When they burst onto the scene in the late ’70s with their hilariously dichotomous image and archly irreverent stance, Cheap Trick seemed like some wondrous new breed of rock & roll animal. Putting a smirking cartoon face on melody-laced power pop, the Rockford, Ill., quartet seemed capable of knocking down the walls between new wavers, metal kids, and traditionalists with goofy anthems like ”Surrender.” It was a magic moment, but it wasn’t to last. The ’80s found Cheap Trick embarking on a long, slow decline; by decade’s end, they were reduced to pandering to a lowest-common-denominator pop-metal demographic. Sex, America, Cheap Trick, a four-CD career retrospective that continues the ’90s resurrection of ’70s rock heroes (Kiss, the Sex Pistols), represents a botched opportunity to shore up the band’s damaged credibility.
While there are plenty of welcome curiosities here (a nearly 10-minute version of Bob Dylan’s ”Please Mrs. Henry,” a Velvet Underground medley dating from 1974), the package feels misbegotten. Chockful of fan-boy fodder (outtakes, live and unreleased tracks, demos, B sides), the 64-song collection inexplicably omits such essential Trick tunes as ”He’s a Whore,” ”Oh Caroline,” and the band’s definitive cover of the Move’s ”California Man.” Still, even if you’re one of those people who never forgave them their treacly 1988 ballad ”The Flame” (ironically, the band’s only No. 1 single), worthy latter-period songs like ”Stop That Thief” offer proof that these middle-aged Midwesterners never fully abandoned their principles. As Sex, America, Cheap Trick makes clear, they just misplaced them from time to time. B-