Exploring Chicago: ‘Chicago X’

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.

Thus, in many ways, Chicago X marks the beginning of the end of the original line-up and is about where the saccharine begins to flow somewhat in earnest. However, the album is a strong one–it is something of a “guilty pleasure” record in the Chicago oeuvre. It is an album of pop perfection, something that the image of the cover art featuring a chocolate bar being unwrapped only helps to further. It is also the last essential album by the group that you really need (though Chicago XIV does have its moments in this writer’s humble opinion). As it was, the band’s fortunes would slowly start to go downhill throughout the remainder of the late ‘70s–a situation that would not right itself until Chicago found a new label in Warner Bros., a new producer in David Foster, and a technologically updated sound that was strictly adult contemporary (“mom rock”, if you will). Still, Chicago X showcases a group attaining mastery of the pop format, even if one song seems to overshadow them all.

Seeing that “If You Leave Me Now” is what most people know about the record, let’s begin there. It was a last-minute addition to the album written by bassist and vocalist Peter Cetera, and made the cut at Guercio’s insistence. In an oft-repeated tale that indicates a lack of participation on the song by some band members, when Parazaider was sitting around a pool a few months after the album came out with the radio tuned to a station playing “If You Leave Me Now”, he first thought that it was by Paul McCartney–not realizing it was by his own band. And, for something that nearly didn’t make the grade, the song has gone on to infiltrate the pop culture consciousness in a weird sort of afterlife. In 1977, it won the band two Grammys for Best Pop Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus, and Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocals. The song has been covered more than 100 times, from the Isley Brothers to Boyz II Men to even Cetera himself during his solo career. It was used more recently in the kids’ animated penguin flick Happy Feet, it shows up in Shaun of the Dead, and it is the favourite song of South Park character Butters. It’s easy to see why some people loathe the song: from the Wal-Mart to the multiplex, there is just no escaping it.

Is the song corny? Yes. Is it overtly sentimental? Yep. But is it the most soulful thing that Chicago ever did? You bet. It is a deeply emotional song, and also a very atypical Chicago track in that the horn section is played down in favour of a sugary-sweet string section. Yet, somehow, despite its surface cheesiness, the song evokes the mid-‘70s AM sound magnificently and is representative of that decade’s best hits, such as 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Jackie Blue”. There’s a feeling of wistfulness in all of these songs, a sense of lost innocence, and perhaps even post-Vietnam War malaise. In any event, “If You Leave Me Now” is sheer pop craftsmanship from this particular era, and showcases a band mastering forms other than jazz or rock. Seriously, when Cetera hits those high notes, it’s hard not to imagine his heart being yanked in two in lovelorn pain. Plus, the almost flamenco acoustic guitar line in the solo–actually played by Guercio, not Kath–is also skilfully played, and may just bring tears to your eyes. There is a real art to “If You Leave Me Now” if you can get past its ubiquity. The song is by all turns lush and gorgeous, but liking it almost turns you into an apologist simply because it’s so smooth, streamlined and calculated to provide an emotional response straight from the heart and the gut. 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.

“If You Leave Me Now” might overshadow everything else on Chicago X, but the album does boast some fine songs beyond that one big hit. Trombonist James Pankow’s “You Are on My Mind”, which marks the first time he would sing on a Chicago album, is a nice funky disco-like ditty which sees the band stretching out and experimenting with a then relatively new genre. The album’s first single, the Puerto Rican flavored “Another Rainy Day in New York City” with its steel drums is an interesting contemporary of Steely Dan’s reggae flavored “Haitian Divorce”, which was released in the same year. The album additionally opens with a Kath showstopper in “Once or Twice”, and is bookended with another Kath cut that’s a lovely acoustic piano ballad in “Hope for Love”. Then there’s the Cetera-sung “Skin Tight”, which is a bit silly, but has a certain slickness and hipness to it that evokes the smell of cellophane being unwrapped from a record.

All in all, over the course of 11 tracks, there is a certain metropolitan, urban texture to Chicago X that is not as in abundance on other albums in the Chicago canon as it is here. In its somewhat dismissive review of the album upon release, Rolling Stone considered songs on the record to be “ugly droning music that celebrates the traffic jam it inevitably invokes”. While that might be a negative association, Chicago X is, in fact, an agreeable soundtrack to the drive to and from the office–earning it its “mom rock” staple–and shows the band really touching a nerve within the pop consciousness by embracing a widely divergent audience across a wide swath of age ranges. Ultimately, it is the sound of America in its bicentennial year: unrepentantly celebratory and positive. While earlier albums were had political cuts, Chicago X, with perhaps the exception of “If You Leave Me Now” (which is arguably uplifting even in its melodrama), wraps itself mostly in the party mood of the country at the time (“One or Twice”, “You Are on My Mind”, “Another Rainy Day in New York City” and “Mama Mama” in particular, all have a “good times” touch, and go down as sweetly as a slice of ol’ fashioned apple pie).

In the end, Chicago X is a piece of mastery in that it shows Chicago largely yielding its jazz-rock forays to make what’s ultimately a popular record for mass consumption. For what it’s worth, Chicago would never again make a record that was as consistently satisfying and pleasantly enjoyable as this one. As masterful as Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago VII are, this is the album this writer tends to reach for most of all. It’s not as groundbreaking as the first album and it’s not particularly what you would call a “Critic’s Choice” record (to borrow a song title from an earlier album), but it does show the band crossing genre boundaries from adult contemporary to disco to faux ska to easy listening. It signals a new direction in Chicago’s development, even if it would not be a tenable one by the time Hot Streets or Chicago 13 rolled around, or one that even everyone in the band believed to be the best course of direction. However, in terms of pure pop sweetness, one can do no wrong that to examine Chicago X. It offers a smorgasbord of delights and, while it might be best remembered for just one song, it marks the height of their popularity in the ‘70s, a mountain that the band would try and fail to scale again until about the time “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “You’re the Inspiration” rolled around in the early ‘80s. With Chicago X, the band was no longer just a jazz-rock fusion outfit. Here, they were pure pop for the people of 1976 and beyond.