Chicago, “Listen” from Chicago Transit Authority (1969): Saturdays in the Park

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Following the gloriously feel-good “Questions 67 and 68” on Chicago Transit Authority is “Listen.” Like so much of the first album by this rock and roll band with horns, Terry Kath is front and center with a sustained guitar note followed by Danny Seraphine’s snare drum crack. Kath holds this note over the galloping horn chart. In true psychedelic fashion, a cowbell rotates like a Leslie organ speaker between channels.

Robert Lamm jumps in with an passionate vocal which laments the long hours/short pay of most working bar bands. The listeners (see how I did that?) are told it’s OK to smile and enjoy – and what fun it would be, if only the audience wouldn’t ignore them or use their music as background noise. It also wouldn’t hurt if they made a decent buck.

It’s interesting that this song (as with most on Chicago Transit Authority) has multiple guitar overdubs, a practice that will in later years give way to multiple trombone overdubs. The tune at hand finds Terry Kath, as usual, ripping a gloriously raunchy and melodic solo when his turn comes, accompanied by the horns. After he’s had his say, the horns come in with a similarly aggressive unison figure which Danny Seraphine beats along with at the end of the horn section solo like a jackhammer.

Chicago has been called one of the most self-referencing bands in rock and roll history, and this piece is a prime example. Robert Lamm is writing an aural documentary of the band’s bar-playing days in Chicago and later in L.A. One would imagine this song was still relevant at the time of the album’s release, as they were usually openers or fourth or fifth billed at festivals at that point in their career.

One thing I have to point out as a woodwind player myself is the absolutely raw sound of the horn section on Chicago Transit Authority. Former manager/producer James William Guercio said he didn’t really know what he was doing when he recorded the horns, and had them playing into the same mic. I love this rawness, which fits the R&B feel of a lot of the early Chicago material. As time goes by, that sound will eventually smooth out to the point of the horn section sounds like a trombone choir – but that’s much later.

What we have on “Listen” is a great deep cut from one of America’s greatest bands in their prime. Don’t laugh, they weren’t always a ballad machine – and this song drives that point home as well as anything else in their catalog. Just “Listen!”

Bob Helme

Bob Helme

Bob Helme, a contributor to our weekly song-by-song series on Chicago called Saturdays in the Park, is a father of two with an MBA who still plays jazz part-time. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Bob Helme
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