroes the Move; “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace” from British singer Terry Reid’s debut album (yes, the guy that Jimmy Page originally wanted to be Led Zeppelin’s lead singer); and the nine-minute raveup “Please Mrs. Henry,” which was written by Bob Dylan and recorded by him and the Band as part of the legendary “Basement Tapes,” although Cheap Trick’s version is based on Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s 1972 arrangement.

The fact that these presumably industry-heavy L.A. audiences knew almost none of the songs beyond the ones on the group’s debut album — which was released less than four months before these shows took place — shows just how skillful they’d become at winning over crowds. And over these four CDs, you hear it all happen in real time, warts and all, although there aren’t many (singer Robin Zander’s voice was pretty shredded by the second night’s second hour-long set, but apparently they played another one the next night anyway).

Another of the greatest rock bands of this era — Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers — recently released their own four-CD set culled from a special residency, filled with covers and rare originals. But “Live at the Fillmore 1997” reflects Petty & co.’s desire to get back to being a bar band: chatting with the audience, making up the set as they went along, and pulling out songs they maybe hadn’t rehearsed because, hey, being in a band is supposed to be fun — something that can get lost when you’re playing the same set every night in arenas to an audience you can barely see past the bright lights shining in your eyes.

Cheap Trick would be headlining arenas themselves in less than two years — and in many ways, these shows lit the fuse.