Something Else! Featured Artist: Chicago

Fans of their initial music could be forgiven for barely recognizing Chicago by the 1980s, as fussy power ballads eventually flushed out the band’s signature horn sound. A group that had built its reputation on organic experimentation, a kind of prog-fusion that earned heavy rotation on a then-new FM radio format, never returned to the album-length suites that once defined it.

Well, we have. Often.

Travel back now, to those thrilling days of roman numerals and Terry Kath. Oh, and look for a special contribution, as well, from our friend Charlie Ricci of www.Bloggerhythms.com, a big Chicago fan. Here are five hand-picked sides, from their pre-guilty pleasure era …

“CRITIC’S CHOICE” (CHICAGO VI, 1973): Chicago’s early success has drawn its fair share of detractors (most notably Rolling Stone magazine), who probably just didn’t know what to make of the band’s progressive often intense blends of rock, blues jazz and R&B. Plus, horns in a rock band? Harumph, that’s just sacrilege!

As the band’s conscience and main songwriter up through Chicago V, Robert Lamm understandably took attacks against his band as attacks against his own artistry. Thus, he opens up VI in dramatic fashion: by performing
a blistering screed against those critics armed with just his soft vocal and a piano. Oh sure, the song is a gentle number played as Lamm’s hits discreet chords with no embellishments. But listen to the lyrics as his voice echoes throughout the studio when he first pleads (“What do you want?/I’m givin’ everything I have/I’m even trying to see if there’s more”) and then flips them off (“What do you need?/Is it someone just to hurt/So that you can appear to be
smart/ And keep a steady job/Play god, play god/What do you really know”). Lamm’s got a bone to pick, and he doesn’t hold back.

That he performed this one alone sent the message that this was personal between him and his maligners, and the song itself brought on even more criticism that Lamm is thin-skinned. But Lamm did his best work when he was pissed off at something, whether it was Vietnam, the ecology or Richard Nixon. With a pretty melody and a calm voice, “Critic’s Choice” in hindsight seemed to mark the end of his “angry young man” era, replaced with a Chicago that was still good, but not quite the great band it once was. – S. Victor Aaron

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Legendary jazz-rock drummer Danny Seraphine talks about the beginnings of Chicago, and the end, then how he finally emerged with a new band, California Transit Authority.]

“NOW THAT YOU’VE GONE” (CHICAGO V, 1972): It’s hard to pick my favorite song by Chicago, but one of their top five all-time best studio performances is also one that is totally unknown outside of their hardcore fan base. It’s trombonist Jim Pankow’s “Now That You’ve Gone” from their 1972 album, Chicago V. Pankow wrote many quality pop songs for the septet. Most of his work was not considered avant-garde or even alternative but he knew how to write music that didn’t pander to the masses.

“Now That You’ve Gone” rocks hard. You get an excellent hint that this is going to be a high-octane piece of music from the very first moment with Danny Seraphine’s opening drum sequence. The brass charges in and then Terry Kath’s perfect, soulful vocal takes off from there. After the primary arrangement is finished, Seraphine’s floor tom-tom opening returns while Lee Loughnane’s trumpet and Pankow’s trombone serve as a solid bedrock for Walt Parazaider’s powerful, frantic, scorching, almost atonal sax solo on top. It’s one of the section’s greatest moments and it’s a surprise coming from Pankow. The raucous finish is one of his rare, out-of-mainstream moments that actually sounds like it came from the mind of the band’s other great composer, Robert Lamm.

Pankow’s arrangement is spectacular and features the horn section in all of its wonderful glory. For those of you who think that Chicago was just a ballad band in the 1980s, listen to this song. It’s a great example of what they originally stood for. – Charlie Ricci, Bloggerhythms

“MOTHER” (CHICAGO III, 1971): In 1971, Marvin Gaye had a song out about the ecology, and so did Chicago. But while Gaye sang about sang about man’s damage to the environment on “Mercy, Mercy Me,” Chicago expressed their angst mostly through instrumental prowess. More to the point, it’s a varied set of emotions as filtered through James Pankow’s trombone.

The song is very carefully crafted and typical of Chicago of that time: There’s a bunch of devices and nuances unheard of in a rock band. Robert Lamm offers a verse in a strident 4/4 pace, sounding like a car going down a freeway as he sings “driving down the concrete beams/Looking around and it now seems/Mama Earth is nowhere, gone from your eyes.” But the message comes across louder as the Lee Loughnane/Walter Parazaider/Pankow horn section runs through a transitional chart into a 5/8 section.

Resembling, per guitarist Terry Kath, “industry, money making and pollution,” Pankow duels frivolously with … Pankow. A double trombone solo with one dubbed over the over, the jousting ‘bones moan, sigh, and agitate though this pivotal middle section. An abrupt horn blast from all three brass players returns the song to the second and last verse. The final line — “pur Mother has been raped and left to die in disgrace/she is gone” — opens the way for Pankow’s second solo, a sublimely sorrowful set of phrases that puts the right feeling behind Lamm’s grieving words.

Without the message, the song is a fusion cut that would rank right up there with some mighty heady competition of its time. With the message comes the feel that was often lacking in fusion. “Mother” was a song that only Chicago was in a position to pull off convincingly. – S. Victor Aaron

“A SONG FOR RICHARD AND HIS FRIENDS” (CHICAGO V, 1972): When I go back and listen to Chicago at Carnegie Hall, I’m struck by the essential weirdness that Peter Cetera was actually in that band. This was no 1980′s power-ballad machine, not in the least. The Carnegie hall record documented the group at the height of their Chicago Transit Authority-through-Chicago III powers. Long before the schmaltz took over, there were snarling guitars, blistering horns, and passionate (if incredibly stoned) vocals.

And what would good, solid classic rock be without a little political zing? “A Song For Richard And His Friends” wishes away President Nixon with ominous & angular horn lines and a huge dose of Terry Kath’s guitar brutality. You get a few moments of hope when the band begins to swing after Kath’s spot, but then we end with more brooding horns.

This tune didn’t land Chicago on Nixon’s famous Enemies List. But it should have! – Mark Saleski

“JUST YOU ‘N ME” (CHICAGO VI, 1973): This lightly swinging No. 4 hit was one of a pair of Top 10 compositions for James Pankow on VI — along with the more muscular “Feeling Stronger Every Day,” which was co-written by Peter Cetera. (Muscular, and Cetera in the same sentence? Yeah, we’re talking a long time ago.) If only Chicago had continued to make ballads that strived for this level of inventiveness. Heck, any inventiveness. Sure, “Just You ‘N Me” sounds, at least on first blush, like every slow-jam that Chicago seemed somehow destined to do. Except that, rather than getting closed in by a wall-of-David Foster-fiddles, the tune lifts off at its middle into a jazzy interlude.

Critics, at the time, lambasted the band for trading in magnum opuses for the pureed digestibility of pop music. Well, as they say, you ain’t seen nothing yet. In retrospect, this track is a canny melding of Chicago’s first and second styles, incorporating some of the improvisational elements that defined the band’s double-album days with the glib easy-listening vibe of its chart-topping later period. Pastoral, plainly romantic, and still passably experimental, “Just You ‘N Me” draws a straight line to where Chicago is headed — that sound you hear, as the song fades, is “If You Leave Me Now” coming around the bend — only, thankfully, blessedly, they’re not there yet.

Recommended for those who grew up listening to the blow-dried 1980s-era version, but want to explore backward. “Just You ‘N Me” provides a steady bridge to their earlier persona as inspired fusion-minded hipsters. – Nick DeRiso

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  • http://perplexio76.blogspot.com Perplexio

    As much as I love Now That You’ve Gone, I’ve come to appreciate Goodbye just as much. That horn chart just blows me away every time.

    I think Chicago V showed Peter Cetera at his peak… as a bass player. While later albums showed him coming more into his own as a vocalist. His bass chops on V are bloody brilliant! The recent Rhino remaster brought his bass more to the front of the mix and it shows off Cetera’s underrated skill as a bass player even moreso than the original vinyl release.

    I’ve never been much a fan of Chicago VI. I didn’t care for Critic’s Choice but I got into early Chicago long after it was released and was popular. By the time I was listening to VI I was generally dismissive of the critics at Rolling Stone as being writers only because they’d failed at musice themselves. So my reaction to Critic’s Choice was, “Get over yourself already, Robert! It’s just Rolling Stone… They’re not worthy of your time let alone your scorn.” I thought Peter’s reaction was much more fitting. In an interview he said that yes he read Rolling Stone… “Usually when I’m taking a sh*t!”

    • S. Victor Aaron

      Hey Perplexio, good to hear from you and get your Chicago thoughts.

      I never see anyone else list “Critics’ Choice” as a favorite on VI (and truth be told, I think the two hits are the strongest tracks on there, not counting the Al Green bonus track). But IMO Lamm actually had a nice melody going with it that might had attracted more people to the song if it had more accompaniment than just his piano. As for his message, yeah, it was a little self-indulgent to call out the music critics like that but I tend to cut Lamm some slack on that because he was pissed and when he’s pissed he tends to make better music. Just two years later his anger was watered down to baroque nostalgia with “Harry Truman,” which was pleasant enough but the fire was gone from him.

      • http://perplexio76.blogspot.com Perplexio

        As I’ve grown older and matured a bit I’ve started to cut Lamm a bit more slack for Critic’s Choice… At the time he wrote the song Rolling Stone was a more reputable and respected magazine than it is today (or even than it was when I first heard the song). At the time he wrote it I could see where their negativity to Chicago would have stung more than those same criticisms would have stung 15-20 years later when I first heard the song.