POPULAR MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT CHICAGO #4:
That it is a "college-educated," 'jazz-rock" band
Because Chicago got its start at the impetus of a group of musicians, some of whom were students at DePaul University, and because its musical arrangements are often sophisticated and daunting, the band has gained a reputation as being made up of college-trained musicians. In fact, it's a mixture in which only one performer has actually earned a degree.
"Everybody thought we were college trained," says Peter Cetera. "In fact, we weren't. The whole rhythm section wasn't. The only guys that actually were going to college were the horn players, and, I believe, Bobby, the keyboard player, was going for a while [privately], but, really, in actual fact, Danny, the drummer, myself, Terry Kath, the guitar player, and Bobby were all street musicians. I think particularly in rock music, it's okay to be college-educated, but by no means does it make you better or worse. I think sometimes the street player has the edge when it comes to rock music. Sometimes, rock music, the more you know, the less you feel."
Yet Walt Parazaider, who gave up a chair in the Chicago symphony to play rock, says it's Cetera who may have the best education of anybody. "Peter was playing when I was playing at 13," he notes, "and his education came from the smoke-filled bars, and you know what? That's a knowledge that you could never flop down your tuition money to get, because I saw both sides of that coin. That is as valid an education as me having the sheepskin on the wall. There were so many diverse personalities in this group that sometimes I had to wonder why this didn't blow up after about a year's worth of success. But we loved music so much. Peter wrote country tunes on the third album. There was also as much diverse interest in all aspects of music. Jimmy Pankow was a stone cold jazzer who loved the Beatles. Lee Loughnane loved playing big band jazz, but loved rock 'n' roll. The same thing with myself. And then you had people who loved the Jimi Hendrix stuff, like Terry, or just rock 'n' roll stuff, like Danny, and if you think about it, there is everything from blues, classical, the big band sound. It became a meld into the band where any kind of music, as long as it was played well, was valid."
A related misconception is the notion of Chicago as a so-called "Jazz-rock" group. "From our point of view, we were just nothing more than a bunch of guys in club groups that got together and formed a group and did whatever kind of music we wanted to do," says Cetera. "It wasn't until the press and everybody else got a hold of it and started throwing in that stuff about 'schooled musicians doing jazz-rock' - that just wasn't the case. Everybody, I think, was rock 'n' roll-oriented, except, possibly, James Pankow and Lee Loughnane, the trombone and the trumpet."
The second album also saw the debut of a new songwriter in the band, although the circumstances under which he became a writer are unfortunate. During a break in the touring in the summer of 1969, Peter Cetera was set upon at a baseball game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. "Four marines didn't like a long-haired rock 'n' roller in a baseball park," Cetera recounts, "and of course I was a Cub fan, and I was in Dodger Stadium, and that didn't do so well. I got in a fight and got a broken jaw in three places, and I was in intensive care for a couple of days.”
The incident had two separate effects on Cetera's career. The first was an impact on his singing style. "The only funny thing I can think about the whole incident," he says, "is that, with my jaw wired together - and I had a broken front tooth which allowed me to shove little bits and pieces of food in there and drink some liquid - I actually went on the road a lot sooner than I should have, just because of the economics of everything, and I remember, I believe it was the Atlanta Pop Festival, although I'm not sure if it was the Atlanta or the Texas Pop Festival, there were like 300,000 people there, and I was actually singing through my clenched jaw, singing backgrounds, which, to this day, is kind of still the way I sing. I have a fairly closed mouth, just because of that."
The second effect of the incident was Cetera's first foray into composition. "I came from a band that did Top 40," he says, "and as far as I was concerned, especially when the Beatles came along, number one, all melodies had already been taken, and, number two, certain people were songwriters and certain people were singers, and I didn't consider myself to be a songwriter."
But with a broken jaw, the erstwhile singer had some silent time on his hands. "I had just gotten out of the hospital," Cetera recalls, "and was lying in my bed convalescing when they landed on the moon, and I grabbed my bass guitar and started this little progression on the bass, and started writing 'Where Do We Go From Here.' I think Walter Cronkite actually had said that, and I thought, 'Wow, where do we go from here?' So, in a melancholy way, I wrote it about that, and then I wrote it about myself, and about the world, and about everything in general, and that was my first writing credit."
In addition to its expanded musical horizons, the second album also took a more direct look at the political situation. Chicago had included chants from the demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic Convention on its first album, and here one of the LP's extended suites was entitled, "It Better End Soon," a plea for the end of the Vietnam War. Though the lyric cautioned, "We gotta do it right - within the system," the title spoke to the impatience of young people at the start of 1970.
Similarly, the album's liner notes (penned by Robert Lamm) dedicated the record, the band members, their futures, and their energies "to the people of the revolution ... And the revolution in all of its forms." It is difficult more than two decades later to describe the multiplicity of meanings the word "revolution" had for young people at the time, and even harder to determine whether a "revolution" actually took place. Clearly, something changed. "I think there was one," says Lamm today. "You may argue with the term 'revolution,' but I think for those of us who were sweaty kids in our late teens or early 20s, that sure was a sexy word."
At the time, however, the band's political commitment was subject to some misunderstanding. Robert Lamm was actually the chief political exponent of the band, and he just felt the need as a composer, as an American and a human being, to talk about these things because they were major issues in his life, and he felt that we had an incredible platform and a gift, and we could use it for things other than entertaining," explains Pankow. "We were even at the point of putting voter registration information at concerts. Robert figures if 18-year-old kids were old enough to get their brains blown out in Vietnam, they should be old enough to vote. Unfortunately, it was misinterpreted by a lot of the nut cases. The SDS and the Chicago Seven and all kinds of people were approaching us on the basis of rioting, of, "Hey, let's tear the system down.' All of a sudden, we were being enlisted to become politically involved to the hilt. I'm sure that it had a lot to do with our longevity and people taking us seriously, however, it got to the point where it almost became a burden in light of the fact that it started to infringe on the musical goals. We started thinking about this, and we started realizing, hey, man, people come to a concert or put a record on to forget about that shit. So, we decided to put our objectives in perspective and entertain people. That's what we do best, that's what our niche in life is, and so that's what we decided to do, we put our politics on the shelf."
In commercial terms, the major change that came with Chicago II, which was released in January, 1970, was that it opened the floodgates on Chicago as a singles band. In October, 1969, Columbia had re-tested the waters by releasing "Beginnings" as a single, but AM radio still wasn't interested, and the record failed to chart. All of this changed, however, when the label excerpted two songs, "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World," from Pankow's ballet, and released them as the two sides of a single in March, 1970.
"I was driving in my car down Santa Monica Boulevard in L.A.," Pankow remembers, "and I turned the radio on KHJ, and 'Make Me Smile' came on. I almost hit the car in front of me, 'cause it's my song, and I'm hearing it on the biggest station in L.A. At that point, I realized, hey, we have a hit single. They don't play you in L.A. unless you're hit-bound. So, that was one of the more exciting moments in my early career."
The single reached the Top 10, while Chicago II immediately went gold and got to Number 4 on the LP's chart, joining the first album, which was still selling well. A second single, Lamm's "25 Or 6 To 4," was an even bigger hit in the summer of 1970, reaching Number 4.
But instead of reaching into the second album for a third single, Columbia and Chicago decided to try to re-stimulate interest in the first album, and succeeded. The group's next single was "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" which became their third Top 10 hit in a row by the start of 1971. "Up to that time, to be very honest, I don't think people were really ready to hear horns the way we were using them," says Parazaider. "But after we established something with horns - '25 Or 6 To 4,' but actually 'Make Me Smile,' which was our first bona fide hit-it seemed like it broke the ice and it became easier, and they accepted stuff that was recorded easily a year before."
CHICAGO AND THE SINGLE EDIT
In 1968, when Richard Harris and the Beatles enjoyed top-selling hit singles that ran over seven minutes each, it seemed as though the old habit of keeping songs down to three minutes - an ancient holdover from the pre-tape days of the first half of the century when recordings couldn't physically be longer - was about to be buried. True, radio had patterned itself after the three-minute limit for its commercial considerations, but clearly the audiences were willing to accept longer songs.
Artists may have recognized the change, but record companies didn't, and so, as tracks got longer and longer, groups got into fights - in the already politically adversarial days of the late '60s - over having their songs edited down to something around three minutes for single release. This was a particular problem for Chicago, who, as they became a singles force in the early '70s, more and more faced the razor at Columbia Records.
"The normal problem of that time for any group was, they would try and take a four-minute and ten-second song, and try and make it three minutes long," recalls Peter Cetera, "and we were just against that. There was a big thing at that time to be totally album-oriented, and anything that smacked of you doing this to be a single was commercialism, which was terribly frowned upon. What you really wanted was to be on the big FM [album] oriented stations, and not the Top 40 twinkie stations."
"It was a problem," argues Parazaider. "I think it was a problem for the writers, too, because they were writing whole pieces. It bothered all of us that some of these things were taken right out of context and chopped up and put on the radio. And then they became hits, what can you say? How do you complain? Say, 'Take it off the radio. We're ashamed of that musically'? We weren't ashamed of it musically. It's just, the people weren't getting the whole story. The only thing we took comfort in was, a lot of people were buying the albums, so they would definitely see these little three-minute ditties in context."
"We considered it an abortion," says Pankow about the edits. "But we were convinced by our management company and Jimmy Guercio that, hey, if you guys want to become establishment, if you want to sell millions of records and become a true phenomenon, you have to make allowances for the nature of your music. We realized at that point that it was indeed a necessary evil."
Robert Lamm, who was perhaps the most frequent victim of the edits, disputes the version of the story told in Clive Davis's autobiography. Davis says that Guercio understood the situation and helped convince the band to compromise. Lamm says Guercio's antipathy to the edits was stronger than his own. "The problems that Chicago had with Clive Davis were not really problems between the band and Clive Davis," he suggests. "They were problems between Jimmy Guercio and Clive Davis. The thing about always being at odds with [Davis] about the singles, I don't think we ever really cared that much other than we were naive and we were being programmed by Guercio into thinking that this music that we were creating was so perfect in its virgin state that nobody had the right to edit it."
Guercio certainly felt strongly about the issue, but he insists that, whatever you think of the cuts, he, not Davis, made them. "Those edits were terrible," he says. "The promotion guys, radio guys, were yelling at me to give them two to three minutes, that was it, and I had to cut everything down to so many minutes. But I cut everyone, as good or bad as they were, I did 'em all, the final ones. I had a contract: they couldn't couple anything, they couldn't package anything, they couldn't change the artwork, they couldn't do anything without my approval, 'cause I didn't take any money up front. So, I had very strong creative controls. If you want to talk about the strength of Chicago, that's the one thing that I did negotiate for and that I got, is, nobody could touch anything."
For the record, here's a list of Chicago songs that were drastically edited release as Columbia singles, with their LP and single timings. Actually, the problem diminished over the '70s, as radio loosened up its length restrictions and Chicago's song lengths shortened.
LP Time 45 Time
Questions 67 And 68 ..................................... 4:59 ...... 3:25
Beginnings ................................................... 7:50 ...... 2:47
Make Me Smile ............................................. 3:16* ..... 2:58
Colour My World ........................................... 3:01* ..... 3:01
25 Or 6 To 4 ................................................ 4:50 ....... 2:52
Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? .... 4:34 ...... 3:17**
I’m A Man .................................................... 7:41 ...... 3:27
Dialogue (Part I & II) .................................... 7:09 ...... 4:53
Brand New Love Affair ................................... 4:31 ...... 2:30
*Excerpted from "Ballet For A Girl In Buchannan."
**There is also a 2:53 edit.
Unlike some other Columbia compilations, this set contains only the LP edits.
AS January, 1971, rolled around, once again Chicago, despite criss-crossng the country and playing during every month of the previous year, had found time to record a new double album. "That third album scared us," says Parazaider, "because we basically had run out of the surplus of material that we had, and we were still working a lot on the road. So, we were checking in, going into a rehearsal, and I think we were a little afraid that we were writing and rehearsing and getting ready to record a little under the gun. But I don't think it shows on that album, and I think what came out of there was some strong stuff. I'll give us credit, but I'll also give Jimmy Guercio a lot of credit for coordinating all this stuff and keeping us inspired. A hell of a producer."
"That whole album was more adventurous in terms of instrument, exploration than the first two albums," says Pankow. "Robert wrote a lot of in-depth stuff."
Cetera was also flexing his muscles as a writer again, though, according to him, not without resistance. He recalls a specific effort in tandem with drummer Dan Seraphine: "Danny and I had got together one night, and I said, 'I got this little thing that I've been working on.' That was at a point when I was sort of told that 'Where Do We Go From Here' was probably the end of the line as far as my writing ‘cause the group was very happy with the writers they had, thank you, and we didn't need any more contributions. Danny and I got together, Virgos would, and said, 'Well, we'll show them, We'll write a song.'''
The result was "Lowdown," which became the second single from Chicago III. "I can't think of anything good to say about the song from group perspective," Cetera notes. "I was very proud of it, but one thing bad is that Terry said, 'Don't you ever tell anybody I ever played guitar this record,’ and he proceeded to play the song exactly like that, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Terry kind of played that song with I-don't-give-a-shit attitude, and actually, when he did that to that song, in effect kind of [took] any heart out of it. I was never really happy with outcome 'cause it was played with one or two takes in mind. I'm still proud of it, it's one of the first things I did, and every person has to have a start.”
The first single from Chicago III was Lamm's "Free," which broke group's Top 10 run by peaking at the base of the Top 20, although the album would peak at Number 2 and go gold immediately. "Lowdown" was even more of a disappointment, reaching only the bottom half of the Top 40. Columbia then turned back to the first and second albums, which still in the charts, re-releasing as a single "Beginnings" backed by "Colour My World." It was up to Number 7 by August. In September, the label completed this re-release series by coming back with the first album's first single, two and a half years after its initial release, and "Questions 67 & 68" finally made the Top 30 (in Cash Box magazine, it got to Number 13).
All of this meant that, with its first three albums, Chicago had reached astonishing popular success. All three double albums were still on the charts throughout 1971, and hits came from each one. But how to top that? In October, Columbia released a lavish four-record box set chronicling the group's week-long stand at Carnegie Hall the previous April.
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