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Friday, Oct 8, 2010
If it were possible to both love a song for its beauty and hate it for its oversaturation and slushiness at the same time, “If You Leave Me Now” would be Exhibit A.

The year 1976 was a turning point in the career of Chicago. The group was riding high after releasing Chicago IX in 1975, which was a “greatest hits” album that spanned their first seven records (save for Chicago III, which didn’t have any big Top Ten hits on it, and the live album Chicago IV”. The hits album reached number one on the Billboard 200 and stayed on the chart for 72 weeks. However, the follow-up LP, Chicago X, would be the high-water mark as far as commerciality would go–at least, for a little while–and would see the gradual start of dissension in the ranks. The dissension notably came from the control that producer James William Guercio had on the band, who was shaping and determining the band’s fate as it became more and more popular, which some band members were starting to grow uncomfortable with. While Guercio wouldn’t be dismissed until after Chicago XI (1977), the strain was starting to show on Chicago X. “It started happening with the tenth record”, notes Walter Parazaider, the band’s saxophonist. “He didn’t want us to learn any of the production techniques. He’d go to sleep at nine o’clock, and we’d start producing the records ourselves. Or trying to.”


Some of the resentment would be thanks to the inclusion of one slow song on the album, “If You Leave Me Now”, which was such a huge hit that it more or less defined the sound of the band among radio listeners and programmers, despite the fact that earlier albums had their share of ballads. It was Chicago’s first number one single and helped Chicago X sell more than a million copies in three months. The song was so pervasive on radio upon its release that, reportedly, those tuning in in New York could hear the song playing on four different stations, each with varying formats, simultaneously. Long-time guitarist Terry Kath and keyboardist Robert Lamm were not pleased. It has been said that Kath might have quit the band over the new direction the band would pursue in the wake of “If You Leave Me Now”, had he not accidentally and fatally shot himself in the head in January 1978 in what was a drunken handgun handling mishap.


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Friday, Oct 1, 2010
In 1969, 'Chicago Transit Authority' was a cutting edge album and, in some ways, Chicago, the band, would never be so unpredictable, so vibrant, and so passionate than they are here.

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.


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Friday, Sep 17, 2010
Chicago VII is a crucial addition to Chicago's catalogue, despite its commercial overture. It was the sound of a band exploring their origins through the inclusion of jazz-like pieces, while simultaneously refining their pop sound to a polished sheen.

Early in their career, Chicago proved themselves as being the masters of the double album. The first three of their records were double-length and their fourth, a live album, was a quadruple (!). By the time Chicago V rolled around in 1972, however, the group had resorted to issuing a long-player that was simply a single disc. It was as though they no longer wanted to be known as a sprawling jammy jazz rock band, but one that was more concerned with issuing concise statements (if not hit singles like “Saturday in the Park”) that could be found in ten or so tracks. The band had also exhausted much of their back pocket songs—Chicago had found that they had used up most of their material by the time they were preparing to make Chicago III even—and there were changes in the rock radio landscape, where FM stations were starting to become more formula-driven, making the double-album format feel not as liberating as it once was. There were changes, too, to the way that record companies paid royalties on songs by the time the early ‘70s rolled around: now they would only pay royalties based on copyright for ten songs per album. Ergo, Chicago really had no further financial incentive to keep on pumping out the doubles. As well, the band had chafed with their label over Chicago IV due to the manufacturing costs for pressing four discs, and it almost didn’t get released as a result.


However, Chicago IV would not be their last shot at making an album that sprawled across just one disc. The band would return to the format of the double album one final time with Chicago VII in 1974, which is a statement of both compromise and non-compromise. The compromise aspect came from within the band. At the time they were readying the record, the entire group had composed—and were playing live—a series of long jazzy instrumentals. Some members of the band were thus pushing for an album of jazz recordings. However, bassist and vocalist Peter Cetera as well as producer James William Guercio were sceptical of this approach, believing that an entire disc of jazz would be commercial suicide. After convening at Guercio’s Caribou recording studio in the wilds of Colorado, where the band had recorded Chicago VI after leaving behind what they felt were substandard recording studios in New York, Chicago reached a deal with itself. The group would include the jazz pieces, along with more pop-oriented songs. As it would turn out, the jazz would almost fill up one disc worth of material on the record, with the more commercially friendly standard pop songs the other.


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Friday, Sep 10, 2010
'Heart of the Congos' has seen many ups and downs, from the widespread acclaim of today to the creative ferment of late '70s Kingston and all the neglect, discovery, and possible theft that came in between. Through all that noise the album shines, a work of undeniable inspiration and enigmatic effect, and a lasting testament to Lee Perry and his studio.

Heart of the Congos is widely considered a landmark of the roots era. It has had a loyal following of aficionados and fans since its limited Jamaican release in 1977, but that same year, when Lee Perry sent the master tapes to Island, the label decided not to issue the album. What ensues is a long and somewhat hazy history of reissues and interpersonal intrigues driven by the mounting frustration of artists and audiences alike that the recording was so hard to find. Not least among them is the story recounted by Lloyd Bradley in his book, This Is Reggae Music, that Perry, frustrated by the album’s neglect, broke into an office somewhere and actually stole back the original tapes. Some claim that the LP was just one among many victims of a conspiracy to promote Bob Marley at the expense of lesser-known artists, and David Katz has speculated that the dreadful state of the masters (which included the remnants of another previously recorded song on two channels) contributed to Island’s regrettable decision. One thing is certain: Blood and Fire’s loving 1997 reissue came as a relief and a blessing to a generation of reggae lovers who had spent years searching for rare copies or had endured the low-quality versions that came before.


I’d like to imagine, though, that the obscurity and the impurity of the recording as it existed for so long was an almost serendipitous fate for Heart of the Congos. There’s something akin to the sonic compulsion of noise rock’s senseless crescendos or ambient electronica’s diminutive abstractions in the way that Perry clutters these tracks with interference, like the lowing cow that punctuates “Ark of the Covenant” and “Children Crying” or the explosions of tape hiss which are used as a rhythmic device on “Can’t Come In” and “Sodom and Gomorrow”. The album can be off-putting at first because the simple, repetitive songs are veiled by the sheer amount of noise in the mix. So the thought that Cedric Myton, Roy Johnson, and Watty Burnett had to somehow make themselves heard through shoddy remasters, scratched vinyls, or the fog of scarcity on hi-fis around the world is fitting, because belting it out on Heart of the Congos they were already competing with Perry’s manic orchestrations.


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Friday, Sep 3, 2010
The international success of 'Police and Thieves' made it ubiquitous for fans of reggae and punk alike, but the album's roots are particular to the inner workings of vital, very-much-Jamaican studios like the Black Ark.

Throughout 1976, as Lee Perry was working with the likes of Max Romeo, Gregory Isaacs, and Dennis Brown decrying the violence and instability of Jamaican politics and the harsh injustices of Jamaican society, he was also collaborating with a young man named Junior Murvin on what would become one of the most famous statements of protest and solidarity in reggae history. “Police and Thieves” resounded across the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. In England, the song struck home with an oppressed immigrant population recently traumatized by the outbreak of violence at the Notting Hill Carnival in London; in the United States it made inroads with a progressive demographic still learning about the potency of the little island’s musical tradition. “Police and Thieves” is instantly recognizable: if you haven’t heard the album cut in context, you’ve heard the Clash’s punk version or the soundtracked clip from the film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.


As always, though, this international reggae hit is rooted firmly in Jamaica. The song, and the album which followed, were products of the same circumstances that spurred forth War Ina Babylon, and the two records have an analogous message and tone, not to mention having enjoyed similarly illustrious and influential careers after their releases. Murvin and Romeo also invite comparison as singers—both men did an album at the Black Ark Studio that would come to define their careers. Murvin would work with the eccentric producer again in the ‘80s, but both vocalists have spent decades capitalizing on their Perry-produced recordings. Both benefited tremendously, one thinks, from the guidance of Lee Perry.  It would seem that in 1976, the Black Ark was the place to be for an aspiring singer.


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