There was a brief moment in the mid-90s when the band Chicago only took a backseat to my perennial favourites the Bee Gees. That was before I really discovered artists like U2, the Commodores, Hall & Oates, Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Prince, Coldplay, Sheryl Crow, the Temptations etc and before rediscovering childhood heroes like Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson and Simon & Garfunkel / Paul Simon.
In all honesty I could add dozens of “etc’s” to these lists of favourite artists because as a perpetual student of popular music history you can’t mention Stevie Wonder without feeling guilty at omitting Curtis Mayfield, nor the Commodores without Earth, Wind & Fire. Or as is clear, mentioning Simon & Garfunkel without clarifying you also love Paul Simon solo. And on that note, Art Garfunkel’s solo career produced two of my all-time most played tear-jerkers: All I Know and Scissors Cut.
While they no longer own and occupy my #2*, there’s always a place in my all-time top 20 for Chicago and every time I return to them after a small layoff, I’m amazed at how quickly it’s possible to forget how good they were. Globally, is there an equal parts more successful / more overlooked band than Chicago?
Why is this even a question? Chicago have just released their 23rd studio album Now and with live collections, greatest hits and three (!) Christmas albums included, this is something silly like album #36. Formed in 1967, Chicago were the most prolific American singles act in the States during the 70s and all told they placed 20 songs in the US top 10.
Number one singles and albums, endless platinum certificates and due to the fragmentation of radio programming, a good likelihood most people under 30 only know Chicago as a city. And yet under 30s have all heard of the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Abba, the Bee Gees and other acts who dominated the charts in the 70s.
|Chicago’s lates album Now / XXXVI.|
I’d argue this is because Chicago have retrospectively been regarded as too soft for rock radio and too rock for many adult contemporary / easy formats. Admittedly, people still know Saturday In The Park, Just You ‘N’ Me, If You Leave Me Now, Baby What A Big Surprise, Hard To Say I’m Sorry, You’re The Inspiration and Hard Habit To Break, but that list is merely a third of Chicago’s US top 10s.
All strong songs, but it’s interesting what songs fall off radio playlists as years tick by. At least from a New Zealand radio perspective, the only times in recent years I’ve heard songs like Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is, Beginnings, Will You Still Love Me, I’ve Been Searching So Long and 25 Or 6 To 4 is when I’ve played them myself. It was great to see Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is in American Hustle though – an excellent 70-set film with possibly an even better soundtrack.
Chicago were also a band who managed to be terrifically famous for their first 20 years of releases (1969-89) without having terrifically famous band-members. This is even taking into account the increased profile of Peter Cetera just before and after having gone solo. In hindsight, the lack of celebrity even for the more prominent members like Robert Lamm (keyboards, vocals), Terry Kath (guitar, vocals – died 1978) and Bill Champlin (keyboards, vocals – joined 1981) may’ve counted against Chicago’s 21st century currency.
After all, how else do you explain a band who mixed jazz, rock, pop and soul to the tune of 20 US top 10 hits, five #1 LPs and record sales above 100 million units still not being in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Chicago wrote cerebral, socially conscious songs, shocked their fans when they released single LPs rather than doubles, included giant fold-out posters with their albums that were more pieces of art than band promotion and had one of popular music’s greatest horn sections in James Pankow, Walter Parazaider and Lee Loughnane. And the logo – you can’t forget the logo! Arguably the most consistently cleverly used band logo in music.
For an ensemble seemingly anything but straight pop, straight pop was also something they could also nail – just listen to hit-laden 80s LPs Chicago 17 or Chicago 19. Perhaps they did whatever “straight pop” is so efficiently people forgot the rest of the catalogue? Maybe none of this matters when you realise all of what Chicago achieved and the reality of what is still a solid live fan-base.
Focusing just on their most golden decade – the 70s – there are five clear cut favourite songs of mine by Chicago. When trying to make a case for why this is a band too special to be forgotten, these are my home-run picks:
Song 1: Feelin’ Stronger Everyday (1973)
I can’t think of another 70s US top 10 remotely like this oddball slice of jazz-inflected rock ‘n’ soul. The horns make it sound jazzy, Cetera’s high tenor gives it a soulful feel, the Fender Rhodes is pure R&B, the fuzzy guitar combined with the faintly-heard Rolling Stones’ aping “Jumping Jack Flash is a gas gas gas” is rock and altogether it’s quite wonderfully bizarre.
Song 2: Happy Man (1974)
The soulful side of Chicago is perhaps underplayed when songs like the unplugged-sounding, percussion-heavy Happy Man are so far up the Curtis Mayfield alley.
Song 3: I’ve Been Searching So Long (1974)
Written by James Pankow and sung by Peter Cetera, this has always struck me as the most cinematic of Chicago’s singles. The 1974 version of Cetera isn’t quite the assertive lead singer of 1976’s #1 If You Leave Me Now, but taken as a whole this US #9 is arguably a more dynamic song. What seems like an otherwise unassuming ballad gets turned on its head at around the three-minute mark for an enthralling final 90 seconds.
Song 4: Little One (1977)
Before his death from a bizarre, possibly accidental self-inlifcted shooting in 1978, Chicago’s Terry Kath was regarded as a lead guitarist of such proficiency to have once won over fans like Jimi Hendrix. From his final album with Chicago, Chicago XI, Little One is a heartbreaking tale of life on the road with lyrics from drummer Danny Seraphine, sung by Kath including: “Don’t live in fear of the future, ‘cos I will always be there.”
Song 5: Dialogue Part 1 & 2 (1972)
If the band behind You’re The Inspiration haven’t previously inspired you, open yourself to a song that thematically should be mentioned in the same breath as Cat Stevens’ infinitely better known Father And Son. Where Stevens’ 1970 song is written as a conversation between a parent and his child, Chicago’s Lamm-written 1972 conversation is a lyrical tennis match between two university students. One student (sung by Kath) has a strong political conscience while the other (Cetera) is apolitical. 42 years on, Dialogue is as relevant as ever – see below the video clip for the lyrics.
*For the past 15 years musicians like Bruce Springsteen, U2, Stevie Wonder, Hall & Oates, Commodores / Lionel Richie, Fleetwood Mac and Paul Simon / Simon & Garfunkel have all battled it out for the coveted (in my head only) Roxborogh #2 artist position.