chicago-band[Jefito’s Note: So it’s come to this. For as long as I’ve been writing Idiot’s Guides (and/or hosting them – I realize it’s been awhile since I’ve actually had to do one of these things myself), the shadow of a Complete Idiot’s Guide to Chicago has loomed large. This is a function of both time (I was a wee, Top 40-listening Jefito when Chicagos 16 and 17 were all the rage) and questionable taste (I was also rocking to Chicagos V through X during the same timeframe). I saw the band in concert no less than three times from 1988-89. I owned 18 and 19 (not to mention Peter Cetera’s first two post-Chicago solo albums) on vinyl. Yes indeed, I was a hardcore Chicago fan.

But things changed. After the cynical misfire of 1991’s Twenty 1 and stillbirth of its intended followup, the lost and lamented Stone of Sisyphus, Chicago dove full-bore into the casinos-and-state-fairs circuit, and though they still pay lip service to the bona fide creativity that bought their homes and pays their alimonies, it evaporated long ago. Being that I’m really not a huge fan of the jammy earlier stuff, have long since ceased to defend the content of those platinum ’80s albums, and no longer believe the band is capable of getting far enough up off its duff to fulfill its remaining promise, well, I decided awhile back that I’m probably not the guy to write a Chicago Guide.

But look who is: It’s the talented and punctual reader harmolodic, who has agreed to scale the heights and plumb the depths of a nearly 40-year career. Regardless of how you feel about the band, you should be entertained over the course of his three-part Guide:and maybe you’ll learn a few things about a band people started writing off before you were probably even born. Give harmolodic a hand!]

In the world of rock bands named after geographical locations, there’s only one that can claim to have its songs intermingled with selections from an identically titled musical-turned-hit movie inside your local karaoke bar’s song book. Adding to the confusion is the fact that this band has employed, over the years, no less than 6 lead singers, not counting occasional peeps from hired hands and a couple of horn players. Such is Chicago, the self-proclaimed “rock n’ roll band with horns.”

In the more than 40 years the band has been together, they’ve managed to score almost as many top 40 hits, the majority of which are still heard on the airwaves today and in Chicago’s live concerts. Not bad for a band whose most recognizable face has been out of the band for more than half its life.

That life started in its namesake city in February, 1967, when Jimmy Pankow (trombone), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), Danny Seraphine (drums), Terry Kath (guitar), and Robert Lamm (keyboards) met in the apartment of Walt Parazaider (woodwinds). God pointed his finger down upon them and said, “make some noise!” The Big Thing, soon to be the Chicago Transit Authority, soon to be Chicago, was born. Add one blond, tenor-voiced bass player named Peter Cetera, and you’ve got your classic lineup of the band that would dominate AM radio throughout the 1970s and rule the Billboard charts with a series of albums bearing Roman numerals for titles. And of course, the logo the band adopted would emerge as their most recognizable visual, becoming an American icon on the level of Coca Cola, Hershey and Disney.

Over the years, these guys have been accused of everything from selling out, to making music for the lowest common denominator, to being wimpy, and just plain not being very cool or hip or what have you. Same goes for the Beach Boys, before everyone finally discovered how incredible Pet Sounds was. And since Chicago never made that one record everyone could agree was great from beginning to end, and since they had so many assembly-line, sappy, substance-free hits after their golden period was over, they have not received the same due as their two-time touring partners from Hawthorne, California. Taken together, their catalog is fascinating, frustrating, brilliant and awful all at once. Just like the Beach Boys, eh? Read on and judge for yourself.

chicago transit authorityChicago Transit Authority (1969)

Like many big hitmakers before and since, Chicago’s roots were with the college crowd, or the 1960s equivalent of the “alternative” scene. With the help of their buddy and producer, Jimmy Guercio, Chicago was able to take their hard work ethic out of the windy city and over to Columbia Records’ New York studios for recording sessions that resulted in a debut double LP. It was still kind of a big deal at that time for a new band to start out with a double album, even though the Mothers of Invention had done it already with Freak Out! The Beatles, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix had also released double albums by then, though they were already established stars.

So did these guys think they were the Beatles with horns, or what? Well, they certainly were fans, and even quoted the opening lyric from “I Am The Walrus” in “South California Purples.” I’ve always wondered where the idea came from to call this mutated blues jam “Purples.” My theory is that it’s the color of L.A.’s smog when one is tripping on acid.

Chicago Transit Authority was indeed a bold debut – not so much because it was a double LP, nor because Terry Kath’s “Free Form Guitar” was 6 minutes of loud noodling and feedback that set the stage for Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Rather, it was because Robert Lamm wrote a killer bunch of tunes for these bad-ass musicians to play. “Beginnings,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Questions 67 & 68,” the aforementioned “Purples” – all stone cold classics. But even better is Kath’s writing contribution. Though its title is about as imaginative as, well, their album titles, “Introduction” makes a great case for letting the music do the talking. Everything you need to know and would care to love about Chicago is wrapped up in this 6-and-a-half minute mission statement/showboat of a song. The blazing horns, tricky rhythms, schmaltzy balladry, psychedelic guitar solo and gutsy vocals are all there. You could stop the album after that first song and be able to say “yeah, I know Chicago.” But as we’d come to realize over the years, these guys just love to keep going, and going, and going…

chicago 2Chicago II (1970)

The first album fared reasonably well, after chopping their name down to just Chicago, but this second effort was where the big time success really began. FM radio loved the first release, with all its long-form tunes and endless solos, but AM radio was where the hit potential was, and as Columbia was eager to make some money off this band, they decided to chop a couple of pieces out of Jimmy Pankow’s “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon” and turn them into two sides of a 45 RPM single. The single’s A-side, “Make Me Smile,” became Chicago’s first big hit single. The other side, “Colour My World,” has probably soundtracked more than a handful of weddings in its time.

Meanwhile, album buyers got an even greater treat. Terry Kath wrote and sang one of the best songs to ever grace a Chicago album, the lovely “In The Country.” And the long forms displayed on the first album got even longer. The “Ballet” and Lamm’s anti-war rant “It Better End Soon” both ran over 10 minutes, while Kath’s maudlin “Memories Of Love” featured an orchestrated three-part intro. “Fancy Colours” was inspired by an acid trip, and utilized wind chimes as an intro a good four years before the Doobie Brothers put out “Black Water.” They had collectively stepped beyond the “rock n’ roll band with horns” description into prog rock, though they wouldn’t stay there long. The shorter material, like the extracted singles and Lamm’s “Wake Up Sunshine,” were a closer indication of where this ambitious band was heading. And again, they produced another stone cold classic in “25 or 6 to 4,” perhaps the greatest rock song about trying to write a song.

chicago 3Chicago III (1971)

Maybe this record happened too soon after the first two, but when you’re under the gun, you do what you gotta do.

From a pop standpoint, the third Chicago album lacks the monster hooks and memorable songs that dominate the first two albums. The good news is, these guys were an imaginative bunch when they were young and ambitious. Meaning, we get to hear another side-long multi-part suite jammed with the most far-out ideas Chicago would ever commit to wax. Exhibit A: “When All The Laughter Dies In Sorrow,” a Kendrew Lascilles poem recited by Robert Lamm, which sets up the mood for the remainder of the all-instrumental “Elegy” – presumably for our mother Earth. This was, again, a Pankow composition. Lamm contributed his own lament for the planet, which again, very imaginatively, is titled “Mother.” Industrialization and pollution are bad! Bad! But avant garde, improvised polyphonic horn interludes are good, very good.

Elsewhere, a suite of songs about life on the road find the band pretending to be Crosby, Stills & Nash (“Flight 602”) while also venturing into avant garde territory yet again with a flute-piano duet titled “Free Country.” While “Mother” and “Elegy” were thoroughly worked out pieces, “Free Country” clearly is not. Neither is the pleasant enough but seemingly pointless “Happy ‘Cause I’m Going Home” (sample lyrics: “la da da da da da da / da da da da da da”). Even the opener, “Sing A Mean Tune Kid,” sounds like a work in progress.

Elsewhere, Terry Kath sings Lamm’s jazzy “Loneliness Is Just A Word” and injects the third record with a strong dose of all-too-human personality with his song of longing from the road, “An Hour In The Shower.” It’s perhaps the first rock song to reference a vibrator (“Just reach underneath your bed / And turn on your electric friend / And turn your thoughts to me”), and arrived about a year before Walter Becker and Donald Fagen would name their band after a dildo.

Nevertheless, Chicago was hot, and III was a hit. “Free” and “Lowdown” were also top 40 singles. And did I mention that III was the band’s third double album in a row? It would also be its last for a few years.

chicago at carnegie hallChicago At Carnegie Hall, Volumes I, II, III & IV (1971)

Critics have always had harsh words for Chicago, and a lot of that bad blood dripped heavily over this mammoth set. Keep in mind, this was long before compact discs effectively extended the time limit one associated with an “album,” and before multi-disc box sets and live bootlegs became all the rage in the ’90s.

In 1971, four vinyl records of live Chicago was A LOT of Chicago.

Nowadays, a set like this is a treasure trove. And though I’ll freely admit that this is my “desert island” Chicago collection, it’s certainly not without flaws. For one, Danny Seraphine seems to drag “In The Country” down a bit, and the horns don’t sound too hot on that song either.

On the other hand, Terry Kath has brilliant guitar solos all over the place. “South California Purples” and “Sing A Mean Tune Kid” both edge close to 15 minutes with Kath’s extended workouts, as he carried on in the shadow of the departed Jimi Hendrix, never to receive the accolades he deserved.

The most noteworthy aspect of this behemoth is the inclusion of “A Song For Richard And His Friends,” which Chicago never formally recorded in the studio (although an instrumental ‘rehearsal’ version eventually surfaced on Rhino’s re-release of Chicago V). It’s impossible to imagine these days, but Chicago at one time did have a political conscience. Back in the day, they weren’t just speaking out against the Vietnam War with “It Better End Soon,” they also were openly calling for Richard Nixon’s resignation with “A Song For Richard.” Musically, the song is filled with rage. The horns stomp and sulk, while Kath finds the perfect use for his “Free Form Guitar” antics in the context of an actual song. Lamm cooks the administration, and if one were to simply change the title of the song, it could easily be adopted by anyone who opposes any sitting president:

If you will think now, then you will see
How you can change things

People are waiting, turning away
Tired of killing

Hey now
Will you go away
We’re so tired
Of things that you say

Even though you never said word that would help anyone but yourself
Tomorrow is such a bad dream
Oh, bad dream

If you stay now,
It will only get worse
Let us pray now
‘Cause the truth really hurts

After the events of today with your brothers and sisters dead and dying
Tomorrow is such a bad dream
Yeah, Such a bad dream

Please be gone
Go away and leave us alone
Brain police
Go away and leave us in peace

Please be gone
Go away and leave us alone
Brain police
Go away and leave us in peace

Will you go now
Will you take all your friends
Whoa now, If you’d stood like a man
Even though I know that you cannot be blamed all alone for the sadness
you’ve caused
Tomorrow is such a bad dream
Yeah, such a bad dream
Oh yeah, such a bad dream
Dig it

If you will think now then you will see
How we can change things
People are waiting, turning away
Tired of killing

Chicago V album coverChicago V (1972)

How do you follow three double albums and one quadruple live album? Why, with a regular, everyday average single album, that’s how! The woodgrain take on the band’s iconic logo is boring as fuck, but the music was and is pretty great. In particular, “A Hit By Varese” likely exposed a million or two people to Edgard Varese’s surname for the very first time, while finding room to fit interweaving sax, ‘bone and trumpet solos with superhuman guitar work and lyrics that bemoaned the state of popular music at the time. Again, one could easily take these lyrics and apply them to today:

Please won’t you sing me
A thing that will bring me right into the sky
If you would play it
Just lay it down, say, it will help me get by

Something to move me
Remove me and grove me, you want to know why?
I’m so tired of oldiess
And moldies and goldies, that I want to cry

Can you play free
Or in three or agree to attempt something new
The people they need you
A seed that will lead to a hit by Varese

That was Robert Lamm again, on a roll that seemed unstoppable at the time. Seven of the album’s nine songs were his, including the two hit singles “Dialogue” and “Saturday In The Park.” The former took a wry look at the apathetic mindset permeating college campuses (“I also hope to keep a steady high” was a rather clever lyric), with Terry Kath singing the ‘concerned citizen’ lyrics and Peter Cetera responding as the ‘blissfully ignorant student.’ “Saturday In The Park” fared much better on the charts. Lamm’s sunny pop song, inspired by a 4th of July stroll through Central Park, made the top 5, and is still a staple of Chicago’s annual summer tours.

Elsewhere on numero cinco, Lamm’s social and political consciousness drove bitter songs like “State Of The Union” and “While The City Sleeps,” with his compositional style at a peak. The former was based on an actual occurrence at a Chicago concert, where Lamm was apprehended by police for uttering an obscenity from the stage.

Lamm found a way to make room for concise, hooky lyrics and for band members to stretch out and be heard. Jimmy Pankow’s horn arrangements were front-and-center, Terry Kath’s guitar was on fire, Cetera’s McCartney-inspired bass lines were hard to ignore, and Danny Seraphine was both keeping time and freely commenting like a jazz drummer. This, my friends, is the Chicago that should have always been.

chicago viChicago VI (1973)

After four studio albums recorded at Columbia’s New York studios, the band headed to the Rockies for their next five studio records. Producer Jimmy Guercio set up his Caribou Ranch in Nederland, Colorado, so Chicago dutifully followed him to the cold and snowy locale.

Whether it was adjusting to a higher altitude, artificially flying a little too high, or just the effects of cold weather, something about this move clearly changed Chicago. Oh, the hits kept on coming, all right. VI bore two more of those – the monster ballad and Walt Parazaider showcase “Just You N’ Me,” and “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday,” which can easily be heard as the blueprint for the arena rock of Journey, Foreigner and Boston. But suddenly, the fiery interplay and ambitious compositions of previous albums were gone, to return only sparingly.

Clearly, Lamm had been reading too many bad reviews in the press, and had been taking them personally. So much so, he wrote a song called “Critics’ Choice,” which he sings accompanied only by his piano, in defense of the band to which he was and remains fiercely loyal:

What do you want
What do you want
I’m givin’ everything I have
I’m even trying to see if there’s more
Locked deep inside
I’ll try
I’ll try
Can’t you see, this is me

What do you need
What do you need
Is it someone just to hurt
So that you can appear to be smart
And use a steady job
Play God
Play God
What do you really know
You parasite
You’re dynamite
An oversight
Misunderstanding what you hear
You’re quick to cheer
And volunteer
Absurdities, musical blasphemies
Oh Lord
Save us all

What do you want
What do you want
I’m givin’ every thing I have
I’m even trying to see if there’s more
Locked deep inside
I’ll try
I’ll try
Can’t you see, this is me

Lamm was still the majority songwriter, but now it was only a simple majority. Not only that, the best songs were Pankow’s. The two aforementioned hits were from Pankow’s pen, featuring the voice of Cetera (who gets a co-writing credit on “Feelin’ Stronger”), as is the funky “What’s This World Coming To.” They really tear it up on “World,” and the three-way tag team vocals add some excitement, but clearly, the socially conscious lyrics were best left in Lamm’s care. Case in point: “rich folks spend their time just counting money / poor folks really ain’t got much to say.” Maybe because their mouths are too busy eating cake?

Kath, meanwhile, helped elevate Lamm’s “Darlin’ Dear” to something of a majestic blues romp with his smooth and assured slide guitar playing. And Kath’s “Jenny” finds him sounding less like Hendrix and more like Clapton as he sings to his dog, without even the slightest hint of irony, asking her to look after his woman while he’s on the road. If she could understand what he was singing, she might have wondered exactly what his intent was in admonishing, “there’s always someone waiting just to shit on you.”

To really underscore the fact that Chicago’s direction had changed in a big way, the album art provides the most perfect metaphor. If you have an original vinyl copy, you can feel how ornate the cover’s texture is, and just looking at it, be it LP or CD, any American would know that visual style. Stumped? Open up your wallet or your purse, and pull out a dollar bill. A ha!

chicago 7Chicago VII (1974)

The softer, less sparky vibe characterized by Chicago’s new recording environment ventured straight into easy listening territory with the seventh album. Fortunately, this doesn’t turn out to be a terribly bad thing at all.

Initially, VII was supposed to be a jazz album. Given the the group’s ability, this should have been a no-brainer. However, lack of agreement within the band forced a compromise. The risk of releasing a jazz record would be reduced with a number of standard pop songs, in what was fast becoming classic Chicago fashion. This resulted in, ironically, their first double album since III.

The jazz sides are actually quite credible performances. They just sound like typical mid-’70s pop productions, rather than 1940s bebop throwbacks or 1960s Blue Note sessions. Lamm plays his electric piano throughout, lending “Aire” an almost proto-smooth-jazz feel, and the electronic blips and bleeps in “Italian From New York” are just plain weird. Danny Seraphine, meanwhile, sounds even more at home switching up rhythms and tempi in “Devil’s Sweet,” and swingin’ hard in the brisk “Hanky Panky.”

The pop sides actually start midway through side 2. “Hanky Panky” segues into Lamm’s cheery “Lifesaver,” making the transition from jazz to pop virtually painless.

Again, we don’t hear as much from Lamm on VII as on the first four studio albums, but it wasn’t for lack of prolificacy. The same year VII was released, Lamm dropped his first solo album, Skinny Boy, the title track of which was also the closer on VII – the only difference in the two recordings being the presence of horns and no fade on the Chicago version.

Lamm’s songs were moving further away from what was typical of mainstream pop – he was writing less hook-laden pop material, and fewer shout-along choruses. But those in the band who were writing what was selling, namely Jimmy Pankow and Peter Cetera, placed enough hits on VII to continue Chicago’s 1970s reign of the pop charts. “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long,” Pankow’s string-laden ode to self-realization, scaled the charts, as did Cetera’s dreamy “Wishing You Were Here,” a song which fulfilled his dream of being a Beach Boy by featuring Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson and Al Jardine on background vocals.

These hit songs, along with Lee Loughnane’s “Call On Me,” had this in common: all were huge hits, all were defining moments for ‘easy listening’ or ‘soft rock,’ and all featured Peter Cetera on lead vocals. The band that once had credibility with FM radio and the college crowd, played the Fillmore and toured with Jimi Hendrix, had crossed over to the same crowd that was buying records by Barry Manilow and Anne Murray. It didn’t matter that Terry Kath wrote an engaging folk-rock story in “Byblos” or had perfectly evoked the spirit of winter in “Song Of The Evergreens.” Chicago were officially typecast by this point.

chicago 8Chicago VIII (1975)

Chicago rocks out a little bit more with their eighth album, though the songs were among the weakest they had released by this point. Pankow again provided the album with a selling point as Peter Cetera sang his way through the corny “Old Days.” All elements of rock in this song are negated by the fact that Cetera is singing about “drive-in movies, comic books and blue jeans, Howdy Doody,” etc. It’s almost like “We Didn’t Start The Fire” for ’50s nostalgia buffs, only with less listing and more reminiscing. And this was the album’s biggest hit!

Lamm did manage to turn in another relatively popular 45 with “Harry Truman,” but who was the idiot that decided to release this single in Japan? Surely the Japanese would appreciate a single record wishing that the man who dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would return to fix up America, right? I mean, sure, the song is pretty goofy and the little “son of a bitch!” exclamation heard during the instrumental break makes it clear that it’s not necessarily the most serious statement the band had made, but come on!

The saddest fate of VIII was the failure of Pankow’s “Brand New Love Affair” to break the top 40. This is one of the songs that earned Terry Kath the proud moniker “the white Ray Charles.”

If only one type of listener truly must own VIII, however, it’s the guitar fan. Kath turns in one of his most heartfelt Hendrix-inspired songs ever with “Oh, Thank You Great Spirit.” He captures the spacey vibe of the best moments on Electric Ladyland, and solos passionately throughout what was to be the last ‘jam’ one would hear on a Chicago album for way too long.

But again, with the hits on VII not too far behind and with the nostalgia of “Old Days” up front in the public ear, who was really paying attention to Terry Kath anymore?

chicago 9Chicago IX: Greatest Hits (1975)

Chicago “cheats” its fabled numbering system for the first time with this best-seller. For many folks out there, myself included, this was their first Chicago album. And really, it’s a fine collection of the band’s early mega-hits. But even though the band’s career would more clearly hit a dividing line in the ’80s, even at this point there was a clear divide in its music. Side One was primarily the ‘pop-rock’ side, containing mostly uptempo numbers like “25 or 6 to 4,” “Saturday In The Park” and “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday.” Side Two, for the most part, gives us ‘easy listening’ Chicago, with the three hits from VII weighing down the middle, and closing with “Beginnings.” It bought them some time and gave them something else to promote while touring the country with the Beach Boys, who had recently had a career resurgence thanks also to a greatest hits album.

chicago 10Chicago X (1976)

The easy listening direction that was slowly creeping into Chicago’s work was kept in check for the tenth album, but you wouldn’t know it from the singles. Peter Cetera became the all-time king of soft rock with “If You Leave Me Now,” which was the band’s first number one hit single, and the other top 40 hit, “Another Rainy Day In New York City,” found Cetera making more palatable the odd Caribbean feel of a New York-themed song. Huh? And then there was “You Are On My Mind,” which has a pleasant, enjoyably jazzy groove, but did the few that heard it on the air recognize it as Chicago? Jimmy Pankow sang the tune with a breathy delivery, but by this time, Cetera was the voice of Chicago. The logo could only support so many distinct qualities.

But fun, buoyant rock and soul makes X one of Chicago’s best overall ‘pop’ albums. Terry Kath does his best Otis Redding on “Once Or Twice” and the bari voices sing in unison on “You Get It Up,” which holds the distinction of being the only song in the Chicago discography to overtly refer to male sexual arousal. Even Cetera gets into the party groove on “Skin Tight.” He kinda ruins it later, though, with “Mama Mama,” which couldn’t scream “1970s schlock” any louder if it tried.

And that’s kind of the story of Chicago from here on out – for every “Once Or Twice” there’s an “If You Leave Me Now.” [Or two or three – Ed.] The latter gets single status, becomes a hit, and defines the band’s sound in the ears of the public. Granted, there are plenty of ‘guilty pleasure’ moments to be found on almost every Chicago album, but with the competing musical personalities inherent in their releases as their success grew, the worth of trawling through their catalog post-1977 for some musical salvation becomes more and more questionable. Thank goodness for these guides, right?

chicago 11Chicago XI (1977)

This one should have turned out a lot better than it did. Peter Cetera has only one vocal contribution on the whole platter, on his obvious follow-up to “If You Leave Me Now.” “Baby What A Big Surprise” went top ten, so it fell short of its predecessor’s success. But it’s still a better record. He goes for a Beatles kind of sound, with a strings-and-horns arrangement clearly inspired by George Martin’s work on “Penny Lane.”

So what happened with the rest of the record? Terry Kath can’t be blamed, that’s for sure. He carries the whole affair with the excellent “Mississippi Delta City Blues” (collector’s note: this song was being performed in concert as early as 1972, and appeared on the live album issued in Japan documenting their shows there in support of Chicago V) and “Takin’ It On Uptown.” The latter especially holds a dear place in my heart. As a little tyke, I used to play the BWABS 45 on my Fisher Price record player, but I preferred hearing “Uptown” on the b-side for the funny guitar sounds Kath inserted at the beginning. His guitar almost sounds like it’s laughing. It’s another Hendrixian moment; sadly, it would be the last such moment to ever grace a Chicago album.

Kath also saves a merely OK song written and sung by Lee Loughnane, called “This Time,” with an awesome backwards guitar solo. Such a thing became a clichÁ© of ’60s psychedelic music very quickly, but in this instance, it served as a breath of fresh air.

Kath closes the record singing “Little One,” the first in a series of songs drummer Danny Seraphine would write with David “Hawk” Wolinski of Rufus fame. Kath’s delivery is passionate enough to convince the listener that it could have been his own song. It was a welcome relief from the ultra goofy “Vote For Me,” in which Robert Lamm took “Harry Truman” to its logical extreme (though in defense of “Vote,” the candidate illustrated in its lyrics is so utopian that this humorous ditty will sadly remain relevant forever, most likely). And then Pankow’s plodding vocalizing on “Till The End Of Time” came off like Joe Cocker with emphysema; fortunately, this would be the last time Pank would hog the mic.

Sadly, XI marked Terry Kath’s last appearance on a Chicago album. In January of 1978, Kath accidentally shot himself in the head in the presence of a band roadie. The stories surrounding this tragedy are varied, but a few things are for certain – Kath was not the happiest camper at this time in his life, he had a substance abuse problem, and he had a dangerous fascination with firearms. Whether he intended to end his life or not, the ingredients for an early death were in place. It was only a matter of time.

chicago - hot streetsHot Streets (1978)

Just before Terry Kath’s tragic death, Chicago also fired their longtime producer Jimmy Guercio. He had helped the band get their record deal and was crucial to their early development, but they had been hungry for a change. With both Kath and Guercio out of the picture, Chicago got far more change than they bargained for, and not all of it good. Hot Streets allowed them to at least have one last taste of success for a while, and a needed boost in the face of a devastating loss.

The new guy who took over on guitar didn’t last long, but not for lack of talent. Donnie Dacus had spent the previous few years working with Stephen Stills, playing an integral role in the making of Stills’ first two Columbia albums. Dacus had also starred in the musical Hair.’ It would be Dacus’ personality that cost him the gig little more than a year later, but for now, he was the right guy at the right time.

Phil Ramone got the job of producer, hot from his multi-platinum success with Billy Joel’s ”The Stranger.” What resulted for Chicago was a platinum album that yielded a couple of hits in ”Alive Again” and ”No Tell Lover,” and the establishment of Peter Cetera as the group’s primary vocalist — he is the lead singer on half of the album’s songs.

Hot Streets also marked the beginning of Chicago’s habit of recording songs about love, relationships, lusting after 16-year-olds… OK, so ”Little Miss Lovin’” is an anomaly (”sweet sixteen, mighty fine in your tight blue jeans”), but the Seraphine/Wolinski ballad ”The Greatest Love On Earth” is the sort of fairy tale romance narrative that Cetera would eagerly duplicate in his solo career. ”Gone Long Gone” is the most pleasant of the lovey-dovey bunch (albeit of the “she left me” variety) with its Eagles meets the Beach Boys arrangement, canceling out Lamm’s atypically nostalgic ”Love Was New” and the heavy-handed gambling metaphor in ”Take A Chance.” The latter is somewhat saved by Dacus’ hot licks’ in the outro.

And while Dacus also lends some rockin’ optimism with ”Ain’t It Time,” leave it to Robert Lamm to contribute the album’s best track. ”Hot Streets” has some of what Chicago had been missing for years — a tricky time signature, solo spots for flute, horns and guitar, and a structure that paid little heed to the pop conventions of the day. It sounds real.

But Chicago was still missing that heavy baritone voice. Dacus was another tenor, and though he did blend well with Cetera, this version of Chicago lacked balls.

chicago 13Chicago 13 (1979)

All Chicago albums up to this point had their share of great moments and not-so-great moments, with the ratios varying from album to album. This album, however, pretty much sucks throughout.

There is a hipness factor to the 13th logo exercise, believe it or not. In 1979, it was unimaginable that any part of this album would ever be hip. The 12″ single of the disco tune ”Street Player” was among the records burned at a ”disco sucks” rally at, of all places, Comiskey Park in Chicago. Yet, in the early 90s, an electronica group called the Bucketheads revived the Seraphine/Wolinski-penned, Cetera sung disco track as a sample for an underground hit called ”The Bomb.” Go figure.

The other single from the album, ”Must Have Been Crazy,” is an apt title. Dacus sings it and there are no horns present. There’s nothing remotely Chicago-sounding about it at all. It’s way more Texas than Chicago ever had been or would be.

The rest of the record is littered with half-baked ideas, like Lamm’s ”Paradise Alley,” which has promising verses that paint a vivid picture of a tightly knit family in a big-city neighborhood. Problem is, there’s no hook and the chorus is so melodically challenged, it borders on annoying. It doesn’t even have pretensions of being an art’ song. In spite of all that, Dacus sells it well with an enthusiastic vocal.

And then there’s PC Moblee. This was an alter-ego for Peter Cetera, in which he sang with a thick affectation that may or may not have been intended to make him sound more soulful.’ It’s so bad it should be funny, but it’s not even that. It’s just bad. It doesn’t help that ”Window Dreamin’” contains some of the worst lyrics in Chicago’s history, confirming that Walt Parazaider was wise to stick to just blowing his sax after this experiment. And a really spotty Cetera-sung, Seraphine/Wolinksi collaboration called ”Aloha Mama” comes mighty close to the new low set by ”Window.” It also makes me wonder, coming after 13’s second track (”Mama Take”) and the opener on side 2 of album X (”Mama Mama”) if Petey has some sort of oedipal complex. All these ”mama” songs sung in a sexual context (not to mention all the other songs he sings with ”mama” in the lyrics) start to sound creepy after a while.

The album only was certified gold, and was the worst selling Chicago album at the time, making Cetera’s atypically downbeat ”Loser With A Broken Heart” a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, they’d do even worse later on with better material, like the fourteenth album…

chicago 14Chicago XIV (1980)

Here’s where I’m really likely to run into trouble. I actually like this album quite a lot. It’s commonly referred to as one of Chicago’s worst albums, if not THE worst. And I can sorta hear why some might characterize it that way — the sound is flat, the music seems to trudge along at times, side 1 is loaded with too many slow songs, and none of these songs were big hits. XIV is the red-headed step-child of the Chicago catalog for these reasons. You won’t catch anyone calling this record classic,’ even though the sticker Rhino affixed to their CD reissue claims as much.

Still, Tom Dowd did the best he could with these guys. Yup, they ditched Phil Ramone after lucky 13 failed to set the world afire, and Donnie Dacus had also gotten the boot. In Don’s place on guitar was Chris Pinnick, a guy who could REALLY play, but alas, could not sing. Meaning Peter and Robert are the sole vocalists here.

And that’s fine, because the few songs Robert sings are truly inspired. They’re the types of songs that you end up hearing a disillusioned band singing when their fortunes take a turn for the worst. ”Manipulation” has a telling enough title, and a powerful opening line: ”Thought you had me in your pocket / But I never could be bought.” Not sure exactly what Lamm’s ranting about here, but one thing’s for certain — he’s a good, classy ranter. ”I’d Rather Be Rich” takes the same idea into sardonic territory, with some hearty truths’ like ”money gets you justice / money sets you free / money makes it possible to be or not to be.” It’s true, just ask OJ Simpson or Robert Blake.

Jimmy Pankow gives the band his last halfway decent song with ”The American Dream,” where he attacks the White House and Capitol Hill through the voice of Peter Cetera, asking rhetorically, ”who gives a damn what we need?”

And the two obligatory 45s pulled from the album? Neither did much on the charts. ”Thunder and Lightning” was a fine pop song that used a deteriorating romantic relationship as a metaphor for the band’s situation with Columbia, and lo and behold, actually featured a trombone solo in the fade — Chicago’s first since album VII. And ”Song For You” was typical of most of Peter Cetera’s material — it was, of course, a sappy love song. The only thing atypical about this single was that it didn’t become a huge hit, perhaps because he sounds like he’s yawning his way through the verses.

But at least, on the whole, XIV saw Chicago sounding like an actual rock band again.

chicago 15Greatest Hits Vol. II (1981)

The fifteenth album was this shoddy hits’ collection, in which every song except ”Take Me Back To Chicago” is sung by Peter Cetera, thus giving the impression that Chicago is nothing more than a soft rock hit machine. Not only that, ”Questions 67 & 68″ is presented in its inferior single edit (the second verse is completely removed) and ”Dialogue” is missing its first part. If that point seems trivial, consider this: part one of the song is where the actual dialogue’ takes place between Peter Cetera and Terry Kath. Part two is all chanting: ”we can make it happen / we can change the world now / we can save the children” etc. This sorry product’ is out of print, and I’d be surprised if anyone’s going to complain about it. The only bad thing about this album being out of print is that the official number 15 in the Chicago catalog is now gone. Boo hoo!

chicago 16Chicago 16 (1982)

After the failure of XIV to return Chicago to hit-making status, they were let go by Columbia. Columbia’s loss would become Warner Bros.’ gain, once Danny Seraphine drafted Bill Champlin to become the band’s bluesy-soulful voice. Now they had someone to sing Terry Kath’s parts in concert.

Champlin’s musical history began and developed alongside Chicago’s, back in the late 1960s when he fronted a San Francisco Bay Area band called, curiously enough, the Sons of Champlin. The Sons’ debut album, Loosen Up Naturally, was released on the Capitol label in 1969, around the same time as Chicago’s first album. Like Chicago Transit Authority, Loosen Up Naturally was also a double album. And as side 4 of CTA concluded with a 14 minute jam called ”Liberation,” Loosen Up Naturally concluded with a 14 minute jam titled ”Freedom.” So as you can see, Champlin’s union with Chicago was destined to happen, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Champlin also was the catalyst for David Foster’s becoming the band’s new producer. Foster streamlined the band’s sound into something slicker than anything from the 70s — it was the sound of the 80s, a sound that only computers and super proficient studio players could create. So naturally, Foster brought in Steve Lukather, David Paich and Steve Porcaro from Toto to help out. Paich and Lukather even contributed ”Waiting For You To Decide” to the album. That song, like all the rest save three, had Foster’s name in the credits too. He got his hands on everything, and in the process, Chicago’s sound on vinyl became more studied and strict than anything they had done before.

This approach made ”Hard To Say I’m Sorry” and ”Love Me Tomorrow” big hits (the former was Chicago’s first number one single since ”If You Leave Me Now”), and tightened up the album tracks so they sounded as ready for radio as, well, the stray tracks on Toto IV. But songs like ”Chains,” with synthesizers playing horn parts, and ”Sonny Think Twice,” with Champlin singing almost like a hoarse Michael McDonald, didn’t end up sounding anything like Chicago. ”Follow Me” worked well, however, thanks to the horns being up front and integral to the overall sound, and Champlin’s vocal was the most soulful performance on a Chicago record since the days of Terry Kath.

Pretty much, 16 represented the beginning of Chicago as a classy, paint-by-numbers pop ensemble plus studio cats. It was a new band, a new approach, and Columbia was eating their heart out.

But wait… what the heck happened to Robert Lamm? He’s absent from the record, except for a co-writing credit on ”Get Away.” The once-dominant songwriting voice of the band completely slipped out of sight on this record due to personal problems, and didn’t have any vocal contributions. Strangely enough, his absence doesn’t hurt the record much, which is no knock on Robert.

chicago 17Chicago 17 (1984)

Well, the formula for the big comeback record was successful, so why not repeat it, only bigger and better? That’s essentially the guiding principle behind 17. That plus the idea of giving the majority of the space to Peter, since his songs were most likely to be hits. So 17 is kind of like Peter’s second solo album (his first was in ’81), featuring a few cameos from Robert Lamm, Bill Champlin and the Chicago horns. And let’s not forget Toto, Richard Marx and Donny Osmond!

You all know the monster singles… ”Hard Habit To Break,” ”You’re The Inspiration,” ”Along Comes A Woman,” ”Stay The Night”… they’ve got big production, big choruses you know by heart, and big “guilty pleasure” potential. More people probably enjoy these records than are willing to admit. Besides those defining hits of the 80s, Pete waxed melodramatic on ”Remember The Feeling,” a song every bit as sappy, syrupy, wussy, whatever your preferred adjective, as ”Hard Habit” and ”Inspiration.” And he went uptempo on ”Prima Donna.” And sang Pankow’s sing-songy ”Once In A Lifetime.” Which left three songs to be split between Bill and Robert. Bill was in the band two years and one could already be missing him at this point!

He was still there quite a bit, even if he was hard to hear, blending seamlessly with Robert Lamm on a slice of dance-pop called ”Only You” and getting his only turn this round at a full lead vocal on ”Please Hold On.” Lamm sort of returns to form on ”We Can Start The Hurtin’”, exhibiting his old hippie conscience as he addresses the issue of poverty over a brisk synth beat. For a brief moment, this type of song was resonating with the ’80s public, as the all-star ”We Are The World” charity single would prove a year later.

This was Chicago’s biggest selling original studio album ever, so the timing was perfect for Peter Cetera to finally break free of his longtime band and launch that solo career so many lead singers dream of. He went on to become a star in his own right with signature schmaltz like ”The Glory Of Love” and hit duets with Cher and Amy Grant, yet his association with Chicago in the mind of the public would never die.

Chicago, too, still had some hits left in them. They would emerge with a new lead singer not long after Van Halen would do the same.

chicago 18Chicago 18 (1986)

After the death of Terry Kath in 1978, Chicago had essentially become a vehicle for Peter Cetera. But with Pete having jumped ship in 1985, and with their soul sold to Warner Bros. and David Foster, they could keep going and not have to worry about sounding like a rock band with horns on their albums anymore. They were now truly a faceless pop band, good for generating hit records that didn’t really say much and sounded just like everyone else.

Peter’s replacement, another blond bass-playing tenor singer named Jason Scheff (son of Jerry Scheff, bass player for Elvis Presley), sounded a lot like Peter. His voice wasn’t quite as robust, but it worked well enough to carry the typically bombastic Foster power ballad ”Will You Still Love Me” into the top 5.

”If She Would Have Been Faithful” saw some chart action too, but didn’t really have much in the way of legs. It stumbled over an overly analytical theme, with lyrics (”It’s a paradox, full of contradiction / How I got from there to here / It defies a logical explanation”) that really had no place in a fluffy pop ballad. Plus they just weren’t very good. Still, it managed to chart in the top 40, so somebody liked it.

Lamm, meanwhile, continued his return to active contributions to Chicago with two songs this time, making his typical everyday life observations in ”Forever” and ”Over And Over.” But it hardly sounds like any humans are playing on these songs, and the choruses are dogs. He had far better songs written by this time, like ”When Will The World Be Like Lovers,” which Chicago did record for this album. Mysteriously, it was scrapped, though Lamm did include a great rendition on his second solo album.

Pankow, also once a powerful songwriting force in the band, delivers a dog with ”One More Day.” ”Give the children of the world one more day,” Jason Scheff sings. But we never quite know why or what for.

Champlin sort of redeems himself in this cold, sterile, mediocre stew of sound with ”It’s Alright,” but that’s about it for anything worth hanging on to here. Oh sure, the little tease called ”Free Flight” reminds us that the Chicago horns are still around and sound great, but really, why bother? 15 seconds of a glorious reminder stuck in the middle of 40 minutes of some of the most cold, calculated product’ the band had released? It was 1986. I guess that says it all.

chicago 19Chicago 19 (1988)

David Foster was out for this album, but Chas Sandford and Ron Nevison were in. Meaning, Chicago sounded like Heart now. Whoopee!

There was also a new guitarist who joined during the last album, though guitarists had been relegated to sidemen by the band since the ego trip that was Donnie Dacus. Dawayne Bailey looked a bit like Axl Rose, before anyone knew who Axl was, and by album 19, he got to play a little bit on Chicago’s recordings.

But the most noticeable change here was that Jason Scheff was starting to sound a little (just a little) less like Peter Cetera and a little more like himself. The Tim Feehan-written ”Heart In Pieces” seemed to bear that out right away, and it rocked a little too.

I remember the first time I played it, in the presence of two of my cousins after my uncle gave me the cassette as a gift. My cousins’ immediate reaction: ”this doesn’t sound like Chicago!” Not ”this is good” or ”this is bad,” but ”this doesn’t sound like Chicago.” It’s that logo — when you see it, you expect a certain sound, just like you expect a certain taste when you see that Coca-Cola logo. When Coke changed their formula, consumers revolted. There wasn’t so much a revolt when Chicago changed their formula (which as far as the record buying masses were concerned, this translates to Peter Cetera’s departure), just a lot of confusion. And enough people were still buying the records, so there was no need to change back to ”classic Chicago.” Not that Cetera would ever come back anyway…

And why bother asking him? 19 spawned as many hits as 17, and the fact that three of those five were provided to the band by outside writers continued to justify Warner-Reprise’s handling of Chicago’s recordings. It was just a few million short in sales after the album ran its course, even though the songs were all over radio and MTV. Bill Champlin finally had his voice in the sole lead spot on a couple of Chicago hits, yet he didn’t write them. The guilty party in that department for both of those songs was Diane Warren, who was well on her way to racking up more hit records with, among others, Celine Dion. Try to forget about that for a moment though, for your stomach’s sake.

And as was usual by this time, there were few horns to be heard. At least ”Come In From The Night” had some brass, and Lamm’s ”I Stand Up” came closest to sounding like classic Chicago since Champlin did Terry Kath proud on 16. About the best thing this album had going for it in the long run was its cover — its one of the few pieces of artwork with pixelated images that actually kind of looks appealing (and yes, it’s totally of its time, which is part of its charm).

Chicago would go through another significant lineup change a couple years after this album’s release, when their original drummer Danny Seraphine was discharged from duty after slogging away for some 23 years. He has since resurfaced with a band he has dubbed the California Transit Authority, and by all indications, they rock. Tris Imboden stepped in for Danny, and continues to beat the skins for Chicago to this day.

chicago 20Greatest Hits ’82-’89 (1989)

This third official volume of hits is officially Chicago’s twentieth album. All the big hits from 16-19 are here, making for a near-perfect collection of 80s adult contemporary pop and rock hits, rivaled perhaps only by Journey’s Greatest Hits. It remained a steady seller for quite a number of years, in spite of being rendered redundant on at least three occasions since its release (more on that later…)

chicago 21Twenty-1 (1991)

With a few exceptions, you could count on Chicago to at least present a cool looking, creative variation on their logo. Hot Streets was one of those exceptions, and Twenty-1 is by far the worst. The logo can hardly be located, and it’s only a small portion one can see at that. It’s a fitting metaphor, though — where the heck was Chicago on their records anyway? They had mostly been replaced by studio players since ’82, and they hardly sounded like themselves anymore. You had to show up to the concerts to hear the real Chicago.

The generic power ballad formula was wearing itself awfully thin by the time Twenty-1 came along, but this album does have some virtues. The horns came forward a bit, as a welcome relief. And although Diane Warren struck again with a couple more dreadful (imposed) songs (”Explain It To My Heart” and ”Chasin’ The Wind”), the ratio of band member-written material had increased. For the most part though, Twenty-1 sucks, to put it bluntly. I mean, did we really need to hear Jason Scheff trying so hard to be an adult contemporary power ballad king with awful songs like ”Man To Woman” and ”What Does It Take?” With so many such desperate songs on this record, it appears we traded in an oedipal singer for an annoying, obsessive puppy dog whining ”you are my destiny!” and ”what does it take to win you back?” and ”explain it to my heart!”

Robert Lamm at least provides a small glimpse of mental stability with his two contributions, and they almost seem to be aimed at calming poor Jason’s nerves, if you’re up for some shits and giggles and wanna see things a little dramatically for a moment. ”One From The Heart” and ”Only Time Can Heal The Wounded” are both very consoling if you listen to them in that context. One other song here that deviates from the ”woe is me, my love life is such a drag” formula is ”God Save The Queen.” Pank penned it, Champ sings it, and though it’s a bit strident and has a silly title, the save the planet’ message is refreshing. It’s the 1991 reminder that 1971’s ”Mother” is still very much relevant, perhaps more than ever.

It’s worth noting that, when Chicago toured following this album’s release in 1991, they did not play any of its songs. Well, one song did get a live airing — the insipid ”You Come To My Senses” was performed on the Arsenio Hall show. Remember that old late-night nugget? Those were the days… except that one night when Chicago embarrassed themselves live on national television by performing arguably the smelliest dog from one of their worst albums ever.

chicago - stone of sisyphusChicago XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus (1993 — unreleased until 2008)

Chicago was looking to get back to being a rock band with horns again, and a band with some artistic integrity, after the embarrassment of Twenty-1. For reasons that have been explained elsewhere in great depth, the Stone of Sisyphus album was scheduled but ultimately not released. It was to be the band’s 22nd album, and unlike Twenty-1, the band did perform some of it live in concert.

While it wasn’t a completely radical departure from the slick, super-polished sound established a decade prior, it was exactly the kind of change the band needed to gain some semblance of identity back for themselves. It would have been much to their fans’ benefit too, has they had the chance en masse in 1993 to hear Bill Champlin defiantly sing ”I’m not asking for permission / Are you ready for me to be me?” on his song ”Plaid.”

Even from the first notes of the album’s opener, Robert Lamm’s ”All The Years,” the difference is immediately apparent. It starts with Champlin strumming a funky rhythm on electric guitar — a Chicago album hadn’t begun so joyously and rhythmically since Terry Kath’s last effort with the band. And there would be more such breaths of fresh air, like hearing Jimmy Pankow rip a bone solo on ”Sleeping In The Middle Of The Bed Again” (where Robert raps — literally, and quite literately at that — about his fractured state of mind) and hearing a funky song penned by Jason Scheff (”Mah Jongg”) that actually tells an interesting story.

The record has its share of schmaltzy ballads, but they are outnumbered here by other more interesting and entertaining songs. Two of the most notable also ended up being shining moments for guitarist Dawayne Bailey. He contributed the title track, and that’s his smooth tenor on the chorus and bridge. The band saw the Greek mythological reference as a fitting metaphor for the band’s career — roll the stone to the top of the mountain, it falls back down, roll back up, repeat. Bailey has said on his message board that he thought it would be funny for Chicago to play a song with the phrase ”blood, sweat and tears” in the lyrics, so yes, that lyrical reference to another iconic rock band with horns was indeed intentional. And ”Get On This” brought Chicago to crunching, metal-esque territory for perhaps only the second time ever, and with some of the most surrealistic lyrics on a Chicago song. Sadly, however, “Get On This” was omitted from the album when it was finally released in 2008 as Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sysiphus.

It was a return to more creative music, for sure, but it never saw wide release until fifteen years after its best shot at success had passed. Who knows, maybe it would have just been confusing to have a new Chicago record come out that sounded more like the phenomenal Toto record that Toto would never make, than the CTA of the 90s.

chicago - night and dayNight & Day (Big Band) (1995)

After the Stone of Sisyphus album was rejected by Warner Bros., the label dropped Chicago. Being that these guys never say die, they moved on to Giant Records for their next release. Giant, oddly, was distributed by Warner, so it wasn’t such a huge change.

This album is often forgotten, only because Night & Day is a record of big band covers. The irony here is that this covers record does a better job than any of their other post-Columbia albums of reminding us what Chicago’s musical identity really is.

The horn arrangements are busy, they’re just everywhere. It doesn’t even matter now that only one of the original singers remains, since all three current vocalists actually sound comfortable and competent in the pillows of horns. And these are hardly just tired retreads, either. Old standards like ”Caravan,” ”Take The A-Train,” ”Blues In The Night,” and predictably, ”Chicago,” are made to sound like Chicago songs.

This outing also found Jason Scheff finally sounding like a vet, having been in the band almost a decade at this point. ”Dream A Little Dream Of Me” just might be his finest vocal moment on a Chicago recording, and the girls from now-forgotten R&B trio Jade aren’t as much of a distraction as one.would expect.

Swing music was trendy again in the mid 90s, but this album didn’t connect with that neo-swing audience precisely because the band was playing em Chicago style rather than copying the old swing masters. In terms of musical philosophy, they were aiming closer to Duke Ellington than to Louis Jordan.

Unfortunately, Dawayne Bailey wasn’t feeling the early 20th century material, and perhaps not too coincidentally he was gone before the project commenced. Bruce Gaitsch played most guitars on the album, and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry gets a sweet solo on ”Blues In The Night.” When it came time to tour, Chicago chose a young lad named Keith Howland to be their full-time guitarist. He’s a hit with the ladies, and he’s still holding down his position with no sign of leaving, making him the longest-serving guitarist in Chicago’s 40-plus year history. He may not have the powerful personality of a Kath or a Bailey, but this band has no more room for boat-rockers.

In case you’re losing count, Night & Day is officially number 22, since by the time Stone of Sisyphus was never released as planned in 1993.

chicago heart ofchicago heart of 2The Heart of Chicago 1967-1997 (1997)
The Heart of Chicago 1967-1998 Vol. 2 (1998)

Numbers 23 and 24 in Chicago’s encyclopedia of albums turn out to be a pair of compilations of songs that had been previously released on other compilations. In short, they are redundant.

A little background here: the rights to Chicago’s Columbia albums reverted back to the band around the time of the recording of the Stone of Sisyphus album, and as such, they were free to license the masters to whomever they chose. This made a compilation spanning the band’s entire career possible simply by licensing pre-1982 material to Warner Bros. Hence these botched collections.

Oh sure, someone must have been happy to finally have their favorite Columbia and Warner Chicago hits on one single disc (or two). It’s just that they’re presented in a jarring way. You get 70s and 80s hits in a jumbled order, with no apparent logic or reason.

But let’s not forget the main selling point — two new songs on each album! ”Here In My Heart” earned the distinction of rising to number 1 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, which in the end means little since it’s never played live anymore (except occasionally by Bill Champlin during solo concerts) and rarely, if ever, heard on the radio today (though perhaps once in a while in your local Food Lion or Walgreen’s). It’s a song that tried to duplicate the type of hit Chicago had in the late 80s, only with late 90s flavor-of-the-month Glen Ballard producing rather than David Foster, Ron Nevison or Chas Sandford. Not only does it sound like a Casio keyboard throwaway until the drums kick in on the bridge, it’s not even that catchy of a pop tune. It’s one of the most boring Chicago songs ever to see chart action, and kind of a waste of Bill Champlin’s singing talent.

The other new song, ”The Only One,” sounded like a deliberate throwback to the laid-back grooves of Chicago VII, and who better to take the band on a retro path than the king of retro himself, Lenny Kravitz. Too bad the lyrics are weak and neither Lamm, Champlin nor Scheff sound entirely convincing. Kravitz does some vocalizing at the end and does sound pretty decent. It was a neat trick having him prop up the song, much in the same way Chaka Khan added some spark to the outro of ”Take Me Back To Chicago” back on album XI.

Looking to repeat the formula of the previous Heart collection, the payoff was expectedly smaller with the two more new songs on the second volume of jumbled Columbia and Warner hits. ”All Roads Lead To You” and ”Show Me A Sign” aimed for the same audience that made ”Here In My Heart” a minor success, and, well, didn’t quite hit the mark despite being slightly more interesting than the big number one Adult Contemporary hit.

chicago 25Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album (1998)

It was the first new Chicago recording to be released on their own Chicago Records label, so perhaps the conservative route was understandable. Why do something that might bankrupt your indie label, right?

This album does at least go the ”Night & Day” route and let the horns take the lead. So it sounds like a genuine Chicago album, and it contains familiar songs that their fans have no problems recognizing. And hey, it was a gold record, so the cautious move paid off. But come on, Christmas music? How the mighty fall… this album confirmed that Chicago is indeed peers with Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, etc. OK, maybe the shot at Neil was a bit unfair. After all, he did put out two awesome Rick Rubin-produced comeback albums, which reminded us why we really liked Neil in the first place. Somebody get Rick on the phone with Chicago, please!

But in all seriousness, the fact that Chicago was at least getting something right again on a blatant cash-in was somewhat of a relief. This was probably the only opportunity Lee Loughnane had to sing a song with Chicago again — and how apropos, it’s the concert favorite ”Let It Snow.” The man who did so well being the voice of winter on Terry Kath’s ”Song Of The Evergreens” back on album VII shined once again and turned out to the big red bow on this hit holiday album. Go Lee!

chicago 26Chicago XXVI: The Live Album (1999)

Is it live, or is it a laptop? Whoever it was that coined the term ”Ceteraoke,” I raise a glass to you. This is the Ceteraoke record, where Jason Scheff gets the majority of vocals on live-ish versions of songs originally sung by Peter Cetera. Beyond that, we also get to hear how the ”Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon” sounds post-Terry Kath (with Champlin singing ”Make Me Smile” and Lamm singing ”Colour My World”). And what Chicago concert or live album would be complete without ”Beginnings” and ”25 or 6 to 4″?

Just like the two Heart Of collections, this album is also baited with new songs — three this time, woo hoo! The Burt Bacharach tune ”If I Should Ever Lose You” actually has a strange sort of melodic majesty that serves Chicago well. Only Burt could come up with a tune like that. The other two pale in comparison. ”Back To You” is yet another pedestrian ballad, and why on earth is Michael McDonald singing Jackie Wilson’s ”Higher and Higher” when Bill Champlin could have done so even better? And why that song at all?

This was the first Chicago album that did not even register on the Billboard 200, and consequently the last album the band would release on Chicago Records. It was back to the majors from here, any way they could. The route they chose was to sell their back catalog to Warner’s reissue label, Rhino, with the first releases appearing in 2002. Since Rhino was starting to get into releasing new albums, Chicago had a chance of releasing an all-new major label album again. Four years after that catalog deal, an all-new record finally surfaced.

chicago xxxChicago XXX (2006)

Whoa, whoa, what about 27-29? Well, if you look at the rake on the cover of Rhino’s double disc The Very Best Of Chicago: Only The Beginning, you’ll see the Roman numeral XXVII etched on the handle. So there’s 27. As for 28 and 29, even the band doesn’t seem to know. Rhino’s Chicago: The Box could be 28. So could Chicago Christmas: What’s It Gonna Be, Santa? which is XXV repackaged with new cover art and 6 new songs. The Love Songs compilation from 2005 could be 29. One of these albums doesn’t ”count,” because if they all did, the new album would be XXXI. Right?

Apparently not. When Robert saw those three X’s on Chicago’s Meigs Field, that pretty much sealed the deal. Besides, the whole numbering system has become such a joke with all the pointless compilations that have come out, that they could have called the album MMVI. Come to think of it, that would have been a much funnier title, especially since it comes a tad closer to the actual count of albums released with Chicago’s name on it. Their 1969 Toronto performance has probably been released by small fly-by-night labels at least a thousand times.

But yes, the ”30th” album… fortunately for Chicago, they hadn’t released many proper albums since their last top 40 hit, so there wasn’t much to expect here. Anything would be fresh and maybe even a surprise. Like having Rascal Flatts’ Jay DeMarcus produce the record. HUH? He’s buddies with Jason Scheff, so that explains that. He actually got a halfway decent sound out of the band, although he did pull a David Foster and recruit a slew of session players. Though Keith Howland had been Chicago’s guitarist for the past ten years, he only plays on two songs here. But man, Dean DeLeo sounds awesome on ”Better.” Yes, that Dean DeLeo, the one from Stone Temple Pilots. Go figure.

Basically, XXX is two very different EPs combined into one album that’s only half good, depending on which side of the Chicago fence you’re on. If you’re a fan of the 80s Chicago, the first half is a new spin on that old formula. You get Jason Scheff’s dramatic ”King Of Might Have Been,” a/k/a ”Hard Habit To Break 2006,” and a C-grade Toto song called, what else, ”Caroline.” It’s one girl’s name they hadn’t taken yet, so it really did work out fine, didn’t it? Bobby Kimball even shows up to keep it real. Man, I hate that song.

But what about the country credentials of Jay DeMarcus, you say? Well, he’s a strong presence on ”Love Will Come Back,” which features Rascall Flatts’ voices augmenting those of Jason Scheff. Besides the crusty syrup factor here, the line about filling in the cracks is a bit on the creepy side.

But enough about the first half of XXX. It’s a chore for me to even think about it. The second half, now that’s another story entirely.

We actually get some good uptempo numbers on the second half, the horns sound integral to the overall mix, and Bill Champlin finally sounds like his natural self on a Chicago record. ”Already Gone” and ”Better” are both the sound of the Bill Champlin who paid his dues with the Sons back in the day, rather than the slick craftsman of the 80s. The organic Chicago sound of the Night & Day album translates perfectly to ”Better,” which swings with attitude. WOW… a latter-day Chicago song with substance? Say it ain’t so! Ditto for ”Already Gone,” which is NOT the Eagles’ song, and that’s a high compliment. The lyrics are silly, Bill knows it, and he’s the only singer in the band who could pull off singing lines like ”don’t lie to me, Pinnochio” and ”check please, Louise / Thank you very next!” The humor of these absurd lyrics is a breath of fresh air and saves the whole dang album.

I’m a die-hard Lamm fan, but even I have to admit that Champlin bests Lamm on this one. Robert’s ”Come To Me, Do” is pleasant enough though, and merges Al Green-like soul with an updated take on Chicago’s sound, but the fake drums rob the song of some of its power. ”90 Degrees And Freezing” does have an awesome instrumental break, though, and it rocks like a laid-back, grown up cousin of ”25 or 6 to 4″ with some ”walls of Jason” in the chorus.

All in all, Chicago did OK with this double EP, as I will continue to call it. Start the disc at track 7, and you’re golden. It’s about as good as anyone could expect from a band that’s been around this long and has stumbled as many times as they have. It’s also somewhat of a ”return to form” on the level of the Stones’ A Bigger Bang (again, just from track 7 on). It’s a very encouraging way to end the continuing saga of the band with the classy logo that numbers its albums.

About the Author

Michael Fortes

Michael Fortes began writing for Popdose upon its launch in January of 2008, following a music writing journey that began with his high school newspaper and eventually led to print and web publications such as Performer Magazine and Born and raised in The Biggest Little State in the Union (otherwise known as Rhode Island), Michael relocated in 2004 to San Francisco, where he works as an office professional during the day, sings harmonies in Sugar Candy Mountain at night, and religiously supports the local San Francisco Bay Area music scene nearly every chance he gets.

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