The train of great Robert Lamm songs just keeps on rolling through 1972’s Chicago V. A rare story song for Chicago, “State of the Union” showcases Lamm’s intriguing lyrics balanced with great horn playing, and features enough ambiguity to hold the listener’s attention.
At the beginning of the story, our narrator – excellently portrayed by Peter Cetera – is speaking on stage at a political rally. He feels disenfranchised by the current administration. (At what level, or for what office, Lamm doesn’t tell us.) It could be for president, senator, mayor or local school board member. Our speaker is advocating for the opposition candidate. Again, Lamm lets us decide whether the speaker himself is the candidate, or whether he’s just stumping for someone else.
His speech is interrupted by someone from the crowd calling for more radical change – to “tear the system down, tear it down.” Our narrator disagrees with the disturbance-maker, and replies in some fashion that causes him to get arrested and sent to jail. Did he threaten the man from the crowd? Call him a racial or ethnic slur? Just swear at him? Here goes Robert Lamm again, leaving it up to our imagination.
Finally, our narrator is bailed out of jail and leaves, but once again, he hears “a voice” calling to “tear the system down, tear it down, down to the ground.” But where does the voice come from? What happened at the end? I hear three possibilities:
A. The radical from the crowd was also arrested, and is still spouting his opinions at the jail.
B. While waiting for his bail to arrive, the narrator discussed politics with others at the jail, and found out they too were more interested in extreme reform.
C. The narrator, having been harassed by “the system” himself, has changed his own tune and now shares the views of the disturbance maker.
My money has always been on ending C, but what do you think? And what is Peter Cetera ad-libbing on the fadeout: “Tear it down” or “DON’T tear it down?” Is he singing as the radical or the narrator?
This is all set to a fun mid-’70s boogie beat with an arrangement heavy on organ and horns. Between the second and third verses, there’s an instrumental passage that seems to retell the story. The trumpet stands in for the narrator, making his stump speech and getting increasingly upset by the repeated interruptions from the trombone until he finally goes off the deep end and mouths off.
How brilliant Chicago was in 1972? And there are still two more great songs left on this album …
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