Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Music Review: 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. As I mentioned in this post about Chicago III, 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 and 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, if they were even on certain songs. 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 sound 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); “I Stand Up” (1989); 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 for the band. 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. It was like a shot across the bow that culminated with the iPod and downloadable music. 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 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.

Next week I can. And I will. And I hope you do, too. Let’s show all those suits that they made a mistake back in 1993. Chicago 22 was the return of the Rock Band With Horns mentality. Chicago 22 may not have burned up the charts but the music was real. It was honest. It had heart. It had soul.

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


Linkmeister said...

So the question is, how and why is it being released now?

Not that I'm objecting. I stopped buying their albums for a lot of reasons, dollars being one, but the "ballads ascendant" emphasis being another. I think the last one I own (on vinyl, no less) is "Live at Carnegie Hall," which I think the band didn't like as much as a live concert recording from Japan they did a little earlier.

I'll be on the lookout for this one.

ews1701e said...

How - it's being released by Rhino which has been releasing remastered & expanded Chicago albums (CTA thru 17 as of now plus the Christmas Album - 25) and the why is because the band is sick of fans asking about it.

This is worth buying, I have had a bootleg of it for years and have several of the songs that were remastered and released overseas but it was nice to finally get the real thing. Only thing missing from what was to be Chicago 22 is a song called 'Get On This' that is on all the bootleg copies. It was written by Dawayne Bailey (their guitarist at the time) and is about as hard as Chicago has ever rocked.

Oh, one song the author here didn't mention was the Bill Champlin song 'Plaid', my favorite and a nice big shot at corporate rock.

ews1701e said...

Oh and one nitpicky oops I did find was the year written here for '25 Or 6 To 4'. The remake was in 1986, not '89.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for stopping by. The YouTube video of the original "25 or 6 to 4" was a recording done in 1989, not the remake from CHI 18. But thanks for keeping me on my toes.


Joe Cervone said...

As a 1970 Chicago fan, and former Chicago "roadie", "SOS" can only be described as a long-overdue return to the "masterpiece" project approach that made Chicago the "best band in the land". It is virtually flawless, and should command not only the attention of the music-buyiong public, but NARAS at Grammy time as well. Well done, Rhino at al.

JButler said...

The new (old) album sounds great. It is a return to Chicago's style, which has always been progressive, if subdued by corporate requirments. I wish they had left the second DeWayne Bailey song on the album. I wonder if that was due to bad feelings between current members and Bailey.

Anonymous said...

What a beautifully written piece Scott. You are a prolific writer and I hope your writings are shared elsewhere and that you are recognized as an honest writer.

I love Bigger Than Elvis and the album itself.

I am Jason's Mother and appreciated your comments

beaug said...

Good call on Bigger Than Elvis i really cant stand Jason Scheff as a singer. However i would say Bigger Than Elvis is his best vocal performace to date because he is singing from the heart and not singing a sappy money making fake ballad. The best song on the album is Bill Champlin's Plaid such a great song. The 25 or 6 to 4
from Chicago-18 (1986) is god awfull i have no idea why they would re record that. Anyway im glad this album has been officially released and i also agree with you scott Chicago's first two albums are indeed their best no question but i would put their fifth album above this one.
Sadly as im writing this Bill Champlin is no longer in Chicago but im sure we can look forward to some more solo work from him soon. Love you Bill plus his work with the Sons Of Champlin is great also

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

As a diehard Chicago fan I find it very hard to listen to anything past Chicago V. CTA, II, III, and V are as good as rock albums can possibly get.

I went out and bought this album the day it came out hoping for a miracle. Extremely disappointed at first but the more I listened to it the more I liked it. Terrific album, best thing they've done since Chicago V.

Mah Jong, Cry for the Lost, All the Years, Plaid, Bigger than Elvis.. all amazing songs. Though I think The Pull and Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed should be mentioned too. And Im not sure why but there was a song called "Get on This" that was on the original SOS but was cut when the album was released in 2008. I recommend you check it out, One of the best songs on the album actually.

P.S. They are working on a new album and actually recently released a single called "Somethin' Comin', I Know", check it out. Hopefully the new album is as good as SOS.

Scott D. Parker said...

Daniel - Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I have the new single. I like it quite a bit. Oddly, the iTunes snippet was the bridge section leading into the guitar solo. Not too representative of the entire song. There's a video of the guys in the studio recording the horn charts. Interesting to see how it comes together.