Published: August 22, 2006, jefitoblog.com

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chicago, Part 3
This piece originally appeared as part of a weekly series of artist guides on jefitoblog.com.

By Michael Fortes

Chicago 18 album cover
Chicago 18 (1986)

After the death of Terry Kath in 1978, Chicago had essentially become a vehicle for Peter Cetera. But with Pete having jumped ship in 1985, and with their soul sold to Warner Bros. and David Foster, they could keep going and not have to worry about sounding like a rock band with horns on their albums anymore. They were now truly a faceless pop band, good for generating hit records that didn’t really say much and sounded like everyone else.

Peter’s replacement, another blonde bass-playing tenor singer named Jason Scheff (son of Jerry Scheff, bass player for Elvis Presley), sounded a lot like Peter. His voice wasn't quite as robust, but it worked well enough to carry the typically bombastic Foster power ballad “Will You Still Love Me” into the top 5.

“If She Would Have Been Faithful” saw some chart action too, but didn’t really have much in the way of legs. It stumbled over an overly analytical theme, with lyrics (“It’s a paradox, full of contradiction / How I got from there to here / It defies a logical explanation”) that really had no place in a fluffy pop ballad. Plus they just weren’t very good. Still, it managed to chart in the top 40, so somebody liked it.

Lamm, meanwhile, continued his return to active contributions to Chicago with two songs this time, making his typical everyday life observations in “Forever” and “Over And Over.” But it hardly sounds like any humans are playing on these songs, and the choruses are dogs. He had far better songs written by this time, like “When Will The World Be Like Lovers,” which Chicago did record for this album. Mysteriously, it was scrapped, though Lamm did include a great rendition on his second solo album.

Pankow, also once a powerful songwriting force in the band, delivers a dog with “One More Day.” “Give the children of the world one more day,” Jason Scheff sings. But we never quite know why or what for.

Champlin sort of redeems himself in this cold, sterile, mediocre stew of sound with “It’s Alright,” but that’s about it for anything worth hanging on to here. Oh sure, the little tease called “Free Flight” reminds us that the Chicago horns are still around and sound great, but really, why bother? 15 seconds of a glorious reminder stuck in the middle of 40 minutes of some of the most cold, calculated ‘product’ the band had released? It was 1986. I guess that says it all.

Chicago 19 album cover
Chicago 19 (1988)

David Foster was out for this album, but Chas Sandford and Ron Nevison were in. Meaning, Chicago sounded like Heart now. Whoopee!

There was also a new guitarist who joined during the last album, though guitarists had been relegated to sidemen by the band since the ego trip that was Donnie Dacus. Dawayne Bailey looked a bit like Axl Rose, before anyone knew who Axl was, and by album 19, he got to play a little bit on Chicago’s recordings.

But the most noticeable change here was that Jason Scheff was starting to sound a little (just a little) less like Peter Cetera and a little more like himself. The Tim Feehan-written “Heart In Pieces” seemed to bear that out right away, and it rocked a little too.

I remember the first time I played it, in the presence of two of my cousins after my uncle gave me the cassette as a gift. My cousins’ immediate reaction: “this doesn’t sound like Chicago!” Not “this is good” or “this is bad,” but “this doesn’t sound like Chicago.” It’s that logo – when you see it, you expect a certain sound, just like you expect a certain taste when you see that Coca-Cola logo. When Coke changed their formula, consumers revolted. There wasn’t so much a revolt when Chicago changed their formula (which as far as the record buying masses were concerned, this translates to Peter Cetera’s departure), just a lot of confusion. And enough people were still buying the records, so there was no need to change back to “classic Chicago.” Not that Cetera would come back anyway…

And why bother asking him? 19 spawned as many hits as 17, and the fact that three of those five were provided to the band by outside writers continued to justify Warner-Reprise’s handling of Chicago’s recordings. It was just a few million short in sales after the album ran its course, even though the songs were all over radio and MTV. Who really cared to hear “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love” or “Look Away” again anyway? Bill Champlin finally had his voice in the sole lead spot on a couple of Chicago hits, yet he didn’t write them. The guilty party in that department for both of those songs was Diane Warren, who was well on her way to racking up more hit records with, among others, Celine Dion. Try to forget about that for a moment though, for your stomach’s sake.

And as was usual by this time, there were few horns to be heard. At least “Come In From The Night” had some brass, and Lamm’s “I Stand Up” came closest to sounding like classic Chicago since Champlin did Terry Kath proud on 16. About the best thing this album had going for it in the long run was its cover – its one of the few pieces of artwork with pixelated images that actually kind of looks appealing.

Chicago would go through another significant lineup change a couple years after this album’s release, when their original drummer Danny Seraphine was discharged from duty after slogging away for some 23 years. He has since resurfaced with a band he has dubbed the California Transit Authority, and by all indications, they rock. Tris Imboden stepped in for Danny, and continues to beat the skins for Chicago to this day.

Chicago Greatest Hits '82-'89 album cover
Greatest Hits ’82-’89 (1989)

This third official volume of hits is officially Chicago’s twentieth album. All the big hits from 16-19 are here, making for a near-perfect collection of ‘80s schlock-rock, rivaled perhaps only by Journey’s Greatest Hits. It’s still a steady seller today, in spite of being rendered redundant on at least three occasions since its release (more on that later…)

Chicago Twenty-1 album cover
Twenty-1 (1991)

With a few exceptions, you could count on Chicago to at least present a cool looking, creative variation on their logo. Hot Streets was the first such exception, and Twenty-1 is by far the worst. The logo can hardly be located, and it’s only a tiny portion one can see at that. It’s a fitting metaphor, though – where the heck was Chicago on their records anyway? They had mostly been replaced by studio players since ’82, and they hardly sounded like themselves anymore. You had to show up to the concerts to hear the real Chicago.

The generic power ballad formula was wearing itself awfully thin by the time Twenty-1 came along, but this album does have some virtues. The horns came forward a bit, as a welcome relief. And although Diane Warren struck again with a couple more dreadful (imposed) songs (“Explain It To My Heart” and “Chasin’ The Wind”), the ratio of band member-written material had increased. For the most part though, Twenty-1 sucks, to put it bluntly. I mean, did we really need to hear Jason Scheff trying so hard to be an adult contemporary power ballad king with awful songs like “Man To Woman” and “What Does It Take?” With so many such desperate songs on this record, it appears we traded in an oedipal singer for an annoying, obsessive puppy dog whining “you are my destiny!” and “what does it take to win you back?” and “explain it to my heart!”

Robert Lamm at least provides a small glimpse of mental stability with his two contributions, and they almost seem to be aimed at calming poor Jason’s nerves, if you’re up for some shits and giggles. “One From The Heart” and “Only Time Can Heal The Wounded” are both very consoling if you listen to them in that context. One other song here that deviates from the “woe is me, my love life is such a drag” formula is “God Save The Queen.” Pank penned it, Champ sings it, and though it’s a bit strident and has a silly title, the ‘save the planet’ message is refreshing. It’s the 1991 reminder that 1971’s “Mother” is still very much relevant, perhaps more than ever.

It’s worth noting that, when Chicago toured following this album’s release in 1991, they did not play any of its songs. Well, one song did get a live airing – the insipid “You Come To My Senses” was performed on the Arsenio Hall show. Remember that old late-night nugget? Those were the days… except that one night when Chicago embarrassed themselves live on national television by performing arguably the smelliest dog from their worst album ever.

Chicago "Stone Of Sisyphus" album cover
Stone of Sisyphus (1993 – unreleased)

Chicago was looking to get back to being a rock band with horns again, and a band with some artistic integrity, after the embarrassment of Twenty-1. For reasons that have been explained elsewhere in great depth, the Stone of Sisyphus album was scheduled but ultimately not released. It was to be the band’s 22nd album, and unlike Twenty-1, the band did perform some of it live in concert.

While it wasn’t a completely radical departure from the slick, super-polished sound established a decade prior, it was exactly the kind of change the band needed to gain some semblance of identity back for themselves. It would have been much to their fans’ benefit too, has they had the chance en masse to hear Bill Champlin defiantly sing “I’m not asking for permission / Are you ready for me to be me?” on his song “Plaid.”

Even from the first notes of the album’s opener, Robert Lamm’s “All The Years,” the difference is immediately apparent. It starts with Champlin strumming a funky rhythm on electric guitar – a Chicago album hadn’t begun so joyously and rhythmically since Terry Kath’s last effort with the band. And there would be more such breaths of fresh air, like hearing Jimmy Pankow rip a ‘bone solo on “Sleeping In The Middle Of The Bed Again” (where Robert raps – literally, and quite literately at that – about his fractured state of mind) and hearing a funky song penned by Jason Scheff (“Mah Jongg”) that actually tells an interesting story.

The record has its share of schmaltzy ballads, but they are outnumbered here by other more interesting and entertaining songs. Two of the most notable also ended up being shining moments for guitarist Dawayne Bailey. He contributed the title track, and that’s his smooth tenor on the chorus and bridge. The band saw the Greek mythological reference as a fitting metaphor for the band’s career – roll the stone to the top of the mountain, it falls back down, roll back up, repeat. Bailey has said on his message board that he thought it would be funny for Chicago to play a song with the phrase “blood, sweat and tears” in the lyrics, so yes, that lyric was intentional. And “Get On This” brought Chicago to crunching, metal-esque territory for perhaps only the second time ever, and with some of the most surrealistic lyrics on a Chicago song.

It was a return to more creative music, for sure, but it never saw wide release. Who knows, maybe it would have just been more confusing to have a new Chicago record come out that sounded more like the phenomenal Toto record that Toto would never make, than the CTA of the ‘90s.

Select tracks did trickle out on internationally released compilations and solo albums, so one could keep re-buying old songs to grab these rare nuggets:

The Very Best Of Chicago [“Bigger Than Elvis” and “Let’s Take A Lifetime”] (Europe, 1996)
Overtime [“Stone of Sisyphus” and “Bigger Than Elvis”] (Canada, 1995)
The Heart Of Chicago, 1967-1981, Volume II [“All The Years,” “Stone Of Sisyphus,” “Sleeping In The Middle Of The Bed Again,” “Let’s Take A Lifetime,”] (Japan, 1997)
The Heart Of Chicago, 1982-1998, Volume II [“The Pull,” “Here With Me,” “Bigger Than Elvis”] (Japan, 1998)
Live at the Greek [VHS home video release – features live version of “The Pull”] (1994)
Bill Champlin – Through It All [includes “Proud Of Our Blindness,” which is essentially “Cry For The Lost” with a slightly different arrangement and alternate lyrics] (1995)
Jason Scheff – Chauncy [includes his version of “Mah Jongg”] (1996)
Robert Lamm – Life Is Good In My Neighborhood [“All The Years”] (1995)
Robert Lamm – In My Head (1998), Too Many Voices (2004) [different versions of the same album, both contain Robert’s version of “Sleeping In The Middle Of The Bed Again”]

Chicago "Night & Day: Big Band" album cover
Night & Day (Big Band) (1995)

So after the Stone of Sisyphus album was rejected by Warner Bros., the label dropped Chicago. Being that these guys never say die, they moved on to Giant Records for their next release. Giant, oddly, was distributed by Warner, so it wasn’t such a huge change.

This album is often forgotten when there’s discussion of “the last new Chicago album,” only because Night & Day is a record of big band covers. The irony here is that this covers record does a better job than any of their other post-Columbia albums of reminding us what Chicago’s musical identity really is.

The horn arrangements are busy, they’re just everywhere. It doesn’t even matter now that only one of the original singers remains, since all three current vocalists actually sound comfortable and competent in the pillows of horns. And these are hardly just tired retreads, either. Old standards like “Caravan,” “Take The A-Train,” “Blues In The Night,” and predictably, “Chicago,” are made to sound like Chicago songs.

This outing also found Jason Scheff finally sounding like a vet, having been in the band almost a decade at this point. “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” just might be his finest vocal moment on a Chicago recording, and the girls from now-forgotten R&B trio Jade aren’t as much of a distraction as one.would expect.

Swing music was trendy again in the mid ‘90s, but this album didn’t connect with that audience precisely because the band played ‘em Chicago style rather than copy the old swing masters. They were aiming closer to Duke Ellington than Louis Jordan.

Unfortunately, Dawayne Bailey wasn’t feeling the early 20th century material, and he was gone not long before the project took place. Bruce Gaitsch played most guitars on the album, and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry gets a sweet solo on “Blues In The Night.” When it came time to tour, Chicago chose a young lad named Keith Howland to be their full-time guitarist. He’s a hit with the ladies, and he’s still holding down his position with no sign of leaving, making him the longest-serving guitarist in Chicago’s 40-year history. He may not have the powerful personality of a Kath or a Bailey, but this band has no more room for boat-rockers.

In case you’re losing count, Night & Day is officially number 22, since the Stone of Sisyphus album was never released.

The Heart Of Chicago 1967-1997 album cover
The Heart of Chicago 1967-1997 (1997)
The Heart Of Chicago 1967-1998 Vol. 2 album cover
The Heart of Chicago 1967-1998 Vol. 2 (1998)

Numbers 23 and 24 in Chicago’s encyclopedia of albums turn out to be a pair of compilations of songs that had been previously released on other compilations. In short, they are redundant.

A little background here: the rights to Chicago’s Columbia albums reverted back to the band around the time of the Stone of Sisyphus album, and as such, they were free to license the masters to whomever they chose. This made a compilation spanning the band’s entire career possible simply by licensing pre-1982 material to Warner Bros. Hence these botched collections.

Oh sure, someone must have been happy to finally have their favorite Columbia and Warner Chicago hits on one single disc (or two). It’s just that they’re presented in a jarring way. You get ‘70s and ‘80s hits in a jumbled order, with no apparent logic or reason.

But let’s not forget the main selling point – two new songs on each album! “Here In My Heart” earned the distinction of rising to number 1 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, which in the end means nothing since it’s never played live anymore and rarely, if ever, heard on the radio today (though perhaps once in a while in your local Food Lion or Walgreen’s). It’s a song that tried to duplicate the type of hit Chicago had in the late ‘80s, only with late ‘90s flavor-of-the-month Glen Ballard producing rather than David Foster, Ron Nevison or Chas Sandford. Not only does it sound like a Casio keyboard throwaway until the drums kick in on the bridge, it’s not even a catchy pop tune. It’s one of the most boring Chicago songs ever to see chart action, and a colossal waste of Bill Champlin’s singing talent.

The other new song, “The Only One,” sounded like a deliberate throwback to the laid-back grooves of Chicago VII, and who better to take the band on a retro path than the king of retro himself, Lenny Kravitz? Too bad the lyrics are utter crap and neither Lamm, Champlin nor Scheff sound entirely convincing. Kravitz does some vocalizing at the end and does sound pretty decent. It was a neat trick having him prop up the song, much in the same way Chaka Khan added some spark to the outro of “Take Me Back To Chicago” back on album XI.

Looking to repeat the formula of the previous “Heart” collection, the payoff was expectedly smaller with the two more new songs on the second volume of jumbled Columbia and Warner hits. “All Roads Lead To You” and “Show Me A Sign” aimed for the same audience that made “Here In My Heart” a minor success, and, well, didn’t quite hit the mark despite being slightly more interesting than the big number one Adult Contemporary hit.

Chicago XXV album cover
Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album (1998)

Two words: cash grab.

It was the first new Chicago recording to be released on their own Chicago Records label, so perhaps the conservative route was understandable. Why do something that might bankrupt your indie label, right?

This album does at least go the “Night & Day” route and let the horns take the lead. So it sounds like a genuine Chicago album, and it contains familiar songs that their fans have no problems recognizing. And hey, it was a gold record, so the cautious move paid off. But come on, Christmas music? How the mighty fall… this album confirmed that Chicago is indeed peers with Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, etc. OK, maybe the shot at Neil was a bit unfair. After all, he did put out that “12 Songs” album last year with Rick Rubin producing, which reminded us of why we really liked Neil in the first place. Somebody get Rick on the phone with Chicago, please!

But in all seriousness, the fact that Chicago was at least getting something right again on a blatant cash-in was somewhat of a relief. This was probably the only opportunity Lee Loughnane had to sing a song with Chicago again – and how apropos, it’s the concert favorite “Let It Snow.” The man who did so well being the voice of winter on Terry Kath’s “Song Of The Evergreens” back on album VII shined once again and turned out to the big red bow on this hit holiday album. Go Lee!

Chicago XXVI album cover
Chicago XXVI: The Live Album (1999)

Is it live, or is it a laptop? Whoever it was that coined the term “Ceteraoke,” I raise a glass to you. This is the Ceteraoke record, where Jason Scheff gets the majority of vocals on live-ish versions of songs originally sung by Peter Cetera. Beyond that, we also get to hear how the “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon” sounds post-Terry Kath (with Champlin singing “Make Me Smile” and Lamm singing “Colour My World”). And what Chicago concert or live album would be complete without “Beginnings” and “25 or 6 to 4”?

Just like the two “Heart Of” collections, this album is also baited with new songs – three this time, woo hoo! The Burt Bacharach tune “If I Should Ever Lose You” actually has a strange sort of melodic majesty that serves Chicago well. Only Burt could come up with a tune like that. The other two pale in comparison. “Back To You” is yet another pedestrian ballad, and why on earth is Michael McDonald singing Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” when Bill Champlin could have done so even better? And why that song at all??

This was the first Chicago album that did not even register on the Billboard 200, and consequently the last album the band would release on Chicago Records. It was back to the majors from here, any way they could. The route they chose was to license their back catalog to Warner’s reissue label, Rhino, with the first releases appearing in 2002. Since Rhino was starting to get into releasing new albums, Chicago had a chance of releasing an all-new major label album again. Four years after that shrewd catalog deal, the all-new record finally surfaced.

Chicago XXX album cover
Chicago XXX (2006)

Whoa, whoa, what about 27-29? Well, if you look at the rake on the cover of Rhino’s double disc “The Very Best Of Chicago: Only The Beginning,” you’ll see the Roman numeral XXVII etched on the handle. So there’s 27. As for 28 and 29, even the band doesn’t seem to know. Rhino’s “Chicago: The Box” could be 28. So could “Chicago Christmas: What’s It Gonna Be, Santa?” which is XXV repackaged with new cover art and 6 new songs. The “Love Songs” compilation from 2005 could be 29. One of these albums doesn’t “count,” because if they all did, the new album would be XXXI. Right?

Apparently not. When Robert saw those three X’s on Chicago’s Meigs Field, that pretty much sealed the deal. Besides, the whole numbering system has become such a joke with all the pointless compilations that have come out, that they could have called the album MMVI. Come to think of it, that would have been a much funnier title, especially since it comes a tad closer to the actual count of albums released with Chicago’s name on it. Their 1969 Toronto performance has probably been released by small fly-by-night labels at least a thousand times.

But yes, the “30th” album… fortunately for Chicago, they hadn’t released many proper albums since their last top 40 hit, so there wasn’t much to expect here. Anything would be fresh and maybe even a surprise. Like having Rascal Flatts’ Jay DeMarcus produce the record. HUH? He’s buddies with Jason Scheff, so that explains that. He actually got a halfway decent sound out of the band, although he did pull a David Foster and recruit a slew of session players. Though Keith Howland had been Chicago’s guitarist for the past ten years, he only plays on two songs here. But man, Dean DeLeo sounds awesome on “Better.” Yes, that Dean DeLeo, the one from Stone Temple Pilots and currently a member of Army Of Anyone. Go figure.

Basically, XXX is two very different EPs combined into one album that’s only half good, depending on which side of the Chicago fence you’re on. If you’re a fan of the ‘80s Chicago, the first half is a new spin on that old formula. You get Jason Scheff’s dramatic “King Of Might Have Been,” a/k/a “Hard Habit To Break 2006,” and a C-grade Toto song called, what else, “Caroline.” It’s one girl’s name they hadn’t taken yet, so it really did work out fine, didn’t it? Bobby Kimball even shows up to keep it real. Man, I hate that song.

But what about the country credentials of Jay DeMarcus, you say? Well, he’s a strong presence on “Love Will Come Back,” which features Rascall Flatts’ voices augmenting those of Jason Scheff. Besides the crusty syrup factor here, the line about filling in the cracks is a bit on the creepy side.

But enough about the first half of XXX. It’s a chore for me to even think about it. The second half, now that’s another story entirely.

We actually get some good uptempo numbers on the second half, the horns sound integral to the overall mix, and Bill Champlin finally sounds like his natural self on a Chicago record. “Already Gone” and “Better” are both the sound of the Bill Champlin who paid his dues with the Sons back in the day, rather than the slick craftsman of the ‘80s. The organic Chicago sound of the Night & Day album translates perfectly to “Better,” which swings with attitude. WOW… a latter-day Chicago song with substance? Say it ain’t so! Ditto for “Already Gone,” which is NOT the Eagles’ song, and that’s a compliment. The lyrics are silly, Bill knows it, and he’s the only singer in the band who could pull off singing lines like “don’t lie to me, Pinnochio” and “check please, Louise / Thank you very next!” The humor of these absurd lyrics is a breath of fresh air and saves the whole dang album.

I’m a die-hard Lamm fan, but even I have to admit that Champlin bests Lamm on this one. Robert’s “Come To Me, Do” is pleasant enough though, and merges Al Green-like soul with an updated take on Chicago’s sound, but the fake drums rob the song of some of its power. “90 Degrees And Freezing” does have an awesome instrumental break, though, and it rocks like a laid-back, grown up cousin of “25 or 6 to 4” with some “walls of Jason” in the chorus.

All in all, Chicago did OK with this double EP, as I will continue to call it. Start the disc at track 7, and you’re golden. It’s about as good as anyone could expect from a band that’s been around this long and has stumbled as many times as they have. It’s also somewhat of a “return to form” on the level of the Stones’ “A Bigger Bang” (again, just from track 7 on). It’s a very encouraging way to end the continuing (?) saga of the band with the classy logo that numbers its albums.

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