WTF?! Wednesdays: Chicago, “Free Form Guitar” (1969)

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Once in a while a major act known for creating some of the most melodious, listenable songs will shock us all and uncork a track that’s the polar opposite. The Beatles had their “Revolution 9,” Lou Reed had his Metal Machine Music and Pat Metheny his Zero Tolerance for Silence. (OK, so maybe Lou was never that much into pretty melodies, but you get the idea.) Chicago’s WTF moment came early on, within the same debut album that gave us the eminently hummable “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Beginnings.”

“Free Form Guitar” is a huge turnoff to nearly every Chicago fan, and not just the David Foster partisans. Terry Kath unleashed the pure, brutal fury of his guitar and didn’t pay any mind to harmony; you could probably get more harmony from scratching your fingernails across the chalkboard.

A few years ago I wrote up sort of a case for this proto-noise rock song, perhaps one of the few you’ll find anywhere on the internet. It’s not an argument that the song is good, however, but why I’m glad Kath did it, anyway. And you know, there are occasionally those moods where by golly, it does sound good. Here’s a reprint of that article…

We all know this, but sometimes we need to be reminded that Chicago is a mainstream rock band that was once a rock/jazz/blues/R&B/whack jazz band masquerading as a mainstream rock band. Wait a minute, you say, “whack jazz”???

Not just whack jazz, but the extreme kind of whack jazz. If you still have a worn-out vinyl copy of the band’s spectacular debut album Chicago Transit Authority, chances are that the black band between “Poem 58” and “South California Purples” is still shiny and clean. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the cut everyone skips over, though.

As a totally improvised solo guitar piece, “Free Form Guitar” is Terry Kath at his most unhinged. Kath plugged his guitar straight into a crackling studio amp turned up to eleven without the use of any pedals, generating more feedback in these seven minutes than an hour of Jimi Hendrix at Monterrey, and you can’t find a single shred of tonality.

[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.]

It’s as hard to listen to today as it was back then, and I won’t try to pretend otherwise. Music? I prefer the term “primal expression.” But in the context of the times, that was pretty amazing, especially with it appearing on a hit rock album. By 1969, there were plenty of free jazz sax players, but among free jazz guitarists, maybe only Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock were active practitioners of the stuff in 1969. For one song, Kath had the balls to put himself in that rare company, and his band included that track in the batch songs they expected Columbia Records to release for their first album. And, the corporate heads went along with it (something they probably wouldn’t even remotely consider doing today). “Free Form Guitar” is also held up as one of the precursors to noise rock, which didn’t really emerge for another decade.

It’s been said that Hendrix himself once told Chicago sax player Walter Parazaider “your guitar player is better than me.” If that’s true, then some of the attributes Jimi must have appreciated the most are Kath’s adventurous spirit and a willingness to go beyond what’s been done before. Those are the sides of Kath that are on conspicuous display on “Free Form Guitar.”

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