The Story and Meaning Behind “The Flame,” Cheap Trick’s First-Ever No. 1 Single

Cheap Trick went from hard-working, well-respected journeymen rockers to chart-toppers in the blink of an eye in 1988 with their song “The Flame.” It took a little bit of compromise and pride-swallowing for it to happen, but it paid off by introducing so many new fans to a wonderful band.

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What is the song about? Who wrote it? And how did the band react to the fact that they were going to use outside writers? Let’s light “The Flame” and find all the answers.

Getting the Band on Board

Like many bands who found their initial success in the 1970s, Cheap Trick struggled to navigate the turbulent musical winds of change that blew through the ’80s. They had enjoyed a stretch as one of the biggest rock bands in the world with the one-two punch of the 1978 live album Cheap Trick At Budokan and the studio release Dream Police the following year, but sales tapered off from there.

Hit singles were particularly hard to come by for the group, which is why it was suggested they work with outside writers for the first time. Although the band covered songs here and there to that point, no one had ever specifically written for them. After all, in Rick Nielsen, they had a writer with a wry lyrical touch and an unerring ear for power pop-style melodies.

The band did indeed struggle with this decision, but they also understood, to an extent, that it was a necessary evil. Other rock bands who came up at the same time as them, such as Aerosmith and Heart, were making similar moves. But the next problem would be finding a song the band was OK with recording.

“Flame” Resistant

Deciding to record someone else’s song seemed OK in theory for Cheap Trick, but actually doing it was almost a bridge too far. They first struggled with what song to do. Given the choice between “The Flame” and “Look Away,” they eventually chose the former. “Look Away” ended up in the hands of Chicago, and it wasn’t a bad consolation prize as it also went to No.1.

When it came time to do it, Nielsen was still balking. Producer Richie Zito had the idea to build the track from the ground up, getting one band member to record their part at a time, starting with singer Robin Zander. In that manner, he got everyone, including Nielsen—whose lead guitar is integral to the finished product—on board.

Although they may have hemmed and hawed about it, Cheap Trick clearly benefited from the decision to record “The Flame,” which was written by Bob Mitchell and Nick Graham. It hit No. 1 in 1988, and the momentum it created helped propel several other songs from the album Lap of Luxury well up the pop charts.

What is the Meaning of “The Flame”?

“The Flame” is a testament to the dedication of one lover to another even after their relationship is severed. In the verses, the narrator makes clear the extent of his heartbreak, as he’s rendered pretty much useless in the wake of her leaving. Just can’t stand up for fallin’ apart is how he sums it up.

You were the first, you’ll be the last, Zander sings, and he sells it with such anguish that you believe this guy will remain faithful to her, even if she never returns. When the refrains come around, there’s no more wallowing, only promises to be there for her even if they’re technically no longer still together: Remember after the fire, after all the rain / I will be the flame.

In other words, problems are only temporary, but dedication is permanent. Cheap Trick rode that benevolent message up higher than they’d ever been in the world of pop music. “The Flame” served its purpose and then some.

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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