Published: August 15, 2006, jefitoblog.com

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chicago, Part 2
This piece originally appeared as part of a weekly series of artist guides on jefitoblog.com.

By Michael Fortes

Chicago "Hot Streets" album cover
Hot Streets
(1978)

Just before Terry Kath’s tragic death, Chicago had also fired their longtime producer Jimmy Guercio. He had helped the band get their record deal and was crucial to their early development, but they had been hungry for a change. With both Kath and Guercio out of the picture, Chicago got far more change than they bargained for, and not all of it good. Hot Streets allowed them to at least have one last taste of success for a while, and a needed boost in the face of a devastating loss.

The new guy who took over on guitar didn’t last long, but not for lack of talent. Donnie Dacus had spent the previous few years working with Stephen Stills, playing an integral role in the making of Stills’ first two Columbia albums. Dacus had also starred in the musical ‘Hair.’ It would be Dacus’ personality that cost him the gig little more than a year later, but for now, he was the right guy at the right time.

Phil Ramone got the job of producer, hot from his multi-platinum success with Billy Joel’s “The Stranger.” What resulted for Chicago was a platinum album that yielded a couple of hits in “Alive Again” and “No Tell Lover,” and the establishment of Peter Cetera as the group’s primary vocalist – he is the lead singer on half of the album’s songs.

Hot Streets also marked the beginning of Chicago’s habit of recording songs about love, relationships, lusting after 16-year-olds… OK, so “Little Miss Lovin’” is an anomaly (“sweet sixteen, mighty fine in your tight blue jeans”), but the Seraphine/Wolinski ballad “The Greatest Love On Earth” is the sort of fairy tale romance narrative that Cetera would eagerly duplicate in his solo career. “Gone Long Gone” is the most pleasant of the lovey-dovey bunch with its Eagles meets the Beach Boys arrangement, canceling out Lamm’s atypically nostalgic “Love Was New” and the heavy-handed gambling metaphor in “Take A Chance.” The latter is somewhat saved by Dacus’ ‘hot licks’ in the outro.

And while Dacus also lends some rockin’ optimism with “Ain’t It Time,” leave it to Robert Lamm to contribute the album’s best track. “Hot Streets” has some of what Chicago had been missing for years – a tricky time signature, solo spots for flute, horns and guitar, and a structure that paid little heed to the pop conventions of the day. It sounds real.

But Chicago was still missing that heavy baritone voice. Dacus was another tenor, and though he did blend well with Cetera, this version of Chicago lacked balls.

Chicago 13 album cover
Chicago 13
(1979)

All Chicago albums up to this point had their share of great moments and not-so-great moments, with the ratios varying from album to album. This album, however, pretty much sucks throughout.

There is a hipness factor to the 13th excuse for a logo, believe it or not. In 1979, it was unimaginable that any part of this album would ever be hip. The 12” single of the disco tune “Street Player” was among the records burned at a “disco sucks” rally at, of all places, Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Yet, in the early ‘90s, an electronica group called the Bucketheads revived the Seraphine/Wolinski-penned, Cetera sung disco track as a sample for an underground hit called “The Bomb.” Go figure.

The other single from the album, “Must Have Been Crazy,” is an apt title. Dacus sings it and there are no horns present. There’s nothing remotely Chicago-sounding about it at all. It’s way more Texas than Chicago ever had been or would be.

The rest of the record is littered with half-baked ideas, like Lamm’s “Paradise Alley,” which has promising verses that paint a vivid picture of a tightly knit family in big-city neighborhood. Problem is, there’s no hook and the chorus is so melodically challenged, it borders on annoying. It doesn’t even have pretensions of being an ‘art’ song. In spite of all that, Dacus sells it well with an enthusiastic vocal.

And then there’s PC Moblee. This was an alter-ego for Peter Cetera, in which he sang with a thick affectation that may or may not have been intended to make him sound more ‘soulful.’ It’s so bad it should be funny, but it’s not even that. It’s just bad. It doesn’t help that “Window Dreamin’” contains some of the worst lyrics in Chicago’s history, confirming that Walt Parazaider was wise to stick to just blowing his sax after this experiment. And a really spotty Cetera-sung, Seraphine/Wolinksi collaboration called “Aloha Mama” comes mighty close to the new low set by “Window.” It also makes me wonder, coming after 13’s second track (“Mama Take”) and the opener on side 2 of album X (“Mama Mama”) if Petey has some sort of oedipal complex. All these “mama” songs sung in a sexual context (not to mention all the other songs he sings with “mama” in the lyrics) start to sound creepy after a while.

The album only was certified gold, and was the worst selling Chicago album at the time, making Cetera’s atypically downbeat “Loser With A Broken Heart” a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, they’d do even worse later on with better material, like the fourteenth album...

Chicago XIV album cover
Chicago XIV (1980)

Here’s where I’m really likely to run into trouble. I actually like this album quite a lot. It’s commonly referred to as one of Chicago’s worst albums, if not THE worst. And I can sorta hear why some might characterize it that way – the sound is flat, the music seems to trudge along at times, side 1 is loaded with too many slow songs, and none of these songs were big hits. XIV is the red-headed step-child of the Chicago catalog for these reasons. You won’t catch anyone calling this record ‘classic,’ even though the sticker Rhino affixed to their CD reissue claims as much.

Still, Tom Dowd did the best he could with these guys. Yup, they ditched Phil Ramone after lucky 13 failed to set the world afire, and Donnie Dacus had also gotten the boot. In Don’s place on guitar was Chris Pinnick, a guy who could REALLY play, but alas, could not sing. Meaning Peter and Robert are the sole vocalists here.

And that’s fine, because the few songs Robert sings are truly inspired. They’re the types of songs that you end up hearing a disillusioned band singing when their fortunes take a turn for the worst. “Manipulation” has a telling enough title, and a powerful opening line: “Thought you had me in your pocket / But I never could be bought.” Not sure exactly what Lamm’s ranting about here, but one thing’s for certain – he’s a good, classy ranter. “I’d Rather Be Rich” takes the same idea into sardonic territory, with some hearty ‘truths’ like “money gets you justice / money sets you free / money makes it possible to be or not to be.” It’s true, just ask OJ Simpson or Robert Blake.

Jimmy Pankow gives the band his last halfway decent song with “The American Dream,” where he attacks the White House and Capitol Hill through the voice of Peter Cetera, asking rhetorically, “who gives a damn what we need?”

And the two obligatory 45s pulled from the album? Neither did much on the charts. “Thunder and Lightning” was a fine pop song that used a deteriorating romantic relationship as a metaphor for the band’s situation with Columbia, and lo and behold, actually featured a trombone solo in the fade – Chicago’s first since album VII. And “Song For You” was typical of most of Peter Cetera’s material – it was, of course, a sappy love song. The only thing atypical about this single was that it didn’t become a huge hit, perhaps because he sounds like he’s yawning his way through the verses.

But at least, on the whole, XIV got Chicago to sounding like an actual rock band again.

Chicago Greatest Hits, Vol. II album cover
Chicago Greatest Hits Vol. II (1981)

The fifteenth album was this shoddy ‘hits’ collection, in which every song except “Take Me Back To Chicago” is sung by Peter Cetera, thus giving the impression that Chicago is nothing more than a soft rock hit machine. Not only that, “Questions 67 & 68” is presented in its inferior single edit (the second verse is completely removed) and “Dialogue” is missing its first part. If that point seems trivial, consider this: part one of the song is where the actual ‘dialogue’ takes place between Peter Cetera and Terry Kath. Part two is all chanting: “we can make it happen / we can change the world now / we can save the children” etc. This sorry ‘product’ is out of print, and I’d be surprised if anyone’s going to complain about it. The only bad thing about this album being out of print is that the official number 15 in the Chicago catalog is now gone. Boo hoo!

Chicago 16 album cover
Chicago 16 (1982)

So after the failure of XIV to return Chicago to hit-making status, they were let go by Columbia. Columbia’s loss would become Warner Bros.’ gain, once Danny Seraphine drafted Bill Champlin to become the band’s bluesy-soulful voice. Now they had someone to sing Terry Kath’s parts in concert.

Champlin’s musical history began and developed alongside Chicago’s, back in the late 1960s when he fronted a Bay area band called, curiously enough, the Sons of Champlin. The Sons’ debut album, Loosen Up Naturally, was released on the Capitol label in 1969, around the same time as Chicago’s first album. Like Chicago Transit Authority, Loosen Up Naturally was also a double album. And as side 4 of CTA concluded with a 14 minute jam called “Liberation,” Loosen Up Naturally concluded with a 14 minute jam titled “Freedom.” So as you can see, Champlin’s union with Chicago was destined to happen, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Champlin also was the catalyst for David Foster’s becoming the band’s new producer. Foster streamlined the band’s sound into something slicker than anything from the ‘70s – it was the sound of the ‘80s, a sound that only computers and super proficient studio players could create. So naturally, Foster brought in Steve Lukather, David Paich and Steve Porcaro from Toto to help out. Paich and Lukather even contributed “Waiting For You To Decide” to the album. That song, like all the rest save three, had Foster’s name in the credits too. He got his hands on everything, and in the process, Chicago’s sound on vinyl became more studied and strict than anything they had done before.

This approach made “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” and “Love Me Tomorrow” big hits (the former was Chicago’s first number one single since “If You Leave Me Now”), and tightened up the album tracks so they sounded as ready for radio as, well, the stray tracks on Toto IV. But songs like “Chains,” with synthesizers playing horn parts, and “Sonny Think Twice,” with Champlin singing almost like a hoarse Michael McDonald, didn’t end up sounding anything like Chicago. “Follow Me” worked well, however, thanks to the horns being up front and integral to the overall sound. And Champlin’s vocal was the most soulful performance on a Chicago record since the days of Terry Kath.

Pretty much, 16 represented the beginning of Chicago as a classy, paint-by-numbers pop ensemble plus studio cats. It was a new band, a new approach, and Columbia was eating their heart out.

But wait… what the heck happened to Robert Lamm? He’s absent from the record, except for a co-writing credit on “Get Away.” The once-dominant songwriting voice of the band completely slipped out of sight on this record due to personal problems, and didn’t have any vocal contributions. Strangely enough, his absence doesn’t hurt the record much, which is no knock on Robert.

Chicago 17 album cover
Chicago 17 (1984)

Well, the formula for the big comeback record was successful, so why not repeat it, only bigger and better? That’s essentially the guiding principle behind 17. That plus the idea of giving the majority of the space to Peter, since his songs were most likely to be hits. So 17 is kind of like Peter’s second solo album (his first was in ’81), featuring a few cameos from Robert Lamm, Bill Champlin and the Chicago horns. And let’s not forget Toto, Richard Marx and Donny Osmond!

You all know the monster singles… “Hard Habit To Break,” “You’re The Inspiration,” “Along Comes A Woman,” “Stay The Night”… they’ve got big production, big choruses you know by heart, and big guilt potential. More people probably enjoy these records than are willing to admit. Besides those defining hits of the ‘80s, Pete waxed melodramatic on “Remember The Feeling,” a song every bit as sappy, syrupy, wussy, whatever your preferred adjective, as “Hard Habit” and “Inspiration.” And he went uptempo on “Prima Donna.” And sang Pankow’s sing-songy “Once In A Lifetime.” Which left three songs to be split between Bill and Robert. Bill was in the band two years and one could already be missing him at this point!

He was still there quite a bit, even if he was hard to hear, blending seamlessly with Robert Lamm on a slice of dance-pop called “Only You” and getting his only turn this round at a full lead vocal on “Please Hold On.” Lamm sort of returns to form on “We Can Start The Hurtin’”, exhibiting his old hippie conscience as he addresses the issue of poverty over a brisk synth beat. For a brief moment, this type of song was resonating with the public, as “We Are The World” would prove a year later.

This was Chicago’s biggest selling original studio album ever, so the timing was perfect for Peter Cetera to finally break free of his longtime band and launch that solo career so many lead singers dream of. He went on to become a star in his own right with signature schmaltz like “The Glory Of Love” and hit duets with Cher and Amy Grant, yet his association with Chicago in the mind of the public would never die.

Chicago, too, still had some hits left in them. They would emerge with a new lead singer not long after Van Halen would do the same.

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