Graded on a Curve: Chicago, Chicago

1970 was a dark year in American history. Students opposed to the Vietnam War were being gunned down by the National Guard at Kent State. Richard Nixon was ordering the invasion of Cambodia. U.S. soldiers were massacring the people of My Lai. Hard hats were attacking student demonstrators protesting Kent State. The first Ford Pinto was rolling off the assembly line, just itching to explode.

But I have saved the worst for last. On January 26, 1970 the band Chicago (shortened from the original Chicago Transit Authority) released its sophomore album, Chicago (or Chicago II as it’s sometimes royally called; these guys didn’t put out albums, they put out successors to the throne). There are atrocities and then there are atrocities, and this double LP of “horn-based rock,” upped a notch for awful on the basis of its classical pretensions, is about as atrocious as they come. The Weathermen were then in the business of blowing things up. Why they didn’t blow up this clear threat to public safety is beyond me.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m prejudiced; from Electric Flag to Blood Sweat & Tears right on down to the lesser-known likes of Cold Blood and The Ides of March, I have always assiduously avoided rock bands with horn sections of the sort that don’t just jump in and wail, but play careful, jazz-inflected arrangements that stand front and center in virtually every song. Never put the horns up front is my motto; you’ll end up sounding like a precociously good high school jazz band.

I’m not opposed to horns in my rock’n’roll; I simply don’t want to listen to a rock band whose chief sources of inspiration are the big bands of Glenn Miller and Jimmy Dorsey. It’s sordid and unhip; I can’t listen to Blood Sweat & Tears or Chicago without imagining them stinting at some garish showroom in a Vegas casino, wowing the socks off the high-rolling Middle American squares out for an “edgy” night of “toe-tapping musical entertainment” designed to allow them to tell themselves, ‘I’m hip! I just saw Chicago!”

Chicago is less a collection of songs than a study in pomposity, including as it does no less than three “song cycles,” one of them aptly entitled “It Better End Soon” (it doesn’t). The latter consists of “movements,” and if that doesn’t scare you it should. You can tell much about an album by its song titles, and Chicago includes such frighteners as “Poem for the People” (very democratic of them), “Memories of Love” (it comes in four parts and is easily assembled), “Fancy Colours” (they evidently learned how to spell in England), and “Where Do We Go From Here?” (down, would be my educated guess).

Where do I start? “Memories of Love” is rank symphonic mulch from “Prelude” to end, and I can’t imagine that anyone not nurturing fond memories of their stint in their high school marching band would ever want to listen to it. It’s a rock-free Twilight Zone of horns, woodwinds, and schmalz, and if you think the human voice can save it, Terry Kath shows up to gamely prove you’re wrong.

“It Better End Soon” is somewhat better; it opens on an ersatz funky note, and because it’s funk and not rock the ever-present horn section isn’t quite so irksome. Kath, who would famously go on to shoot himself in the head, plays some decent if not galvanizing guitar, and even tosses off some arguably soulful vocals (his voice is the only thing I’ve ever liked about the band).

Unfortunately, the first part of the song dissolves into a long flute solo by Walter (Walter) Parazaider, and the only flute solo I’ve ever liked is the one Ron Burgundy plays in Anchorman. Then the horns come in en masse, and we’re in (gadzooks!) Benny Goodman territory. Kath does his best to lend the song some interest with some primal grunting, but in vain, and it doesn’t help when he commences to lay down some lame hippy jive along the lines of “Can’t you see what’s going down, etc.” It’s a moment of “heavy social relevance” that rings false; these guys sound about as committed to furthering the counterculture as Staff Sargeant Barry Sadler, the guy who bequeathed us “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” Change the world my ass; the only thing these guys sound up to changing is their accountant, in order to increase their income stream.

“Where Do We Go From Here?” is distinguished only by its merciful lack of brass blare; “Fancy Colours” opens with some “Black Water” school wind chimey effects only to devolve into a song that is nothing but brass blare, bouncy little “flute moment” notwithstanding. “25 or 6 to 4” is, of course, “25 or 6 to 4.” It’s got that big guitar riff and could almost be called a rock song if the horn section wasn’t there to splooge and blurt all over it. I can imagine some young dad, whose only concession to hipness was sideburns and a pair of earth shoes, thinking it the cat’s meow.

“In the Country” is about as country as a skyscraper; Kath vocally channels Jimi Hendrix, the boys come in with some street corner doo wop, and the Doobie Brothers are just around the corner. “Poem for the People” is a tone poem of breathtaking pretentiousness; a plinking piano is followed by some horns that sound like they’re heralding the arrival of King Henry VIII, and I’ll be damned if I know where the hoi polloi fits into all of this. “The Road” features the loathsome Peter Cetera showing off his vocal “chops” and has about as much to do with the road as a cheap Holiday Inn cocktail lounge. “Movin’ In” ain’t movin’ up but I’ll take Kath’s vocals over Cetera’s any day; the man deserved better than Chicago and that’s a fact.

As for the song sequence “Ballad for a Girl from Buchannon,” it’s famous for harboring “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World” (do these guys really think they’re English?), the latter of which was Thee Official Slow Dance Song of my benighted generation (yes, I’m that old). “Make Me Smile” works thanks to Kath’s impassioned vocals; “Colour My World” works because it appeals to the inner sap in just about everyone. Between these songs you have “West Virginia Fantasies,” a boring slice of jazz-fusion blurt that has absolutely nothing to do with West Virginia, whose citizens want nothing to do with effete jazz-fusion blurt. You also have “So Much to Say, So Much,” which blows chunks melody-wise and features the profound lyric, “We have to live for today.” “Anxiety’s Moment” is all horn and nothing but horn and may be the most apt song title of all time. “To Be Free” is a bland exercise in horn vamp that to its credit only enslaves you for a minute and change. As for “Now More Than Ever,” it’s a reprise of “Make You Smile,” and is almost finger-snapping.

Not everybody loved Chicago; The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, for one, dismissed it as “sterile and stupid.” I think he was wrong about the first part; had the LP truly been sterile it never would have spawned Chicago III, Chicago IV, or Chicago XXXVI for that matter. With the encouragement of a perverse public Chicago would go on to become an institution, and as a great man once said, who wants to live in an institution? Chicago was the icing on the cake of one truly awful year. Where were the Weathermen when we needed them?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D-

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  • Bulletholes

    I’ll slow dance with you big boy! Make me smile!

    • Michael Little

      I like the beginning and ending of the song cycle about the girl from Buchannon, wherever that is. The stuff in the middle I could do without. I’d have much preferred that they slapped beginning and ending together and let Terry Kath wail in the middle. That, I think, would have made for a great song. And I do love Kath’s vocals. Like I said in my review, he was the best thing about Chicago. A solo LP would have been worth hearing!

      • Bulletholes

        When you put it all in context, for us in the pre-teen crowd, whose musical tastes to that point had been the soundtrack for mary poppins, and the Monkee’s,and more of the Monkee’s, with a little Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds thrown in, and the Osmonds, and Jackson 5, and my personal favorite Tommy Roe, Chicago was a move in the right direction.
        It was a gateway to the harder stuff like Don Mclean and 3 Dog Night.lol

        • Michael Little

          When you put it that way, it’s impossible to disagree. I loved “Song Sung Blue.” Chicago was practically Hendrix in comparison!

          • Bulletholes

            Haha….Brother loves Show!
            Chicago was one of the first shows that I had friends that went to. They came back having gotten their first whiff of pot. If Chicago hadn’t had that brass section, I bet little Jimmy’s parents wouldn’t have let them go.
            ‘Mom, I want to go see Chicago at the Agora on Friday Night”
            ‘What is that, some kind of rock and roll outfit?”
            “Gee no mom, its just a couple guys with a trombone and a sax and a flute”
            “Oh sure Jimmy, you can go to that”

          • Michael Little

            Let us not forget, however, that I studied video of concerts before watching these reviews, and the people at these concerts looked like college age hippies! With beards and beads! And lots of them were hip black dudes who REALLY should have known better. It was depressing.

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