Sunday, April 28, 2019

Chicago Transit Authority at 50

As a child of the 70s and a youth of the 80s, I had to come around to Chicago's origins. 1985 was the year I discovered Chicago. Chicago 17 was the then-current album, and it took me a moment to figure out why they titled it "17." For a time, I preferred the 80s sounds, but then I heard Chicago's first album. Now, fifty years later, it's my favorite of all their albums. Here's why.

A Spectacular Debut

First albums can be tricky and they usually come in one of two forms: fully-formed or the first step to something else. Take Bruce Springsteen, one of my favorite rockers. While his first two records (Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle) are good records for what they are, you could argue that it was only with his third record, Born to Run, that Bruce arrived. That is, he got on record what all the fuss about his live shows was all about. The same holds true for David Bowie, Genesis, Peter Gabriel (solo), and other rock acts throughout the years.

In the former category, certain acts spring from the speakers fully formed. The Beatles come to mind. Hendrix of course. The Doors, the Police, and KISS. The first records by these bands grab you by the collar and force you to reckon with them. This is what we are. We hope enjoy it. But if you don’t, get out of the way because someone else behind you does.

This attitude brims over during the 12-song sequence that is Chicago Transit Authority (1969). Regardless of all the changes that have occurred in the past fifty plus years, the eponymous Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) was, and still is, a force to be reckoned with. Some long-time listeners hear CTA now and lament the loss of one of the tightest bands in rock history. The seven members of Chicago, all in their early twenties, excelled at their instruments but, combined, created something greater than the sum of its parts. They created something magical. And it’s all there for the listening.

Seven Geniuses

When one thinks of Chicago, the one differentiator is the horn section. When the seven guys met, they had one mission: create a rock band with horns. Sure, other bands had horn sections but they were usually relegated to playing riffs in the background. Not so the trio of Walter Parazaider (saxes), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), and James Pankow (trombone). Together, they made up the fourth “voice” of Chicago, alongside Terry Kath’s soulful cry, Robert Lamm’s smooth-as-silk voice, and Peter Cetera’s clear-as-day tenor. Together on CTA, these four voices take you on a whirlwind tour of what is possible in music. And it all starts with an introduction.

"Introduction" Has It All

“Introduction” is my favorite Chicago song. Period. End of story. And it’s the first track on side one of CTA. It’s a biography song, sung by Terry Kath, that lets the listener know who Chicago is and what they are all about. This one song almost has it all (the only things missing are Lamm’s and Cetera’s vocals). After two verses, you get this great syncopated rhythmic bridge by the horns over Danny Seraphine’s wildly improvisational drumming. After a short break, the song segues into a nice ballad with the lead “vocal” handled by Pankow and his trombone. Loughnane’s trumpet picks up where Pankow ends, melodiously taking the listener through an imagined summer landscape. And, lest you think Cetera is only a good singer of ballads, just listen to his moving and melodic bass lines throughout this slow section. All of this is merely prelude to Chicago’s ace in the hole: Terry Kath’s frenetic guitar work. This is where words like "blistering" and "scorching" come to mind as Kath gives the listener merely a taste of what’s to come on the rest of the record (and the next ten years of live shows). The rest of the song returns to a last chorus and then, the coup de grace: all seven instruments (including keyboards) join in on a final chord. The essence of Chicago is really all there, in one song. The cool thing is Chicago gave you 11 more ‘bonus’ tracks.

Robert Lamm Songwriting Prowess

Lamm’s piano skills are featured in the intro to “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, a concert staple since the 60s and one of the most fun songs Chicago has ever recorded. Is there a more recognizable trumpet riff in rock music?

“Beginnings” is next, with Lamm’s silky vocals hovering over Kath’s 12-string guitar strumming. Beautiful as a California beach. I remember July 4, 1988, when Chicago headlined the day-long concert. Something like 300,000 people, all jammed in a park, sang this song with the band. So good. And then there's the dueling trumpet/trombone battle. Never, ever, gets old.

“Questions 67 and 68” establishes Cetera’s tenor as a counter to Lamm and Kath and demonstrates, again, how the horns form the fourth voice. The horn break in this tune is easily in my Top 5 of them all. If you listen to just that section, you'll hear a mini-song, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. You can also hear a missed saxophone note that they kept in, proof that these songs were mostly one-takes. Adds to the charm.

The Guitar of Terry Kath

The twofer of “Poem 58” and “Free Form Guitar” are a one-two punch in the gut at the brilliance of Terry Kath’s guitar playing.

As much as I love CTA now, I'll admit it took me a minute to come around to this song. But on a road trip back home to Houston in the late 90s, I listened to this song with new ears and it clicked. Now I understood. Now I got it. And this tune is among my favorite Kath songs. “Poem 58” is a ten-minute guitar jam surrounding a Lamm-sung love song. The background vocals of “I Do Love You” stayed in their subconscious, reemerging on the next record in “In the Country.”

“Free Form Guitar.” What can you say about that? It’s six minutes of Kath, a guitar, an amp, and noise. It’s a shot over the bow at the rock world saying that Hendrix and Jimmy Page, as brilliant as they were, were not the only guitar gods out there.

“South California Purples” is a straight-ahead blues jam, here featuring Lamm’s improvisation skills on the electric organ. After you have listened to the album version for awhile, check out the 15-minute versions on the fourth album, Chicago at Carnegie Hall. Back in 2003 when they remastered the Carnegie album, Chicago added a fourth disc of bonus material. There’s a second version of “South California Purples,” also clocking in close to fifteen minutes. It’s a treatise on guitar soloing and band cohesiveness. Chicago’s Latin-tinged cover of Traffic’s “I’m a Man”—complete with a 64-measure drum solo; yes, I counted one time back in the day—shows off their ability to take someone else’s song and make it their own.

Politics Right Out of the Gate

“Someday,” the second-to-last track, shows off a side of Chicago prominent in the early days but has gone by the wayside in the years since: political commentary. Yes, the band that sings about inspiration, hard habits to break, and big surprises used to talk about bringing down the system. Don’t think so? How about this quote from the liner notes of Chicago II: “With this album, we dedicate ourselves, our futures and our energies to the people of the revolution. And the revolution in all of it's forms.”

“Someday” starts with a recording of the chants outside the Democratic convention in Chicago 1968. The chants—“The whole world is watching”—has its own rhythm which seamlessly blends into the opening drum beats of the song. The chanting reemerges later in the song, giving the listener the impression that Chicago the band agrees with the spirit of the protesters outside the convention hall getting beaten by the police. Some modern listeners will be sad that spirit died in Chicago. But look around. That spirit, the spirit of openness, of change, of the belief that the young really can change the world, died everywhere, not just in a band that now frequents the adult contemporary charts rather than the college music charts. The world changed, but Chicago persevered. (The chanting reemerges in the song "All the Years," on their long-lost, now-released 1993 album, Stone of Sisyphus. Here in this song, Lamm mourns the loss of that late-60s spirit and the opportunities lost.)

The last track is the coup de grace of CTA. “Liberation” is a 14-minute guitar jam. And I don’t use that word “jam” lightly. If Kath’s guitar work throughout the album teased at his prowess, if “Poem 58” and “Free Form Guitar” was a one-two punch, “Liberation” is the knock-out blow. Just listen. You'll hear Kath going everywhere, trying different things, and Serephine’s drumming, Lamm’s keyboard riffs, and Cetera’s fantastic bass playing going along for the ride. The horns are mostly absent from this tour de force. But that’s okay. This is Kath’s time to shine and boy, does he shine brightly. As the song ends and you exhale, only then realizing you were holding your breath, read the liner notes about this song and you’ll find a whole new meaning of awe: This track was recorded entirely live. This performance embodied in this recording is complete and uncut.

One note on the recording itself. I don’t know recording technology at all but the sound quality is such that you get the impression all seven guys were in the same room at the same time recording these songs. It’s a quality that isn’t there starting with Chicago II and onward and it certainly isn’t there in modern music. You get the organic listening experience with CTA. It’s one to cherish.

If you have one Chicago CD in your collection, don’t let it be a greatest hits compilation. You can hear all of those songs on the radio. Buy Chicago Transit Authority. Buy it for the great songs, the great vocals, the soaring horn charts, the frenetic guitar work. Buy it for the spirit of the times that wrapped up seven guys and made something special.

In an age where we all make lists (favorite movies, TV shows, books) and those lists often change and vary, Chicago Transit Authority has been my favorite Chicago album for years now. Once I was old enough to understand what they were trying to put down on tape—magic and time in a bottle—I realized how special CTA really was. And is. You just can’t escape the feel of this record. I was alive, barely, when this album was released but the spirit of the times lives on through this recording.

I have attempted to write my impressions of CTA but, honestly, the liner notes of their producer, James William Guercio, do a much better job of it. I’ll end with his quote:

The purpose of this commentary, however, is an attempt at documenting the complete rejection of any name label, title or verbal reference relative to the performance contained herein. Corporately as well as individually, this artist endeavors to be judged in terms of contribution alone rather than through the tag affixed upon it. The printed word can never aspire to document a truly musical experience, so if you must call them something, speak of the city where all save one were born; where all of them were schooled and bred, and where all of this incredible music went down barely noticed; call them CHICAGO.

Footnote: Once you’ve listened to CTA a few times, head on over to YouTube and listen to a 17 August 1969 recording of Chicago at the Fillmore West. It’s a gorgeous soundboard recording of the tunes from CTA as well as “new” songs they’re still working on for their next album, including “25 or 6 to 4,” still the epitome of a rock band with horns. "Poem 58" is the opening song! In fact, they are so new, they still call themselves Chicago Transit Authority, something they would abandon the following year. What you discover with the new songs is the band still working out the kinks and arrangements. For example, “Poem for the People” at the Fillmore is sung by Cetera. The official album version a year later has Lamm singing his own song. A magic time truly.

Tune in Tomorrow...

For a music list fifty years in the making.

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