Going Back To Chicago: A Long Overdue Prog Pilgrimage
Or looking for prog in all the wrong places?
Progressive rock on planet Earth (“Is there prog on other planets?” - “Only on Saturday nights!”) enters its sixth decade, and I enter my seventh.
No uncertain testament to that big-tent genre's abundance is that even after collecting hundreds of records and CDs, one can still look back to the seventies and ask, like Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton returning to the U.S. from Paris, “What did I miss?”
My special case revolves around a certain septet named Chicago, all but one of whom hailed from Chicago. Their special claim to fame in the late 1960s was being among the first rock groups to incorporate a horn section for an eclectic blend of everything under the sun, including jazz, classical, folk, blues and hard rock, but with those horn charts lending them a very jazzy feel overall. I eagerly gobbled up their first two releases, both double albums.
Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago
Chicago's 1969 debut, entitled Chicago Transit Authority, featured one disc of six tightly structured and exuberantly inventive jazz-rock tunes including the well-known Does Anybody Know What Time It Is. All but one were composed by keyboard player Robert Lamm. His eight-minute Beginnings, especially, burst with the group's anticipation of amazing music to come, including a festively percussion-filled conclusion. The second disc leaned more heavily on the jazz improv side, concluding with Liberation, a fifteen-minute live jam.
The 1970 sophomore effort saw their name shortened to Chicago, that logo as iconic and unchanged over the decades as the logo for Kayak. In fact, their first album to feature a title other than simply Chicago was their tenth release in 1978, Hot Streets. Anyway, Chicago's second is chock-full of amazingly well-conceived tunes, including three lengthy suites. The twelve-minute Ballet For A Girl From Buchannon is perhaps the best-known of them for its Colour My World mid-section ballad surgically excised for radio-friendly use. And the four-movement, improvisation-garnished It Better End Soon rages with angst over the Vietnam War and civil rights protests. One of my personal favorite passages from this monumental recording full of them is the conclusion to the bluesy In The Country. Tightly structured horn charts suddenly give way to a Led-Zeppelin-worthy riff with the horns layering back in.
Which brings us to Chicago's third release in 1970, yet another double album featuring their logo stitched into a tattered U.S. flag on the cover. On the radio, I heard an excerpt that struck me as lots of noodling around, not up to what they had done previously. So on my limited budget just starting college, I eschewed Chicago III in favor of King Crimson and so many other groups emerging at the same time. Ditto for the several Chicago releases that followed, especially since the group seemed to have left behind ambitious constructs in favor of more pop-rock-oriented fare. However, I was haunted by the occasional ear-worm tune on the radio, especially Feelin' Stronger Every Day, which over its four minutes actually did cover lots of ground in a very progressive manner.
Chicago Studio Albums 1969 - 1978
Fast-forward to earlier this year, and I happen across a box set of Chicago's first ten studio releases from 1969 to 1978 on Rhino Records (2012). As if there aren't enough splendid new releases to wade through by numerous favored groups both old and new, curiosity got the best of me. And am glad it did, for guilty pleasures as well as overlooked premium prog-rock.
First off, that third double album: overall the most experimental and challenging of the lot, though parts of it anticipate the more accessible pop music directions subsequent recordings would take. What Else Can I Say, for example, features melodies and an arrangement by turns Beatle-ish and like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; one of those aforementioned guilty pleasures, for sure!
The same as Chicago 2, Chicago 3 features three medleys. The first one, Travel Suite, gets off to a rousing country music start, containing more Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young-style harmonizing. But the Free Country mid-section bogs down with noodling that might remind one of the lengthy conclusion to Moon Child on King Crimson's epic debut. Nice finale, though, featuring more CSN&Y moves.
The five-minute Hour In The Shower medley can be considered a single, unified piece in a country blues vein. And side four of the original vinyl was taken up by the third medley, Elegy, by far the most fascinating part of this recording. The opening narration reminds one of Graeme Edge's short poems that introduced some Moody Blues tracks such as OM. A short canon for horns follows, then a gentle flute-y instrumental decays into industrial noise that ends in a flushed toilet. From there it's off to an excellent jazz-rock foray that sets the stage for an ominously majestic conclusion.
Overall, that tattered flag cover for Chicago's third fits well, because everything does feel a bit tattered, somehow not quite as “together” as for Chicago 2.
Chicago 5, Chicago 6
Chicago 5 (Chicago 4 was a live set) picks up where Chicago 3 left off, with yet another edgy, jazz-rock-heavy piece entitled A Hit By Varèse. But that opens a single album for a change, devoid of any medleys aside from the two-part Dialogue, and including the infamously radio-friendly Saturday In The Park.
No shortage of awesome progressive tracks, however! The five-minute Now That You've Gone takes several imaginatively complex twists and turns, including an energizing instrumental break. Imagine Tony Banks composing horn charts instead of synthesizer/mellotron-drenched excursions.
About the Dialogue medley, incidentally, a key structural device reprises from Beginnings that will rear its not-so-ugly head on several subsequent recordings. The very bouncy first part is followed by an infectious repeated motif, not dissimilar to the conclusion to the Beatles' Hey Jude. Overall, Chicago 5 is solid progressive jazz-rock well represented by the logo carved into wood on the cover.
Chicago 6 is another matter altogether, though, as changed from anything they recorded previously as And Then There Were Three was a big change for Genesis in more pop-oriented directions. The same as Three with Down And Out (“A more commercial view! A fresher face!”), 6 opens with a complaint about pressure for the group to produce more commercial fare in Critics Choice (“What do you want?”). Then also the same as Genesis, they proceed to try offering more consistently commercial fare.
True, Just You 'N' Me, Feelin' Stronger Every Day, and other tracks transcend simple verse-refrain with mid-section development and the like. No single track tops the four-minute range, though, so those imaginative horn charts play a more circumspect role. Nevertheless, have to admit having often found commercial Genesis infectiously entertaining aside from an occasional nails-on-the-chalkboard track such as the ironically titled That's All.
And ditto with commercial Chicago. Hollywood might be another track that drips with why-do-people-sell-out irony, along with Something In This City Changes People, but the unique harmonizing does have its Beatlish charms.
To harp on the Genesis parallel just one last time, Chicago put lots of extra time and effort into their next recording, 7, returning to double-album territory. Recall that down to a trio, Genesis followed Three with Duke, easily as ambitious and complex as any of their earlier work.
Reputedly inspired by Santana, the first side of Chicago's 1973 release was given over entirely to jazz-rock instrumentals, not a vocal in the lot. The six-minute, latino-tinged Aire especially is a real showpiece, uniquely spiced by flute.
And then ten-minute Devil's Sweet is as experimentally demanding as anything the group has recorded, rewarding repeated listenings. Sounds like it almost could have been an outtake from Robert Fripp's old Centipede, if not for a main theme that sounds pure Americana in the vein of Aaron Copeland and Gershwin.
Instrumentals are scattered across the rest of Chicago 7, my favorite by far being the short, salsa-inflected Mongonucleosis. Leading into it is the orchestra-infused Happy Man, which concludes with an addictive repeated riff, again one of their signature compositional moves.
Although no formal medleys are identified, several pieces run together on what were originally sides two and three of the vinyl. Curiously, the most radio-friendly track of the bunch is also the most hauntingly beautiful in the change-up vein of King Crimson's I Talk To The Wind. Wishing You Were Here complexly bookends ear-worm melodies with a darker, descending-chord refrain.
All told, Chicago 7 rates two snaps in a circle, right up alongside Chicago 2.
Chicago 8, Chicago 10
Which brings us to cardinal 8 and chocolate bar 10 (9 being a greatest hits album), what I would term their guilty pleasures albums. The closest either gets to progressive music is Brand New Love Affair, Parts 1 And 2 on 8. An orchestrated ballad leads into something more aggressively up-tempo that finishes on a high note with satisfying horn charts. Otherwise, just two nice collections of super-fun, progressive-tinged songs that could take their place beside Kayak's Periscope Life work.
You have the bluesy, gospel-music-inflected opener, Anyway You Want, on 8 and the high-octane Once Or Twice leading off 10. 8 features a Led-Zeppelin-style rocker, Hideaway, while both recordings include very Beatles moves, especially Harry Truman in a Penny Lane frame of mind on 8, and If You Leave Me Now on 10 that features an acoustic guitar interlude reminiscent of a similar interlude for the Beatles' And I Love Her. Oh, Thank You Great Spirit finds Terry Kath connecting with his inner Hendrix for most curious track of the bunch.
Elsewhere, there are no shortage of infectious melodies and horn-arranged riffs, and the steel drum of Another Rainy Day In New York City adds a special touch. However, a bittersweet feel of abandoned ambition haunts these proceedings. One can't help wondering what Chicago might have recorded had they been able to sign with InsideOut “back in the day.” (Is that a Moody-Blues-ish Mellotron I heard at the end of Hope For Love on 10?)
Even more haunting is the tragic circumstance surrounding Chicago 11. Shortly after its completion, lead guitarist Terry Kath accidentally shot himself, trying to prove how safe his gun was, unaware of one bullet left in the cartridge. So it was his last recording with the group, and its conclusion especially feels spookily foreshadowing of what was to come.
11 opens on a rousing-enough note with the funky Mississippi Delta City Blues. But its complex instrumental mid-section contains the single darkest vibe of any recording since Chicago 3. Baby What A Big Surprise continues to mine their strong Beatles influences, but again with a dark albeit wonderful mid-section.
The same as these two tracks, several others feel far more substantially developed/back to the more progressive tendencies of their earlier work. There is an ominous sense of wanting to go out with a bang a la the Beatles with their medleys concluding Abbey Road. In fact, the final three tracks make up a single unified tune that, again, feels like more than just the conclusion to one album. An orchestral prelude builds cinematically to one of Terry Kath's more heart-felt compositions, providing an easy if bittersweet match for any of Chicago's earlier masterpieces.
And that might have been it for the band. But in early 1978, Tonight Show band leader Doc Severinson encouraged remaining band members in their determination to carry on in Kath's memory. So they were back to the studio, producing Hot Streets well before the year was up. For the first time featuring an actual album title, Hot Streets also featured photos of the group on its cover with their iconic logo shrunken almost to hiding.
Terry Kath's soulful crooning, distinctive harmonizing, blazing guitar and memorable compositions are all sorely missed. Gone also, for the first time, is James William Guercio as producer.
All that said, Hot Streets is an entertaining listen, if infected by the disco craze at the time, especially the lead-off Alive Again, dedicated to Kath's memory. Little Miss L is a fun gritty rocker (albeit including Bee Gees harmonizing), Gone Long Gone continues to mine their Beatles inspiration in an especially George Harrison groove, and Ain't It Time contains an infectious refrain.
But there is an indefinable something lacking that might go back to Kath and maybe even the departure of Guercio. While their earlier, less progressive recordings also featured exclusively short tracks, the track sequencing lent a feeling of unity not found in Hot Streets beyond the typical follow-up of slow-tempo with up-tempo tracks (and vice-versa). Moreover, even the chocolate bar album contained occasional departures from strict verse-refrain orthodoxy in a manner absent from Hot Streets save for an instrumental exploration in the title track.
Chicago has continued recording new material, their latest effort, Now, released in 2014. And wading through the box set of their first ten studio albums has proven a wonderful, recommended experience. But am conflicted about trying their second box set which covers their second ten studio works (up through just before Now). Numerous personnel changes, record label pressures to record compositions from outside the group, even a short-lived effort to force the horn section out of their arrangements - all that doesn't paint an encouraging picture.
On the other hand, volume two includes Stone Of Sisyphus, recorded in 1993 but not released until 2008 because Warner Brothers Records feared the group had reasserted too much artistic autonomy over that particular work.
Bottom line: If I do eventually succumb to temptation/curiosity, I won't keep it a secret!