So you’re probably scratching your head and are wondering how a band like Chicago could ever be considered Masters of the Form. After all, isn’t this the band that gave the world such syrupy adult contemporary hits like “If You Leave Me Now” and “You’re The Inspiration”? You know, the kind of music that gets piped into Wal-Marts and grocery stores across the land? You know—“mom rock”. While it may be true that some might find there’s a lot to not like about Chicago’s run of hits from the mid-‘70s to mid-‘80s (though this writer has a fond preference for “If You Leave Me Now”, which will be explored in a latter post in this series), there was a time when the band had a fuller name—Chicago Transit Authority—and a sound that was almost unparalleled in the history of rock at the time they released their debut album.
Chicago Transit Authority, also informally known as “Chicago I” or “CTA” for short, hit the streets in April 1969 and is notable in that it showcased a group that was pushing the boundaries by merging a standard guitar-bass-drums combo (with three main vocalists in the guise of Terry Kath, Peter Cetera, and Robert Lamm) with a horn section. The then six-piece band helped revitalize the use of bass instruments in rock music: while saxophones were hot in the ‘50s, only rhythm and blues acts like James Brown were using them by the end of the ‘60s (not counting the occasional rock employment, such as in the Beatles’ “Got to Get You into My Life” from Revolver, which was arguably more of a nod to Motown than the start of a trend).
To the naysayers who only remember the saccharine ballads that mostly came from the pen of bassist/vocalist Peter Cetera—who wouldn’t begin contributing in earnest until the second album—there was a point where Chicago (which actually was from Chicago) was a transgressive group, one that has had a lasting impact on the pop culture landscape. Not only did they help pave the way for groups that dabbled in jazz-rock noodlings like Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers (whom Chicago would go on to co-headline tour with in recent years), but one can listen to a track like “Pacific Theme” from Broken Social Scene’s now legendary You Forgot It In People and, whether it was intentional or not, hear a little bit of Chicago through that band’s use of a horn section and a huge cast of supporting players. And let’s not overlook another Chicago-based band, Earth, Wind and Fire, who similarly echoed, to a degree, the sound of what would become known as Chicago.