No, not the pizza place. Rock ‘n’ Roll. Served hot.
Chicago Transit Authority has changed a lot over 50 years. For one, they shortened their name to just Chicago many years ago. The band has three periods. The Kath period. The Cetera period. And Since Cetera Left.
The Cetera period produced a lot of schmaltzy hits but tore the band apart. Since Cetera left the band, they’ve been a steady concert draw and have occasionally released new material. If you’re wondering, I have no use for the Cetera period or the slick production and prefab songwriting under producer David Foster. Many fans love that period and that’s cool. To each, his or her own.
Chicago was voted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and that is a nice accomplishment, to any of their fans.
There is a documentary on Netflix called Now More Than Ever: The History Of Chicago, which traces the band from it’s origins to the present day. I found it enjoyable and a fairly good view of the history. The film has been criticized because it was made by a family member of a member of Chicago, so was it’s objectivity skewed? Maybe, but I didn’t take it as a news documentary, I assumed the current members of Chicago had some influence on the direction of the film.
There is another documentary that definitely should be watched: The Terry Kath Experience. Directed by Kath’s daughter, it is a fair view of Kath’s life and career, and it doesn’t sugarcoat his problems. It also mines the first decade of Chicago, which is the period I am about to cover.
Let’s turn the clock back to the Terry Kath years.
The first album, Chicago Transit Authority, appeared in 1969. This was two years after the group came together from several different bands in the Chicago area. In the late 1960’s, bands with horns were popular, but that would fade. Chicago had more to offer than those other bands, they wrote their own songs and they had a bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll core that even remained even under the many layers of radio-polish.
That first Chicago album had grit and soul. Mainly written by guitarist Terry Kath and keyboardist Robert Lamm, it was heavy on distorted guitar, percussion, R&B horns and rousing harmony vocals. Kath gave the band it’s street cred with his guitar chops that rivaled Hendrix. Guitar players stood in awe of Kath. Watch The Terry Kath Experience and you’ll understand. Lamm wrote the more radio-friendly tunes on the first album: “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it is?”, “Questions 67 and 68” and “Beginnings.” The double-album sold over a million copies. Not bad for a debut.
The second album, Chicago II, released in 1970, was also a double-album. The band now had four main songwriters: Kath, Lamm, bassist Peter Cetera and horn player James Pankow. Pankow even wrote a suite of songs that comprised almost one full album side, and included the very popular and romantic song, “Colour My World“. Other singles from the album were “Make Me Smile” and “25 or 6 to 4”.
Chicago II was another big selling album, nominated for three Grammy Awards, and yielding three hit singles. Perhaps it is a more mature album than their first one, but it seems to lack focus and there is excess, songs that might have been better in the vault. The first album made a bold statement with its newness and powerful sound. Chicago II saw the mellowness begin to creep in, and the fact that everyone now seemed to want a slice of the songwriting pie. Why not, that’s where the royalties are along with the notoriety, and since they were releasing double-albums, the space was available. It’s a very good album, just not great.
In 1971, Chicago III happened, and it was, drum-roll, a double-album. Chicago like writing suites so much that they had three of them on this release. Three!!! There were two Top 40 singles from the album but neither of them are of the magnitude of their earlier singles. The album seemed to reflect a more experimental phase, somewhat like the Beach Boys in the late 1960’s, artistically creative, but not necessarily successful. The band was spending much of their time on the road and I suspect not not time writing. On this album, drummer Danny Seraphine and horn player Walt Parazaider also debut as songwriters.
That same year, Chicago IV, a four-album live set, recorded at Carnegie Hall, was released. It achieved gold status and reached number three on the charts. Chicago sold out Carnegie for a week worth of performances. This landmark event was not lost on those in control so a live set was ordered. The set list included the hits plus several of those suites, filling out eight album sides. When the remastered CD version was released a few years ago it was supplemented by some unreleased songs. Two words comes to mind: self-indulgent. I own the remastered CD set and I’ve never made it through the entire set in one listen. Should it have been shorter? God yes.
In 1972, Chicago V, a single album was released. A wise decision. The album reached number one on the charts and returned to some solid radio singles. “Saturday in the Park” and “Dialogue (Parts I & II)” were huge hits.
Kath and Pankow had one song each on the album with Lamm writing everything else. The songs were more structured and complete band songs, and there was not a suite in sight.
Like clockwork, Chicago VI, appeared in 1973, and again, a single album. Another strong album of complete songs; the experimental period seemed to be over. The songs themselves were growing shorter, perhaps to make them more attractive for radio play. While Lamm again wrote most of the songs, the two singles were written by others. “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” was a Cetera/Pankow song, and “Just You and Me” was a Pankow solo effort. Kath and Lamm, the dominant songwriters in the beginning, weren’t part of the changing sound.
Chicago VII was released in 1974 and was their last double-album of original material. Chicago was also now recording their albums at producer James William Guercio’s Caribou Ranch in Colorado. This time around, the band wanted to record a jazz-influenced album, but that drew concern about the commercial viability of the project. A compromise of sorts was reached and new, pop material was added, expanding the album to four sides. All band members had a writing credit on the album. Three big singles were released from the album: “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long”, “Call on Me” and “Wishing You Were Here”. Again, none of the singles were written by Lamm, although he did have four songs on the set. It could have been because Lamm was working on a solo album at the time. Chicago VII was one of the big albums of the year. The Beach Boys even sang backup on “Wishing Your Were Here”.
A single album arrived in 1974: Chicago VIII. While it reached number one on the charts, is seems affable but pale next to their previous release. It is more of a subdued rock album, even it’s cheerier moments were somehow less than they should have been. “Harry Truman” and “Old Days” are very solid singles and were top 20 hits, but not huge hits. I find it one of their more solid if less than spectacular albums. Not as big peaks but not as many lows either. An interesting note, Cetera was becoming the more dominant vocalist, even singing songs that others wrote, including Lamm. This would have big consequences later.
Chicago IX was a greatest hits package of eleven masterful hit singles, released in time for Christmas 1975. It reached number one and was the first Chicago album I bought.
In 1976, came Chicago X, an album of new material. It had that distinctive partially unwrapped candy bar cover, winning a Grammy Award for best packaging. There were three singles released but the group’s first number one hit, came from Cetera with his “If You Leave Me Now”, a monster ballad hit. It was so popular it became sickening. Lamm was mostly contributing album tracks but not singles. Kath had one or two songwriting credits now on each album but his songs weren’t singles material. While Kath was fading, Lamm was treading water, Cetera was rising. Chicago was now being thought of as a ballad and soft rock band, their street cred evaporating.
Chicago XI, released in September 1977, is the end of the Kath era. He would be dead in a few months, and the band would never be the same. The album reached number six on the charts but it was an uneven group of songs. Cetera scored another hit with “Baby, What a Big Surprise”, a number four hit, and frankly, one of his poorer songs. Strangely, the most prolific band writer was Seraphine, who along with his writing partner Hawk Wolinski, contributed three songs, including two of the best songs on the album. Lamm’s two contributions are only average at best. Kath’s offered “Mississippi Delta Blues”, a rousing and powerful Chicago effort, which was one of his older songs, and “Take it on Uptown”, a reasonably muscular song. He sang lead vocals on what were two songs of three song suite, “Prelude” and “Little One”. As Kath’s last album, he is remarkably strong as a vocalist, taking over for Cetera on half of the album’s songs. Cetera would resume his primary vocalist role on the next release.
In the beginning, Kath was not only a core writer and singer, but he gave the band it’s muscle and rock legitimacy. In the recent years he drifted away, apparently less interested in the pop focus of the group. He was a rock ‘n’ roller, and according to the film his daughter directed, was working on a solo album and wanted to form a new band, without horns. For Kath and many others, the horns and Cetera’s endless ballads, had shifted the direction of the band too far from the original vision. Lamm accepted the change, although wasn’t happy with the rise of Cetera and overabundance of syrupy songs. In the documentary he recounts telling Kath they needed to play the hits on tour, instead of the jam sessions.
The early 1970’s were gone. Chicago lived by getting songs on the radio and selling albums. The Chicago radio sound had softened, though they still rocked hard in concert. Fans wanted what Chicago was selling, but Kath did not. Granted, at this point in his life he was mired in alcohol and drug addiction, but he clearly saw a different path forward than his bandmates.
Kath was a powerful guitar player and personality. In the beginning, he was the spiritual leader of the band, it’s heart and musical direction. With success, and radio play, the dynamics inside the band changed. The leaders were the songwriters, and power was reflected by the chart hits: the ballads.
The next album, in 1978, would be called Hot Streets, and include a new guitarist. There would also be a new producer. Cetera would become the dominant vocalist again. Writing would be a shared effort but Seraphine again would have more credits than others, and Cetera would be singing those songs. Lamm would contributed two songs but neither were outstanding. Horn players Lee Loughnane and Pankow were now core songwriters with Pankow even penning the lead single on the album.
Hot Streets signaled the tide had shifted and would shift even more. The new guitar player Donnie Dacus would contribute some powerful licks but this was not a guitar-centric band anymore. Dacus would get one more album and then be fired. Hot Streets failed to reach the album top ten list.
Next up, Chicago 13 infused a disco beat as the band tried to be a bit hipper to a changing audience. The album reached number 23 on the chart, sell only moderately well but have no hit singles. Thirteen was not a lucky number. There are a couple of decent songs but you feel like you’ve heard better versions of these before. I bought the record, and while I like the repetitive groove of “Street Player”, it was the best thing on the album, which wasn’t a good sign.
In 1982, the band returned on a new record label, with a new producer, a new member of the band, and a new sound. Even though the Cetera phase started earlier, this was the official kickoff, which was cemented by the hiring of producer hit-maker David Foster.
The familiar sound of old Chicago was history.