CHICAGO AND THE CRITICS
"I'm not crying sour grapes," says Walt Parazaider," 'cause we've sold 100 million records, we're gonna celebrate our 25th anniversary coming up next February, we're still a viable recording act, which is all pretty amazing in itself, and we're going out and tour for the 24th summer. We've never missed a summer, we've thrown a party and thank God, every summer people have come. But I call us really the Rodney Dangerfields of rock 'n' roll: can't get no respect."
Indeed. Amazing as it may sound to Chicago's millions of fans over the last quarter century, the group may be the worst reviewed major rock band of all time.
In retrospect, it isn't difficult to understand why this should be the case. As the 1960s crossed its midpoint, it became apparent that there was a journalistic void where rock music was concerned. Increasingly, magazines and newspapers felt compelled to cover the music, initially more as a phenomenon than anything else, but they tended to throw at it only what they had available: "straight" reporters who didn't understand the music or its attendant culture, or critics more accustomed to reviewing jazz.
Inevitably, the music came to develop its own press, and several music magazines grew up around the country, including Crawdaddy! in Boston, Creem in Detroit, and Rolling Stone in San Francisco, while left-leaning newsweeklies such as New York's Village Voice began to devote more coverage to rock, written by neophyte rock journalists. Just as inevitably, the publications tended toward praise of their own local scenes, so it was no surprise that Creem and such resident writers as Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh touted acts like the MC5 and the Stooges, or that Rolling Stone gave disproportionate coverage to San Francisco's acid rock.
Also sacrosanct were established, especially British acts such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But upcoming performers in the late '60s, often ones building upon the music of the era and heading in new directions, tended to suffer. Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin initially drew negative notices in the new rock press, as did Chicago.
Of course, there was more to it than regionalism. Though rock critics have since bemoaned the loss of the musical unity found on the pop charts of the '60s, most did their best to stamp it out. Lacking much real musical knowledge themselves, they declared that rock must be a simple, two-or three-chord affair, its rhythms rudimentary, its singing harsh. Rock was seen to be a revolution of the unwashed and the unskilled. At the same time, the critics tended to praise specific, supposedly unsullied genres of music, notably the blues, in a kind of folk purist vein. As the early '70s came on, it also didn't help that Chicago became an enormous, commercial success, especially in terms of Top 40 singles.
The band's first album was ignored by Rolling Stone, and when the magazine deigned to discuss Chicago II, at a time when the group had already established itself as one of the major acts of the period, it waited more than five months to run a review, then bunched it into a notice along with three unknown and forgotten records, attempting to brand what they did "big band rock." (For once, thank God, a journalistic attempt to invent a new category failed.) Chicago's third album was reviewed and reviled in Rolling Stone by Lester Bangs, and its live album was again bunched in with a notice about another band (the Brecker brothers' Dreams). In this notice, Bob Palmer mixed faint praise ("the music is pretty good, the band competent and tight") with criticism of the album's length, which he called "excruciating," and of what he dubbed Chicago's "formula rock." "Their roots," he said, "seem to be firmly planted in AM radio." (Again, note the implication that popularity is bad and that, to be good, music must be narrowly focused, tightly defined.)
All of this says more about the limitations of the critics than it does about Chicago and its music. Clearly, the reviewers were unfamiliar with many of the band's antecedants and entirely out of touch with its aspirations. For them, the function of horns could only be to dominate the music, as in jazz, or to punctuate the music, as in R&B. It never seems to have occurred to them that horns might integrate within an arrangement along with a rhythm section, although that is exactly what Chicago was trying to do.
In a sense, one can argue that the critics' failure to appreciate Chicago shouldn't bother the band or its many fans. As Parazaider notes, "The one thing that we clung to is that we had done the best record at the time that we possibly could have, and that's all you can do, you throw it out there and you see what happens, and if it doesn't get the critical acclaim, you can't get beat up over it, especially if the albums are selling two million copies apiece. Basically, what the critics were telling a million to two million people was that they were full of shit buying the album. So we had to leave it at that." Still, he admits, "I don't know if they think rock 'n' rollers have feelings, but it sure hurt ours."
Yet there's more at stake here than hurt feelings. Many of the rockers of the '70s, notably Led Zeppelin, have seen their critical reputations refurbished to the point that people can barely believe they ever got a bad review, while Chicago, perhaps because it maintained and even increased its Top 40 leanings, has never enjoyed a reassessment. Thus, as the heavy "rock history" tomes start to fill the bookshelves, the legacy of one of the most innovative and popular rock bands of all time goes unwritten. That isn't just unfair to the band, it's unfair to music. It may be that, even 25 years after "rock criticism" began, it still fails to measure up to the music it seeks to celebrate.
"I said to Robert Lamm one time," notes Parazaider, "when we get a good record review in Rolling Stone, I think we ought to think about retiring."
Chicago At Carnegie Hall was perhaps the most elaborate record album released by a rock group up to that time, and a testament to Chicago's success. For various reasons, however, it is an album that holds mixed memories for the band members. One objection concerns the circumstances of the recording itself. "We weren't fond of it," says Cetera, "mainly because we were told it would be unrestricted, do what we want, and that was agreed upon, whereupon, when we came for the sound check, for every one mike that normally you would see in front of us, there were maybe three mikes taped together. It wasn't like a normal sound check all of a sudden, it was like we were doing a sound check to do a recording, and it totally inhibited our performance. I remember within the first two or three songs of the opening night of that, I'm sitting there singing and playing, and all of a sudden the level on my bass drops considerably, and I turn around and there's a roadie out there messing with my knobs. I'm wondering, 'What the hell are you doing?' He goes, 'Well, the sound truck told me to tell you to turn down, and since I couldn't tell you, they told me to go out here and turn you down.' That's kind of what happened all the way along with everybody, and it just totally inhibited the heck out of us."
Parazaider, on the other hand, discusses the band's thinking in doing the album. "The reason behind the live record for Carnegie Hall is, we were the first rock 'n' roll group to sell out a week at Carnegie Hall, and that was worth rolling up the trucks for, putting the mikes up there, and really chronicling what happened in 1971," he says. "This was Carnegie Hall, we were trying to get the sounds right."
But it may have been precisely because it was Carnegie Hall, an acoustic wonder for acoustic instruments but a notorious foe of amplification, that getting the sound right was so hard. "I hate it," Pankow says. "Well, I hate the horn sound. The acoustics of Carnegie Hall were never meant for amplified music, and the brass was amplified, solely, obviously, to compete with the rhythm section, which is amplified, and for whatever reasons, the sound of the brass after being miked came out sounding like kazoos."
Robert Lamm, however, defends the album as an accurate record of what happened. "I have rarely ever heard a live recording that wasn't studio-enhanced later on that really sounded anything like a studio recording," he notes. "But what this was supposed to capture was an event and the excitement and the things that happen when a band plays live, and I think it does that famously. That was an exciting week, to actually play in Carnegie Hall."
Lamm got the chance to premiere a new song that never appeared on a Chicago studio album, ''A Song For Richard And His Friends." April, 1971, was a long time before Watergate, and the resignation of a U.S. president was an unknown thing, but that didn't stop Lamm from offering a helpful suggestion to Richard M. Nixon. "I love that song," Lamm says, "and later on I did a version of it for a solo album [not released] where, in the tag chorus I add the line, 'Thank you, John Dean.' I've been told by one of the foremost psychics in Los Angeles that I'm psychic, I just don't know it."
Of course, another criticism made of the Carnegie Hall album when it came out was that it was overblown. The album may have marked the last nail in Chicago's coffin as far as rock critics were concerned. It had also encountered difficulties at CBS because of the attendant expense, prior to its release. "I had a big fight with Clive over the package," says Guercio. "They thought I was extravagant. I said, 'What is this all about? A dollar nineteen? Eighty-nine cents? Listen, I'm paying for it.' 'What do you mean?' I said, 'I will pay - what's your break-even, what's your break point?' 'Well, if we sell 500,000, the cost of the package goes down dramatically.' And that was the agreement I made on that record, I remember very well. I said, 'If it doesn't sell a million units, send me the bill. Now shut up. What's next?' That's how the packaging happened. I rolled the dice every time 'cause I believed in what I was doing."
The bill never arrived. Chicago At Carnegie Hall went gold out of the box, and has since been certified for sales of two million copies. But that hasn't stopped the criticism. (The album was recently listed seventh in a book compiling the worst rock 'n' roll records of all time, largely on the grounds of excess.) Cetera especially shares the critics' feelings. "The Carnegie Hall album was one of the things that started out to be a plus, but ended up being a big minus," he says.
"I think we chronicled a period of time in our career, and it was a good thing," Parazaider replies. "The album was a success." And whatever one thought of it, that's true. Until the release of Bruce Springsteen's live album 15 years later, Chicago At Carnegie Hall stood as perhaps the best-selling box set by a rock group ever. It marked the end of a chapter in Chicago's history.
Back to Chicago Main Page
Page Group Portrait Main Page (Track Listings)
or Pages 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 of this collection