Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Chicago

Mom and Dad dropped the bomb last night at the dinner table: my sister isn’t coming back to live at home. Well, I hope she does well wherever she is. I kind of miss her already – even if I can’t sneak into her room and sample her record albums.

Ah, then: let’s spin a couple albums from the group Chicago. At first they were Chicago Transit Authority but had to shorten their name when the real CTA threatened to sue. Why didn’t the city of Chicago complain?

Guess it’s a good thing they didn’t – Chicago went on to be one of the most successful pop and rock groups of all time. Their albums should be extremely familiar to most people; so today let’s do something different and examine Chicago’s experimental side,  by listening to a couple of suites from their early albums.

Perhaps influenced by the Beatles,  Beach Boys and other progressive acts of the era, the band offered on its second album (Chicago, otherwise known as Chicago II, from 1970) a “suite” of songs strung together as the album’s centerpiece. Written entirely by trombonist-arranger James Pankow, the suite was one of three on the double LP but it got the most attention because it spawned the band’s first big hit singles.

“Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” was actually the first foray into these multi-part songs for Chicago. Inspired by classical music suites, Pankow told the story of a man trying to regain a long-lost love. The suite, just shy of 13 minutes long,  is made up of seven tracks, three of which are instrumentals. It gets right out of the chute with “Make Me Smile,” a peppy tune with catchy horn parts. But the lyrics are a bummer: this guy mopes around parks while kids play and laugh, he misses his true love. This part features a characteristic guitar solo from Terry Kath laid over a tasty bed of horns – actually Chicago’s trademark. Kath also sang the lead vocals throughout the ballet.

The song finally switches gears into “So Much To Say, So Much To Give,” then moves into two instrumentals – the first of which, “Anxiety’s Moment,” will give you Beatles flashbacks with its piano plunks. After “West Virginia Fantasies,” the second instrumental, the ballet really slows it down for the piano ballad “Colour My World,” which you may have heard about 1,000,000 times if you were around in the early 1970s. This one kind of sticks out because it doesn’t flow with the rest of the piece, almost as if they were inviting someone to lift the song straight out. Pankow remembers writing this part first, on the road in a Holiday Inn, and Walt Paradizer added flute parts on the spot.

One more instrumental interlude, then “Now More Than Ever” wraps up the song cycle by revisiting “Make Me Smile.” Chicago’s record label at the time, Columbia, decided to lift “Colour My World” as a single, but as a B-side: an amended “Make Me Smile,” with the “Now More Than Ever” closing, was the A-side. Pankow remembers driving in Santa Monica one day when he heard “Make Me Smile” on the radio. “I realized, hey, we have a hit single,” he said. It was Chicago’s first Top 10 single. The second hit single off Chicago was Robert Lamm’s driving “25 or 6 to 4″ – “Colour My World” wouldn’t have its time in the Top 10 until 1971, when it was re-released along with “Beginnings,” from the band’s first album.

MP3: “Ballet For A Girl in Buchannon”

MP3: “Make Me Smile” (single)

OK, just for laughs let’s cue up Side 2 of  Chicago’s next album, Chicago III, from 1971. With the hit singles, Chicago had lost its “underground” status and was a full-fledged pop band. But they wanted to get a little more funky and free on this one, and this double album (at this time Chicago had put out three double LPs in two years!) sported not one, not two, but three suites. Let’s listen to “Travel Suite,” which took up one whole side of an LP.

The new approach is evident with “Flight 602,” a country-ish ditty by Robert Lamm, which he also sings. Danny Seraphine contributes an instrumental next, “Motorboat to Mars,” then it’s back to Lamm with a rocker “Free,” sung by Kath. The suite then comes to a screeching halt with the experimental, moody “Free Country,” a long piano and flute instrumental that recalls “Colour My World” a bit but without vocals. The last two pieces, “At The Sunrise” and “Happy ‘Cause I’m Going Home,” are Lamm compositions which he sings in tandem with Peter Cetera. This vocal blend would become most evident on Chicago’s long run of hit singles in the 1970s and indeed, “Free” was a single lifted out of this suite.

Chicago III was another big hit for the band, and it had one other single, the middling “Lowdown,” by Cetera. The band would release a monster live album next – four LPs cut at Carnegie Hall – then Chicago V in 1972 would be the band’s first one-disc album and a huge platinum-selling monster. Kath would die in 1978 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and Cetera would finally leave the band for a solo career in 1985. Chicago soldiers on today, with Lamm, Pankow, Paradizer and Lee Loughnane as the remaining founding members.

MP3: “Travel Suite”

MP3: “Lowdown”

Chicago official website

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