Chicago, “What’s This World Comin’ To” from Chicago VI (1973): Saturdays in the Park

Chicago VI finds a softer, gentler Chicago in place of the still-groundbreaking jazz-rockers of Chicago V. I recall James Pankow mentioning in a vintage interview that he took former main composer and band co-leader Robert Lamm aside and told him the band was fed up with him and Terry Kath hitting people over the head with Vietnam and other social and off-beat compositions. (Offbeat: see Terry’s beloved “An Hour in the Shower Suite” from Chicago III.)

From this album forward, Pankow took over as band leader and was the main presence on stage. (Except for singing, Kath never said anything on stage post V; previously he and Lamm did most of the stage announcements.) What Jimmy had in mind were love songs and self-reflections, mostly written by Pankow himself. Almost without exception, most of these songs were smash hits (see this album, VII and VIII) sung by his future nemesis, Peter Cetera.

I bring up this history because the song at hand is one of the few social commentary songs on Chicago VI, a funk workout penned by Pankow. Sometimes you wonder who makes the decisions for album track running order: VI should have been bookended by the high energy of “What’s This World Comin’ To” and “Feeling Stronger Every Day.” At least they closed the album with the latter. Whether it was ego or whatever, unfortunately the album begins with the awful Lamm solo whine fest, “Critic’s Choice.” What a weird way to open an album.

“What’s This World Comin’ To” begins with Robert Lamm laughingly proclaiming, “We can cut it in ANY key!” This boast is more than backed up by what follows: Danny Seraphine’s whiplash drum roll announces the stabbing, funky horn lines played by Lee Loughnane and Walt Parazaider. Walt really gets a workout on this song, playing soprano, tenor and/or baritone sax. Pankow’s trombone enters with a dark, almost menacing figure which the other two horns compliment and we’re into Tower of Power-style funk, without being a direct rip-off.

Robert Lamm sings Jimmy’s lyrics about the human race battling each other instead of working together. Peter Cetera chimes in next, growling “No one seems to notice all the evil in the air.” (Good Lord, this guy was once an amazing hard rock/funk vocalist and his bass lines are genius.) Terry Kath sings the chorus, “What’s this world comin’ to?” Peter Cetera answers, “Just don’t know what it’s comin’ to!” For the first time since “I’m a Man” from Chicago Transit Authority, all three main vocalists take turns at the lead vocal. I really wish they’d done this more often, as it’s fantastic.

The three sing “What’s this world comin’ to” over and over. The horns play an ever-increasingly menacing figure until Cetera lets out a primal scream followed by one of his great bass fills and we’re into an ending horn line. The end of the song to the fade out features a stellar organ solo by Lamm. This solo can be heard much more clearly on the Rhino remaster, but still needs to come forward in the mix.

Oddly, Kath only gets in one very brief, but important guitar fill. I guess that’s one of the many things I’m not too happy about with Chicago VI: Terry is somewhat adrift on the mostly softer/poppy tunes. Happily, he’s all over the jazzier Chicago VII – again proving what an excellent jazz/rock fusion guitarist he was – and is the driving force that makes that album a classic. Here, Kath and the band are definitely on for this blistering tune and are the earlier Chicago most of us know and love. Enjoy this little gem (my favorite VI track), as there’s not much of that Chicago on this album.

‘Saturdays in the Park’ is a multi-writer, song-by-song examination of the music of Chicago. Find it here at Something Else! each weekend.

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