Thursday, March 31, 2011

Forgotten Music: Stone of Sisyphus by Chicago

When the seven guys formed the band that became Chicago, they had a mandate: create a sound that was a rock band with horns. And they did. Brilliantly. The first five years of their recorded output, Chicago walked the tightrope between longer pieces and radio-friendly shorter songs. Artistic craftsmen that they were, they knew how to write the three-minute pop song with the best of them. And, obviously, as the hits kept piling up, the pressure from the record labels to write singles kept coming. Then, when they had their first #1 hit, wouldn’t you know it was a ballad. From then on, for better or worse, Chicago became a ballad band. Sure, the fans knew the truth, but the casual radio audience (and the record executives) knew only one thing.

This kind of pressure had side effects. Outside writers were brought in to write a “Chicago ballad.” The horns became less of the fourth vocal component of the band’s sound and was relegated to the background, when they were even used. The composition of the band changed, whether through death or departure. Through it all, Chicago adapted. They made disco records that sounded pretty good. They incorporated the 1980s synth sound into their music and moved forward. And, as good as those 1980s records were, some folks got the impression that their heart was not in it.

When Peter Cetera left the band in 1985, the second replacement guitarist, Chris Pinnick, also left. Into the band came two fresh faces, Jason Scheff (bass and vocals) and Dawayne Bailey (guitars). Bailey was something to behold to suburban teenagers like myself. He looked like something straight out of Woodstock and had the stage presence to boot. Plus, he shredded like Van Halen. So, for the teenagers in the 1980s who thought that Chicago 16 was the band’s first album and that Chicago only sang ballads, the live concerts showed another side. Once again, Chicago was a rock band with horns. Don’t think so? Try “25 or 6 to 4” (1989); "Stay the Night" (1993); or “Along Comes a Woman” (1990).

But on record, it was still the same old soulless thing everyone had come to expect. Until 1993.

In 1991, Chicago released Twenty-1. It was a typical 1980s Chicago record complete with saccharin ballads and good album cuts brimming over with horns. During that summer, I, like other die-hard fans, couldn’t wait to hear those songs live. They never came. In the pre-internet days, we didn’t know why the band didn’t perform any songs live. And the one song they did—“You Come to My Senses” on Arsenio Hall’s show—was subpar. And that’s putting it nicely.

What we now know is that the members of Chicago had had enough. They wanted to make a record that *they* wanted to make, like they did back in 1971. And they found a producer, Peter Wolf, who shared their vision. In one interview, Walt Parazaider said that Wolf told him to bring all his woodwinds: all his saxes, flutes, clarinets. In that interview, Walt’s grin was huge. What was also huge was the enthusiasm within the band. You don’t believe me? Just listen.

The album that emerged was to be Chicago 22. It had heart and it had soul. The song “Stone of Sisyphus” kicks the socks off a lot of the material from the 1980s. Shoot, if you closed your eyes, you might even think that the seven young musicians called Chicago Transit Authority had transported forward from 1969 to 1993. Sappy love songs have fake emotions but I dare anyone to listen to the song “Bigger Than Elvis” and not get a lump in their throat. You see, Jason Scheff’s dad, Jerry, was the bass player for Elvis. Yeah, The Elvis. The song is about a young Jason watching TV, seeing his dad, and thinking it was his show.

Kick-butt rock songs and emotional ballads not enough for you? Well, how about funk? Mah-Jong, written by Jason Scheff but sung by the blue-eyed soul crooner Bill Champlin goes where no other Chicago song has gone before. And Jason really lets his bass playing shine here. Speaking of songs where no other Chicago song has gone before, how about rap? That’s right, rap. Granted, it ain’t Eminem or anything, but it’s Chicago does rap. And it doesn’t sound wrong. It sounds all right, too, to say nothing about the lyrics.

Lyrics. Remember back in the day when Chicago wrote songs wishing Richard Nixon would quit (“A Song for Richard and His Friends”), the plight of pollution (“Mother”), the burden of war (“Dialogue”) or the general dilapidated state of America (“What Is This World Comin' To?”)? Well, that’s okay. No one else does, either. They stopped recording those kinds of songs by the mid 70s. Sure, tunes like “We Can Stop the Hurtin’” surfaced every now and then but they were few and far between. Not on SOS. Those kinds of songs came roaring back, with “Cry for the Lost” and “All the Years.” The latter song has a bit of Chicago’s own history throughout the lyrics and, in a bridge section late in the song, a direct link back to their first record.

So happy were the guys of Chicago to be making a record they liked that they even penned a song lambasting the modern recording industry. “Plaid” told it like it was for all of us who didn’t know. Remember when I wrote that Walt was asked to bring in all his woodwind instruments? You got bass clarinet on this tune. Bass clarinet in a rock song! Can someone say Miles Davis and “Bitches Brew”?

When it was all said and done, all recorded and put on tape, the album that was to have been Chicago 22 had it all. They loved it, they were proud of it. They even decided to name the album “Stone of Sisyphus” instead of Chicago 22. It was to have been something different, something special. It was, to me, the most personal album Chicago had made since their last double LP, Chicago VII (when they basically made an LP for themselves [1st] and an LP for the radio [2nd]). SOS was also the most adventurous CD since VII. They were ready to redefine themselves as a rock band.

Give you one guess what the suits thought. Upon listening to this CD, the suits knocked Chicago to its knees. The suits shelved the CD because “it didn't sound like Chicago.” I bet these were the suits who thought 16 was Chicago’s first album. When the suits locked the demo tapes in a vault, never to be heard by anyone, some of Chicago’s heart and soul stayed in that vault. The band's reaction was where we are now. Dawayne left and, taking nothing away from his replacement, Keith Howland, Chicago ceased to be a *rock* band with horns.

The next two releases, Night and Day: Big Band, and Chicago 25 (The Christmas Album), demonstrated Chicago’s incredible talent for arranging and performing. The rest of the 1990s saw the release of two greatest hits packages and a live CD, each album coupled with two new songs. These songs were good, mind you, but were cut from the “now traditional Chicago sound” mold. None of the songs had the fire that SOS had.

The bootlegs began filtering out in the mid 1990s. I’ll admit that I acquired one. When some of the tracks made their way onto foreign CDs, I snatched those up, too. I did anything to get good sounding copies of these songs. And I took great joy, tremendous joy, in playing certain cuts of the album and asking people to guess who was singing. Even thought they knew me and my love of Chicago, they rarely guessed right. You see, Stone of Sisyphus was a unique album. It was an album by eight guys plus their producer making music that they liked. Not the suits. Not even their more recent fans. This was an album that lived and breathed freedom, the freedom they used to have back in the early days.

I still consider Chicago’s first two records to be their best. I put SOS at #3. It’s that good. And, with it being a bootleg, I could rarely share it with anyone other than to play songs in the car or at home. I never ever thought I’d get a chance to go to the store and buy an official copy of this monumental album.

This forgotten album found official release in 2008. Eighteen years later, Stone of Sisyphus is still my third-favorite Chicago album. It was the return of the Rock Band With Horns mentality. Chicago 22 may not have burned up the charts had it been released at the time, but the music was real. It was honest. It had heart. It had soul.

Isn’t that what we want from our music anyway?

11 comments:

George said...

I'm a fan of CHICAGO, too. STONE OF SISYPHUS might have been a little too upscale for the typical CHICAGO fan. But, it's a great album!

Perplexio said...

I was disappointed that Get On This got left off the official release in 2008 and the mix on that Rhino version left a bit to be desired.

I still remember eagerly looking forward to March 22, 1994 so I could finally by another NEW Chicago album. March 22nd turned into April 12th, April 12th turned into April 26th, April 26th turned into an ambiguous "September," and then sometime in October or November the band announced the album had been shelved.

I received a decent quality boot of the album on casette in May 1995 that I played the hell out of. In 1999, I received a better quality boot of the album on CD from a fellow collector... Played the hell out of that one too. Heck that's still my "go to" CD when I want to listen to SOS. I think I've listened to the Rhino Records release maybe 2 or 3 times.

Richard R. said...

I consider CTA to be the band's best album (saw them live at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A., in a concert with Procol Harum and Love), and II to be the next, and truthfully, after that I didn't bother much, though I had really loved those first two. It seemed to me they became - as we said at the time - a sellout band and the quality fell off, and off...

This is an album I have not heard, but your excellent review I'm going to track it down. Thanks, Scott. Too bad the eventual release didn't measure up to the better boot' verssion.

Perplexio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Perplexio said...

I posted a review of SOS (the bootleg) a few years back before the official Rhine Records release. Feel free to check that out if you're interested.

Charlie said...

I have a sterling copy of a bootleg ofSOS I got free from a fan a few years ago. I find a couple of the songs odd but over all it's a good, if not great album. I didn't buy the official version of the CD when it was released 3 years ago because I've been told it didn't sound any better than the bootleg and because they left of Dawayne's song, "Get On This." No explanation was ever given why. Except for 16 and 25 it's the best thing they recorded after they left Columbia.

Perplexio said...

Charlie raises a great point about 16. I've read a lot of reviews of both the bootleg and legitimate releases of SOS that claim it's the best album since XI.

I'd say 2nd best since XI. 16 is very underrated. It's got the polish and brilliance of 17, but it also has something 17 lacked. A hunger bubbling under the surface. After the success of Hard to Say I'm Sorry they knew what they had to do to build on that success. Before that though, they'd hit rock bottom. They wanted to succeed but there was no guarantee of that success and you can hear it in the music. The hunger on 16 was replaced by a complacency on 17 that only seemed to grow with 18, 19, and Twenty-1. SOS recaptured that hunger that had existed on 16. What sets 16 a little higher than SOS in my mind is the vocal chemistry of Cetera and Champlin. While Scheff and Champlin also had a good vocal chemistry it didn't compare to the chemistry Bill shared with Peter.

The closest I've heard Bill come to replicating that chemistry has been with Toto vocalist, Joseph Williams. (On Shine On from the West Coast All-Stars first CD and on a live bootleg I have of Champlin performing Satisfaction and sharing the vocals with Williams).

Scott Parker said...

George - Interesting word choice there. Never would have thought about it, but I like it.

Perplexio (1) - Me, too! And, like you, I've kept the original, best bootleg as my only version of SOS. For awhile there, I used the versions from the Japanese HoC releases in place of the other, booted versions. I've officially deleted 32 from my Mac. Ditto for that song from 26 with Michael McDonald and "Feel" w/o horns from 30.

Richard - CTA *is* my favorite album and, I think, their best. Give SOS a listen. Think it'll surprise you.

Charlie and Perplexio - Wholeheartedly agree that 25 is a fantastic album. Not sold on 16. I say this as a child of the 80s who learned about Chicago from 16 and 17. The only time I've heard hunger circa 1982 is that Star Sessions live performance. You can tell from the interviews that these guys are READY to recapture the world's attention. The versions of 16 songs live supersede the studio versions. I still find 16 to be tentative. XIV, for all its faults, at least had the guts to try something like "Manipulation" (even if it did give us "Birthday Boy"). "Bad Advice" live is so much better than the studio and "Follow Me" is, arguably, the best Champlin song in Chicago. I may have to break out 16 today and give it another listen. Funny thing is that I rarely, if ever, listen to the 80s version of Chicago anymore. I'm much more interested in anything pre-1980.

Robyn said...

It can't succeed in fact, that's what I believe.

Roland said...

I may sound a little off topic but I have a question for the die hard Chicago fans.

I'm 50. I discovered the band after reading a review about Terry Kath death. I bought their last released production witch was Hot Streets.

I remember I listened it over and over, basically because I'm a rythm and blues & horn sections lover. My musical tastes were various at that time, There was this huge new musical era coming from england (I live in europe) and I skipped Chicago. Later on, I was a little interested with what I heard from the band as I hate the polished over produced sound of the eighties.

I came back to Chicago in a kind of strange way. I always was a huge Zappa fan and I track everything about him and all the musicians who had the chance to work with him. That's how I learned that Peter Wolf who used to play and tour with Zappa in 77-79 has been the producer of this mysterious never released album Chicago recorded in the early 90's.

So I got interested to the band again, there are not so many new things to get excited about nowadays. I listened to all of their stuff again, back to the beginnings to quote Robert Lamm.

Ok, I appreciate greatly the bulk of albums that etablished the band. I Agree too that 16 is a nice mix, that SOS is a good creative album tho still over produced in my taste but there is my question: why nobody ever talks about Hot Streets, just as it was something to hide?

Now that I have a global vision of the musical adventure named Chicago, I still think that Hot Streets is a very interesting album. It look to me like a human album, not a big machine album. The sound is fresh and there are gems very rarely played by the band - I would quote the eponymous song Hot Streets - great rockers like Ain't It Time and of course Alive Again with the incredible Seraphine drum part.

So why is this album so underrated?

Scott Parker said...

Roland,

Thanks for stopping by and reading. I enjoy Hot Streets quite a bit. Here's my take on it: http://scottdparker.blogspot.com/2008/10/music-review-hot-streets-by-chicago.html

And thanks for explaining your road to Chicago. It's always fascinating to see how people arrive at their interests music they like.