When Peter Cetera’s mid-1980s departure threatened to derail Chicago’s commercial breakthrough, they regrouped with outside writers to keep the streak going. But they never quite regained creative momentum.
David Foster stayed on, at first, after producing the final pair of Cetera-led recordings as they earned eight-times platinum status. After his departure, Bill Champlin’s interpretations of Diane Warren songs zoomed up the charts.
Soon enough, however, Chicago stopped making records all together, and along the way a theory emerged that they’d never quite recovered from Cetera’s departure in the first place. Here are five arguments to the contrary, with additional thoughts from former members Bill Champlin and Danny Seraphine …
“NIAGARA FALLS,” (CHICAGO 18, 1986): Sure, Danny Seraphine’s drums have been turned into synth stabs. Heck, the brass even sounds plasticine. 18 makes clear, and right from the first, that Foster has firmly taken the reins — even as the almost-made-to-order Cetera replacement Jason Scheff attempts to find a place in this phantasmagoria of 1980s-era polish, orchestral flourishes and boom-town echo.
Still, somewhere beneath all of that, there’s a perfectly serviceable mainstream power ballad trying to get out. In fact, 18 actually boasts better song-to-song material than did the six-times platinum Cetera swansong 17: It’s the over-the-top production that occasionally makes this follow up feel more distracted, less convincing.
A check of the liner notes finds that “Niagara Falls” was composed not by stalwarts like Robert Lamm and James Pankow, but outsiders Bobby Caldwell and Steve Kipner — a sign, no doubt, of their failing aspirations. That said: When Scheff, Lamm and the always-reliable Champlin ramp up for the bridge (“until the day you die!”), it’s as convincing as anything Chicago did after Cetera’s departure.
“RUNAROUND” (CHICAGO 19, 1988): Songs written by Diane Warren from this project dominated the charts, as “Look Away” went to No. 1 and “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love” hit No. 3. That served to push Champlin’s craggly-cool voice to the fore, even as they slowly drained the band of whatever distinctiveness it once had in its brass-rock band hey day.
Buried deep into 19, however, was an approachable mid-tempo track that leaves aside the hired-run songwriters: “Runaround,” co-written by Champlin and Scheff, finds Chicago trying to establish a shaky foothold on what might have been its next phase — had the band and its management not been so obsessed with chasing the next Cetera-level pop hit.
Champlin’s matter-of-fact gruffness blends perfectly with Scheff’s hopeful tenor on this anthemic put-down song; they’re even bolstered with a few increasingly rare well-placed brass counterpoints. No, “Runaround” isn’t going to make you forget “Saturday in the Park,” or even “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” but it boasts a kind of authenticity that this album’s bigger hits can’t approach.
“BLUES IN THE NIGHT” (NIGHT AND DAY: BIG BAND, 1995): Found amidst an otherwise entirely too safe run through swing-era retreads, Chicago hits a bone-rattling groove on the Champlin-sung “Blues in the Night.” Loose and R&B soaked, with a tough guitar aside from Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, it’s so growlingly present that it could have opened the door to its own album project. It certainly sounds like nothing else on Night and Day.
“I almost got fired for doing that,” Champlin told us, laughing. “When I first heard about the big-band project, I thought we could do some Count Basie stuff, some Thad Lewis. No, they were talking mostly Harry James and Glenn Miller. I said, ‘Oh, Jesus, go to the whitest thing you could find!’ I went after what I could, tried to find something that felt a little deeper.”
Champlin dug all the way to the Greenville, Mississippi-raised Little Milton Campbell, whose Blues Hall of Fame career included the gem “Grits Ain’t Groceries” — and a 1964 pass at “Blues in the Night” for Checker: “It’s kind of an homage to Little Milton, if you listen to it,” Champlin admits. “He tore the shit out of that song. When it came down to the blues, he was a great guitar player — but also a serious singer.”
“WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME?” (CHICAGO 18, 1986): Chicago’s first Top 10 song after the split with Cetera, “Will You Still Love Me” was to be sure a photocopy of everything that had worked on the two-times platinum 16 and its even bigger follow up 17. But it was a damned good photocopy. Credit — and blame, as usual — goes to producer Foster, who co-wrote the song but whose relationship with the band after three straight albums was turning into caricature.
“Musically, it wasn’t nearly as challenging for me, nor as rewarding,” Seraphine says of this period. “But it’s still rewarding in the sense that we got to experience that level of success.” Despite the band’s ever-quickening, Foster-helmed move toward electronic sounds, Seraphine is in fact quick to come to the defense of this period — having helped bring Foster in before his own stunning ouster following the release of 19. After all, Seraphine had seen just how far Chicago had devolved after the death of founding guitarist Terry Kath in the late 1970s.
“The Foster stuff, I like it a lot,” Seraphine told us. “It turned me off a bit a times, but he was a really instrumental in bringing the band back. We had gone so far off track [before Foster’s arrival], it was scaring me. I thought: ‘How are we going to recover from this?’ Looking at the landscape, and looking at what was going on, we really needed David. He started co-writing with Peter, and he wrote these really great songs. We had a few run ins, but that’s going to happen when you’re working together. Your ego gets stepped on, whatever. It can be that way. But the bottom line is, there were a lot of great songs.”
“STONE OF SISYPHUS (CHICAGO XXXII, 2008): The title track from a deleted album recorded just after Chicago’s heyday as a slick power-ballad act, “Stone of Sisyphus” gained grail-like mystery when the band’s label scrapped the project for being too adventurous. The muscular brass, driving rhythms and inventive song structure so closely associated with Chicago’s definitive (that is, late 1960s and early ’70s) period drift back in — and so, then, does this sense of what the group, though in a late-career slumber, could still accomplish.
Sure, even in this valiant effort, there is too much polish — the fault, it seems, of the times and their producer. Peter Wolf pushed Chicago to (at least relatively) creative places, but he was after all still a guy who had come to fame working with Starship. That said, “Stone of Sisyphus” (which is powered along by gutty vocal performances on this 1993 recording by Lamm and former guitarist Dawayne Bailey) was a huge step forward from 1991’s pallid Twenty 1, an insult to the radio-ready makeout music Chicago had been making — if we’re being honest — long before David Foster appeared in the control room.
Chicago, unfortunately, never actually answered the question of where it was headed, despite all of the nascent promise here. Next came a stubbornly nostalgic jazz standards album, and then a dormant period that’s included just one original album (2006’s Chicago XXX) in the decades since. That makes this song’s title, taken from a character in Greek mythology who pushes a heavy stone up a hill only to have it roll back down for eternity, all the more sadly ironic.