Fuzzy memory insists that the first wave of Chicago’s offerings, the batch featuring the unmistakable Terry Kath, was always a beloved golden period and it was only in later years that they were shown disrespect for weak material. Not true. In fact, the band has almost always been a critic’s punching bag, and one could say that the critics weren’t always wrong. Many balked at their fourth offering, Chicago At Carnegie Hall, as a huge overreach. Members of the band themselves complained that the recording sounded thin and poorly recorded. The reviewers mostly comprised the sort of “who do they think they are” attitudes, deriding the group’s long-form tracks and song cycles. This is largely because of a misunderstanding about what Chicago was at that time. Sure, they had hits like “25 or 6 to 4,” “Colour My World,” “Make Me Smile,” and more but the average purchaser of those records would likely be taken aback by what they’d find — a rhythm and blues/jazz-influenced progressive rock group.
By 1973, they had backtracked a bit. The hits were actually working. The big ideas and conceptual stuff, not so much. Chicago VI represents more clearly the direction they would take in the future. Girded by two major singles, “Just You ‘n Me” and “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” there was probably a determination this would be a make-or-break moment. It certainly put Peter Cetera front and center as the lead vocalist, at least in the public perception. You wouldn’t hear Kath’s deep, Ray Charles-like voice on an official single, and maybe you would get Robert Lamm (as on “Harry Truman” two albums later), but Number Six was in most respects a pop record album.
The next release would be another expansive double-disc, it would weigh heavily on instrumentals, only produce one hit track, and would cause the band to again position a retreat. Number Eight (cardinal patch) was a single disc, with the huge track “Old Days,” that placed the band strategically into one of their most successful phases and would eventually deliver a gorgeous yet altogether mellow “If You Leave Me Now.” Before long, they were working with David Foster and becoming a cornerstone of the Adult Contemporary sound, and hardly like a Memphis-influenced prog band, jazz-fusion band, or whatever other hybrid they were taking stick for being.
But that was future stuff. In the moment, the band had to deal with the junk they were taking from their detractors, and thus this album opens with “Critic’s Choice” and the first words, “What do you want? What do you want?” Understandably the band was talking out — pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, and really before the unprecedented open forum celebrity now affords — through the only means they had true control over, being their music. One has to doubt it held much sway over the subjects’ opinions when you scan the rest of the lyrics:
What do you need? What do you need?
Is it someone just to hurt
So that you can appear to be smart
And keep a steady job
Play god, play god
What do you really know
You parasite You’re dynamite An oversight
Misunderstanding what you hear
It is difficult to equate bad reviews, even scathing reviews, as “playing god,” and the tune itself has no bite. It is a piano ballad, so the track shoots itself in the figurative foot. Chicago was never going to be a critical darling anyway. In this time period there were two other horns-infused bands, one on the way out and one on the way in, and both worked the fusion angle hard. Blood, Sweat, And Tears had become a revolving door of membership. Earth, Wind and Fire would somehow make the connection between soul, jazz, and pop so seamlessly, they would be able to fall into the disco era without the negative connotations their peers would be inflicted with. In the middle ground stood Chicago, studiously plugging away. (This is not to ignore Tower Of Power, but in terms of hit singles, TOP wasn’t garnering the same leverage as the the previously mentioned examples.)
But don’t feel too sorry for them, even if that is the goal of “Critic’s Choice.” Along with the two singles, Chicago VI has some of the band’s great, unsung moments like the grooving “Darling Dear,” which suits Robert Lamm a lot better than the former example; Kath’s affecting “Jenny”; and plenty of other examples. Though uneven, there is plenty to appreciate on the record.
And one could also say that the band, as a brand, has done much, much better than those critics of old, whoever they may have been. Of the three bands mentioned in this piece, I’d dare say you’re likely to hear a Chicago slightly more readily than an Earth, Wind and Fire track, and much more often than Blood, Sweat And Tears. I’m disappointed by what has come of the band in the past couple decades: the endless stream of Christmas albums not withstanding, the adventurous spirit seemed to have totally dried up by the mid-’80s and, worse, the remaining members seemed fine with it. It was like Terry Kath was the keeper of the flame, and when he died it gave Chicago license to go full-on commercial.
Bill Champlin joined the band and had some successes. According to several accounts from Champlin, he was never made to feel a part of the band and their efforts were rife with compromise. Cetera left, and Champlin much later followed. The sound grew synthetic and cold. Hits like “You Come To My Senses” took milquetoast to a whole new degree of sogginess. Even in the moments of their most self-doubt, often heard on their sixth album, it didn’t get this formulaic. On that they sounded like they wanted popularity and critical acclaim at the same time, but not like they were “selling out” to achieve it.
As we’ve seen in the years 2011/early-2013, it is never too late to do something new and worthwhile. Bands and artists that frankly I’d given up hope for have managed honorable returns if not to full-blown former glories. We know what is required of a successful Chicago record: instrumental prowess that isn’t afraid of getting poppy at times; a ballad, but only one or two; big, booming horns; a groove like that which underpins “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day”; razor-sharp vocal harmonies; and a go-for-broke decision despite that it isn’t going to sell many copies. That’s just how it works when your lifetime fanbase is — let’s just say it — dying off. Most of all, the band needs to get in touch with soul. Having a Memphis-style horn section doesn’t automatically confer upon you “soul.” At their best, beyond the flute-led love songs, the dirty-bass rockers, and the string section padding the tune, Chicago had soul.
So it was with a small dose of delight and hopefulness (and a huge pinch of salt for us cynics) that in April of this very year Robert Lamm was releasing tracks through Soundcloud intimating that the band was determined to release another brand-new studio record (discounting their covers and Christmas offerings, this would be the first since 2006). If that is the case and the group has the courage to make one “like they used to,” then hopefully this story yet has a happy ending to it. It would be a shame to cap the legacy with another stab at the Christmas canon.