But Don’t Give Yourself Away

Funny how some songs that had minimal impact upon release can show amazing staying power over the ensuing decades.

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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.

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1st verse:

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.

2nd verse:

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) .

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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

Surrender, Surrender

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.

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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)

Epic Fail

His track record is unassailable: He’s earned 23 Gold & Platinum albums. As A&R for Epic records in the 70’s, he signed Cheap Trick, Molly Hatchet, Ted Nugent, Boston, and REO Speedwagon. As a producer for Epic Records from 1970-1982, he produced career-making records by all of the iconic rockers mentioned above. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you own an album with his name on it. “Heaven Tonight”, anyone? “Cat Scratch Fever”? “Boston”? Maybe some of his 80’s work… Twisted Sister’s “Stay Hungry”? Dokken’s “Tooth and Nail”? Motley Crue’s “Theatre of Pain”?

Tom Werman practically produced the soundtrack to my teens.

Werman brought Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rush to CBS, and was turned down in all three cases. Tell me, did this guy not OWN hard rock in the mid 70’s?

Most of the bands Werman worked with had their biggest albums with him; their commercial breakthroughs. Most bands he worked with stayed with him for a number of albums before changing producers. Motley Crue and Cheap Trick each did three records with Werman; Molly Hatchet 5, Nugent 6. And… most bands began their commercial decline after moving on to work with other producers.

Tom Werman’s job was, as he described it, to ‘get bands on the radio’. ‘Cat Scratch Fever’. ‘Surrender’. ‘Flirtin’ with Disaster’… I’ll bet you first heard these songs on the radio. And they are still played on the radio today, 35 years later. Is there any question as to how well this guy did his job?

Yes.

A few years back it somehow became fashionable to dump on Tom Werman. Musicians he had worked with 2 or 3 decades previous were suddenly complaining that the records they made with him were too safe, too commercial, ‘not an accurate representation of our sound’. Why these established rock stars feel the need to look back on their most successful period and complain about the records that established their careers, ‘blaming’ Werman for their biggest hits, is just plain bizarre.

The most infamous instance was probably the war of words between Werman and Nikki Sixx (feel so silly typing that name). Sixx (tee hee) wrote a book about what a super-cool guy he is and how heroin is bad but it’s also very rock ‘n roll, so hey, that’s what decadent rock stars do, dude. In this book, in between blaming his girlfriend for every drug relapse and blaming every drug relapse on his girlfriend, ‘ol Nikk talks trash about Werman, accusing him of spending more time on the phone than producing the Crue’s record. Super-hero Nikki than had to assume control and see the album through. Riiiiight. Werman felt the need to defend himself, and wrote an op/ed piece for the New York Times refuting Sixx’s story and pointing out the inherent absurdities in the version of events as described by Nikki. This, in turn, prompted Nikki to post a response on blabbermouth.com, in which he threatened to ‘out’ Werman to his wife for the partying he allegedly did during the recording of the album. What a douche. Werman responded again. The whole sad saga is encapsulated here:

http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/producer-tom-werman-fires-back-at-nikki-sixx/

Dee Snider played the same game while promoting Twisted Sister’s re-recording of their triple-platinum “Stay Hungry”, titled “Still Hungry”. Besides his production credit, Werman is also credited as ‘co-arranger’ on “Stay Hungry”, and it’s widely known that he reworked some of the songs to make them more commercial. Based on the results, I’d say he was successful. But not Dee. Snider claims that Werman had nothing to do with the success of “Stay Hungry”, that his work on the record came close to ‘ruining’ it, and that he didn’t want ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and I Wanna Rock’ to be on the record… Really, Dee? This is the guy who gets hard rock bands on the radio. The guy who’s number one priority is making sure there’s a single on the record. He didn’t think those 2 tunes were viable? Sounds like somebody’s trying to spark some controversy to sell their new album (which ultimately sold about 30,00 units, just a tad short of triple platinum). Snider goes on to claim that working with Werman was the reason that Twisted Sister’s next album (produced by Dieter Dierks) completely sucked, as poor Dee was too busy fighting against bad ol’ Tom Werman’s commercial considerations while recording “Stay Hungry” to write decent songs for the follow-up record. Really. Dee Snider’s take on Werman and “Stay Hungry” can be found here:

http://www.bullz-eye.com/music/interviews/2009/dee_snider.htm

Cheap Trick, who Werman continues to speak very highly of, have stated publicly that they were displeased with the sound of their Werman-produced records– but only started talking about it after about 25 years. Interesting that they did their 3rd and 4th lps with Werman, as well… Like Twisted Sister, they too, re-recorded one of their ‘Werman Era’ albums, “In Color”, with infamous indie producer Steve Albini; however, they have never released the record. I’ve heard it; it’s a lot more live-sounding than Werman’s recording, a lot more raw, much like CT’s first album, and maybe a lot closer to what the band were hoping for sonically back in 1977. But is it a better record than Werman’s? No. If the Albini version of “In Color” were released in ’77 as Cheap Trick’s second album, things would have been very different for this band. The Albini “In Color” leaked onto the internet years ago and is fairly easy to obtain. Just not here.

What we have here is the classic battle of art vs. commerce, with musicians on the ‘art’ side and record producers representing ‘commerce’. While Werman undoubtedly steered these bands in a more commercial direction than they were comfortable with, no one can argue that he didn’t do his job (‘getting bands on the radio’) exceedingly well. And perhaps these musicians need to take a moment, as they look back on their 30-year careers, and ask themselves if they’d even have 30-year careers to look back on if they hadn’t had the good fortune to work with Tom Werman… Would they really trade the gold and platinum albums and the hit singles that were the foundation of their success, assured their longevity and cemented their iconic status for generations to come, for complete creative control over their records, commercial success be damned?      

Tom Werman’s track record speaks for itself. However, if you want to read Werman’s story as told by Werman, he writes a regular column at popdose.com where he relates his experiences recording some of the greatest records by the greatest rock bands of all time, before they went all douche-y. I highly recommend that you read his stuff here:

http://popdose.com/the-producers-tom-werman-chapter-one/

Werman now owns and runs a bed & breakfast out in Lenox, MA, called Stonover Farm. He once posted his personal email on popdose, but has since changed it to an unpublished address (he can, however, be contacted through the Stover Farm site). If you email him, he will likely answer. I highly recommend that you do so. Thank him for all the great music. I did.