Exploring Chicago: ‘Chicago VII’

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.

Here’s the non-compromising part: For whatever reason, Chicago VII begins with the jazz compositions on the first album of the double set. The band deliberately pushed the definitely non-radio friendly pieces up front, and you have to wonder what it would have been like to have been a fly on the wall at Columbia Records when the record executives were told of that decision. In the end, though, Chicago VII is an incredibly ornate record — right down to the embossment of the by-now familiar Coca-Cola style logo on the cover — and showcases a band that was using the medium of the double album to new ends. Instead of being patchwork-like with its classically arranged suites and jazz rock jams, the band used the format to divide both aspects of their sound straight down the middle: one half being more or less straight-up jazz, the other half being pop. Chicago VII is also notable in that it was an album where everyone pretty much made a contribution, and it feels like the work of an entire group.

Side one kicks off with drummer Daniel Seraphine’s “Prelude to Aire”, which starts simply with a Latin-like congas line from Brazilian percussionist Laudir de Oliveira, who had joined the band as a sideman on the previous record. A lilting flue from Walter Parazaider (who normally was the band’s saxophonist) works its way into the music eventually, though it’s a sparse track that bleeds into “Aire” proper, which was co-written by Seraphine, Parazaider and trombonist James Pankow and is notable for being the kind of smooth jazz-rock that would be mined famously by Steely Dan with its Rhodes-style keyboard touches.

That’s followed up by “Devil’s Sweet” (likely a play on the word suite), an at-times menacing track that goes off on wild tangents throughout its 10-minute runtime – as though someone had taken a razor blade to a series of different tapes and spliced them together in musique concrète fashion. It’s an experimental piece, perhaps the most experimental thing Chicago ever committed to wax outside of “Free Form Guitar” from Chicago Transit Authority, though it mostly winds up being a showcase for Seraphine’s drumming chops (he co-wrote the track) – much in the same way that Chicago Transit Authority was a showpiece for guitarist Terry Kath. With “Devil’s Sweet”, Seraphine not only gets an extended drum solo, he gets to illustrate a softer side by playing with brushes. In many ways, the first side is a portrait of the band’s percussion-horns axis, and shows a really different take on the band to that point, with influences ranging from Miles Davis (Bitches Brew seems to be an obvious touch point) to John Coltrane to Santana. It should be noted that Seraphine and Parazaider were not usual contributors to the band, so perhaps their compositions that make up the first side is again a signal of some kind of compromise brokered by the band. In any event, side one marks a bit of a turn – an attempt to diversify Chicago’s core sound.

If the first side was the showpiece for what Seraphine and Parazaider could do, side two is, by and large, all keyboardist Robert Lamm’s chance to shine. “Italian from New York” begins with a squelching ARP synthesizer that seems to be a distant cousin to Rush’s latter “New World Man” opening, drawing a parallel to Chicago’s sometimes prog-rock leanings. “Hanky Panky” is a relatively short (by this album’s standards, at least) swing-like tune, which owes a nod to funk music in its latter-section. And with that, the jazz leanings more or less end and the album’s pop ambitions take over. “Hanky Panky” bleeds into “Life Saver,” a barroom stomper that simultaneously wouldn’t be out of place in a Vegas show with its soaring horn lines. The side closes with an acoustic ballad by Cetera, “Happy Man”, which, in some ways, feels like a run-up to “If You Leave Me Now”, though it has a Santana-lite jazzy Latin feel to it. Side two, then, is a bit of a grab bag of many divisive styles, though it doesn’t completely abandon the jazz sensibility. It just feels a little more played down and distilled from the opening three cuts.

The second disc of Chicago VII is where the hits can be found in earnest. Side three opens with the cut “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long”, a track that is a forerunner to the ballads that Chicago would become known for. It went to No. 9 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, giving Chicago another Top 10 hit, and there’s a delightful undercurrent of AM gold with this one. The latter half of the song, with its reaching string section, has a cinematic feel to it – consider it end credits music. What follows is another Brazilian instrumental “Mongonucleosis”, which shows the band dabbling once again in funk music. Maybe it should have been on the first disc of jazzy material, but its inclusion on the second LP of Chicago VII appears to be to mix things up and not make the dual discs seem compartmentalized. The side closes out with a pair of lengthy Terry Kath-written compositions, including “Byblos”, which was written about a club in Japan where the group had performed. “Song of the Evergreens” is interesting as it kind of has an early Bowie feel to it, at least during its opening verse.

The hits keep coming on side four. “Wishing You Were Here” is another Cetera-led ballad, and is notable for the inclusion of three of the Beach Boys – Al Jardine, Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson – as backup singers. The song, like “If You Leave Me Now” on the forthcoming Chicago X was a last minute addition to the record, and was deliberately written by Cetera in the style of the Beach Boys – the song even opens up with the sound of surf crashing against the shore. Getting some of the members of that group to perform the song made Cetera feel like an honorary Beach Boy for a day, as he had idolized the band in the ‘60s. (As Guercio had taken over management of the Beach Boys, the two groups would go on to co-headline together on a subsequent tour.) The song would become a No. 1 hit single on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, as would the Lee Loughnane-written beat-infused “Call on Me”, which also became the trumpeter’s first contribution to the band. Finally, the album ends with the soulful Lamm-penned “Skinny Boy”, which would be the title of his first solo album issued that same year, and marks one of the first appearances of the Pointer Sisters on back-up vocals some ten years before they went into the stratosphere.

Ultimately, Chicago VII marks a turning point for the band. Some would say that the album is truly Chicago’s last great masterpiece before veering into a much more adult contemporary material, and would mark the last time that the group was truly progressive. The record is also clearly a work of deconstruction: rather than fusing elements of rock, jazz, classical, Latin and pop music together, Chicago VII marks an ungluing of those genres from their music, and the performance of them in a straight-up fashion rather than creating a unique blend. The album proved to be a hit for the band, charting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and eventually becoming a platinum seller. Nevertheless, Chicago VII is a crucial addition to their 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. With Chicago VII, the band was not only looking to showcase their jazz chops, but it was anticipating a move into more commercially friendly territory. The band was clearly masters of the form for juggling two sides of their unique personality on a staggering double album that remains one of the greatest things they did.