If you’re reading this and are not already a believer in Chicago, then I simply ask you to do one thing: forget. Forget about all the greatest hits collections, repackaged material, teeth-grindingly stale Christmas albums, and other assorted money grabs. Forget about the band’s cynical attempts in the ’80s and ’90s to fill the Cetera-sized hole in their musical output with one mawkish ballad after another. Forget, more than anything, any notions you have about Chicago being nothing more than an AOR sausage factory.
Just don’t forget the “Stay the Night” video. That’s just sublime.
Have you cleared your mind? Good! I now offer ten songs from Chicago’s catalog that are not only worthy of your time, they’re worthy of your love. And just to make things challenging for myself, I’m going to largely stay away from the monster hits like “25 or 6 to 4″ or “Saturday in the Park,” as great as they are.
Chicago V (that’s Chicago 5 for you non-Romans) was the band’s first single album release, and it gets off to a sizzling start with this track. It’s everything great about peak-period Chicago, condensed into a track just under five minutes. Peter Cetera and drummer Danny Seraphine keep things firmly in the pocket, the horn section of Lee Loughnane and James Pankow cuts through with aggression, and the dearly missed Terry Kath smokes on guitar.
Sure, there is the nearly obligatory jazz fusion workout in the middle, but there’s not an ounce of audio flab on this song at all. Most casual Chicago listeners probably aren’t aware of just how aggressive and tight the band could be when so inspired. That side of the band faded more and more as the ’70s wore on, but at this stage they could still blow the doors off the joint.
Outside of the Beach Boys, few bands had better pop vocal harmonies than Chicago. And this one stands should to shoulder with “Wishing You Were Here” (featuring some of the Beach Boys, in fact) as the best display of their vocal prowess. They’re made all the more stunning here as they act as a counterpoint for a fairly subdued arrangement and some rather cynical lyrics. Light AM pop this is not.
Time to show some love for the much-maligned Mr. Cetera. First off, you have to admit the man can vocalize. Guy could sing the McDonald’s Value Menu to me and even my underwear would drop. What I love about this song is it’s a jazz fusion track that wants to be mainstream pop. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, Cetera’s pipes and the band’s backing vocals lift a fairly conservative — for early Chicago — arrangement into greatness.
The third Chicago LP was also their third straight double-album, and for the first time it was clear that the band did not have an endless reserve of great material to draw from. But there are a handful of moments on the record that rank among the band’s best, such as this Robert Lamm gem. It’s the third part of the so-called “Travel Suite” and is absolutely smokes.
As great of a guitarist as Terry Kath was, it was his signing that was really the band’s not-so-secret weapon. It had just the right amount of soulful abrasiveness to stand out from all the smoothness, and that really comes through here. And just listen to how this brief tune explodes just past the halfway mark.
#5. “Questions 67 & 68″ (from Chicago Transit Authority)
I’m in the camp that finds some of the experimentation on Chicago’s first album to be a little too much. But aside from weirdness like “Free Form Guitar,” it was clear that the group’s melodic and songwriting acumen was already fully formed. This is one of those propulsive and deceptively upbeat songs that, even with the blaring horn section and Seraphine pounding away on his kit, is still somewhat melancholy.
And while I’m thinking of it, Robert Lamm does not get nearly enough credit as a songwriter.
#6. “Now That You’ve Gone” (from Chicago V)
Cut from the same cloth as “A Hit by Varèse,” this song — the lone composition on the album from James Pankow — goes from sinister instrumental churning and another gritty Kath lead vocal until it finally takes flight about around the 1:15 mark. From there, the song is mostly an energetic showcase for Chicago’s formidable talent. The last minute-plus slowly ratchets up the intensity until it threatens to go supernova at the very end.
While other Chicago albums after this one contained excellent songs, this was their last consistently great record. One of Terry Kath’s most fully realized compositions, “Song of the Evergreens” oddly enough boasts lead vocals from Lee Loughnane. The first half is wonderfully dreamy, almost airy pop/rock, and then it shifts into high gear. Lyrically, this as an evocative piece of Kath poetry no doubt inspired by his time at producer James William Guercio’s Colorado recording studio.
#8. “Poem for the People” (from Chicago II)
This is another spectacular Robert Lamm number that transforms from something resembling a dirge into a socially conscious jazz ballad. While Lamm wonders aloud whether the people will just “open their eyes,” Kath weaves around the melody with some inspired guitar work. The song changes completely during the bridge and then returns to its deliberately slow pace. And then, just before four minutes there’s what I can only describe as a jazzy mini-freakout of sorts that comes totally out of left field.
#9. “Colour My World” (from Chicago II)
In one of the more bizarre record company moves I can think of, this achingly gorgeous James Pankow ballad was relegated to the B-side of a single featuring a song from the Chicago Transit Authority album — after the third album was already out. Beyond that, there’s not much I can say about this track, featuring a beautiful Kath vocal lead, that you can’t think of just by listening yourself.
#10. “Devil’s Sweet” (from Chicago VII)
If you’ve made it to this point, I think you’re ready for some advanced Chicago studies. So sit back and enjoy this 10-minute excursion into the band’s special flavor of jazz fusion. There are no vocals here and strong pop hooks are nowhere to be found. Rather, it’s the band’s last foray into what made them so special during their early years. Particular notice should be paid to Danny Seraphine, who co-wrote this muscle-flexing track with Walter Parazaider.