Monday, September 27, 2021

Chicago 18 at 35

For any fan, there is always the first, that one special album, and Chicago 18 is the one for me.


My Journey to Chicago 18


I was introduced to Chicago by my friend, Chris, in the summer of 1985 when he loaned me a cassette copy of Chicago IX with the memorable phrase “You'll probably know half the songs and like the rest.” Well, I knew none of the tunes, but fell in love with the band on first listen.


What came next was obvious: I started collecting Chicago albums. Chicago 17 was the obvious next choice as it was ending its year-long run on the charts. Chicago 16, featuring its famous ballads, soon followed as did Chicago II. It was with that latter, 1970-era album that I discovered why the new album was named “17” and learned the band had quite a number of styles to its name.


But this was 1985. I was smack dab in the middle of high school and I didn't get all the political stuff featured on those early albums. I loved the music. Well, most of it. At the time, I didn't take too kindly to songs like “Free Form Guitar” or “Liberation” by this guy, Terry Kath, who was no longer in the band. In fact, without the internet, I can't even remember how I learned his fate, but I knew the fate of Peter Cetera, the seeming front man for this new band I loved.


He was leaving Chicago.


What the heck? I had just joined Chicago's fandom and the lead guy's leaving? What would that mean for the future of the band? Would there even be a next album, presumably titled “18”? Without social media or the internet, my high school band group, all of whom loved Chicago, would just have to wait.


The New Single (which was an old song)


Flash forward to August 1986. My love of Chicago had done nothing but grown. I can't remember all the albums I owned by that point, but by scouring used record stores, I had expanded to include III. I even put the poster on my wall, the one of the band sitting in the military cemetery.


I had purchased the single (either the actual 45 or the cassette version) of “25 or 6 to 4,” a remake of a classic tune. During a break from summer band rehearsal, Chris, our friend Richard, and I piled into my 1973 Dodge Dart and I slipped in the song to the cassette deck. Out came the first new Chicago song for any of us since 1984 (Chris already had Chicago 17 and none of us had yet purchased the We are the World album with “Good for Nothing” on it). More importantly for me, this was the very first new song I had heard by this new-to-me band.


I remember us digging the tune quite a bit, but there was still a slight hesitancy. As horn players ourselves, we wondered if the famous Chicago horns would be featured more like the old days or relegated to the background like on the two most recent records. Well, all we had to do was play the flip side. “One More Day” blared through the speakers and, almost as one, we three shouted “Now that's Chicago!”


Buying That First New Chicago Album


Wikipedia tells me that the official release date for Chicago 18 is 29 September 1986 (a Monday), but I can assure you I bought it on a bright and sunny Saturday, 27 September. How can I remember it so clearly? Well, life events seared this date and this album into my own personal memory.


By 1986, I had gone something like three years with weekend trips across Houston to visit my grandpa, have breakfast with him, mow his lawn, have some lunch, and have him overpay me for my efforts. Isn't that what grandparents are supposed to do? After lunch, I headed over to the Sound Warehouse near his house and there it was, Chicago 18, on cassette.


Now, my fifty-two-year-old brain is trying to sift through memories. I own the 1986-era CD version but I no longer own the cassette. I’m pretty sure I bought the cassette that September day thirty-five years ago, so we’ll just go with that. But later, when I bought the CD that came in the longbox, I cut up the cardboard and used it to decorate my room and, later, dorm room walls.


The Music


With only two songs on the initial single, that meant I had eight brand-new songs to hear. I had pretty much internalized both the new “25 or 6 to 4” and “One More Day” by 27 September so I had an inkling of what to expect. Right out of the gate, the new guy gets to shine.


“Niagara Falls” opens the album with that triplet rhythm. The sound is soaked in Peak 80s synth, something I loved at the time. Probably at the behest of producer David Foster, Jason Scheff sounded more like Peter Cetera than he, Scheff, probably wanted to, but that was the gig in 1986. Danny Serephine’s drums are also largely programmed as was many of the percussion in the mid-80s. Complimenting Scheff’s initial vocal is veteran Bill Champlin, then on his third Chicago album.


In light of my commentary on the sequencing of Chicago XIV, it’s interesting on listening to Chicago 18 all the way through for the first time in a long time that Champlin doesn’t have a lead vocal until track 7, and then only two on the entire album. But by 1986, all the main hits Chicago had in that decade featured the high tenor of Cetera, with “Hard Habit To Break” being the only exception, so it makes sense. It also points to the next album where Champlin would finally get the spotlight on him.


“Forever” is Robert Lamm’s first song of the album. Much like nearly every Lamm-penned tune over the band’s fifty-four-year history, Lamm’s soaring vocals are always complimented by the Chicago horns. It also features not only the first extended horn break of the album, but a fantastic tenor sax solo by Walt Paraziader.


“If She Would Have Been Faithful” comes in a track 3, the usual first single spot for many an 80s album. A power ballad the likes of which Foster and Chicago are renown for, Scheff and Champlin shine on their vocal delivery. The guitar work—especially that short solo before the bridge—is stellar, the horns, and the overall orchestral vibe make this a standout. I always loved that little stinger towards the end before they start repeating the chorus, and Scheff’s high vocals on “missed out on you” are great,” but one of the best things on Chicago 18 is how this song ends and the next begins.


With no silence between tracks, “25 or 6 to 4” begins on the downbeat right after the last note from “If She Would Have Been Faithful” concludes. I enjoy this reimagining of the then sixteen-year-old song. The brass additions are fun, but that metal-like guitar solo is fantastic.


When it comes to arranged songs by Chicago, “Will You Still Love Me?” is arguably one of the best. There is an ethereal quality to Scheff’s vocals that would work well had this song been played by an orchestra. Champlin again compliments with his deeper baritone. One of my favorite ballads the band has ever done.


Lamm opens Side 2 with “Over and Over,” another song with Lamm singing long, lofty notes over the rhythm. Again, Champlin serves as a sideman here, throwing his vocals judiciously, making this one of two (?) songs—“Only You” being the other—where Champlin and Lamm co-sing.


Finally, with “It’s Alright,” Champlin gets to sing lead. It’s a fun song with a group chorus that is primed and ready for in-concert audience sing-a-long.


Horn players James Pankow (trombone), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), and Parazaider probably became irritated as they were sidelined in the 1980s in favor of the hornless or horn-lite songs, so they threw on “Free Flight,” as a short interlude to remind listeners about the thing that make Chicago unique on the rock landscape. Yet it leads directly into another ballad, the first Scheff-penned song for the band. “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is a good tune that features the horns, Scheff’s excellent bass playing on the upper frets, all coated in that Foster-mandated synth gloss.


Speaking of 80s-era synth sounds, “I Believe” is drenched with it. Champin’s second lead vocal also serves as the first true duet with Scheff. Taking nothing away from the Cetera/Champlin or Cetera/Kath, but the vocals of Champlin/Scheff seem to meld together a bit more seamlessly. Now, one might argue that this similarity lends itself to a listener wondering when one guy stops singing and the other guy starts (see “Bethlehem” from the second Christmas album), but I have always enjoyed how well these two vocalists sing together.


Speaking of singing together, Chicago 18 boasts one of the few triple-vocals in the entire discography. “One More Day” not only has Lamm, Champlin, and Scheff trading off singing, but it’s got a great horn break. It also brings back some of that social consciousness so prominent in the early days. Just like that afternoon in August 1986 when my friends and I heard this tune for the first time, this is classic Chicago circa 1986.


It took years for me to learn this, but there was one more song recorded for Chicago 18 but never released. In fact, I heard it first on Lamm’s 1995 solo album Life is Good in My Neighborhood. “When Will the World Be Like Lovers?” is another triple-vocal tune, co-written by Lamm, with lyrics lamenting the state of the world. A kick-ass short guitar solo leads to an outro laced with horns and a lyric callback to the song “Beginnings”. I loved this tune as soon as I heard it and wished it would have landed on the official album. Back then, however, when you had three formats available, the LP still dictated how long an album could be. Not sure there was space enough for an eleventh song or if Foster thought this song was too similar to “One More Day,” but WWTWBLL went unreleased. You can find it online.


The Verdict and What Chicago 18 Means to Me


As the years have passed, my infatuation with the sound of music from the 1980s has waned. I’m talking the synth-fueled pop tunes of that decade versus the hair metal or heavier songs. I don’t dislike those kinds of songs, but I also never seek them out either. Over time, my favorite Chicago album of the 1980s has become Chicago 19, largely because the band had parted from David Foster and his style and sound of producing. It gave the guys in the band, especially Scheff, space to breathe and try something a bit different, and that difference mattered to me. Sure there are ballads on 19, but they just sound a bit edgier than those from 16-18. The horns are higher in the mix on 19, and Champlin simply shines. That album also features my favorite 80s-era song, “You’re Not Alone,” a hornless rocker the irony of which is not lost on me.


Chicago 18 has fallen out of my Top 10 favorite Chicago albums. Even in 1986, I still had new albums to discover in their back catalog. I honestly can’t remember the last album from the older discography I finally bought, but I think it was either XI or XIV. As you can imagine (or even remember in your own journey of discovery of Chicago), with each new/old album you hear, it jockeys for position in the Top 10. Eventually, I enjoyed more albums to a greater degree than Chicago 18 and it never recovered. The truth of that fact is that, in preparing for this piece, I listened to the album all the way through for the first time in forever.


But I still love a core set of tunes from Chicago 18 and I have eight of the eleven (I include WWTWBLL on my iTunes) songs on my phone’s playlist (NF, NGSUN, and IB don’t make the cut). Side 1 is all but perfect. Heck, every album from 16-19 has a great Side 1. Just imagine if those four sides were packaged as a double album.


Circling back to my personal history with Chicago 18, you might remember that I know for certain I bought this album thirty-five years ago today. Not sure how Sound Warehouse put the album out early (if Wikipedia is to be trusted) but they did.


September 27 is my mom’s birthday and it’s always good to remember your mom’s birthday. But that September weekend in 1986 was also homecoming. My first girlfriend and I had been dating well over a year by that point. As a senior, it was my last homecoming game as a student. I had my eyes set on attending the University of Texas at Austin and joining the Longhorn Band (done and done) and becoming a lawyer (not done, much to my happiness). How awesome was it to have homecoming, Saturday morning with your grandpa, your mom’s birthday, and the new Chicago album all released on the same weekend?


Well, it was great, until Sunday morning. That was when my girlfriend’s mom informed her the family was moving from Houston to Pittsburgh in a week. Thankfully, the mom had kept that news from her daughter and me so that homecoming could be celebrated without that dark cloud hanging over everything. But after the news broke and our hearts were ripped out of our chests, songs like “Forever” and “Will You Still Love Me” took on a greater meaning.


I can listen to these tunes now and not think about that time. Thirty-five years of additional life memories will do that for you. But it also marks the double-edged significance this album holds for me. In fact, in a recent 2021 interview, I experienced something similar. Trombonist James Pankow dropped the news that the band used the pandemic lockdown to get in the studio and record new songs for a brand-new Chicago album. The elation that erupted through me—complete with a yell of triumph heard throughout the house—instantly grew somber as he went on in the next sentence to state that’ll it likely be the band’s last album. It’s understandable for a band that’s nearly fifty-five years old featuring founding members in their seventies, but the news still stings.


Yet the music of Chicago 38 will live on, just as the music of Chicago 18 has lived on these past thirty-five years. Happy birthday mom, and happy anniversary to my first-ever new Chicago album.


RexAnxius said...

Nice writing! I haven't listened to 18 in a long time, you've inspired me to give that one a spin. And I definitely felt for you when you got to the Sunday morning bombshell. Songs took on such power in those days when we were younger, sometimes they just lined up so perfectly with what was happening in our lives. It still can happen, it just doesn't seem to happen as much. But, I have high hopes for 38 (or XXXVIII?) and look forward to its release.

Scott D. Parker said...

RexAnxius - Thanks for stopping by and reading. And music and songs are often signposts throughout our lives. I remember Creed's "With Arms Wide Open" broke big right before I became a dad and boy, did those lyrics get me. And then sometimes, a song just lands and I have a emotional response and I don't know why. The two most recent were Bruce Springsteen's "Hello Sunshine" and Chicago's "I'd Do It All Again (Christmas Moon)." Both caused me to tear up on first listen. Couldn't say why, but I just rolled with it, as I do with most things nowadays.