Some songs only come to life when they’re played live. Such is the case with the Cheap Trick classic “I Want You to Want Me” (another song that you’ve heard if you’ve listened to the radio at all in the last 30 years or so). The song first appeared on their In Color album; it was decidedly forgettable. The studio version is weak. Robin Zander’s voice, never the greatest, sounds reedy and thin. It sounds like they were just phoning it in, frankly. There’s no pulse.
The pulse is obvious in the live version (from At Budokan, an album you were issued automatically in the 70s). Bun E. Carlos, one of the best drummers in rock & roll, fires off a rat-a-tat-tat line that drives the whole song. He keeps perfect time, and if the cracks of the drum aren’t quite bullet sharp, they’re pretty damn close (I really like and admire good drumming). In fact, the drums seem to be the central focus of the song, something the studio version lacked. And Zander is back to his leering surfer dude best here. Like I said, he’s not the greatest singer, but there’s a sly quality to him at his best, know what I mean (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). It’s part of what makes Cheap Trick one of the best party bands of all time. That and the killer hooks. And Rick Nielsen’s multi-necked guitar. And the fact that they were a great live act (and still are, by some accounts).
Hearing a song live can change how you hear it forever. To this day, when I hear the opening piano chords of “Straight Into Darkness,” I feel a soft breeze on my face, like I did the first time I saw TP & the Heartbreakers. Crowded House’s “When You Come” got elevated to favorite status when they just pounded out a passionate version at a Christmas concert in LA (the Woodface tour; Tim Finn had already quit). The memory associated with hearing a new version of an old favorite, or a deep cut you’d forgotten, or the debut of the new single shapes the music so that it becomes yours. The best art is always like that, and the artists know it. Musicians write and record sometimes very personal songs and then put them out in the world so that it becomes not theirs, but the audience’s experience. If you’ve ever created any kind of art, you know that you might create it for yourself, but once it’s out in the world, it belongs to someone else.
Right now in Japan, there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of middle-aged Japanese women who own that little piece of Cheap Trick.