Chicago, “Policeman” from Chicago XI (1977): Saturdays in the Park

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Now here’s a subject you don’t often find in popular music: a positive, even sympathetic, portrait of a law-enforcement officer.

“Policeman,” Robert Lamm’s first contribution to 1977’s Chicago XI is a quiet and sensitive look at a day in the life of a middle-aged, lonely beat cop. This guy isn’t beating up protestors, chasing the Bandit across the South, or tooling around L.A. undercover in a souped-up Gran Torino.

Instead, he gets up every day, trudges off to the station, sits around at his desk keeping records or answering the phone, comes back home with a six-pack and feeds his cat. Then he does it again the next day. And the next day, waiting to retire in nine years.

The cat is a very interesting detail. You’d think a police officer would be more likely to own a dog, which can be trained to obey its master. Cats, as many of us know, answer to no one. The fact that this guy owns a cat shows that there’s more to him than meets the eye.

Lamm set this to Chicago’s stairstep-like melody over jazz chords (“feeds the cat he lives with” is sung over an E-flat minor sixth!), and teamed up with James Pankow for the arrangement. The “rat-a-tat-tat” brass in the chorus is accompanied by a boing-boing sound that to me has always sounded like ricocheting bullets. I’m not sure if it’s played by the guitar, an electric keyboard, or a percussion instrument. Pankow also adds a nice trombone solo on the outro.

According to the wonderful liner notes of the Rhino release of Chicago XI, Robert Lamm’s inspiration for the lyrics came from the writings of Joseph Wambaugh. A former Los Angeles police officer, Wambaugh was co-creator of and technical consultant for the TV series Police Story and also wrote several police-related novels.

There might have been another source, however. Terry Kath’s brother Rodney was a long-serving policeman in Arlington Heights, Illinois, retiring as chief of police in 2003. Maybe Robert talked to him and incorporated some of his life into this song?

‘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.

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