Published: August 8, 2006, jefitoblog.com

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chicago, Part 1
This piece originally appeared as part of a weekly series of artist guides on jefitoblog.com.

By Michael Fortes

In the world of rock bands named after geographical locations, there’s only one that can claim to have its songs intermingled with selections from an identically titled musical-turned-hit movie inside your local karaoke bar’s song book. Adding to the confusion is the fact that this band has employed, over the years, no less than 6 lead singers, not counting occasional peeps from hired hands and a couple of horn players. Such is Chicago, the self-proclaimed “rock n’ roll band with horns.”

In the almost 40 years the band has been together (the big four-oh happens next year), they’ve managed to score almost as many top 40 hits, the majority of which are still heard on the airwaves today and in Chicago’s live concerts. Not bad for a band whose most recognizable face has been out of the band for more than half its life.

That life started in its namesake city in February, 1967, when Jimmy Pankow (trombone), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), Danny Seraphine (drums), Terry Kath (guitar), and Robert Lamm (keyboards) met in the apartment of Walt Parazaider (woodwinds). God pointed his finger down upon them and said, “make some noise!” The Big Thing, soon to be the Chicago Transit Authority, soon to be Chicago, was born. Add one blond, tenor-voiced bass player named Peter Cetera, and you’ve got your classic lineup of the band that would dominate AM radio throughout the 1970s and rule the Billboard charts with a series of albums bearing Roman numerals for titles. And of course, the logo the band adopted would become their most recognizable visual, becoming an American icon on the level of Coca Cola, Hershey and Disney.

Over the years, these guys have been accused of everything from selling out, to making music for the lowest common denominator, to being wimpy, and just plain not being very cool or hip or what have you. Same goes for the Beach Boys, before everyone finally discovered how incredible Pet Sounds was. And since Chicago never made that one record everyone could agree was great from beginning to end, and since they had so many assembly-line, sappy, substance-free hits after their golden period was over, they have not received the same due as their two-time touring partners from Hawthorne, California. Taken together. their catalog is fascinating, frustrating, brilliant and awful all at once. Just like the Beach Boys, eh? Read on and judge for yourself.

Chicago Transit Authority album cover
Chicago Transit Authority (1969)

Like many big hitmakers before and since, Chicago’s roots were with the college crowd, or the 1960s equivalent of the “alternative” scene. With the help of their buddy and producer, Jimmy Guercio, Chicago was able to take their hard work ethic out of the windy city and over to Columbia Records’ New York studios for recording sessions that resulted in a debut double LP. It was still kind of a big deal at that time for a new band to start out with a double album, even though the Mothers of Invention had done it already with Freak Out! The Beatles, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix had also released double albums by then, though they were already established stars.

So did these guys think they were the Beatles with horns, or what? Well, they certainly were fans, and even quoted the opening lyric from “I Am The Walrus” in “South California Purples.” I’ve always wondered where the idea came from to call this mutated blues jam “Purples.” My theory is that it’s the color of L.A.’s smog when one is tripping on acid.

Chicago Transit Authority was indeed a bold debut -- not so much because it was a double LP, nor because Terry Kath’s “Free Form Guitar” was 6 minutes of loud noodling and feedback that set the stage for Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Rather, it was because Robert Lamm wrote a killer bunch of tunes for these bad-ass musicians to play. “Beginnings,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Questions 67 & 68,” the aforementioned “Purples” – all stone cold classics. But even better is Kath’s writing contribution. Though its title is about as imaginative as, well, their album titles, “Introduction” makes a great case for letting the music do the talking. Everything you need to know and would care to love about Chicago is wrapped up in this 6-and-a-half minute mission statement/showboat of a song. The blazing horns, tricky rhythms, schmaltzy balladry, psychedelic guitar solo and gutsy vocals are all there. You could stop the album after that first song and be able to say “yeah, I know Chicago.” But as we’d come to realize over the years, these guys just love to keep going, and going, and going…

Chicago II album cover
Chicago II (1970)

The first album fared reasonably well, after chopping their name down to just Chicago, but this second album was where the big time success really began. FM radio loved the first album, with all its long-form tunes and endless solos. AM radio was where the hit potential was, and as Columbia was eager to make some money off this band, they decided to chop a couple of pieces out of Jimmy Pankow’s “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon” and turn them into two sides of a 45 RPM single. The single’s A-side, “Make Me Smile,” became Chicago’s first big hit single. The other side, “Colour My World,” has probably soundtracked more than a handful of weddings in its time.

Meanwhile, album buyers got an even greater treat. Terry Kath wrote and sang one of the best songs to ever grace a Chicago album, the lovely “In The Country.” And the long forms displayed on the first album got even longer. The “Ballet” and Lamm’s anti-war rant “It Better End Soon” both ran over 10 minutes, while Kath’s maudlin “Memories Of Love” featured an orchestrated three-part intro. “Fancy Colours” was inspired by an acid trip, and utilized wind chimes as an intro a good four years before the Doobie Brothers put out “Black Water.” They had collectively stepped beyond the “rock n’ roll band with horns” description into prog rock, though they wouldn’t stay there long. The shorter material, like the extracted singles and Lamm’s “Wake Up Sunshine,” were a closer indication of where this ambitious band was heading. And again, they produced another stone cold classic in “25 or 6 to 4,” perhaps the greatest rock song about trying to write a song.

Chicago III album cover
Chicago III (1971)

Maybe this record happened too soon after the first two, but when you’re under the gun, you do what you gotta do.

From a pop standpoint, the third Chicago album lacks the monster hooks and memorable songs that dominate the first two albums. The good news is, these guys were an imaginative bunch when they were young and stupid. Meaning, we get to hear another side-long multi-part suite jammed with the most far-out ideas Chicago would ever commit to wax. Exhibit A: “When All The Laughter Dies In Sorrow,” a Kendrew Lascilles poem recited by Robert Lamm, which sets up the mood for the remainder of the all-instrumental “Elegy” – presumably for our mother Earth. This was, again, a Pankow composition. Lamm contributed his own lament for the planet, which again, very imaginatively, is titled “Mother.” Industrialization and pollution are bad! Bad! But avant garde, polyphonic horn solos are good, very good.

Elsewhere, a suite of songs about life on the road find the band pretending to be Crosby, Stills & Nash (“Flight 602”) while also venturing into avant garde territory yet again with a flute-piano duo titled “Free Country.” While “Mother” and “Elegy” were thoroughly worked out pieces, “Free Country” clearly is not. Neither is the pleasant enough but seemingly pointless “Happy ‘Cause I’m Going Home” (sample lyrics: “la da da da da da da / da da da da da da”). Even the opener, “Sing A Mean Tune Kid,” sounds like a work in progress.

Elsewhere, Terry Kath sings Lamm’s jazzy “Loneliness Is Just A Word” and injects the third record with a strong dose of all-too-human personality with his song of longing from the road, “An Hour In The Shower.” It’s perhaps the first rock song to reference a vibrator (“Just reach underneath your bed / And turn on your electric friend / And turn your thoughts to me”), and arrived about a year before Walter Becker and Donald Fagen would name their band after one.

Nevertheless, Chicago was hot, and III was a hit. “Free” and “Lowdown” were also top 40 singles. And did I mention that III was the band’s third double album in a row? It would also be their last for a few years.

Chicago At Carnegie Hall album cover
Chicago At Carnegie Hall, Volumes I, II, III & IV (1971)

Critics have always had harsh words for Chicago, and a lot of that bad blood dripped heavily over this mammoth set. Keep in mind, this was long before compact discs effectively extended the time limit one associated with an “album,” and before multi-disc box sets and live bootlegs became all the rage in the ‘90s.

In 1971, four vinyl records of live Chicago was A LOT of Chicago.

Nowadays, a set like this is a treasure trove. And though I’ll freely admit that this is my “desert island” Chicago collection, it’s certainly not without flaws. For one, Danny Seraphine seems to drag “In The Country” down a bit, and the horns don’t sound too hot on that song either.

On the other hand, Terry Kath has brilliant guitar solos all over the set. “South California Purples” and “Sing A Mean Tune Kid” both edge close to 15 minutes with Kath’s extended workouts, as he carried on in the shadow of the departed Jimi Hendrix, never to receive the accolades he deserved.

The most noteworthy aspect of this behemoth is the inclusion of “A Song For Richard And His Friends,” which Chicago never formally recorded in the studio (although an instrumental ‘rehearsal’ version eventually surfaced on Rhino’s re-release of Chicago V). It’s impossible to imagine these days, but Chicago at one time did have a political conscience. Back in the day, they weren’t just speaking out against the Vietnam War with “It Better End Soon,” they also were openly calling for Richard Nixon’s resignation with “A Song For Richard.” Musically, the song is filled with rage. The horns stomp and sulk, while Kath finds the perfect use for his “Free Form Guitar” antics in the context of an actual song. Lamm cooks the administration, and if one were to simply change the title of the song, it could easily be adopted by today’s Bush-bashers:

If you will think now, then you will see
How you can change things

People are waiting, turning away
Tired of killing

Hey now
Will you go away
We're so tired
Of things that you say

Even though you never said word that would help anyone but yourself
Tomorrow is such a bad dream
Oh, bad dream

If you stay now,
It will only get worse
Let us pray now
'Cause the truth really hurts

After the events of today with your brothers and sisters dead and dying
Tomorrow is such a bad dream
Yeah, Such a bad dream

Listen
Please be gone
Go away and leave us alone
Brain police
Go away and leave us in peace
Yeah

Please be gone
Go away and leave us alone
Brain police
Go away and leave us in peace

Will you go now
Will you take all your friends
Whoa now, If you'd stood like a man
Even though I know that you cannot be blamed all alone for the sadness
you've caused
Tomorrow is such a bad dream
Yeah, such a bad dream
Oh yeah, such a bad dream
Dig it

If you will think now then you will see
How we can change things
People are waiting, turning away
Tired of killing

 

Chicago V album cover
Chicago V (1972)

How do you follow three double albums and one quadruple live album? Why, with a regular, everyday average single album, that’s how! The woodgrain take on the band’s iconic logo is boring as fuck, but the music was and is pretty great. In particular, “A Hit By Varese” likely exposed a million or two people to Edgard Varese’s surname for the very first time, while finding room to fit interweaving sax, ‘bone and trumpet solos with superhuman guitar work and lyrics that bemoaned the state of popular music at the time. Again, one could easily take these lyrics and apply them to today:

Please won't you sing me
A thing that will bring me right into the sky
If you would play it
Just lay it down, say, it will help me get by

Something to move me
Remove me and grove me, you want to know why?
I'm so tired of oldiess
And moldies and goldies, that I want to cry

Can you play free
Or in three or agree to attempt something new
The people they need you
A seed that will lead to a hit by Varese

That was Robert Lamm again, on a roll that seemed unstoppable at the time. Seven of the album’s nine songs were his, including the two hit singles “Dialogue” and “Saturday In The Park.” The former took a wry look at the apathetic mindset permeating college campuses (“I also hope to keep a steady high” was a rather clever lyric), with Terry Kath singing the ‘concerned citizen’ lyrics and Peter Cetera responding as the ‘blissfully ignorant student.’ “Saturday In The Park” fared much better on the charts. Lamm’s sunny pop song inspired by a 4th of July stroll through Central Park made the top 5, and is still a staple of Chicago’s annual summer tours.

Elsewhere on numero cinco, Lamm’s social and political consciousness drove bitter songs like “State Of The Union” and “While The City Sleeps,” with his compositional style at a peak. The former was based on an actual occurrence at a Chicago concert, where Lamm was apprehended by police for uttering an obscenity from the stage.

Lamm found a way to make room for concise, hooky lyrics and for band members to stretch out and be heard. Jimmy Pankow’s horn arrangements were front-and-center, Terry Kath’s guitar was on fire, Cetera’s McCartney-inspired bass lines were hard to ignore, and Danny Seraphine was both keeping time and freely commenting like a jazz drummer. This, my friends, is the Chicago that should have always been.

Chicago VI album cover
Chicago VI (1973)

After four studio albums recorded at Columbia’s New York studios, the band headed to the Rockies for their next five studio records. Producer Jimmy Guercio set up his Caribou Ranch in Nederland, Colorado, so Chicago dutifully followed him to the cold and snowy locale.

Whether it was adjusting to a higher altitude, artificially flying a little too high, or just the effects of cold weather, something about this move clearly changed Chicago. Oh, the hits kept on coming alright. VI bore two more of those – the monster ballad and Walt Parazaider showcase “Just You N’ Me” and “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday,” which can easily be heard as the blueprint for the arena rock of Journey, Foreigner and Boston. But suddenly, the fiery band interplay of previous albums and ambitious compositions were gone, only to return sparingly from time to time.

Clearly, Lamm had been reading too many bad reviews in the press, and had been taking them personally. So much so, he wrote a song called “Critics’ Choice,” which he sings accompanied only by his piano, in defense of the band to which he was and still is fiercely loyal:

What do you want
What do you want
I'm givin' everything I have
I'm even trying to see if there's more
Locked deep inside
I'll try
I'll try
Can't you see, this is me

What do you need
What do you need
Is it someone just to hurt
So that you can appear to be smart
And use a steady job
Play God
Play God
What do you really know
You parasite
You're dynamite
An oversight
Misunderstanding what you hear
You're quick to cheer
And volunteer
Absurdities, musical blasphemies
Oh Lord
Save us all

What do you want
What do you want
I'm givin' every thing I have
I'm even trying to see if there's more
Locked deep inside
I'll try
I'll try
Can't you see, this is me

Lamm was still the majority songwriter, but now it was only a simple majority. Not only that, the best songs were Pankow’s. The two aforementioned hits were from Pankow’s pen, featuring the voice of Cetera (who gets a cowriting credit on “Feelin’ Stronger”), as is the funky “What’s This World Coming To.” They really tear it up on “World,” and the three-way tag team vocals add some excitement, but clearly, the socially conscious lyrics were best left in Lamm’s care. Case in point: “rich folks spend their time just counting money / poor folks really ain’t got much to say.” Maybe because their mouths are too busy eating cake?

Kath, meanwhile, helped elevate Lamm’s “Darlin’ Dear” to something of a majestic blues romp with his smooth and assured slide guitar playing. And Kath’s “Jenny” finds him sounding less like Hendrix and more like Clapton as he sings to his dog, without even the slighest hint of irony, asking her to look after his woman while he’s on the road. If she could understand what he was singing, she might have wondered exactly what his intent was in admonishing, “there’s always someone waiting just to shit on you.”

To really underscore the fact that Chicago’s direction had changed in a big way, the album art provides the most perfect metaphor. If you have an original vinyl copy, you can feel how ornate the cover’s texture is, and just looking at it, be it LP or CD, any American would know that visual style. Stumped? Open up your wallet or your purse, and pull out a dollar bill. A ha!

Chicago VII album cover
Chicago VII (1974)

The softer, less sparky vibe characterized by Chicago’s new recording environment ventured straight into easy listening territory with the seventh album. Fortunately, this doesn’t turn out to be a terribly bad thing at all.

Initially, VII was supposed to be a jazz album. Given the musical abilities of the group, this should have been a no-brainer. However, lack of agreement within the band on the jazz album concept forced a compromise. The risk of releasing a jazz record would be reduced with a number of standard pop songs, in what was fast becoming classic Chicago fashion. This resulted in, ironically, their first double album since number III.

The jazz sides are actually quite credible performances. They just sound like typical mid ‘70s pop productions, rather than 1940s bebop throwbacks or 1960s Blue Note sessions. Lamm plays his electric piano throughout, lending “Aire” an almost proto-smooth-jazz feel, and the electronic blips and bleeps in “Italian From New York” are just plain weird. Danny Seraphine, meanwhile, sounds even more at home switching up rhythms and tempi in “Devil’s Sweet,” and swingin’ hard in the brisk “Hanky Panky.”

The pop sides actually start midway through side 2. “Hanky Panky” segues into Lamm’s cheery “Lifesaver,” making the transition from jazz to pop virtually painless.

Again, we don’t hear as much from Lamm on VII as on the first four studio albums, but it wasn’t for lack of prolificacy. The same year VII was released, Lamm dropped his first solo album, Skinny Boy. The title track of that album was also the closer on VII, the only difference in the two recordings being the presence of horns and no fade on the Chicago version.

Lamm’s songs were moving further away from what was typical of mainstream pop -- he was writing fewer hook-laden pop songs, and fewer songs with shout-along choruses. But those in the band who were writing what was selling – namely Jimmy Pankow and Peter Cetera – placed more hits on VII to continue Chicago’s 1970s reign of the pop charts. “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long,” Pankow’s string-laden ode to self-realization, scaled the charts, as did Cetera’s dreamy “Wishing You Were Here,” a song which fulfilled his dream of being a Beach Boy by featuring Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson and Al Jardine on background vocals.

These hit songs, along with Lee Loughnane’s “Call On Me,” had this in common: all were huge hits, all were defining moments for ‘easy listening’ or ‘soft rock,’ and all featured Peter Cetera on lead vocals. The band that once had credibility with FM radio and the college crowd, played the Fillmore and toured with Jimi Hendrix, had crossed over to the same crowd that was buying records by Barry Manilow and Anne Murray. It didn’t matter that Terry Kath wrote an engaging folk-rock story in “Byblos,” or had perfectly evoked the spirit of winter in “Song Of The Evergreens.” Chicago were officially typecast by this point.

Chicago VIII album cover
Chicago VIII (1975)

Chicago rocks out a little bit more with their eighth album, though the songs were among the weakest they had released by this point. Pankow again provided the album with a selling point as Peter Cetera sang his way through the corny “Old Days.” All elements of rock in this song are negated by the fact that Cetera is singing about “drive-in movies, comic books and blue jeans, Howdy Doody,” etc. It’s almost like “We Didn’t Start The Fire” for ‘50s nostalgia buffs, only with less listing and more reminiscing. And this was the album’s biggest hit!

Lamm did manage to turn in another relatively popular 45 with “Harry Truman,” but who was the idiot that decided the Japanese would appreciate a single record wishing that the man who dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would return to fix up America?? I mean, sure, the song is pretty goofy and the little “son of a bitch!” exclamation heard during the instrumental break makes it clear that it’s not necessarily the most serious statement the band had made, but come on!

The saddest fate of VIII was the failure of Pankow’s “Brand New Love Affair” to break the top 40. This is one of the songs that earned Terry Kath the proud moniker “the white Ray Charles.”

If one truly must own VIII, however, it’s the guitar fan. Kath turns in one of most heartfelt Hendrix-inspired songs ever with “Oh, Thank You Great Spirit.” He captures the spacey vibe of the best moments on Electric Ladyland, and solos passionately throughout what was to be the last ‘jam’ one would hear on a Chicago album for way too long.

But again, with the hits on VII not too far behind and with the nostalgia of “Old Days” up front in the public ear, who was really paying attention to Terry Kath anymore?

Chicago IX album cover
Chicago IX: Greatest Hits (1975)

Chicago “cheats” its fabled numbering system for the first time with this best-seller. For many folks out there, myself included, this was their first Chicago album. And really, it’s a fine collection of the band’s early mega-hits. But even though the band’s career would more clearly hit a dividing line in the ‘80s, even at this point there was a clear divide in their music. Side one was primarily the ‘pop-rock’ side, containing mostly uptempo numbers like “25 or 6 to 4,” “Saturday In The Park” and “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday.” Side two, for the most part, gives us ‘easy listening’ Chicago, with the three hits from VII weighing down the middle, and closing with “Beginnings.” It bought them some time and gave them something else to promote while touring the country with the Beach Boys, who had recently had a career resurgence thanks also to a greatest hits album.

Chicago X album cover
Chicago X (1976)

The schlocky easy listening direction that was slowly creeping into Chicago’s work was kept in check for the tenth album, but you wouldn’t know it from the singles it spawned. Peter Cetera became the all-time king of schlock rock with “If You Leave Me Now,” which was the band’s first number one hit single. The other top 40 single, “Another Rainy Day In New York City,” found Cetera softening and making more palatable the odd Caribbean feel of a New York-themed song. Huh? And then there was “You Are On My Mind,” which has a pleasant, enjoyably jazzy groove, but did the few that heard it on the air recognize it as Chicago? Jimmy Pankow sang the tune with a breathy delivery, but by this time, Cetera was the voice of Chicago. The logo could only support so many distinct qualities.

But fun, bouyant rock and soul makes X one of Chicago’s best overall ‘pop’ albums. Terry Kath does his best Otis Redding on “Once Or Twice,” and the bari voices sing in unison on “You Get It Up,” which holds the distinction of being the only song in the Chicago discography to overtly refer to male sexual arousal. Even Cetera gets into the party groove on “Skin Tight.” He kinda ruins it with “Mama Mama,” which couldn’t scream “1970s schlock” any louder if it tried.

And that’s kind of the story of Chicago from here on out – for every “Once Or Twice” there’s an “If You Leave Me Now.” The latter gets single status, becomes a hit, and defines the band’s sound in the ears of the public. Granted, there are plenty of ‘guilty pleasure’ moments to be found on almost every Chicago album, but with the competing musical personalities inherent in their releases as their success grew, the worth of trawling through their catalog post 1977 for some musical salvation becomes more and more questionable. Thank goodness for these guides, right?

Chicago XI album cover
Chicago XI (1977)

This album should have turned out a lot better than it did. Peter Cetera only has one vocal contribution on the whole platter, on his obvious follow-up to “If You Leave Me Now.” “Baby What A Big Surprise” went top ten, so it fell short of its predecessor’s success. But it’s still a better record. He goes for a Beatles kind of sound, with a strings-and-horns arrangement clearly inspired by George Martin’s work on “Penny Lane.”

So what happened with the rest of the record? Terry Kath can’t be blamed, that’s for sure. He carries the whole affair with the excellent “Mississippi Delta City Blues” (collectors note: this song was being performed in concert as early as 1972, and appeared on the live album issued in Japan documenting their shows there in support of the fifth album) and “Takin’ It On Uptown.” The latter especially holds a dear place in my heart. As a little tyke, I used to play the BWABS 45 on my Fisher Price record player, but I preferred hearing “Uptown” on the b-side for the funny guitar sounds Kath inserted at the beginning. His guitar almost sounds like it’s laughing. It’s another Hendrixian moment, and sadly it would be the last such moment to ever grace a Chicago album.

Kath also saves a merely OK song written and sung by Lee Loughnane, called “This Time,” with an awesome backwards guitar solo. Such a thing became a cliché of ‘60s psychedelic music very quickly, but in this instance of a classy rock song with love as its topic, it served as a breath of fresh air.

Kath closes the record singing “Little One,” the first in a series of songs drummer Danny Seraphine would writer with David “Hawk” Wolinski of Rufus fame. Kath’s delivery is passionate enough to convince the listener that it could have been his own song. It was a welcome relief from the ultra goofy “Vote For Me,” in which Robert Lamm took “Harry Truman” to its logical extreme (though in defense of “Vote,” the candidate illustrated in its lyrics is so utopian that this humorous ditty is sadly all too relevant again). And then Pankow’s plodding vocalizing on “Till The End Of Time” came off like Joe Cocker with emphysema, so fortunately this would be the last time Pank would hog the mic.

Sadly, XI marked Terry Kath’s last appearance on a Chicago album. In January of 1978, Kath ‘accidentally’ blew his brains out in the presence of a band roadie. The stories surrounding this tragedy are varied, but a few things are for certain – Kath was not the happiest camper at this time in his life, he had a substance abuse problem, and he had a dangerous fascination with firearms. Whether he intended to end his life or not, the ingredients for an early death were in place. It was only a matter of time.

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