Cheap Trick built their legend on a live recording: 1978’s At Budokan, a single-LP distillation of two Tokyo performances that transformed the Rockford, Illinois, quartet from power-pop pranksters into classic-rock icons. Originally intended as a limited-edition promo souvenir, At Budokan sparked a shockwave of Japanese adulation that reverberated all the way back to America, where an official release eventually racked up triple-platinum sales. But the snapshot of Cheap Trick that At Budokan captured was highly selective, if not a little misleading: Its taut 10-song tracklist presents a showbiz-savvy act complete with their own readymade entrance theme and rollicking old-time rock ‘n’ roll covers to complement a bounty of crowd-pleasing pop singles. The truth is Cheap Trick was also the strangest and surliest band to sneak its way into the ‘70s arena-rock pantheon. The new four-disc box set Live at the Whisky 1977 highlights the freaky flipside of their split personality, making the case that these FM-radio heroes were more like a nihilistic punk-rock band in ’70s-heartthrob clothing.
Two years before At Budokan lodged them in the Billboard Top 10, Cheap Trick were upstart Epic Records signees with one commercially underperforming album under their belt, but enough word-of-mouth clout to land the opening slot on KISS’ 1977 summer tour. To get into road-warrior shape—and to test-drive songs from their next two studio albums, In Color and Heaven Tonight—the band booked five shows over a single June weekend at L.A.’s fabled Whisky-a-Go-Go, four of which were recorded on a mobile studio provided by the Record Plant. But the tapes were put on the back burner once At Budokan blew up.
Though some of these recordings have already turned up on a 1996 box set and a 2020 Record Store Day release, Live at the Whisky 1977 is the first set to reproduce the residency almost entirely, complete with wildly varying setlists, guitarist Rick Nielsen’s peculiar stage banter (sample: “This is a real sad song about a friend of ours who killed the shit out himself”) and repeated drunken audience requests for first-album favorite “He’s a Whore.” Short of a time machine or costly VR headset, these ferocious recordings offer the most vivid experience of what it might have been like to stand directly in front of a PA speaker while Cheap Trick laid waste to a small venue in 1977.
Cheap Trick would introduce refinements like piano and harpsichord on their next studio albums, but the band onstage at the Whisky was still running on electric-guitar malevolence and adrenaline, prioritizing bravado and intensity over proficiency. Even as they were testing out certain setlist strategies that would soon become permanent features of their playbook—like combining the swaggering “Hello There” and the swooning ”Come On Come On” into a one-two opening hit of anarchy and ecstasy—they were still figuring out how the songs actually go. On its journey to power-pop immortality, the latter tune soars skyward only to briefly nosedive with a flubbed first chorus. If the Cheap Trick heard on At Budokan was a well-oiled machine, this version of the band ran so hot, they frequently overheated the engine: Each of the Whisky shows is dotted with extended between-song pauses that are long enough to necessitate their own track designations.