Can You Dig It? Yes I Can!

[6 November 2002]

By Mark Desrosiers

Sometimes even the snottiest pretensions can transform themselves into base popcorn-munching lowbrow schtick. Such was the career of Chicago. They began as a clutch of talented upwardly-mobile kids, L.A.-via-Chicago, who wanted to be hippies without psychedelia, pop-rocks with a horn section. They were all serious musicians, with wholesome goals and methods, but somewhere along the line they hit the jackpot and became bleach-white hitmakers, truncated balladeers, soulless wimps. This was a band that thrived despite being jeered and pissed on by critics, hipsters, jazzbos, even its own ex-members.

Yet they came back year after year (except for a disco hiatus from 1978 to 1982) with megaplatinum smash hits that smeared your mind with aural mayonnaise. They were simultaneously ubiquitous and forgettable, setting off a barrage of sonic pinpricks, a stream of Caucasian hooks that you could never expel from your brain. Though they started off with some good stuff — groovy moontunes like “Make Me Smile”, smart rockers like “25 or 6 to 4”, even an ace cover of “I’m a Man” — they ended up the very definition of ‘70s schlock balladry (“Wishing You Were Here”, “If You Leave Me Now”, “Just You ‘N’ Me”). Then they topped that achievement (at least profit-wise) by storming the ‘80s with pasty lethargic smashes like “Hard Habit to Break” and “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love”. And throughout it all the band remained faceless, hiding behind a corporate identity (dig that rococo logo that adorns all their album covers) and a sequentially enumerated trail of samey records.

Most responsible record critics don’t dig Chicago much. Indeed, the band has been subjected to some serious grinning, dog-kicking disses by both Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau. Even gonzo garbage-sifting compost geniuses like Chuck Eddy would be hesitant to take on Chicago, I bet. But I think I could give it a shot. I mean, “Make Me Smile”, “25 or 6 to 4”, and “Saturday in the Park” are some excellent tunes, aren’t they?

This is where Rhino Records comes in. Now, Rhino has been both a godsend and a miracle worker in the past. They’ve rehabilitated and resuscitated the pop-culture stature of damn near everyone from Roy Rogers to Latimore, simply by reissuing, remastering, or compiling their back catalogs. Everyone from goofy pop-music fans to frowning obscuritarians have delighted in Rhino’s excavations of hot old stuff by Harry Chapin, Dokken, and the Moments. Now it’s Chicago’s turn. Indeed, Rhino is officially “excited to have entered a long-term partnership with Chicago to develop their extensive catalog.”

Well, I hate to say it, but all of Rhino’s valiant efforts are unlikely to budge the critical consensus on Chicago (thumbs down) nor win them new fans. I mean, I’ll give them a fair hearing, but c’mon, guys, this is the third time Chicago’s Columbia material has been reissued on compact disc. Surely the market for digital quality Chicago reissues is saturated. This time around the sound is remastered from the original master tapes (apparently the first time those hallowed masters have been dusted off for this purpose), and Rhino is making their usual effort to gussy up the packaging with original art and liner notes. But the result is bundled in a “digi-smart-pak” (a digi-pak with a redundant outer sleeve). It’s a pretty half-assed attempt at packaging innovation, if you ask me. And on the first three reissues there are no extra tracks! (Well there’s a reason for that, as we shall see.) Yeah, Rhino can be frustrating sometimes. But maybe this Chicago thing could turn out some good obscurities, even enhance their dubious rep! Well let’s check out the band’s debut, Chicago Transit Authority.

Chicago Transit Authority
So who were these kids anyway? When you look at the early band photos, they appear to be just a bunch of husky Midwestern kids looking for a big break. Well, I wish I had more interesting things to report, but that’s exactly what they were. In 1967, DePaul University student Walter Parazaider got together with a jazzy couple of buddies (Lee Loughnane, James Pankow) to make a bit of money gigging around Chicago as the Big Thing. The group later came to include guitarist Terry Kath, pianist Robert Lamm, and drummer Danny Seraphine. Their shows around town were known for the loud bleating horns wedded to a distinct rock’n'roll sound, sorta like “Got to Get You Into My Life” crossed with Doc Severinson. And so they played, destined to be another brief band flashing across the late’60s midwestern landscape.

But then they did two important things. Well three actually. First, they hired their successful buddy James William Guercio (who had recently scored big hits for Buckinghams) as manager and producer. Then they changed their name (at Guercio’s suggestion) from the Big Thing to Chicago Transit Authority. Then (and this didn’t seem all that important at the time) they hired Peter Cetera as bassist.

Guercio, pulling strings and molding egos, got them signed to Columbia after dragging them all out to L.A. to lay down the tracks for their heavy debut. Although the revisionist history of Chicago likes to make big play out of their beginnings as an “underground” band, the fact is Columbia records signed them because they could make some money off the trendy, jazz-rock sounds that were creeping into the charts at the time. (A similarly shrewd eye on profitable eclecticism led to their signing of Janis Joplin and Santana around the same time.)

Chicago Transit Authority hit the streets in September 1969, and it’s hard now to reckon what to make of it. These guys liked to jam, they liked brass hooks, and they liked to put every damn thing they recorded onto vinyl. At the time the album was advertised as an underground thing, yet another groovy platter for hepcats and cognoscenti. FM radio picked it up immediately, and many of the tunes bubbled around the music scene in a big way. Let’s be honest, though. The album doesn’t sound at all “underground” (not like, say, Moby Grape or Pink Floyd did), but its long rambling structure and bleating horns do evoke a lost era when FM radio took risks and occasionally blew your mind.

The album begins with a deceptive slippery sand-dune of white funk called “Introduction”, which highlights the band’s two secret weapons: Terry Kath and Danny Seraphine. Kath was untrained, Seraphine was unhinged, and both of them gave the band an essential life-spark of anarchy at the outset. Kath was a funny and furious guitarist (Hendrix was apparently a big fan), but it was his growling voicebox that was the real stunner. Sure he was a walking, talking sack of booze and pills from the start, but he really did occasionally sound like a “white Ray Charles” (as the early reviews put it). Meanwhile, clean’n'sober Danny Seraphine was fast becoming one of the most lyrical and creative drummers on the post-hippie circuit. Not as crazy as Keith Moon or as funky as Ziggy Modeliste, Seraphine still kicks out like a twitching limb on some of those early Chicago tracks.

I should add that most of this stuff would be nothing without Guercio, who was experimenting with new engineering techniques that gave drums and horns bigger space in the mix, rather than crowding them into a dense, sonic pudding. This may be why some of these early Chicago hooks still sound creamy fresh today: Guercio took busy complex tunes and turned the best parts into twinkling beacons in your brain.

For example. “As I was walking down the street one day, a man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch.” Just reading that clunky run-on line evokes the finger-popping grooviness of “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”. Here’s a song that looks and smells like a wax-museum hippie (complete with the mushy title question that I wish were more about Einstein and less about wandering around in a tuneful daze), yet it still sounds mighty fine 33 years later. Robert Lamm was a tolerably anonymous singer (as well as a copycat hippie songwriter), but the tune transcends it all by bleaching out the psychedelia and punching in some space for horns. This warm shower then drips into “Beginnings” (where the horns sound really great, lifting up the tune rather than just decorating it), and (if you flipped the original vinyl over) “Questions 67 and 68”,where the horns sound like the court of King Louis XVI as babyfaced Peter Cetera lays his piercing tenor on a sweet young thing. They don’t make hooks like these anymore, and I betcha half the Elephant 6 collective wishes they could swipe ‘em for their own records.

The rest of the record, I regret to report, is lots of dated hippie nonsense punctuated with an astonishing cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man”. There are some interesting moments, though. Circular horn loops, a cowbell, and something resembling a funky backbeat swell “Listen” up to bursting, and Terry Kath’s axe-slashing discipline is the centerpiece of the mostly engaging “Poem 58”. You’ll have fun when you notice the “I Am the Walrus” quote that they sneak into the otherwise forgettable “South California Purples”, and you’ll laugh yourself purple when you get to the Spinal-Tap wank of “Free Form Guitar”.

But, just like every one else who bought the album, you can skip the last three tracks (side four of the original LP). It was nice of them to honor their hometown by sampling the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but “Someday (August 29, 1968)” is the least inspiring protest song I’ve ever heard. And “Liberation” makes me long for the sweet melodies and tender brevity of the Velvet Underground’s “The Murder Mystery”. On the whole, Chicago Transit Authority is a promising debut, though it’s clear these guys needed an editor. Why did Rhino include no bonus tracks? Because all the studio detritus was tossed in on the original release! We could maybe scour the valleys around L.A. in search of odds’n'ends from these sessions, but why would anyone bother?

Chicago
If the debut marked them as self-conscious, white, lowbrow-trained musicians with a couple hooks (and a noisy guitarist) in their pocket, the next album (called Chicago but popularly known as Chicago II) showed they really had no idea what to do with their talent. This was probably a result of the fuzzy communalism that permeated their work ethic and song structures. I’m guessing that Guercio told them to put more hooks in their sonic landscape, but their instincts still led them to waste their talents in music-appreciation class. They truncated their name (at the gentle behest of Mayor Daley and his civil servants at the CTA), but then they inflated their compositions.

It all starts off pretty well, with a groovy lowbrow sorta call’n'response thingy called “Movin’ In”. And “The Road” is a pretty little pile of fluff, fascinating because you can hear Peter Cetera practicing a new loin-melting, romantic voice, a bit squeakier here but recognizable nonetheless. “Poem for the People” (rule #1 for revolutionaries: don’t talk down to the people) and “In the Country” sound like odd unfinished studio jams, blurry pop compositions that give forgettable flashes of their brass-rock sound. The Beatles rip on “Wake Up Sunshine” is fairly refreshing, though.

Next comes seven-part composition Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon (that title just rolls off your tongue, doesn’t it?). This is the album’s centerpiece, and for two damn good reasons: “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World”. The composition as a whole is pretty disjointed and weird (especially now that those two hits stick out so far), but just listen to Terry Kath belt, whoop, and cheer his way through “Make Me Smile” — one of the most jubilant, unfettered pop love cries I’ve ever heard. Indeed, this tune conveys puppy love in all its jittery blindness and idealization that the only competition I can think of is Aphex Twin’s “girl/boy song” (and not just ‘cause Seraphine’s drumming — presaging “girl/boy”‘s lusty skittery pulse — splatters wildly all over the place, here).

On the other hand, though “Colour My World” (what’s with the British spelling, guys?) now has ‘70s Prom Theme written all over it, I still dig the languid pace and Kath’s moaning baritone. I should give due credit to trombonist James Pankow for writing these two tunes (and to Guercio for tweezering ‘em out as singles), but I bet they’d be nothing but empty hooks without the unselfconscious bravery of Kath. This is great stuff, and once “Make Me Smile” became a (justifiably) huge hit, Chicago hit the ground running for the rest of the ‘70s.

The other mighty tune on this album is “25 Or 6 to 4”, a rhythmic masterpiece that commits the oldest sins (dippy lyrics, wah-wah guitar solos) in the newest kinds of ways. Here, in its full five-minute album version, you can groove along with Peter Cetera’s compelling eunuch larynx and Kath’s strong, rubbery fret fingers as this dry band actually puts together a wet and slippery tune.

Beyond those highlights, there’s nothing. This, friends, is the album that includes the odious “It Better End Soon”, which (dig the genius title) consists of four long movements with all sorts of rants and soloing. I mean, when I want a flute solo, I’ll listen to Brick do the job, thanks. Where Kath sounds sorta soulful on “Make Me Smile”, here he obviously needs to order out for greens, and not just because he sounds constipated. “Fancy Colours” is a grave mistake, from the carnival oompah beat down to the spine-twisting slipped-disc fadeout. And the Kath-penned “A.M. Mourning / P.M. Mourning / Memories of Love” prog-schlock festival makes me wonder how the sloppy dude behind that unhinged voice could write such well-mannered pap.

In sum, this double-LP easily could have been boiled down to a pretty entertaining single LP. (Note to Rhino: run with this idea.) For extra tracks, Rhino slapped on the truncated Single Version of “25 Or 6 To 4” (why?), and the single mix of “Make Me Smile”, which is actually better than the “ballet” version ‘cause it pastes the slap-happy “Now More Than Ever” conclusion onto the end. album turned Chicago into stars, and after “Make Me Smile” and “25 Or 6 to 4” topped the charts Columbia scurried back to Chicago Transit Authority for some more singles (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “Beginnings”). Surely Chicago now knew that their strengths lay entirely in creating mindless pop ballads? Well, I guess not, because their next album was a tuneless disaster.

Chicago III
I can’t think of many artists who’ve essayed three double-LP’s in a row (LaMonte Young? Yes? Merzbow?), but Chicago tasted the blubber that padded their first two efforts, and found it good. Thus Chicago III, a messy overwrought clunker devoid of both gems and hits, presses its heavy weight on the dustbin of music history. Maybe the band wanted to make a Serious Artistic Statement (again), but this time it’s pretty laughable. The liner notes make the excuse that they recorded this stuff in the middle of some serious hectic touring (300 nights a year). But whereas sometimes touring can cause a band to grow hooks and embrace concision, Chicago sprawls groggily like Haydn slipping off a barstool.

There are three extended compositions here: Travel Suite (about being on the road), An Hour in the Shower (about showering), and Elegy (about when all the laughter dies in sorrow, or something). Throughout it all, they do shameless things like imitate Crosby, Stills, and Nash or read bad poetry. There are some passable moments, such as the straight blues of “I Don’t Want Your Money”, the odd rhythmic soloing on “Free”, or Terry Kath’s roaring gusto in parts of his Hour in the Shower bit. But on the whole this is a depressing mess. The two singles (“Free” and “Lowdown”) barely charted, and for good reason: they’re devoid of hooks. (Though “Free” does have some fun stilted polyrhythms in the bridge.) Wow, what a weird mess. As far as this album demonstrates, Chicago weren’t dicking around in the studio to create disorder. They were doing it to preserve disorder.

Only the Beginning
Rhino’s prelude to the year-long Chicago-reissue extravaganza was a comprehensive double-disc greatest hits collection, Only The Beginning: The Very Best of Chicago, the first such collection to include both their Columbia and Full Moon/Warners hits in one place. And as long as you skip most of disc two, you can totally get with it. First of all, you have to cast from your mind the standard music-critic bigotry about the band. Instead, put yourself in nuggets mode and groove along to staggering tunes like “Saturday in the Park”, “Make Me Smile”, “25 Or 6 To 4”, and “I’m a Man”. Then put yourself in ironic-schlock mode and slow dance with “Colour My World”, “Just You ‘N’ Me”, “Wishing You Were Here”, and “If You Leave Me Now”. Folks, these early hits were all ace tunes, “timeless” only in that they still sound pretty fine today.

Sure the trajectory from “I’m a Man” to “If You Leave Me Now” is a quick slide into adult-contemporary doldrums. And listening to this stuff in rough chronological order is a depressing tale of the decline of Terry Kath and the rise of Peter Cetera. But I found disc one to be surprisingly groovy and listenable. Me, I was taken by surprise with the animated head-bobbing post-breakup elation of “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day”, which could have taken Prozac nation by storm if Prozac were invented then. And I became steadily more fascinated by “Wishing You Were Here”, an eerie MOR standard which features Terry Kath sounding like a tranquilized ghost wandering amidst the sunburnt Beach Boys. On this tune he is devoid of both soul and personality, and four years later he was dead of an “accidental gunshot wound to the head under the influence of alcohol and drugs”. (That’s according to the L.A. coroner; according to the Chicago mythology he was just playing Russian Roulette.) Surely this song is a prophetic and more visceral ode to a half-dead buddy than Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”?

Just before Kath’s death in 1978, the band canned James William Guercio as their producer. Without Guercio or Kath, what little greatness remaining in the band bled into the sewers of popular music. Thus, disc two of this set is a tragic embarrassment, a horror show of ‘80s power ballads and Diane Warren hits. The innocuous start to the disc (the conservative nostalgic rocker “Old Days”, the pure oversexed Journey intimations of “Baby, What A Big Surprise”) soon gives way to the oddball post-Kath disco of “Alive Again” and “No Tell Lover” (the latter actually a faintly interesting cheating song).

Then there’s nothing for three years, as the band wandered the wilderness of disco and MOR, rudderless and befuddled until they hooked up with that contemptible schlock-huckster, David Foster. This is when Chicago began to strafe and scar the musical soundscape with tunes like “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” (musical quicksand of the muckiest sort) and “Hard Habit to Break” (which is actually a laugh-a-minute ditty if you pretend it’s about heroin). Personally I have no problem with the Loverboy hooks of “Stay the Night” and “Love Me Tomorrow”, both of which are harmless buckets of melody and forced energy. But all the rest of this ‘80s stuff is just unlistenable. Worse, you can hear the band’s one remaining great pulse, drummer Danny Seraphine, being taken over by computers, an adaptable, speedy talent finally squashed by the brontosaurus thomp of ‘80s technology. Just compare the jittery beats of “Make Me Smile” with the clothes-dryer monotony of “Along Comes a Woman”, and tell me which gate of hell Chicago had entered. Then, in 1986, Peter Cetera bailed.

They hired a new anonymous singer (Jason Scheff), and acquired the services of the walking-talking inkwell of disaster Diane Warren. “Look Away”. “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love”. “Chasin’ the Wind”. I don’t think I need to say more. The band had fallen in love with money early on, and now they were willing to toss their collective talents into the dumpster to pull off this shit.

Thus ends the Chicago tale, though lately they’ve been trying to make some sorta comeback with this Rhino deal and appearances on VH-1’s Behind the Music and whatnot. They’re still surprisingly easy to ignore though, and I bet half the problem is they spent most of their career as anonymous faces making anonymous music. But look at how weird it is to reconsider them.The ‘60s musical landscape had a superstructure made of radicalism, sloppiness, and innovation (Stones, Cream, Hendrix, Joplin etc.), and now we’re all digging up hidden subaltern nuggets, pebbles, and back-from-the-grave garage hits to flesh out the whole ‘60s picture. With the ‘70s the opposite effect came about: the superstructure was a load of bland profitable nonsense, and the subaltern underground (punk, funk, outlaw, etc.) is what we tasteful folks dig today.

We have to scour the obvious superstructure — the vanilla skies and bluebird mountains of adult-contemporary bullshit — to find our nuggets. That’s why artists like the Carpenters, the Brothers Johnson and Abba later became so mysteriously “cool” in the ‘90s. I doubt that Chicago will ever become similarly retro-hip (they ruined that opportunity by continuing to record in the ‘80s) but some of the nuggets in their oeuvre are pretty astounding. And thanks to Rhino, now’s your chance to check ‘em out — again.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/desrosiers021106/