Cheap trick is one of those bands that transcends labels. Are they anthemic ‘70s glam-rockers/’80s hair-band pioneers? Kinda, but their stage antics harken to some definite punk sensibilities. If you don’t believe me, watch any live footage of Rick Nielsen. Are they poppy radio candy cashing in on the then popular zeitgeist of disco sweetness? Maybe in some respects, but their crunching guitars, explosive percussion work, and at times sneering vocals place them a cut above the the glitzy post-hippie era’s more delicate tunes. And, yeah, they’ve been around since the ‘70s and get frequent airplay on classic rock radio, but their sound is still fresh even today.
The reason I’m bringing this up is I’ve been listening to their song “Surrender” a decent amount lately. I mean it’s catchy as hell for one thing. Yet out of the Cheap Trick’s entire discography, there’s something that sets this track apart as one of the band’s most meaningful.
Arguably their most popular song, along with Cheap Trick at Boudokan’s version of “I Want You to Want Me,” the track takes a very different lyrical approach than their usual hits. Rather than focussing on romantic desires, schoolboy-like crushes, and other ballads dedicated to the opposite sex, “Surrender” deals with the cultural divide between the young and old generations. However, instead of focussing on the differences between the two, the song seeks to close the gap between kids and adults by showing the similarities, albeit hidden, between the two.
The song’s first narrator chronologically takes us through the stages of how he perceives his parents. Notice the dialogue hinted at in the first two verses:
Mother told me, yes she told me
I’d meet girls like you
She also told me stay away
You’ll never know what you’ll catch
Just the other day I heard
Of a soldier’s falling off
Some Indonesian junk
That’s going ’round
It would appear that the narrator has been influenced by his parents to avoid the fabled Loose Women lest he suffer consequences akin to some biblical plague (aka: STI’s). We also see him referencing soldiers, likely American troops in Vietnam, becoming addicted to “Indonesian junk,” meaning opiates. The boy states that this “junk” is going around, probably alluding to the popularity of heroin as a drug of choice for many people coming of age then. The fact that these two separate topics come up in the same breath shows the cultural perception of a generation gone mad–a notion instilled by the prior generation as a flawed means of protecting their children. What this leads to is the narrator’s confusion about experimentation and consequences. The conservative values instilled by his parents, though well-intended, mistake correlation with causation. Namely, if you have sex or try drugs, you’ll end up a diseased addict.
Yet the facade begins cracking by the next two verses. There the father narrates to the boy how his mother once served as part of the Women’s Army Corp. Here the father seems to be reinforcing their values with experience, basically the old spiel parents give about knowing better than their kid because they’ve lived through more. The inclusion of the WACs is not empty information though. Notice how the father specifically mentions her having served in the Philippines. This would have placed her in direct geographic proximity to where all that scary Indonesian junk1 came from.
The WACs is also significant because in 1943 the organization was involved in a scandal. You can read more about it here, but in summary, the news media began accusing the women of “sexual immorality” ranging from lesbianism to prostitution. In a short time the army itself began tossing around accusations of perversion, further escalating the situation into a massive slander campaign.Though these accusations were little more than libelous gossip spread out of fear of increased feminine autonomy, they did manage to hurt the organization’s credibility. Ironically, the father states that the mother was different from the common “old maid” stereotype that was usually recruited. However, as we have seen, the actual stereotype was the polar opposite. It is as though he’s not only trying to reshape American history to fit his parental morals, but also hide that there is more to their own personal history than he wishes to let on.
The final two verses shatter the parents’ conservative image entirely. Here everything comes full circle. It begins with the son narrating again. In his mind, he’s contemplating all the lessons his parents have instilled in him while trying to apply them to his real world observations:
Whatever happened to all this season’s
losers of the year?
Every time I got to thinking,
where’d they disappear?
He sees his generation having fun, exploring new modes of thought, experimenting with sex, and so on. Yet he views it contemptuously. The boy, it seems, is waiting or the bomb to drop, for karma to catch up with the world around him. But then, one night, he walks in on a jarring surprise.
But when I woke up, Mom and Dad
Are rolling on the couch
Rolling numbers, rock and rollin’
Got my KISS records out
He sees his parents for who they really are underneath the layers of adulthood. Suddenly they are young again, rolling joints, listening to rock music, and fucking on the sofa. And because of this, the boy realizes “Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright” after all… even if they do “seem a little weird” most of the time.
They takeaway message to “Surrender” is that, really, age doesn’t make us all that different when all the layers get peeled away. The line “surrender, surrender, but don’t give yourself away carries a double meaning. First it’s ironically pointing to parents, recommending that they let loose every now and again, albeit in secret so as not to crack the stern image they portray.
But more so it is a plea to all of us–those who are still young today. It asks us, as we get older, as we take on adulthood’s shackles, that we never truly surrender our youth’s freedoms and joyous irresponsibility. As Bob Dylan once said,
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Each new generation likes to believe it is better than the last, that they hold the key to perfect eternal youth; just as the older ones always seem to fall into the mindset that youngsters today are out of control, that the end is somehow near and those damn kids are to blame. It’s been this way for decades, hell millennia even. Parents think their kids are insane and stupid while kids think the parents are closed-minded and stagnant. Yet behind all that grownup image is a kid who did the exact same crazy shit their kids did, if not similar shit at least, just in a different social context.
As much as humans change, we don’t change that much.
“Surrender” seeks to unify young and old alike. It asks that we drop the act, step down from the moral high horse that comes with age. Instead, stay true, and “don’t give yourself away.”
1 I’d like to point out that I’m not in any way stating that heroin isn’t a horrible drug. It is, and I’ve seen it destroy lives. I’m simply making a commentary about generational perceptions and the often hypocritical fear tactics used by parents to keep their kids in line.