“It really captures the band hitting very hard and a crowd going totally nuts," says Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen of the band's beloved 1979 album, Cheap Trick At Budokan. "It’s exciting, joyous, positive – and that’s just my guitar playing! The best thing is, it still sounds new. You can listen to the album today and still get caught up in it. That’s pretty cool.”
Oddly enough, it's a record that was never meant to happen: Following their 1977 self-titled debut, the Rockford, Illinois band - singer Robin Zander, bassist Tom Petersson, drummer Bun E. Carlos and Nielsen - issued two more albums, In Color (1977) and Heaven Tonight (1978). All three garnered critical praise, and all three moved unimpressive numbers.
Except in Japan, where the band had become stars. “It was the strangest thing," Nielsen recalls. "Queen had heard our first album pre-release and asked us if we would open two shows. Japanese journalists came to see Queen, and while they loved them, of course, they thought that the opening band - us - really had something. So they started writing about us."
A duplicate scenario unfolded several months later when Cheap Trick opened for KISS. "Before you knew it, we were on the cover of all these Japanese music magazines – and we hadn’t even been to the country!" says Nielsen. "Then we had hit singles with Clock Strikes Ten and I Want You To Want Me. When we were asked, 'Hey, do you want to tour Japan?' it was like, 'Uh, yeah. Sure!”
Five thousand screaming fans greeted Cheap Trick at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, recalling the glory days of Beatlemania. "I thought the president of Japan was on the plane or something," says Nielsen. "We were just flying coach." At their hotel, the band members were put under 24-hour guard. "There were kids everywhere trying to get to us," Nielsen says. "We were told not to look out the windows of our rooms, otherwise kids outside would faint and go crazy. We couldn't believe it. All this for us?"
Both of the band's sell-out shows (28 and 30 April, 1978) at the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo were taped for radio and TV broadcasts, and to capitalize on the group's success, Epic in Japan decided to issue an album. It didn't take long for imports to flood the US market, thus necessitating an American release.
When Cheap Trick At Budokan was released in the US, the raucous live versions of Surrender and I Want You To Want Me became immediate radio sensations, and the album stormed the charts, selling so well and for so long that it held up the release of the already-recorded Dream Police by half a year. "It was a nice problem to have," says Nielsen.
Recalling the Budokan shows that would ultimately break the worldwide, Nielsen says, “We knew we were being taped, but truthfully, we didn’t feel a lot of pressure. It wasn’t like, ‘’Oh boy, we’d better be good tonight…’ We thought we were good every night!"