Over at the Chicagofans site (free registration required), there is a new discussion about Chicago III (1971). For those who don’t know, III 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.
Anyway, the consensus is mixed on III. Some love its obvious musical experimentation while some 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 was the Originals, that is 1967-1977. This included their first LP (Chicago Transit Authority) through Chicago XI. In January 1977, original guitarist/vocalist Terry Kath accidentally shot himself. So, no matter how good Chicago would go on to become, there was always a tinge of loss.
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. Chicago VI was more even more radio-friendly. By the time Chicago VII was released, the band’s last double-LP to date, Chicago was a radio-friendly band. How did they know that? Lots of fans dismissed LP#1 of Chicago VII, which had long instrumental tracks of more musical experimentation. Fans in concert grew bored with these longer passages and Chicago learned from that.
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 did not care about song lengths because they made three suites of music. And with four sides of music, only side 1/LP1 did not contain a 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 and the still-unreleased Stone of Sisyphus. They did whatever they wanted. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young? Check with “Flight 602.” Classically-oriented horn piece? Check with “Elegy.” Environmental song? Check with “Mother,” a fascinating horn piece where trombonist Jimmy Pankow solos alongside…Jimmy Pankow. Latin-inspired number? Check with “Happy Cause I’m Going Home.” Social commentary? Check with the ending of Elegy, the Travel Suite, and Robert Lamm’s reading of “When All the Laughter Dies in Sorrow.” Killer guitar solo by Terry Kath? Check with "Sing a Mean Tune Kid." A couple of radio-friendly pieces? Check with “Lowdown” and “Free,” the latter of which includes on 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. And 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. And that might be its undoing in the eyes of many fans. There are other, more streamlined and precise LPs, even in the early catalog. But III, as a whole, is a bit untidy. And that, to me, is one of its graces.