By Ron Faiola, Special to OMC   Published Mar 01, 2007 at 5:40 AM
The first time I saw Cheap Trick I was among 40,000 other people at Ted Nugent’s Grand Slam Jam at Milwaukee County Stadium. It was May 1978 and I was a gawky 15-year-old who had no idea that Cheap Trick’s inspiring and intoxicating performance would have a profound influence on the rest of my musical life.

Years later I would hear tales of Cheap Trick’s legendary early gigs in Milwaukee rock dives and disco palaces in the mid-1970s.   Having only seen Cheap Trick in the big venues including Alpine Valley, the Arena, and various stadiums, I was truly envious of those who got to see them in such intimate surroundings.

To get a better idea of what those early days were like, I decided to ask Cheap Trick’s resident historian and drummer extraordinaire, Bun E. Carlos, about their bar band days in Milwaukee.

I contacted Bun E. Carlos at his home in Rockford, Illinois, where it all started 34 years ago for Carlos, guitarist Rick Nielsen, vocalist Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson.

"We first played at Teddy's (now Shank Hall) in 1973. We also played at Someplace Else (Water Street) and the Stone Toad (Broadway) with (original vocalist) Xeno."  recalls Carlos.  “Someplace Else had a kind of yuppie/hippy crowd. We’d play four, 45-minute sets.  Later it was three 50-minute sets.”  

In 1973 rock was at the height of the glam era: Bowie, T. Rex, Slade, Sweet. The bands and their fans would dress in costumes and make up, or as Carlos describes it, “…glamorous clothes on glamorous people. We had a cooler crowd than just t-shirts and jeans."

For Cheap Trick, the glam rock look meant Carlos would wear all white and Xeno would wear a purple jacket with yellow bananas on it, which was fine with the audience until the band hit Green Bay.

Carlos recalls, “We were too goofy for the frat boy crowd who just wanted to beat us up.”

“We were all dressed up - gussied up…people didn’t know what to expect from us,” recalls Xeno, a long-time member of the renowned Milwaukee rock band Bad Boy and a member of Cheap Trick from early 1973 to late 1974.

In Milwaukee, Cheap Trick started to attract a larger gay crowd to their shows, and the staff of the Stone Toad wasn't too crazy about the audience.  According to Carlos, the bar’s manager of the bar told them their crowd had too many gay people and he didn’t want the band to play there any more.

Cheap Trick took their act to Humpin' Hanna's (Locust Street) where the band’s loyal crowd followed.

"Penny beer night was the coolest,” Carlos recalls, “people were stinking drunk.   (Humpin’ Hanna’s manager) Lenny would show us the books, which were like a graph. When we played there, the money line went up, when other bands played there, the money line went down, except for Herman's Hermits who played without Herman (Peter Noone) and they'd pack the place."

In Milwaukee, Carlos says Cheap Trick would play the same club from Thursday through Saturday for a $2-$3 cover.

"We made a few hundred a night. It was a flat fee unless we were doing well, then we'd cut a door deal."  

 “I had gone to Humpin' Hanna’s and struck up a conversation with Rick Szeluga, a bass player also from Rockford,” says Milwaukee photographer Deone Jahnke, who was in college when she first saw Cheap Trick in early 1974.

“At the time he was with a band called Hurry, and he told me to go see Cheap Trick.  We later found out that Robin Zander had just replaced Xeno. Much later I learned that Szeluga had actually done a stint (on bass) in CT while Tom Petersson was on sabbatical.  One of my favorite pieces of CT memorabilia is a black and white 11x17 poster on pink stock featuring Rick Szeluga, Rick Nielsen, Bun E. and Xeno. They had a script logo at the time, that looked like neon -- the typewritten logo came later.”

Besides Milwaukee, Carlos recalls traveling around Wisconsin in those early days.

"We'd play a week in Lake Geneva and a week in Green Bay, then a week of one-nighters around Madison. It wasn't until 1975 when we got into the Chicago market."

In 1973 with Xeno on vocals, Cheap Trick played mostly cover tunes. “Rick and Tom had lived in England and we’d do covers of these English bands and people here didn’t know them yet,” recalls Xeno.

Along with the covers, Cheap Trick did some original songs including “Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School,” which appeared on the band’s first Epic release in 1976.

After Robin Zander joined as vocalist in 1974, Cheap Trick started featuring more originals: “He’s a Whore,” “Southern Girls” and “The Ballad of Richard Speck” (later called “Ballad of TV Violence”) along with blistering covers of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” and “Down on The Bay” by The Move.

Jahnke recalls Cheap Trick’s Milwaukee audience: “Their crowd was a great mix of folks, including a regular gaggle of glam girls we'd see at every show, and guys who came because there were cute girls … lots of beautiful people. Robin was just gorgeous, and he used to wear tight, light-colored, high-waisted trousers and a button-down shirt with the tails tied in a knot; sometimes he even wore a tie and vest. Tom was the bohemian -- scarves tied around his head, and silk shirts with chinese embroidery.”

Carlos notes that Cheap Trick used Milwaukee to try out new songs, including what would become their biggest hit, “I Want You to Want Me.’

"If they didn't like stuff, (the audience) would say," he says.

However, they didn’t release any local records or cassettes.  According to Carlos, "You'd save your best material - why would you want to put your good stuff out locally and sell 3,000 copies when you could get a big label to put it out and sell more?"

An early demo that Cheap Trick recorded during this era, but didn’t release until 1996, was a song called “Fan Club,” which told the story of their gay Milwaukee fans -- “pretty pictures of the queens themselves…”-- intermingled with a story Carlos remembers about  two fans, Jim and Nancy, who were given a promo photo of the Cheap Trick.  Some time later, Jim and Nancy invited the band over for dinner and Cheap Trick asked where the photo was and they found it inside a closet on a shelf .. “you hid my 8x10 on your shelf…”

Carlos remembers some of the Milwaukee bands and musicians from those early days: Jerome Brisch (aka Presley Haskel) from In a Hot Coma (later The Haskels), Ziggy and the Zoo Revue and singer Ruby Starr.

“Many of the people we knew back then have passed away. There were a lot of lifestyle deaths back then -- the gay crowd, drugs...,” Carlos reflects.

After Humpin’ Hanna's closed, Cheap Trick played the Electric Ballroom (State Street) and eventually the Sunset Bowl in Waukesha where Aerosmith record producer Jack Douglas heard them for the first time. He produced their self-titled first album, which was released on Epic records in 1976.

By then, Cheap Trick was playing bigger Milwaukee venues.  Carlos remembers a 1976 Summerfest appearance with Peter Frampton and Bachman Turner Overdrive.

“(Bassist) Tom (Petersson) had a haircut that made him look like Frampton and there was just a chain link fence separating the crowd from the side of the stage. Some of the fans started waving at Tom, thinking he was Peter Frampton, so Tom jumps on this limo that was parked there and 5,000 people turned and waved at him.  Eventually (then-manager) Ken Adamany came over and told Tom to stop because it was pissing off BTO who were on stage at the time.”

Fast forward 30 years and Cheap Trick is still doing three-night stands in Milwaukee, although in much more luxurious surroundings at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino’s Northern Lights Theater.

After 34 years and 5,000 shows Cheap Trick has come full circle, playing more intimate venues with the same sonic intensity and musical aura that other bands crave.  Since that first show in 1978 I’ve been lucky to see them on a variety of stages all over the world, but for me, their Milwaukee shows will always be some of their best.