33 Days in the Hole: What happens when a metalhead listens to all Chicago, all the time

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Rock journalist Rob Kern, an avowed metalhead, chronicles his journey across a blistering sunscape of Chicago music in 33 Days in the Hole, now available in eBook format.

Seems Kern, who’s written for Classic Rock Magazine and Rock Hard among others, listened to nothing by Chicago for more than a month, one album per day from their 1960s debut through to their latest pop-rock releases, while cataloging his descent into booze-addled, roman-numeraled, David Foster-stringed madness.

Like many of the band’s most ardent followers, Kern was initially a fan of the Chicago sound. “Growing up listening to AM radio, I remember the early Chicago albums fondly,” he writes. But then, something happened. Something sappy: “The first four or five I have no problem with, however, as the band progressed and tasted pop success, I grew to loathe the housewife-panty-churning pop sheen of Peter Cetera and Chicago.”

Let’s just say distance has not made the heart grow fonder. Even after years away from the likes of “You’re the Inspiration” and “Look Away,” Kern is filled with dread from the first: “By the time No. 20 hits … I’ll either be a raving loony or my hair will be frosted and I’ll be sporting giant Sally Jesse Raphael glasses, jamming to Peter Cetera while slogging back one Whiskey Sour after another.”

Oh, and before you log on to fire off a huffy email complaint, Kern reminds us that it’s all in good fun: “Please understand this, I’m a snarky old fuck and try to spend as much of my time as possible being a sarcastic goofball. Blame Mad Magazine, they made me this way. Work and family take up what little ‘serious time’ I make room for each day, you are left with Goon Rob. Am I going to pick on Chicago? Absolutely. Would I do the same if KISS or Cheap Trick were my subject? You betcha. Very little is sacred around these parts. I love music, it makes me happy, it makes my little head hamsters happy. When I’m happy I joke around, even with the things I enjoy. So quit yer bitchin’!”

Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Chicago. Click through the titles for complete reviews …

SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: DRUMMER DANNY SERAPHINE, FORMERLY OF CHICAGO: A group co-founder, Seraphine had been in two prior groups with eventual Chicago saxophonist Walt Parazaider and guitarist Terry Kath. Together with trombonist James Pankow, trumpet player Lee Loughnane, keyboardist Robert Lamm and bassist Peter Cetera, they helped establish a muscular improvisational amalgam in the early 1970s. After the untimely death of Kath, inarguably the very soul of Chicago, it was Seraphine who brought in producer David Foster, a new management team and R&B-soaked singer Bill Champlin – moves that hurtled the band to superstardom in the 1980s, even as it fundamentally shifted the group’s sound towards a more commercial bent.

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. Here are five hand-picked sides, from their pre-guilty pleasure era.

FORMER CHICAGO MEMBER BILL CHAMPLIN ON “HARD HABIT TO BREAK,” “AFTER THE LOVE IS GONE,” OTHER SONGS: On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over former Chicago singer and keyboardist Bill Champlin. He talks about Grammy-winning tracks “Turn Your Love Around” and “After the Love Has Gone,” his contributions to Chicago, working with Toto, and how lounge-singer Robert Goulet almost got one of his gigs.

ONE TRACK MIND: CHICAGO, “STONE OF SISYPHUS” (2008): “Stone of Sisyphus” doesn’t go far enough to be truly jazzy, isn’t hard enough to be called rock — things you could always say (often in the same song) during the Kath-dominated early years. Instead, it boasts a familiar, if obvious, listenability that stuck with Chicago — even as their creativity failed them. That’s why this isn’t the kind of artistic leap that required shelving. To be honest, “Sisyphus” actually marks the initial salvo in a record that is, on balance, instantly recognizable by period for anyone who owned a radio during Chicago’s reign as mainstream pop music’s principal proprietor of middle-of-the-road makeout music. So, should it be enough that “Sisyphus” is a step up from the creeping commercialism then choking the life out of Chicago? Had it gotten so bad that we were reduced to praising this track, and the band, simply for trying? Depends on your devotion to the group.

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