I just got back from a last-minute business trip to Los Angeles (otherwise known as “my least favorite city in the world”), so I’m dealing with all the fun of catching up that going out of town for a couple of days will give you. This week, we’ll have a not-quite Complete Idiot’s Guide — I just don’t have the time, and I haven’t put enough thought into the details. Rather than looking at an artist’s entire career, we’ll focus instead on one particular album; in this case, an album that, although it was recorded over ten years ago, remains unreleased.
They were never critical favorites, but for an impressive length of time, Chicago was one of the biggest bands in America. In fact, if you look at sales alone, the band ranks right up there with the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Of course, few people look at sales alone; in Chicago’s case, what most people look at is the string of banal, listless love songs that brought them chart success at the expense of artistic credibility from the late ’70s onward. They’d always shown a propensity for lite-FM balladry, mostly through the pen of bassist and vocalist Peter Cetera, but for many years, his sap was balanced out by the socially conscious and musically adventurous ethos of pianist Robert Lamm. As the band’s success grew, however, Lamm and the band’s other songwriters found themselves distracted by the trappings of fame (in other words, drugs) and their contributions took a back seat. By the time of Terry Kath’s tragic death in early 1978, Chicago was on its way to becoming Peter Cetera featuring Some Other Guys.
In the early ’80s, the band found itself without a record deal, and when producer David Foster was brought in by drummer Danny Seraphine to guide the band through what would become Chicago 16, Cetera was more or less the only songwriter in the band who was still functioning at a high enough level to contribute. For 16 and the massively successful Chicago 17, Cetera and Foster basically ran the show, and, in the process, set the course for the next decade of the band’s career. The formula was simple: Load the album with gooey ballads, some written by the band with outside help, some simply selected from submissions by professional songwriters; dial the horn section way down to the back of the mix; repeat. From 1982 to 1990, it worked, over and over again — even after Cetera’s acrimonious departure in 1985, Chicago continued cranking out faceless corporate pop, enjoying hit after hit in the process.
In the meantime, critics — and longtime fans — decried the devolution of what had once been a band that was at least marginally concerned with making interesting music. Lamm, and the other founding members of Chicago, no longer seemed to care about what they were putting out, as long as it sold units; indeed, as the ’80s wore on, their concert set lists began to calcify, becoming rote rehashings of old hits and new product. Behind the scenes, however, things were not what they may have appeared. After the chart failure of 1991’s Twenty 1, the band decided that enough was enough, and it was time to reclaim what was left of its musical legacy.
This was not a decision without irony. After Kath’s death, Cetera’s departure, and the unceremonious firing of Seraphine, all that remained of the original group was Lamm and the horn section, and for over a decade, they had shown depressingly little interest in making music for music’s sake. It would take the efforts of three “new” members — keyboardist Bill Champlin (who joined in 1981), bassist Jason Scheff (who replaced Cetera in 1985), and guitarist Dawayne Bailey (who had been the band’s live guitarist since 1986) — to help bring Chicago back from irrelevancy. The result was an album that, though not without its share of syrupy ballads, packed more of a punch than anything the band had bothered to eke out since at least the mid-’70s. Deviating from their long-established pattern of simply numbering their releases, the band decided to call the new album Stone of Sisyphus.
The album’s title, and song of the same name, referenced the Greek tragedy of Sisyphus, an inveterate sinner who is condemned to roll a huge rock up a mountain every day, only to have it roll back down each night. Though “Stone of Sisyphus,” as written by Bailey, was a love song from the guitarist to his girlfriend, the neverending futility of the ancient story reflected how some of the band members had been feeling about the artistic freedom they’d sacrificed in order to remain commercially relevant. “Sisyphus” was also reflective of the album’s sound: Hard-charging and positively drenched in horns.
Lyrically, though Sisyphus was not a return to socially conscious form for the band, it did represent a substantial deviation from what had become the norm for Chicago. The album’s first track, “All the Years,” is one of several songs that can be seen as a lamentation of all the time the band wasted spinning its artistic wheels. And there’s no mistaking the bitter sense of loss behind Bill Champlin’s “Plaid”:
Some will say it’s too late,
So don’t change the story
There’s too much at stake to grow
Yesterday was so great,
Just bask in the glory
Don’t let your feelings show.
And I say
Like a man with a condition
I wait for my heart to stop
Got a plan
Hold that position
You can’t afford a flop
Pack my suitcase
With my game face
Take the same place
And put away the dreams I had
Let my hair grow
Find some old clothes
Let the world know
That my glory days were plaid
But then, in the song’s chorus, a new mission statement:
I’m not asking for permission
Are you ready for me to be me?
Just pass the ammunition
This prisoner’s about to bust free from his chains
Elsewhere, Champlin and Scheff toy with a sort of quasi-soul fusion on “Mah Jongg,” Lamm raps on “Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed Again,” and Bailey dives into wholesale lyrical surrealism on “Get On This”; the band leaves room, however, for a few token concessions to commercial considerations, including the divorce ballad “Here With Me” and Scheff’s pro-abstinence “Let’s Take A Lifetime.” It was, seemingly, the best of both worlds — a little of the old experimentalism, a lot of the old horns, and a couple bones for the Top 40 playlists. But Warner Bros. didn’t agree — in fact, after Sisyphus was submitted, the label rejected it and removed it from the release schedule. Chicago responded by asking to be let out of its contract, a request the label was only too happy to oblige.
For a time, it appeared as though Chicago might try to find a new label for Sisyphus, and throughout 1994, bootleg tapes circulated among eager fans. But the album’s strange saga took another bizarre twist when Dawayne Bailey — whose relationship with the daughter of bandmate Walter Parazaider had come to an end — was abruptly fired. Since Bailey had written two of the album’s songs, including its title track, releasing it without him wasn’t as cut-and-dried as simply replacing his tracks. Ultimately, the band decided to scrap Sisyphus altogether, opting instead to record an album of big band tunes in 1995 before entering into a decade of endless tours and compilations. The band’s fans — those that remain — have largely given up waiting for a creative rebirth. Though this year promises the release of Chicago XXX (a ridiculous title, given that the band’s last studio album of original material was 1991’s Twenty 1), it seems likely that the album will be more of a calculated bid for attention than a true artistic renewal. And Sisyphus, meanwhile, looks as though it will never be released. Here it is, then, the final glorious burst of strange, messy creativity from Chicago, presented complete for your downloading pleasure. Let me know what you think, and we’ll get back to our regular Complete Idiot’s schedule next Tuesday!