Exploring Chicago: ‘Chicago Transit Authority’

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.

“CTA”, for all of its influence and innovation, almost didn’t happen though, and, when it did, the band had an uphill climb just to get the thing recorded. Chicago Transit Authority started out as a Top 40 cover band originally titled the Big Thing and who in one photo from the era slickly well-groomed and dressed in matching suits–a far cry from the shaggy haired, beard sprouting hippies that they would become. After touring around the American Midwest, the band did get something of a break when James William Guercio heard them play one night in a bar. Being an in-house producer at Columbia Records, Guercio — who would eventually go on to have a kind of Svengali influence on the band — agreed to get them in front of studio executives. However, his arrangement with the label allowed him to bring in bands a total of three times to secure a deal. The Big Thing faltered on their first two go-rounds, forcing Guercio to move on to producing the second LP by Blood, Sweat and Tears in order to raise some capital to cut a demo with what would become Chicago Transit Authority (which was the name Guercio rechristened the band as, in homage to the bus company that he used to ride to school on). The eventual demo impressed Columbia president Clive Davis enough to warrant a deal. By this time, the Chicago Transit Authority had more than enough original material in their back pocket, which also posed another problem. The band would want to record a double LP–which was virtually unheard of for a debut at the time — and, in doing so, attempt to stretch the format of the long-player, showing just how restless, creative and hard-working a unit they were. The band had to agree to take a cut in their royalties from the record in exchange for convincing Columbia to release it as a double.

Chicago Transit Authority would face another hurdle when they flew out to New York to begin work on the record in January 1969. Due to the fact that the Guerico-produced Blood, Sweat and Tears album was, at the time, something of a commercial failure, the label put limitations on how much time the band would have in the studio. The band was only allowed five days of basic tracking and five days of overdubbing. Then there was an issue of outright naïveté. Chicago Transit Authority had never been in a professional recording studio before, and even Guerico was a little green when it came to recording horns (which was part of the reason he agreed to take on the Blood, Sweat and Tears project, to learn how to effortlessly blend saxophones, trombones, flugelhorns and trumpets into a signature sound).

Both the producer and the band needn’t have worried though. In the end, “CTA” would showcase its mastery by being a multi-layered patchwork quilt that runs the gamut between jazz-rock fusion, Latin beats, British soul (the band covers the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man”) and even noise rock in the guise of Kath’s “Free Form Guitar” — a nearly seven-minute solo freak-out that cemented his reputation as being Jimi Hendrix’s favourite guitarist.

The album starts out with the aptly-named “Introduction”, which serves as an opening shot summing up the feelings the band had about reaching out to a mass audience: “We’re a little nervous / ‘Cause we’re so far from home / So this is what to do / Sit back and let us through / And let us work on you”. The song interweaves a funky organ line with what would become its signature horn sound. It’s the kind of groovy song–with some touches of progressive rock in its break–that, at first, wouldn’t feel out of line in a ‘70s police exploitation flick before it ultimately takes a veer into soft jazz and then turns into a Kath-led paint-peeling guitar solo. It is an apt introduction to the band, showcasing their prowess at what they could do as musicians all within six-and-a-half minutes.

The follow-up song, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, which was the first thing the band recorded in the studio, is something of a “Slack Motherfucker” for the hippie generation (“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 yeah, and I said / ‘Does anybody really know what time it is?’ / ‘Does anyone really care?’”). The original intro to the song, in non-truncated form as it would appear on a later single, starts out with a lounge-like piano line furthering its lazy feel. The cut on this album also comes with a barely-audible spoken section buried in the mix of the last verse, which probably made it ripe for parody in the Adam Sandler flick Little Nicky, where the song is played backwards to reveal (fake) Satanic messages.

Ending side one on the original vinyl album is the jazz-fusion track “Beginnings”, which is led by a nicely acoustic guitar strummed by Kath. It, too, would be edited down from its more than seven minute length on a future single as well as compilation albums. While the tune is a love song, it contains a lyric that is evocative of where the band was going: “Only the beginning of what I want to feel forever / Only the beginning / Only just the start”. Taken as a whole, the first side deftly positions Chicago as a band that was not only making itself known to the world, but was already considering the record as a launching pad to what would become a long and lucrative career.

Side two starts off with a now well-known chestnut from the band, “Questions 67 & 68”. Written by Lamm and marking the appearance of Cetera as a vocalist, it’s another love song released as a single that would chart not once but twice. As a bookend to side two, “Poem 58” is notable for a particularly incendiary electric guitar part from Kath that leads off the cut and is, at points, particularly Hendrix-like. The song doesn’t add horns until about halfway through, making it a bit of an anomaly on the record. It is, for the most part, a straight-up rock song, which again shows Chicago’s mastery of genres.

The album’s most discordant and striking track comes with the opener of side three, the aforementioned “Free Form Guitar”. The liner notes on my original vinyl copy of the record reveal that “[n]o electronic gimmicks or effects were used in the recording of this selection, the intent being to capture as faithfully as possible the actual sound of the performance as it occurred.” And what a performance! It careens all over the place, as though Kath had run a tuning fork against the strings, and uses a very liberal amount of feedback to achieve its effect. “Free Form Guitar” is about as far from “mom rock” that Chicago would get: if you want to clear the room at a party, throw this on. While some might consider it experimental filler, you can again see the lines drawn from this track to everything from industrial music to No Wave. What follows is the ambitious “South California Purples”, which references the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” in its lyrics, and would be later stretched out to a length of more than 15 minutes on the quadruple live boxed set Chicago IV. The song has a slinky groove to it, but, once again, Kath comes in around mid-song with an extended guitar solo, which reaffirms his status as one of the most underappreciated guitarists of the era. The side closes out with an extended take on “I’m a Man”, which has a Latin beat underscoring the rhythm section, and emerges as a showcase for drummer Daniel Seraphine with an extended solo. Side three of “CTA” is, in some ways, a showcase for individual members of the band.

Side four opens up with Chicago at perhaps its most political. It begins with the brief intro, “Prologue, August 29, 1968”, which samples the “whole world is watching” chant by anti-Vietnam War protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The proceeding cut, “Someday (August 29, 1968)”, appears to be written from the perspective of said protesters, who clashed with police in a riot on the titular day in question (“Run, you better, run you know / The end is getting near / Feel the wind of something hard / Come whistling past your ear”). As Lamm notes in a lengthy bio on the official Chicago website, the band found it hard not to make a statement with the turmoil it personally had experienced playing in their hometown. “It seemed that the generation of which I was a member and the generation which was peopling the new bands had a connection,” says Lamm, “and so it seemed natural to give voice to some of the thinking.” By focusing inward at the situation that was occurring right in Chicago the city, the band was willing to tackle tough subjects. This trend would continue on subsequent releases, with further political songs and, in the case of Chicago IV, messages that proclaimed “We can change the system” as well as voter registration cards.

Finally, the album ends with the nearly 16-minute-long “Liberation”, which the liner notes say “was recorded entirely live. The performance embodied in this recording is complete and uncut.” (the necessity for the single take probably being a result of the short studio time the band received, as opposed to a more aesthetic concern). As is the case with the opening track, “Introduction”, “Liberation” is a showpiece for individual strengths. After an introductory section, the spotlight would turn once again on Kath and his way around the fretboard of his guitar in an incredibly long passage, accompanied by the squelchy (dare I say groovy?) organ sounds of Lamm’s keyboards. By the latter part of the section, Kath tears up the guitar in almost a proto-metal way, before the rest of band backs out of the arrangement and the guitar work delves into the avant-garde. The song ends with some drum fills by Seraphine, and, overall, the cut feels like progressive rock than jazz-rock fusion.

In 1969, “CTA” was a cutting edge album and, in some ways, the band would never be so unpredictable, so vibrant, and so passionate than they are here. Starting with the follow-up album, Chicago (a.k.a. “Chicago II”), the band would start to have a string of hits that would slowly swing them more in favour of writing treacly ballads and love songs. They would eventually become the only band to have an album chart in the Billboard Top 40 in five consecutive decades, and have such a run of hit soft-rock singles and records that they are only bested by the Beach Boys for being the most successful American rock band of all time. However, CTA is before all of that: marking a period where the band was willfully experimental and not so radio friendly (well, at least outside the confines of niche FM stations who could handle the record–and if one can overlook the fact that some of the songs from this album did chart later on in edited form). With “CTA”, Chicago harnessed a raw and vital power that they would have a tough time recapturing in the future. While the band does have albums worthy of examination in its back catalogue (one could argue that anything before the 1978 album Hot Streets is more than agreeable), “CTA” is the one album that marks Chicago’s determination and commitment to being an original songwriting force whose effort still sounds uncompromising to this day.