Classic Albums: Chicago Transit Authority (first album)

Posted: February 16, 2010 in Classic Albums
Tags: , , , ,

It was 1969 when a band called Chicago Transit Authority hung out their wood shingle via the cover artwork for their first album. I was 14 at the time and up until then, for me anyway, “good” pop music mainly consisted of guitar-based bands with a bit of keyboards thrown in – the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills & Nash. And of course, all that was great but this was something completely different.

It was pop music by virtue of the fact that there were no fewer than four songs from this double album that were in regular radio rotation. It was also serious Music with a capital ‘M’, and not in the arty-farty sense, like some of the technically astute but soulless jazz-rock outfits of the era. Although CTA could arguably be labelled jazz/rock/blues fusion, it built on the best elements of all those traditions in a way that made their work sound authentic, not compromised as happened with so many other attempts at fusion. Chicago gave the impression that they could play whatever they wanted, and play it well.

Without being told, we knew that these guys were trained musicians, that their music was arranged in the classic sense of the word, and that those arrangements were “composed” and played from charts onto which the lads had placed all those dots on staffs themselves. Songs had definite beginnings, middles and ends, often changing mood, direction and time signature while working their way from start to finish. Until then it was convenient to be able to read music. Chicago made it cool. This was music you could take home and play for your parents. What’s that dad? Yeah, I guess the guitar is a little loud. But mom, the horns are supposed to sound a little dissonant there. It doesn’t sound “off”, it’s in 5/4! Yes! I know that’s a recording of demonstrators chanting at the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago! Oh…nevermind!!!

CTA was a septet with a three-piece horn section: Lee Loughnane on trumpet, James Pankow on trombone and Walter Parazaider on woodwinds. In Terry Kath they had a guitarist who could hold his own with the better known guitar heroes of the day. Producer James William Guercio went so far as to claim that Hendrix “idolized” Kath. At this time the band featured two lead singers with distinct musical personalities, a fact that contributed greatly to their versatility. Robert Lamm (keyboards) lent his clear vocal tones to the songs, most of which he wrote at the time, while Kath handled the raw, gritty, blues and rock material (It was on subsequent albums that bass guitarist Peter Cetera started to take the lead vocal spot). Holding it together rhythmically was drummer Danny Seraphine. Yet Chicago wasn’t so much a band of talented individuals as much as it was a singular working collective with a unified face.

The first track on the album, simply entitled “Introduction” serves as a microcosm of everything that comes after. It begins as full tilt R&B with a classic horn riff leading into Terry Kath’s raw vocal welcoming you to the band while admitting that they’re “just a little nervous”, the track suddenly changes time signature, twice, to let the horns jazz it up a bit, downshifts into a slow groove with another time change and a melodic trumpet solo, builds back towards the beginning to give Kath a turn at some aggressive guitar work then, after a brief horn section interlude, comes full circle to the third verse – all in 6:35.

Then Robert Lamm takes over for three hits in a row. “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” was their first big hit despite the fact that it begins with free form solo piano that leads smoothly into a 4/4, 5/4 intro before bopping along melodically to an existential lyric. This is followed by “Beginnings”, a moderate-tempo love song that has the legs to go for nearly 8 minutes. Of course, this was 1969, so if you wanted to hear more than the three minute radio edit of either of these songs you just had to buy the album. After that comes “Questions 67 and 68”, a classical-tinged love song despite its somewhat unique title, and at 3:21 the shortest track on the album.

A fourth single release comes in the album’s second half on what, with the vinyl release, I came to think of as the Terry Kath side. It’s a blistering rendition of “I’m a Man” that, for me, outdoes the original by The Spencer Davis group to become the definitive version of the song.

The only bum track here is “Free Form Guitar”, where Terry Kath plays exactly what it says on the label (hey, even The Beatles’ White Album had Revolution #9). But the consistent quality of the rest of the album makes up for this blemish, and on CD it’s easy to skip over.

For a brief time through the early 70s Chicago took their auspicious beginning and kept running from strength to strength, releasing two more double albums (“Chicago II” and “Chicago III”) that increased their critical standing while broadening their musical range. For example, Chicago II contains “Colour My World”, arguably the most snogtastic slow dance number of the 70s, and also “25 or 6 To 4″, featuring Lamm’s indecipherable, psychedelic lyrics along with wall-to-wall jet-fuelled guitar mayhem from Kath having more creative ideas in one song than most guitar bands do on an entire album. Then they did it all again, Live at Carnegie Hall, for what was released as a four record set entitled…”Chicago IV” (what else?).

I lost interest in the band when “Chicago V” was released. They were as good as they ever were but I was disappointed with the album for two reasons, which in retrospect are quite daft. (Give me a break. I was in high school.)

  1. After three double albums and one quadruple album, they downsized by releasing their first single album. This gave me the false impression that they were running out of gas. Never mind that it was their 11th piece of vinyl in four years.
  2. “Saturday In The Park” – their most sugar-coated pop single at that time (and certainly not their last!). If releasing a single album lowered expectations regarding the quantity of their output, this track lowered them regarding street cred. Compared to what they had done up until then, it was Chicago-lite, pure pop with little or no sense of adventure. Of course, the rest of the album was full of great sounds, but this is the song that was played over and over again on the radio, thereby giving a lopsided impression about the entertainment commodity that Chicago seemed to be turning into. Yet one more example of why radio can’t be trusted.

Although it might not be so apparent on this side of the Atlantic, Chicago is still going strong with original members Lamm, Loughnane, Pankow and Parazaider. They released “Chicago XXX” in March 2006. Terry Kath was a member until he died as the result of an accidental gunshot wound, shortly after Chicago XI was released. Cetera left after “Chicago XVII” to pursue a successful solo career. Seraphine left after “Chicago XIX” and now runs a production company called Street Sense.

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