Like a lot of bands that have been around a while, Cheap Trick operates in a strange netherworld nowadays -- invisible in some ways, but more visible than ever in others.
On the one hand, Cheap Trick has a fine new album, "The Latest" ( www.cheaptrick.com), that you'd never know about from scanning the radio dial. On the other, that hasn't slowed Cheap Trick down much, and not just because "Surrender," "I Want You To Want Me" or some other Cheap Trick golden oldie is blaring from a classic-rock station somewhere on Earth at any moment.
Next month Cheap Trick will take time out from its tour schedule (which includes Raleigh tonight) to play NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" plus a run of Las Vegas shows in which the band will re-create the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." There's a hit movie in Mexico, "Rudo y Cursi," featuring multiple versions of "I Want You To Want Me" on the soundtrack. And if you tune in any episode of "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central, that's Cheap Trick doing the opening theme song rave-up.
"You know, we just keep working," Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen says, calling from his home in Rockford, Ill. "I looked it up, and we're in like 40 movies, a lot of different junk. We were on 'Beavis & Butt-Head' -- 'They're cool.' 'Yeah, they're old.' 'I bet the drummer bogarts the beer' -- and we've been in 'The Simpsons,' too, Homer saying he'd rather just listen to Cheap Trick.
"You can't buy that stuff, which is wonderful to me," Nielsen says. "Our resume doesn't say we sold as many records as Michael Jackson, before or after his death, or the Eagles. But we've done all kinds of dumb and fun and cool stuff, and we still do. A rock band is not supposed to be perfect. The ones that try to make it perfect, that's not rock."
Although he still wears his trademark baseball cap and dresses like an adolescent goofball, the 60-year-old Nielsen is obviously not a kid anymore. One listen to "The Latest," however, and age seems irrelevant, because the album is an excellent example of rocking well into one's venerable years. As always, Cheap Trick's jacked-up metallic bubble gum is an elegant formula, balancing hooky pop craft and pulverizing volume -- especially on "Miss Tomorrow," a song that puts the "ow" in power ballad.
"Miss Tomorrow" and the cover of Slade's 1974 glam-rock classic "When the Lights Are Out" both sound like perfect summertime radio fare. But as noted above, airplay for the new album has been nearly nonexistent.
"Well, we're in a young person's industry, although a lot of us older ones do still play," Nielsen says. "There are all the funny quips: how we're too dumb to quit, and what else would we do, anyway? But we're doing something we like to do, and it's pretty wonderful to get to do that. We get paid to travel, not play, because all we do is travel, and it beats on you no matter how nice it is.
"Even if you're pampered, it's a lot of work. You've got to like what you're doing or it's pure torture. We're not finding a cure for cancer, but we are still playing music."
Indeed they are and with as much quirky style as ever. Last month Cheap Trick showed off a well-honed sense of absurdity by releasing a limited-edition version of "The Latest" on clunky old eight-track tape (available by order from the band's Web site). That inspired Nielsen to quip, "We're the number-one artist on eight-track, even more than the Beatles!"
Small wonder that "Cheap Trick Day" in the band's native Illinois falls on April 1, as decreed by the state legislature. But it was no April Fools' joke a few years ago when Stephen Colbert called Nielsen about composing a theme song for his faux-news talk show. If the music that opens "The Colbert Report" every night sounds vaguely familiar, it's for good reason.
"He gets me on the phone and says, 'Rick, my character -- or me -- he wants you to want him,' " Nielsen says.
"That's his thing as the television character 'Stephen Colbert.' So I basically took the riff to 'I Want You to Want Me' and did it backwards, kind of. That's what it is, a backwards rock riff with that horn part.
"So yeah," Nielsen says, "he gave me a song quest and I went for it. That's how the best stuff is written. 'Rick, write something cool.' Well, what do you want? Fast, slow, with lyrics, without? I mean, I think everything I do is cool, at least a little bit. A little help is good. What do you want it to look like, flannel or plaid?"