The Very Best Of Chicago: Only The Beginning
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©1970 & 2003 WARNER STRATEGIC MARKETING,
WARNER MUSIC GROUP, an AOL TIME WARNER COMPANY
Shortly after the release of their impressive
self-titled 1969 debut, the group known as Chicago Transit Authority
lost their Transit Authority
but gained the world as, simply, CHICAGO.
Lest we forget, this band
made their good name the old-fashioned way: They earned it.
And like so many great rock 'n' rollers in the days before video killed the radio star,
they largely earned their reputation in live concerts.
"After the success of the first record, we went and toured every college in the United States",
founding CHICAGO member Walt Parazaider
recalls. "We were working 300 days a year on the road. So the second album we did it not only in New York and L.A., we sort of did it on the fly"
That hardworking lineup the horn section of Parazaider
(woodwinds and backing vocals), James Pankow
(trombone), and Lee Loughnane
(trumpet and background vocals);
(keyboards and lead vocals); Terry Kath
(guitarist and lead vocals); Peter Cetera
(bass and lead vocals); and Daniel Seraphine
(drums) had good reason to be exhausted in the summer of 1969.
But even after those serious road tests (living two to a room at a HOLIDAY INN near you), the band was still excited when the time came to make their second album, titled Chicago
(known today as Chicago II
"We had gotten our feet wet with the first album", Pankow
"We had a little more confidence. We had a little better idea of who we were. And I think we approached our music with a little more purpose.
We became more collaborative in terms of arrangements and a little more daring in terms of exploratory aspects of the music.
The time spent together on the first record and looking inward to who we all were musically was more evident on the second album."
Though the double-LP would eventually yield a few of the group's greatest hits ever "Make Me Smile", "Colour My World"
, and "25 Or 6 To 4"
and peak at #4 on the POP ALBUM chart, what ultimately marks CHICAGO is its remarkable compositional ambition.
Indeed, "Smile" and "World"
were both written by Pankow
not as calculated hit singles, but as movements within a larger piece he titled Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon
"Having hits wasn't on my mind when I wrote Ballet - not at all"
, the composer explains.
"I wrote it as a 15-minute piece of work. Our producer, James Guercio, broke it down into titled movements.
I mean, I titled them, but I didn't imagine them being listed on the album. But I guess Guercio might have seen the potential of some of the parts.
I had absolutely no idea. My desire was to emulate the great classical composers and put it into a pop perspective. I wasn't thinking. How many hit singles can I stick in this thing ?
That was the furthest thing from my mind."
Pankow recalls that much of Ballet
was written "between beds at HOLLIDAY INNs. Those were the magical, formative days. I'd been listening to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.
And it inspired this arpeggio that became "Colour My World". It was late at night, and I asked Walt to grab his flute. And I asked Walt, 'Is it any good ?'"
Parazaider picks up the rest of the story: "I liked it and was trying to be positive.
So I just looked at Jimmy, and I said, 'It will make me famous.'"
Robert Lamm remembers CHICAGO rehearsing Ballet
in Atlanta during a rare day off.
"We were touring nonstop"
, he says, "and obviously for any artist their first record is the culmination of everything they've done up until then. Between the first and the second album, you've had so much less time. We didn't really feel pressure, but we felt like we'd better have some music ready and rehearsed."
The material that made CHICAGO was uniformly strong. Beyond the record's most familiar tracks, other highlights include Lamm
's "Wake Up Sunshine", Kath
's "The Road", Pankow
's opening, "Movin' In"
, and Peter Cetera
writing debut for the band, "Where Do We Go From Here"
. This displayed another growing strength: Compositional responsibilities were increasingly being shared within the group.
"We were all grateful that we were all writing", Lamm
says. "We were grateful we all had so much to bring to the table. It was always fun to see what Terry was writing, what Jimmy was writing, and to rehearse and kind of workshop the whole thing.
It was always a kick. So there was no anxiety over whose song was going to get on or not."
There was more anxiety over the issue of clipping CHICAGO's unusually long numbers to garner more airplay.
"Radio people expressed interest in "Make Me Smile", but the most they would play was, like, three minutes", Lee Loughnane
"We'd released three singles from the first album, and radio would not play them. So having radio express interest in "Make Me Smile", we succumbed to the fact that we were going to have to edit some of our material to get on AM radio."
And so it was that CHICAGO scored their first hit, in the summer of 1970.
Peaking at #9, "Make Me Smile"
was the band's Top 10 debut. The floodgates opened almost immediately. Soon CHICAGO was all over the radio.
By fall the Lamm
-penned "25 Or 6 To 4"
would take them even higher, reaching #4 that September.
The wonderfully intense rocker, now an affirmed rock-genre classic, has been mined for profundity ever since.
's explanations that the title referred to the time of day and that the song was about the writing process itself, "25 Or 6 To 4"
has been interpreted by many to be some sort of existential riddle.
"It is what it is", Lamm
offers, "and people who [get] caught up
in trying to overanalyze it or read deep meanings into it is just kind of funny".
It was difficult not to read deep meanings into the anti-Vietnam War "It Better End Soon"
or the LP's original liner notes, which concluded with the following dedication:
"With this album, we dedicate ourselves, our futures and our energies to the people of the revolution ... And the revolution in all of its forms."
Asked about those comments more than 30 years later, Robert Lamm
had this to say: "There definitely was a cultural and generational revolution.
And I think the knuckleheaded view that most of us had of what a revolution is certainly did not happen. But perhaps a much more subtle and profound revolution is what occurred."
In the end, what seems most profound is the remarkable harmony at work within CHICAGO at this point in their career.
In fact, the band's first two hits were prime examples of that camaraderie both were given by their respective writers to other members to interpret vocally.
's "25 Or 6 To 4"
, while Kath
handled lead duties on "Make Me Smile"
and "Colour My World"
, two tracks penned by Pankow
"I basically cast those songs rather than try and sing everything myself", Lamm
"We've gotten away from doing that, but there was a good feeling of sharing then. The original guys in the band then definitely did have a mentality of doing what's best for the team."
"I'm not a lead vocalist", Pankow says of his decision. "So it became an audition in the studio.
Peter sang "Make Me Smile", and it didn't light up the buttons. Robert sang it, and it wasn't quite right.
It was like papa bear's side of the bed was too hard;
mama's side was too soft. Then Terry stepped up to the plate and bingo that was the voice.
It was a sing-off. When it was the right voice, everyone knew it. A lot of what we did then was flying by the seat of our pants."
Perhaps, but what a great flight. By early 1971 CHICAGO was in such hot demand that radio went back to Chicago Transit Authority
scoring hits with "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is ?"
(#7), and "Questions 67 And 68"
As it tends to do, success came at a price. "The same audience that listened to the first album and called it underground when those same songs were rereleased and became hits,
they were telling us we had sold out", Loughnane
says. "Which is an impossibility with the same music."
But then again, these were days when CHICAGO seemed to be doing the impossible on a regular basis.
- David Wild
David Wild is a contributing editor of ROLLING STONE and host of BRAVO's Musicians