Saturday, September 12, 2009

Questions 82 and 93

The first concert T shirt I had was a grey jersey style shirt with this picture and the band's logo in 1982. A few years later I wore this shirt while playing tackle football, a tackler grabbed the collar of my shirt and ripped it halfway down my left arm. The torn collar left my left shoulder exposed with a grey sagging shirt causing people to yell "Hey Flashdance!" as I walked home from the game. Only in the 80's people.
Although they've dropped off my regular listening habits, in high school I was a huge fan of Chicago. Their soft rock offerings packed with lush production and forthright vocals were like audio crack to me. Plus they were the 2nd band I saw in concert which made an impact on me as well. And my parents had Chicago tapes from the 70's (Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall and Chicago V) so I was already off to an easy start in hearing a body of work. Today I'm going to focus on the part of their career where I was a huge fan 1982 - 1991.

Chicago 16 (1982)

Going in to Chicago 16, it seemed like everything was against them. Music had changed leaving their jazz rock out of style, the death of guitarist Terry Kath and distancing from producer James William Guercio left them creatively adrift and they left long time record label Columbia in hopes of a new start. Two key factors set the band in the right direction, one was Producer David Foster who in turn brought in keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Bill Champlin.

At this stage in his career, Foster believed (and may still believe) that if his name goes on the project its his duty to deliver a first class product. With Chicago, it meant the start of his truly identifiable sound what I like to call "Foster's Freeze": glowing classical keyboard runs, sweeping strings, majestic rhythm breaks (the only way I know how to describe those parts that go Duuuhh,duhduhduh, Duhhhh with the bass), a little rock guitar and crystalline voices. He co-wrote much of the material and Fostered a writing partnership with their most commercially viable performer, Peter Cetera. The result? First class product.

The first single, the Cetera sung power ballad "Hard To Say I'm Sorry", was cross marketed with the movie Summer Lovers (the famed Darryl Hannah menage a trois' movie and I'm not going to check if I spelled that right) shot to #1. This immediately put Chicago back in business and I pressed play on my tape of radio songs often after rewinding to this cut. It is a perfect ballad and after buying the record found it ramped up to an upbeat horn driven rocker called "Get Away". A second single, the lurching thumping ballad "Love Me Tomorrow" got a lot of radio play. Two great ballads in a row with mushy lyrics and bombastic arrangements, how could I not be a fan?

The rest of the record had highlights like the Bill Champlin r&b influenced "Sonny Think Twice" but mostly focused on positioning Cetera as a romantic leading man. He was gonna "Rescue You" from those "Chains", save you from "Bad Advice" because he is "What You're Missing". The famous horn section (saxophonist Walt Parazaider, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and trombonist James Pankow) took a back seat to the keyboards except for "Get Away" and on the excellent pop rocker "Follow Me".

They were supporting this album when I saw them live for the first time, a day time show at the Concord Pavilion. Had a blast listening to songs like "25 or 6 to 4" and "Beginnings" for the first time live straight from the band (and my Dad was happy to point out the classical motifs of the music). Robert Lamm's piano solo was really memorable because he had a baby grand type and he opened the lid and climbed half way into it to pluck the strings inside. But my strongest memory of the show? Some fool yelling "Play 'Song For You!" over and over. Odder still, my strongest memory of the record isn't a song, but that kick ass record sleeve inside that had Chicago's logo printed in the middle of a computer circuit board design. High tech coolness at its max!

If You Leave Me Now (1982)

Knowing they had a long career (I mean, the album is called 16 for a reason) I grabbed a convenient comp of their 70's stuff. It was a good enough best of including "25 or 6 to 4", "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?", "No Tell Lover" and the infamous "Song For You". Even though the musical style is very different between their 70's and 80's work, I had grown up hearing the softer songs on the radio (like "I've Been Searchin' So Long") which further entrenched their greatness in my mind.

Chicago 17 (1984)

The turning point where I worshipped at the altar of Peter Cetera. The singles from their 17th effort is the ultimate Cetera fest. "Stay The Night" with it's clunky beat and CHiPs worthy car crash video went Top 20 (one of my all time favorite videos). Then came the uber ballad, "Hard Habit To Break" (why are things always so hard for Chicago to do anything? Can't say sorry, can't break habits, damn they're pathetic!) which was a Top 10 hit.

"Hard Habit To Break" was my favorite song in high school. It was so perfectly arranged that I really can't think of a song I like more on that scale. Having the high pitched Cetera play off the low soulful voice of Bill Champlin was pure genius. Comparing romantic love to drug addiction in a commercial soft rock ballad is genius ("I'm addicted to you!!!"). That break down section where the horns go off wonky and everything whittles down to a keyboard and Cetera's plaintive "Being without you takes a lot of getting used to..." is genius. David Foster, you are a genius. Dork that I was/am, I played this song endlessly on my walkman while on the school bus telling others about the greatness of "Habit".

Third single "You're The Inspiration" was another monster smash destined for weddings for decades to follow. Though it drove me nuts that the single version took out the three note guitar solo because I preferred that over the record version with it. It's like, if you know the song sounded better without that part then why have it there in the first place? My tape had the guitar solo on it dammit. One strike against you, Foster. Oh yeah, watching the video I forgot all about the Billy Idol lookalike making out with the Madonna lookalike. Classic!

Speaking of single remixes, the fourth single "Along Comes A Woman" came with a much better sound on 45. It was shorter and had sharper percussion, reining in that elastic bass line that is all over the place on record. Loved the horn section solo, one of the few they really got in the 80's on a hit song. And in the video King Cetera gets to portray two of my favorite cinema characters, Rick in Casablanca and Indiana Jones. Killer stuff and another Top 20 song.

On the rest of the record the other band members got to do a little more than on 16. Keyboardist / vocalist Robert Lamm found his social conscious for a second on the excellent ode to the homeless "We Can Stop The Hurtin". The rocker "Prima Donna" was featured on the soundtrack to the cinematic disaster known as Two Of A Kind, which I glumly sat thru in the movie theatre expecting more Greased Lightning and instead handed sub Fantasy Island garbage. But let's cut the crap, the winner of the album tracks is another Cetera ballad, the winsome "Remember The Feeling" that closes side one. My heart...(sob) on (cry) sleeve (all out bawling).

I saw Chicago live two more times on this tour, the first show at the Berkeley Greek Theatre I was in like the 10th row. They were decked out in these all white jump suits like Buck Rogers. It was another great show, got to see "Hard Habit To Break" performed live close up while it was in the middle of its chart run. And towards the end of the concert they played a fiery version of "I'm A Man". I saw them months later at the Oakland Coliseum, they were still tight and did a longer version of "Make Me Smile" that included some of the suite sections off Chicago II. Cetera was firmly ensconced in the front man role, hopping around during "Stay The Night" and running around the whole stage at one point. I found a live recording of "Along Comes A Woman" from that show, totally rad.

Chicago 17 became the band's best selling album. They had a song "Good For Nothing" included in the We Are The World charity record. Chicago seemed on top of the world.

Chicago 18 (1986)

Looks can be deceiving, the big happy family image they presented fell apart as King Cetera was given the heave ho in '85. Cetera wanted to be like Phil Collins or Steve Perry, do a solo album and then come back to the band. Chicago told Cetera to hit the pavement. It was sad to see them claim an American Music Award without Pete. After rumors floated around of offers being made to Mickey Thomas (Starship), Richard Page (Mr. Mister) and Bobby Kimball (Toto) came up empty, the band returned in '86 with Jason Scheff in the bass / tenor voice position.

I've done a big post on this classic album before so I'll just hit the highlights. With Cetera gone they wanted to go back to more of a "band" presentation while Foster went into overdrive bringing in outside writers to take up the slack. A bizarre (but nonetheless memorable) remake of "25 or 6 to 4" was the lead single and failed to go Top 40. That stupid repetitive drum pattern is permanently baked in my brain as I eagerly snapped up the 45 upon release and played it over and over. At this point it was obvious that ballads were their bread and butter, the oversensitive "Will You Still Love Me?" went Top 10 keeping their commercial prospects viable. Their sequel to "Hard Habit To Break" , the epic "If She Would Have Been Faithful..." was Top 20.

This song was another marvel of arrangement and production with Foster pulling out all the stops. Scheff and Champlin play off each other, there are electronic drums, a capella breaks and some of the most dumbfounded lyrics ever put in a straight up Adult Contemporary song. I think Steve Kipner was involved in writing both this and "Habit" so I'll give him props. Anyone who can come up with this convoluted a story line (Jason Scheff is telling his girlfriend that he's happy that his ex-girlfriend cheated on him because if she hadn't he wouldn't have ended up with her. Ah, romance). that has a bridge giving the definition of a paradox has real talent. As an added bonus, the picture sleeve to the 45 is one of my personal favorites using old tyme imagery on the cover.

"Niagra Falls" was the fourth single and not a bad tune at all. Robert Lamm continued his tradition of one decent song per album, this time with "Forever" and its extended trombone solo courtesy of James Pankow. Bill Champlin's token R&B song was one of his best, the bouncy "It's Alright". As much as I loved this album it only went Gold, a big drop from the Triple Platinum sales of the album prior. And I missed Cetera so I skipped seeing them live. Scheff was a good replacement, his voice came across as whinier than Cetera's but was still pleasant. Memories of this album is forever tied to my first months living away from home.

Chicago 19 (1988)

When Chicago returned, they had dropped (or been dropped I don't know which) David Foster. Hence (as Anna Faris says, "Yeah...Hence!") plainer production (no more Fosters Freeze) and a stronger presence from the horn section resulted. Most of the album was produced by Chas Sandford who effectively captured the sound of the band separate from Foster. Sandford seemed to add echo, sparkly synths and other effects to give the music a little more dimension. Pop rockers like "Heart In Pieces", "Come In From The Night" and "Runaround" played well. However, the singles were produced by Ron Nevison (Jefferson Starship, Survivor, Heart) minus the special effects and focused on Diane Warren's songs.

The singles also marked a key turning point for Chicago on the radio as focus shifted from the smooth voiced singer (Jason Scheff) to the soulful gruff of Bill Champlin as lead vocalist on ballads. This change was so unexpected that I remember Billboard magazine writing about Jason Scheff's "forceful" lead vocal on the first single "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love" and hell, even I thought it was Scheff because I didn't expect Champlin. And with the switch Chicago was rewarded with a Top 10 hit. Even without using the rarely seen video, which had computer graphics on par with a Commodore 64 (come to think of it, the album cover is sorta like that too) that I can't find online anymore.

Champlin's roll continued with the second single, another Diane Warren ballad "Look Away". The tune blasted its way to #1 on the charts, eventually becoming the biggest hit of the year. This was the third time the band would hit the #1 spot, but the first without Cetera. It's placement as the song of the year was a surprise, I recall when the countdown came to a close on the radio I was with a friend giving another friend a ride home from the airport. For five minutes she ragged on "Look Away" from the back seat, of all the songs from the year how could that be the best one? Though I liked the song I was pretty stunned by its high placement too so I laughed at my friend's rantings.

A third single with Champlin's voice, the sturdy pop rocker "You're Not Alone" made Top 10 though it tends to be a forgotten hit. I freakin' love this song! A last single, the Scheff sung power ballad "We Can Last Forever" made a minor dent on the charts. "Forever" was somewhat like "Will You Still Love Me?" except it was much less successful.

Despite the lack of Foster and simplified arrangements, I really liked this album a lot. Have great memories of playing this album during the summer of '88. As I worked my first Summer at a local theme park, I cruised around town with friends playing this and Guns N Roses everywhere I went. Late in the Summer I went back to the tradition of seeing the band live, only to be disappointed by a lackluster performance. They seemed to phone everything in, even resorting to using synthesizers to replicate the horn parts of "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love". Drummer Danny Seraphine seemed off beat at some points (he seemed to drag a bit on "25 or 6 to 4" particularly that evening). This was the first show that I saw the band's new guitarist DeWayne Bailey, who seemed an odd fit with his hair metal band theatrics and shredding technique. I vividly recall him leaping into the air and landing before the front row tearing up the fretboard during his solo on "Stay The Night" to a bank of middle aged fans that seemed to applaud out of fear. Having seen better performances by the band online from this tour today maybe this was just an off show, at the time it gave me the impression this was a band that had lost direction and was going thru the motions. Or maybe they kicked it up a notch for video recordings.

Chicago's Greatest Hits 1982 - 1989 (1989)

After the Platinum selling Chicago 19 it was time to clean up so they packed up their smash ballads into one package. Added to the set was a single edit of the best song from 19, "What Kind Of Man Would I Be?". This winsome power ballad co-written and sung by Jason Scheff would be Chicago's final Top 10 hit - and what a hit it was. Not the biggest of their career, but going out with a tenor voiced power ballad sparked by a horn section solo put a nice bow on the end of the decade. A co-dependent's dream, this album is.

Twenty1 (1991)

To start the 90's, Chicago recorded and toured behind the single "Hearts in Trouble" from the Tom Cruise car racing movie Days of Thunder. It was a little strange to see a group use an unsuccesful single from a movie soundtrack for their reason to tour, but oh well. Besides, some people took the usage of "Hearts in Trouble" on the tour shirts as an attempt at trash talk against the rock group Heart (like maybe they were fighting over bad movie songs or something). That summer was the last time I saw Chicago live and it was a strong show. New drummer Tris Imboden fit in nicely (though he had less presence than Seraphine) as the group seemed revitalized. Their performance was on point, even including an older song I was really digging at the time called "Dialogue parts I & II". The only negative was Robert Lamm openly admitting they couldn't play any of their new material because they hadn't learned it yet. Otherwise, it was a fun concert on a comfortably warm Summer night in Concord.

The following year saw the release of Twenty1, this time produced almost entirely by Nevison. Twenty1 was the album where everything came together for the group and I felt it was their best since Chicago 17. They still had power ballads courtesy of outside songwriters, but also the bands creative juices seemed to be flowing a bit more as well. The horn section had their strongest impact since the 70's, appearing on many of the tracks instead of being relegated to a handful of songs. Momentum gained from the band's prior tour carried into the feel of the album, providing their most natural recorded performance in over a decade. Where 19 seemed anemic in song arrangement and performance, Twenty1 caught a group gelling into a solid unit again. The first single was another Dianne Warren written Bill Champlin sung love song, "Chasin' The Wind".

And "Chasin' The Wind" blew its way to #39 on the charts. A second single, the magnificent ballad "Explain It To My Heart" complete with David Foster's piano playing and Jason Scheff pratically shrieking the chorus, went nowhere. Which sucked because "Explain" came mighty close to recapturing the Foster magic. Twenty1 sold poorly, the pop music audience seemingly having enough of the erstwhile soft rockers.

It was really too bad, because as I said musically I thought this was great. Robert Lamm contributed not one,but two good songs this time including the outstanding "Only Time Can Heal The Wounded". Bill Champlin's Bob Segerish pop rocker "Somebody Somewhere" was a fave of mine. Jason Scheff came close to carbon copying his hit "What Kind Of Man Would I Be?" with "Man To Woman". Although they got a little Holiday Inn band on "If It Were You" or "Who Do You Love" they still came across as crisp and sharp.

Almost as an afterthought, the Jason Scheff tune "You Come To My Senses" made an impact on Adult Contemporary radio. Though it didn't reach the Pop charts, it's probably the best known song from this album.

Group Portrait (1991)

If it's one thing this band knows how to do, it's anthologize its own music. A four CD box set of the Columbia years with remastered sound, this was an great compilation of the band's classic 70's era. All of the songs of interest big and small were included, making me a fan of lesser known tracks like "You Are On My Mind", "Alma Mater" and "Thunder And Lightning". There is a distinct arc to the band's career as you can trace the ideas starting off strong on the first disc only to dwindle away by the fourth disc. One thing this box set accomplished is help me appreciate how talented Terry Kath was. This guy had a Ray Charles soul and was a stunning guitarist. What a sad loss.

Stone Of Sisyphus (1993 / 2008)

Now ignored on all radio formats, Chicago reconviened in the studio to work on new material. Their intention was to break free from their power ballad straight jacket. After all, they had nothing to lose after watching Twenty1 go down in flames. Thus began the Stone of Sisyphus or as my wife likes to call it, the Stone of Sissy Fists. I looked up what this Sisyphus is, it is a Greek myth about a king that is punished by the Gods for his trickery by having to roll a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down and start over again for all eternity. I guess we can see what frame of mind Chicago was in at the time.

Out of the box thinking became the focus for these aging musicians. Jazz was brought back into the picture, just not the bebop jazz influence of old. No, this was Kenny G style jazz where there is some instrumental trickiness and rhythm shifts layered into a feel mellow aesthetic. Snazzy bits like "Mah Jong" beefed up the percussion and swinging horns reminding me of Spyro Gyra. The title track opener had a slick AOR feel that won me over. And even while ditching power ballads, they found inventive ways to hit their soft rock groove as on "Let's Take A Lifetime" or "Here With Me". "The Pull" also gave a nice pop rock glory.

By opening up their sound and taking risks, Stone of Sisyphus is their liveliest disc of the modern age. That doesn't make it great though. A desperate attempt at rap crashes and burns on the ridiculous "Sleeping In the Middle Of The Bed". And Jason Scheff jumps his whiny wimpering shark on the Father worshipping epic ballad "Bigger Than Elvis". Sacrificing pop melodies for fancy dancy musicianly moves entertains of a certain level but this ain't Yes.

The record label rejected the Stone of Sissy Fits as being uncommercial, which for the most part it was. Failing to release the album ended Chicago's soft rock lovin' era as they would retreat into big band and Christmas Cds to keep the mortgage payments going. Until 2008 the full recording would not receive an official exposure to the public. So my fandom pretty much stopped after 1991 as I was unaware of this album until they released another box set ages later.
Commercially they left the era as they came, audienceless except for the die hard faithful. In terms of their overall career, Chicago was in a better position by having two decades of chart hit songs to draw from in live performance. It was like The Hobbit, they went there and back again. With the exception of DeWayne Bailey, this version of Chicago would continue into the new millenium. With an interest in newer bands and less mellow music I left Chicago behind. Later I would play their music every once in a while, just not at the level I had in those peak ballad years. But from 1982 to 1991, I was all about these thunderously sappy love songs.

A last bit, this guy on You Tube called Chicagokid1969 recorded himself playing piano versions of the great 80's Chicago ballads. If you would like to, see if you can name them all!

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