“A Hit By Varese” leads off Chicago’s fifth album, one many of my colleagues and I feel is flawless. It is, as they used to say, “all killer, no filler.” In fact, 1972’s Chicago V is significant in many ways:
––It’s the first single album released by the band. That’s right, no double album, no four-record live stuff (this is the first album released after 1971’s massive Chicago at Carnegie Hall). Instead of the extended suites, tone poems, etc., there are nine great songs that still contain plenty of political commentary and jazz-influenced soloing.
––Robert Lamm (keyboard, lead vocals, chief composer) writes all but two songs and even those are awesome! This is the last time Lamm will almost totally dominate the writing unless you count 2014’s Now, but that’s light years away and almost an entirely different band.
––After this album, Robert Lamm’s political commentary, a huge component of the band’s “hipness quotient, will take a seat at the back of the bus. Lamm’s smash hit “Saturday in the Park,” a great slice of ‘70s pop music from Chicago V, gave some band members the idea that good-feel pop music could bring better chart action and more $$ than social/political commentary. Lamm would slip in such songs here and there, but there would never be anything else like “Poem for the People” from Chicago II.
––This is the last of the “New York” albums; all the band’s official recordings, including Carnegie Hall, were recorded in the Big Apple. The shift to producer/manager James Guercio’s Caribou Ranch for rehearsals and recording permanently changed Chicago’s sound and gave it more of a pop leaning, except for most of guitarist/vocalist Terry Kath’s compositions and guitar work.
On to the song at hand: “A Hit By Varese” (the title is a tip of the hat to modernist composer Edgar Varese) begins with a blast of Terry Kath feedback. Just when you think we’re back to “Free Form Guitar” territory, he begins chopping a furious rhythm. Robert Lamm plays an odd figure on B-3 organ and the horns kick in.
The lyrics are almost spat out by Lamm: “I’m so tired of oldies and goldies and moldies that I want to cry!” If only he knew that’s exactly what Chicago would turn into after the chart failure of Twenty 1 in 1991.
The next section features solos from each member of the horn section, accompanied by a wall of feedback from Kath’s guitar. Walt Parazaider plays one of his signature odd solos on tenor sax, but in this context, it really works. James Pankow follows with a trombone statement and Lee Loughnane’s trumpet completes the round-robin. This solo order stays the same, with the statements becoming more frantic until all the horns are blasting away at once. This cacophony of sound is stopped with drummer Danny Seraphine’s choked cymbal (he’s all over the kit using everything but the kitchen sink and with taste) and the odd organ and chopping guitar return.
At one point, Lamm memorably sings, “Would you agree to attempt something new?” By the 2000s, he’d have to pratically get an act of Congress for the current band to agree to record new music. In 1972, that’s what Chicago was all about. The horns end the piece with an increasingly aggressive line that they join one-by-one and we’re out. This is a stunning beginning to Chicago V.
The version on Live in Japan is even more aggressive: Terry Kath’s guitar sounds like it’s going to knock down the pillars of the venue it was recorded in. This is Chicago!