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Chicago - The Chicago Transit Authority CD (album) cover




Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.07 | 212 ratings

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3 stars My first exposure to the seven-headed behemoth known as Chicago came in April of 1969, just a few days before the release of this, their debut. I and my buddy Frank Lee had corralled two tickets to see Jimi Hendrix perform at Memorial Auditorium and these guys were the opening act. They looked like a raggedy bar band that had somehow gotten incredibly lucky and been recruited to tour with a living legend on very short notice because Peter Cetera's aqua blue metal-flake Kustom bass amplifier and matching speaker cabinet stuck out like a swollen toe, Robert Lamm's Hammond B-3 appeared to have picked up quite a few nasty scars, bumps and bruises from being hauled up and down narrow stairwells and the poor horn section was squeezed into the edge of the stage area like an afterthought. But once they started to perform none of that mattered. These boys were not some Blood, Sweat & Tears clone trying to finesse us into awe-struck acceptance of them via their individual virtuosity. They were a rough gang that was going to jackhammer the house into rubble or die trying. They presented a forceful, honest blend of rock & roll and big band jazz and everyone in the arena was impressed when they finished their set (and that's no easy feat when the antsy crowd is itchin' for their "experience.") Chicago wowed us and earned our respect that night in Dallas.

Within days several cuts from this LP were spinning in heavy rotation on the local FM stations and a career that would last well into the next millennium was underway. It was a very bold move to ask the record-buying public to spring for a two-disc set right out of the gate (they had to accept a smaller royalty percentage to get Columbia to do it) but that risky gamble paid off large. They sold over a million copies in half a year. Of course, having two or three hit singles crossing over into the Top 40 didn't hurt. The bottom line is that this collection of musicians possessed the right attitude at the right time in the right place and they owned the creative talent to back it all up. Add to all that the chutzpah to put a healthy dose of prog rock sensibilities and an unorthodox array of sounds into "Chicago Transit Authority" and it's no wonder they made such an immediate impact on the populace. No one else was doing what they were doing the way they were doing it.

Guitarist/vocalist Terry Kath's "Introduction" kicks things off with a bang. While these sorts of how-de-do's can be cringe-inducing corny (as in "Hey, hey, we're the Monkees"), when they work (aka Nazz's exhilarating "Forget All About It") they can disarm even the most skeptical of listener right off the bat and make them more pliable. It's an upbeat yet hard- driving piece of music with proggy changes and stimulating dynamics to boot. The horns are brash and in-your-face. The mellower section allows James Pankow on trombone and Lee Loughnane on trumpet to step out from the shadows and into the spotlight. They then jump-start it back up into rock mode and the whole ensemble collectively shines. I'm pretty sure you've heard "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" but what you may not have heard is Lamm's exquisite solo piano intro that sets it up. The tune's initial salvo is clever and then they wisely present (in terms of commercial viability) some very tight, Laura Nyro- ish pop intended to bathe the AM airwaves. The inclusion of brief snippets of Pink Floyd- like background conversations into the mix keeps it from being overly predictable.

Robert's "Beginnings" is a simple love song that's upgraded to exceptional by the expressive horn arrangement that allows it to develop peaks and valleys. I liked it the first time I heard it in concert and still do. The repeating 3-chord refrain that dominates the second half of the track is kept fresh and robust by energetic trombone and trumpet bursts peppered throughout and the joyous, free-spirited hand-held percussion exposition that carries on into the fadeout is ingenious. Conservative Republicans they were not. Lamm's "Questions 67 and 68" is two steps backward in that it's exactly what the typical big band/rock copycat groups of that era were putting out there. It's not a bad tune but quite middle-of-the-road and unremarkable in contrast to their other material. Also, it didn't age particularly well and is embarrassingly dated. "Listen" follows and the onset built around Kath's single feedback note is still cool today. It's more of a true rocker in that they emphasize the guitar, bass and drums and the horns are only there to embellish.

"Poem 58" is a guitar-driven, power trio jam in which Terry comes off as a capable axe-man but somewhat limited in his technical prowess. The second half of the song is more interesting with ascending background vocals and punchy brass but Kath's incessant riffing is annoying. Letting one of the horns take a turn would've been a better option for this odd little number. Speaking of Terry, his uninhibited work on the next eclectic cut screamed to their audience that ordinary would not be an adjective casually applied to this group. In order to shake up the status quo the band stepped out for lunch and let Kath get psychedelic with his gear and make rude noises at will. I've had bouts of indigestion that were more enjoyable to listen to. If their intent was to shock then mission accomplished but I'll bet I've sat through this exercise in abstraction called "Free Form Guitar" only once on purpose. I got my fill the first time.

The bluesy "South California Purples" is my favorite cut on the album simply because it rawks! Lamm's Hammond lead won't elicit comparisons with Brian Auger but the hot, snappy horns make it a moot point. Terry's gutsy guitar ride is edgier than normal, as well. Some tunes just beg to be elaborated upon and Steve Winwood's classic "I'm a Man" is one of them. Chicago covers it excellently even though they relegate the horn section to whaling away on percussion instruments. That threesome's infectious enthusiasm goes a far distance in keeping Daniel Seraphine's lengthy drum solo from getting stale, though. "Prologue, August 29, 1968" is a one-minute sound bite taped on the streets during the previous year's dramatic Democratic Party Convention held in their hometown and I find it strange that producer James William Guercio claimed a writing credit for it. Is that egotistical or is it just me? Anyway, they follow it with "Someday (August 29, 1968)" in which the splashy horns are prominent and propel this politically-charged ditty from start to finish. It's not a great song but there's a good collaboration of different ideas to be found in the arrangement.

They go to elaborate measures in the liner notes to highlight the fact that James Pankow's "Liberation" was recorded entirely live in the studio "complete and uncut" and to that I exhort a hearty "so what?" It's really little more than a glorified jam session that leaves a lot to be desired. Its frat party anthem leads to another long (and I mean LONG), frantic Kath guitar extravaganza that eventually collapses into another wild melee of cacophony that everyone feels compelled to dog pile onto. A more peaceful movement ensues and then the group evolves steadily into a big band build up to the concert-worthy grand finale.

While I can't help but admire the bullish orbs it took for an unknown group to take so many chances on their adventurous four-sided debut, I'm convinced they could've achieved similar results with a disc's worth of guitar rides and sundry indulgences edited out. Having said that, this release charted at #17 in the USA and #9 in the UK so what do I know? (Not very prog-minded in this instance, am I?) There was a calculated shock value at play in this presentation of excess that disappeared by the time they got down to the business of recording their sophomore album and it's a good thing, too. "Chicago II" is one of their very best efforts mainly because of its conciseness and lack of filler. Yet that fine LP would probably have never been the success it was had it not been for the brazen, fearless statement they made with this one that made the entire planet sit up and take notice. The whole world was watching, indeed. 3.2 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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