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Robin Zander, right, and Thomas Petersson, left, of U.S. rock group Cheap Trick perform at the Stravinski stage during the 'Rock Summit Night' of the 38th Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland, Sunday evening, July 4, 2004. (FABRICE COFFRINI)
Robin Zander, right, and Thomas Petersson, left, of U.S. rock group Cheap Trick perform at the Stravinski stage during the 'Rock Summit Night' of the 38th Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland, Sunday evening, July 4, 2004. (FABRICE COFFRINI)

Cheap Trick brings back the 8-track Add to ...

Those who swear by vinyl say that records provide a warmer sound compared to compact discs, and that the larger packaging and gatefold artwork offer a superior tactile experience (and certainly to digital downloads). But where's the love for the 8-track, those bulky blasts from the past which sounded fine enough in your El Camino, and which broke down classic albums indiscriminately into four programs. Don't look now, but the cartridges are back, brought by a band from the same era, Cheap Trick.

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This month the boys of the Budokan release their new album, The Latest, not only in CD and vinyl, but in a long-departed format as fashionable as Tang, bell-bottoms and porn-star mustaches.

Maybe unsurprisingly, a band called Cheap Trick isn't above a shameless stunt. The idea is for the new album (available digitally already) to be serviced to media outlets in the 8-track format, so as to attract attention. Classic rock radio stations in the United States, where bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aerosmith, Styx and Cheap Trick are in heavy rotation, tend not to play new material by these same bands. "If a bunch of these stations weren't going to play it anyway, we'll send them something that will be a nice conversation piece," explains Dave Frey, the group's manager. "The 8-track is something that'll sit on their desk for a while, attract some attention."

You may be surprised to learn that Cheap Trick is still gaining notice, and not simply from old fans who will likely flock to see the Surrender singers tonight with fellow riff-rockers Def Leppard and Poison at the Molson Amphitheatre. Because of placements on video games ( Guitar Hero II and Rock Band 2) and in a blockbuster summer movie (the theme to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), a younger audience hears the snappy hard-pop of rock-star vocalist Robin Zander, bassist Tom Petersson, avuncular drummer Bun E. Carlos and the giddy, geeky, multiple guitar-holding Rick Nielsen - all original members.

"This ain't the new, it's the old generation," Zander cries defiantly on Sick Man of Europe, the energizing new single that speaks to the band's revitalized state. "It's 2 minutes and 20 seconds of pure pop fun," says Nielsen, over the phone. "If you put that track on, and you don't look at a picture of us, you'd think we're a new band. I'm 60, but it doesn't sound like a 60-year-old man playing the guitar."

The band that looks forward still makes its money from the past. This fall, it will perform an interpretation of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for a string of concerts with guests and an orchestra in Las Vegas - a trick they previously pulled off at the Hollywood Bowl. Last year saw the release of Budokan!: 30th Anniversary Edition, a box-set version of the group's famous live LP recorded at the Tokyo arena that has also lent its name to albums by Bryan Adams, Blur and Bob Dylan, among others. And they've re-recorded 1977's In Colour, complete with a new version of the memorable hit I Want You to Want Me. "The songs were good, but I never liked it sonically," says Nielsen, explaining the updating. "It sounded wimpy, and we're not wimpy."

In Colour will not be released on its original 8-track format, an audio set-up infamous for its criminal disruption of songs as the cartridges made their clunky progression from program to program, with total disregard for the songs' continuity. Led Zeppelin's epic Stairway to Heaven, for example, was split unmercifully.

As you might imagine, finding a manufacturer today for the 8-track version of Cheap Trick's The Latest wasn't easy. "There was a lot of looking under rocks," admits Frey, who finally found a small plant in Dallas, Tex., for the retro-fit. "They're expensive to make, and they don't make very many at a time," he says of the cartridge which will sell to the public for something close to $30.

The new album, issued on Cheap Trick's own label, is comprised of 12 songs broken into four sets of three songs each - suites that unfortunately don't fit nicely into the four 10-minute programs of standard 8-tracks, but which may be available at some point as a three-for-the-price-of-one deal on iTunes. As Frey explains the discount, "We're kind of more worried about being ignored than being ripped off."

Cheap Trick is playing the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto Saturday night.

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