Funny how some songs that had minimal impact upon release can show amazing staying power over the ensuing decades.
Cheap Trick’s ‘Surrender’, the first single from their 1978 album ‘Heaven Tonight’, only made it to 62 on Billboard’s Hot 100, but 36 years later it’s a classic rock staple, and is now considered one of Cheap Trick’s ‘Greatest Hits’. The song made Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of all Time (whatever that means) and has been used in several movies and TV shows. And this perfectly constructed power pop gem deserves the accolades; it’s fun, it’s catchy, it rocks, and it delivers its message, like most of Cheap Trick’s work, with considerable wit. Sole composer Rick Nielsen wrote ‘Surrender’ about the divide between kids and their parents, but he sure took a strange way to get there. I mean… have you ever really listened to the lyrics to this song?
Before we take this tune apart, let’s look at its background. ‘Surrender’ was written in 1976, long before the Tricksters were signed. Rick Nielsen (who producer Jack Douglas once called ‘the most gifted songwriter I’ve ever worked with’) was a songwriting machine, and had amassed about 50 songs before the band was signed to Epic. ‘Surrender’ was one of them, and was actually recorded for their debut album but didn’t make the final cut. In those pre-label days, Cheap Trick’s dark side was far more prominent, with Nielsen cranking out songs about suicide (‘Auf Wiedersehen’ and ‘Oh, Candy’), serial killers (‘The Ballad of TV Violence’), child molesters (‘Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School’), and other general nastiness (‘She’s Tight’, ‘He’s a Whore’, ‘Heaven Tonight’, ‘Gonna Raise Hell’, etc). The genius of Nielsen and early Cheap Trick is the way this off-the-wall subject matter was built into impossibly hooky songs… ‘Surrender’ being a prime example.
Mother told me, yes she told me
I’d meet girls like you
She also told me ‘Stay away
You never know what you’ll catch’
Right away, in the first verse, there’s an allusion to STDs. Not exactly standard boy-meets-girl stuff. After the bouncy Who-like intro, this verse sets the tone for the rest of the song; Zander’s sly half-innocent/half-jaded teen delivering the not-so-nice lyric over a bubblegummy bed of rock n’ roll crunch.
‘Just the other day I heard of a soldier’s falling off
Some Indonesian junk that’s going ’round’
Here, Mommy shares a story about the horrific effects of Venereal Disease. According to mom, VD can cause your dick to fall off. Also note the first of many military allusions, which cleverly support the song’s chorus and title.
Father says ‘Your mother’s right
She’s really up on things
Before we married mommy served
in tha WACs in the Philippines’
More military references… and the implication that Mommy knows a thing or two about Sexually Transmitted Disease.
Now I had heard the WACs recruited old maids for the war
But mommy isn’t one of those, I’ve known her all these years
This part of verse 2 originally read ‘Now I had heard the WACs were either old maids, dykes, or whores’; the song was even demo’d with this line for ‘Heaven Tonight’. Someone decided that this was maybe a bit too much for rock radio in 1978. Someone was right. This wasn’t the first time the suits asked CT to alter a song, and wouldn’t be the last; ‘The Ballad of TV Violence’ from the 1976 debut was originally titled ‘The Ballad of Richard Speck’, but the title was changed at the behest of Epic Records, and years later, another song, called ‘Don’t Hit Me With Love’ was vetoed by the label and left off of the ‘Next Position Please’ album altogether (although that album’s title track, which includes the word ‘tits’, made it through intact… go figure) .
We’re not going to parse the first half of the third verse; although the key change is brilliant, I have no idea what the lyrics mean. There are actually a lot of nonsense lyrics in the Cheap Trick catalog; they’re there by design and are a part of the band’s off-kilter charm— and when you have a lead singer that would sound great singing the goddamn phonebook, you can fill space with anything and get away with it.
3rd verse, 2nd half:
When I woke up mom and dad
Were rollin’ on the couch
Rollin’ numbers, rock and rollin’
Got my KISS records out
So the kid busts his parents having sex on the couch, smoking pot, and listening to his KISS albums. This is the verse that illustrates the ultimate point of the song: maybe mom and dad are cooler than you think. It also nicely leads us back into the chorus and the song’s central premise:
Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright
They just seem a little weird
The last 2 lines of the chorus allude to the military references made earlier in the song, and wrap up the chorus nicely by suggesting that maybe the ‘battle’ between generations isn’t really necessary; maybe it’s okay to admit your parents are kinda cool, but that doesn’t mean you have to admit it to them…
But don’t give yourself away
Is this not 4 minutes and 12 seconds of pure genius?
I’m sure the CT guys all got a kick out seeing the teeny-bopper side of their fan base singing along with lines about parents doing drugs and somebody’s dick falling off. I doubt Gene $immons had a problem with the KISS reference (‘free advertising!’), either. They even reference themselves by name individually at the end of the song. Dammit this song is just too much fun.
Classic Cheap Trick was all about duality. Handsome guys on the front cover; goofy guys on the back. Hook-laden, catchy-as-hell tunes, subversive/sarcastic lyrics and vocal delivery; the Bay City Rollers meet Alice Cooper. ‘Trick walked a fine line between parody and tribute, simultaneously working on both sides of the fence; poking fun at power pop, bubblegum, and arena rock music while at the same time creating excellent power pop, bubblegum, and arena rock music. Their catalog is crammed with exceedingly well-written, artfully constructed and masterfully executed rock songs, all perpetrated by a band that demanded that you don’t take it all too seriously. And as producer Steve Albini said, ‘They rock like a truck full of bricks’.
A song like ‘Surrender’ is sort of like a trap; you’re initially taken in my the hooks and melodies, the catchy chorus, the friendly vibe. Then there’s the moment when you realize what the singer just sang… Anyway, does the name of this band make more sense now?
(Lyrics used without permission :p)