“Chicago III" (1971) was Chicago’s third straight double-LP in two years. Later in 1971, they would release the 4-LP Chicago at Carnegie Hall. Impressive debut, if you ask me. Ten LPs, totaling 20 sides of music from 1969-1971.
The consensus is mixed on III. Some fans love its obvious musical experimentation while others hate the mix or the overlong songs. In order to get my take on III, you have to know how I break down Chicago’s catalog. There were the Originals, that is all the music from 1967-1977, from their first LP (Chicago Transit Authority) through Chicago XI. In January 1977, original guitarist/vocalist Terry Kath (the soul of Chicago) accidentally shot himself. So, no matter how good Chicago would go on to become, there was always a tinge of loss and what-if.
Of the decade that I call the Originals, Chicago at Carnegie Hall (usually given the moniker IV) marked a natural break. After IV, Chicago released its first single LP, the phenomenal Chicago V (1972), which walked the tightrope of long pieces and radio-friendly shorter songs (“State of the Union” to “Saturday in the Park”). Chicago VI (1973) was more even more radio-friendly (“Just You n Me” and “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday”). By the time Chicago VII (1974) was released--the band’s last double-LP to date--Chicago had become a radio-friendly band. How did the seven musicians of the band know this? Lots of fans dismissed LP #1 of Chicago VII, which had long instrumental tracks with more musical experimentation. LP #2, showcasing such classics as “Call on Me,” “Searchin’ So Long,” and “Wishing You Were Here,” got much more attention from the casual listener and radio. Fans who attended the concerts grew bored with these longer passages and Chicago learned from that. You could even make the case that it hamstrung them, but that’s a discussion for another day.
All this is to allow me to put Chicago III in context. While LP#1 of Chicago VII was their attempt to *return* to their experimental time, Chicago III was made when they were in the *middle* of it. You can tell they didn’t care about song lengths because they made three suites of music (a longer piece of music broken up like traditional classical compositions). And with four sides of music, only side 1-LP 1 contained no suite. In their minds, they were creating extended musical statements, not necessarily extended solos.
Chicago III was, to my mind, the last record they made *for themselves* until 1993’s great twenty-second album, Stone of Sisyphus. But, back in 1971, the guys of Chicago did whatever they wanted. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young-type song? Check: “Flight 602.” Classically-oriented horn piece? Check: “Elegy.” Environmental song? Check: “Mother,” a fascinating horn piece where trombonist Jimmy Pankow solos alongside…Jimmy Pankow. In the live version, all three horns solo in a chaotic style meant to evoke pollution. (According to my wife, they succeed.) Latin-inspired number? Check: “Happy Cause I’m Going Home,” a wonderful, mostly instrumental piece with an extended flute solo. Social commentary? Check: Elegy, the Travel Suite, and Robert Lamm’s reading of “When All the Laughter Dies in Sorrow.” Killer guitar solo by Terry Kath? Check: "Sing a Mean Tune Kid," a nine-minute track often expanded to fifteen in the concerts of the time. A couple of radio-friendly pieces? Check with “Lowdown” and “Free,” the latter of which includes one of the best horn breaks in all of Chicago’s oeuvre.
And then there's that album cover design of the logo. It evokes life in America during the final years of Vietnam, tattered, tarnished, but still flying. The album insert had all seven band members dressed in various military uniforms posing in Arlington National Cemetery.
How do I rank III? While I have never ranked it among my Top 5 favorite records (CTA, II, Stone of Sisyphus, V, 17), it is in the top 10, usually jockeying with VII for positions number 6 or 7. In short, Chicago III has a little bit of everything. Some consider this diversity to be the album’s undoing--there are other, more streamlined and precise LPs, even in the early catalog. I agree. Chicago III is a bit untidy. To me, however, that is one of its graces.