The first pop group to ever play Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo was The Beatles in 1966, a concert that caused quite a scandal because of the auditoriums’ semisacred status as Japan’s premier martial-arts venue. Rightwingers protested the show but in the end the prerogatives of capitalism prevailed.
In the decade to follow, more Western artists would play Budokan, but the hallowed hall didn’t really make an impression on international rock fans until the late 1970s, when a relatively obscure guitar band from Rockford, Illinois performed there.
“Before we played there in ’78 and again in ’79, I think Deep Purple were there, and I heard a kid got killed — the crowd went nuts and somebody got crushed,” says Rick Nielsen, the guitarist and point man for Cheap Trick, from his home in Rockford. “When we played, I think it was the first time they allowed the audience to stand up. Usually, if you got excited and stood up, the guards would shove you down.”
Cheap Trick’s 1979 album “Live at Budokan” not only made the band stars in the United States but turned Budokan into an international rock mecca.
Eventually, everyone from Bob Dylan to Chic would put out a “Live at Budokan” album. The title implied world-conquering stature and a touch of exoticism. In the end, it would become a cliche epitomized by John Hiatt’s “Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan,” a collection of concert tracks of which none were recorded in Japan.
But when Cheap Trick played there it was exotic; at least it was for a band that had toiled on the Midwestern bar circuit for four years, playing three sets a night of pop covers and hard-rock originals.
“Playing in Japan for thousands of people was like playing on the moon,” Nielsen recalls.
When “Live at Budokan” appeared, Cheap Trick had already released three albums to respectable reviews and OK sales. Their blend of guitar rock and jaunty pop seemed dated at a time when punk and new wave were the rage. What received more notice was the band’s bifurcated image: singer Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson were the sexy, long-haired rock gods, while Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos represented nerds and civil servants.
But if there was calculation in their professional approach, Cheap Trick’s ascendancy in the East was completely unexpected.
“In 1977, before our first record came out, Queen were going to tour the U.S. with Thin Lizzy opening,” explains Nielsen. “But then Queen heard an advance copy of our record and insisted we open for them on a few dates.”
Some Japanese music journalists made the trip over to see Queen and were intrigued by this strange-looking American group.
“There was a guy named Ryu from Music Life magazine,” Nielsen says, “and he asked me to write an article about what it was like opening for Queen, so I did. Then, within a couple of months, we started getting fan mail from Japan. And then more fan mail.”
When Cheap Trick’s eponymous debut came out on Epic Sony in Japan later that year, it sold well, as did the second album, “In Color,” released several months later.
In 1978, the band did its first tour of Japan, which included the Budokan shows. “There was something like 5,000 people at the airport,” Nielsen says. “We got off the plane and thought, ‘Man, there’s somebody real famous here.’ And then we found out it was us.”
Since Narita wouldn’t open for a few more years, the airport was Haneda, and Nielsen describes how their car ride to the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku was followed by a fleet of taxis with kids hanging out of the windows and screaming. During their stay in the capital they were escorted by “the Tokyo patrol,” a group of police whose job was to keep fans at bay.
This Beatlemaniacal situation was reflected on “Live at Budokan.” The squeals of female fans are as much a part of that record’s appeal as the songs, which are crunchier and tougher than the versions recorded for the studio albums. There was something bracingly honest, even touching, about the rapport between performer and audience.
“We had some Top 10 songs in Japan, which we hadn’t had in the States,” says Nielsen. “So we thought, let’s make a record just for the Japanese fans.”
Originally there was no plan to release the record in the U.S. Then Rolling Stone ran an article about how big Cheap Trick were in Japan and a DJ in Boston started playing “I Want You to Want Me” from the import on his radio show.
“Suddenly, radio stations all over the country were playing it,” Nielsen says. “We had the biggest-selling import of all time, and our record company said, ‘Wait a minute — people are paying three times what they would pay for a normal record for this.’ “
Nielsen credits the success of “Live at Budokan” with the band’s longevity, not so much because it made them money, but because of its impact on musicians who would later become pillars of alternative rock. When Smashing Pumpkins played their first Budokan show in 1998, they did “I Want You to Want Me” for an encore.
The Beatles connection follows them to this day. Nielsen and Carlos played on John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy,” George Martin produced Cheap Trick’s fifth album, “All Shook Up,” and, in the past year, the group have anchored Beatles tribute concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and elsewhere that include a song-for-song recreation of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Nielsen can’t say what the band will play at their upcoming Budokan show to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their historic 1978 stand, as they’ve been too busy to discuss the set list. For one thing, their home state of Illinois recently declared that from now on, every April 1 is Cheap Trick Day, and according to Nielsen it isn’t an April Fool’s joke.
“When I was up in Springfield (the state capital) to receive the honor, I lobbied for more music in schools and better health plans,” he says proudly, adding with a giggle, “and two weeks’ paid vacation in Sendai for everyone.”
Cheap Trick play at the Nippon Budokan Hall, Tokyo, on April 24 (7 p.m.). Tickets are ¥6,000-8,000. For information call H.I.P. on (03) 3475-9999.