MGF Reviews Chicago – The Best of Chicago: 40th Anniversary Edition

Chicago – The Best of Chicago: 40th Anniversary Edition
Rhino Records (10/2/07)
Classic rock / Anniversary Cash-In

Okay, so the math is simple. Get the guy from Chicago who only listens to oldies and classic rock stations to review a Greatest Hits Anniversary Collection from the band named after his hometown, who he undoubtedly grew up listening to from the time he could tune a radio and who knows every single one of these songs backward, forward, and every which way and who feels that all of the street signs on Chicago Avenue should be replaced with a certain trademarked logo instead of the few in the North Loop that have already been. Gee, you think the fix is in?

Okay, so it’s the fortieth anniversary of Chicago’s formation. Thirty albums later, they’re still recording and still having hits (twenty-five of those thirty have been certified platinum). It’s hard to believe that the proposition of this band was dodgy back then. Back in 1967, the only place you really found horns was on soul records. After the saxophone gave up its leading role in rock music to the electric guitar, brass pretty much disappeared from rock records. However, the signs of change were already there. One year before Chicago was formed, the Beatles recorded “Got to Get You into My Life”. And if the Beatles were putting horns on their records, then it was a sign that it was perfectly fine for everyone else to do so. But basing a group around horns? Wasn’t that taking it too far?

Not in the minds of the original seven members of Chicago Transit Authority. Jim Pankow’s trombone, Walt Parazider’s sax and woodwinds, and Lee Loughnane’s trumpet would be placed front and center, anchored by the genius guitar of Terry Kath, the solid bass and vocals of Peter Cetera, the steady, cataclysmic drumming of Danny Seraphine, and the majestic keyboards of Robert Lamm. They developed their chops in live performance, then convinced Columbia Records to sign them. Between this group and Blood, Sweat and Tears, horns became fashionable again in rock music. It wasn’t a totally smooth ride, though.

First came the name change. The CTA threatened to sue, so the group dropped the “Transit Authority” after the first album, trimming down to simply Chicago for their eponymous second album. That double-album set (each of the group’s first three albums were double albums, and their fourth was their four-album Live At Carnegie Hall; in two years, Chicago released ten disks of material, a phenomenal output) put them in the middle of the progressive rock revolution that was starting to take hold. The difference between Chicago and other prog-rock groups was that Chicago had a knack for creating hit singles, a fact which was noted right away. Those first two albums include classics like “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is”, “Beginnings”, “25 or 6 to 4”, “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World”, all of which are included on Disc 1 of this collection, unusually out of chronological order.

Also unusually, these aren’t the album versions. They’re the edited single versions, which are generally inferior. The exceptions to the inferiority rule are “Questions 67 and 68”, which works better in small doses, and “You’re Not Alone” on Disk 2, where the single mix is more powerful than the version on Chicago 19. The real loss is not including “Getaway” as part of “Hard To Say I’m Sorry”. It’s the best part of the song. And not including the full version of “Will You Still Love Me” is a sin. I swear that if I ever were to get married, that’d be the song to start the ceremony. Of course, Gloomchen’s already taken, so where am I going to find someone who can traumatize along with me when I hear Siouxsie and the Banshees being used as restaurant muzak (true story, folks; Gloomie might have saved my life that Sunday in Kansas)?

Getting back to our package, Chicago cut down to single albums with Chicago V, but each album was guaranteed to have at least one hit single, and Disk 1 collects them in a nice package. “Saturday in the Park”, which is truly one of their best, from Chicago V and “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” and “Just You ‘n’ Me” from Chicago VI show the group in its hit-machine mode, seamlessly blending the radio-friendly with the more ambitious album works. Chicago VII marked the group’s first reinvention. Relocating to California and absorbing some of the influences of the West Coast produced a more introspective work. The horn work on “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” and “Call on Me” are transcendent, and the Beach Boys harmony on “Wishing You Were Here” provides the group with a depth that was worth exploring, not to mention proof positive about Terry Kath’s genius on guitar. Chicago VII isn’t the best introduction to the group, but it’s definitely indicative of its time and still a great listen after 33 years. It’s one of those albums that I pull out when I want to mellow out. Even the sped-up ending of “Call On Me” doesn’t kill the mood. The mood continued on Chicago VIII and its hit single, “Old Days”, a truly fun song. In the liner notes of the collection (worth the price of admission), Pankow admitted that Cetera hated “Old Days” because he didn’t want to sing the words “Howdy Doody”. I can understand that; Cetera does bear quite the resemblance to Howdy Doody. But he really doesn’t have a leg to stand on. He sang “The Glory Of Love”, for God’s sake.

The ninth album was a greatest hits collection, and it was only missing one thing: a Number One single. Somehow, virtually everything Chicago released as singles hit the Top Ten, but avoided the top spot. That problem (one that still vexes another recent review subject of mine, John Fogerty) was rectified when Chicago X was released in 1976. A lot of people still hold up Chicago X as their best album, and it’s tough to argue with that unless you’re willing to delve into the total pop of 17 and 18 (which I’m usually willing to do, as you’ll see later). Peter Cetera, who was still uncertain as a songwrter, came up with what may be the greatest ballad of the last three decades, “If You Leave Me Now”. His high tenor has never worked better. Kath’s acoustic work is outstanding. The strings meshed perfectly with the horn section, especially Loughnane’s flugelhorn. “If You Leave Me Now” and Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” ended up giving the flugelhorn legitimacy in pop music. A very underestimated instrument, the flugelhorn.

“If You Leave Me Now” is the cutoff for Disk 1, thus making for an unusual division: first ten albums on Disk 1, last twenty on Disk 2. Realistically, though, Disk 2 is “the next ten albums with a couple tracks from Chicago XXX to show everyone not listening to lite-rock radio that they’re still recording”. However, this is an appropriate point for a cut-off. After the success of Chicago X and “If You Leave Me Now”, Chicago started to change their focus. They started the slow morph into the pop band that we know today, a process that took until Chicago 16 and was prolonged and difficult. It’s hard to fault them for doing it. Genesis was doing the same thing at the same time, and it took them the same amount of time to do it (from …And Then There Were Three… to Genesis, roughly speaking). But Genesis was luckier. They didn’t lose their old audience while putting out Duke and Abacab; instead, their audience expanded to include the pop audience along with the prog audience. Chicago ended up undergoing a full disconnect.

As the booklet says regarding Disk 2, “Maintaining a standard, and staying on the radio, came at a cost.” Chicago XI was a critical disappointment, although they ended up having a hit with “Baby, What a Big Surprise” (you want something to embarass Chicago by, it’s that song). In the wake of the critical bashings, true tragedy struck the group. Terry Kath died in an accident that’s still not explicable today. He’d become a coke freak by the release of Chicago XI and, according to reports, was getting ready to leave the group. He’d also become a gun freak. After a party, while high and drunk, he was cleaning one of his 9mm pistols and neglected to fully check that it was emptied. He put the gun to his head to show people that it was perfectly safe, that the gun was unloaded. It wasn’t. He was a week short of his 32nd birthday.

Kath’s death put the group into a creative tailspin. They even broke from tradition and didn’t call their twelfth album Chicago XII. Hot Streets, as it ended up being called, was also critically lambasted, even with Phil Ramone behind the console (he produced Hot Streets in between The Stranger and 52nd Street for Billy Joel, so you can imagine how hot he was at the time). They got a minor hit out of “No Tell Lover”, but it would be the last time for four years that they’d sniff the charts. At that time, the group went through personnel changes as well as a label change. Columbia dropped them, and Irving Azoff picked up their management contract and signed them to his vanity label distributed by Warner Brothers, Full Moon. Donnie Dacus wasn’t working out on guitar as Kath’s replacement, so they brought in Bill Champlin, who would become invaluable in the future as a guitarist, keyboardist, writer, arranger, and vocalist. Chris Pinnick was also brought in to add the heft on guitar that Kath had provided and Champlin couldn’t. But the group couldn’t pull itself out of its death spiral. Their old audience had left, and there seemed to be no one to replace them. Their new pop sound wasn’t fully developed. They needed help to complete the transformation.

Enter David Foster. Oh, how this man has been maligned for turning the mid-eighties into a MOR festival. Yes, the man has some sins on his platter, there’s no doubt about that. But we can’t really blame him for producing Celine Dion’s first English-language album, can we? I mean, who would have known what “Where Does My Heart Beat Now” would lead to? Certainly not I; I still like that song and think the production of it is high-quality. But if you wanted to get back some pop credibility, and Chicago desperately needed to at this point, Foster was the man. He took the helm for Chicago 16, and out popped another Cetera ballad, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”, and, suddenly, Chicago had another Number One hit, this time seemingly from the dead. Of course, certain members of the band were rather upset at Foster’s dictatorial production methods, namely the entire horn section, who seemingly were cut out of the action. Parazaider admits in the liner notes that the three were seriously discussing leaving at this point. Pankow says that “it became the David Foster/Peter Cetera show”. It wouldn’t be for very much longer, though.

Since not even the horn section could argue with success, Foster was back for Chicago 17, Chicago’s contribution to that great string of pop music released between mid-1982 and mid-1984. I’ll ignore “Stay the Night”, since this collection did, and good for both of us. However, including “You’re The Inspiration” and not “Along Comes a Woman”… okay, I didn’t decide on the tracks for this collection, and “You’re the Inspiration” is more famous (both went Top Ten, though). But maybe my fond recollections of this album are based on two things: the “Along Comes a Woman” video, which had the guts to turn Casablanca into a rock video, and the fact that I broke up with a girlfriend to “Hard Habit to Break”. Being mean-spirited does not necessarily come from age, people; I was a royal bastard in my late teens and early twenties too. Great album, though, as was its even-better follow-up.

Ah, but there was another personnel change or two in the process of reaching adulthood in album terms. Chris Pinnick left after 17, thus focusing things more on Champlin’s guitar work. And Peter Cetera had finally had enough. Foster had inflated him to the point where he felt that he could go solo, and thus initiated an acid-tinged break-up that’s still bitter today. Okay, so Cetera had his solo hits, and there are some good ones among them, but Chicago had the last laugh.

They kept Foster around for one more album, and Chicago 18 is one of the hidden shining jewels of mid-eighties pop. Anyone who thought that Chicago was screwed after Cetera left had to revise their judgment on hearing “Niagara Falls”, the incredible opener of 18 that isn’t on this collection. Cetera’s voice was replaced by Champlin, and his bass was replaced by Jason Scheff, who’s still with the band today. Yes, this is the album that committed the sin of attempting to redo “25 or 6 to 4”, but that can be forgiven thanks to the first side’s trio of power ballads that are alone enough to legitimize that heavily-criticized genre. “Niagara Falls” isn’t on here because it wasn’t released as a single, but the other two are, “If She Would Have Been Faithful” and “Will You Still Love Me”, the latter in its butchered single version. Stick with the album version. You can even hear the edits if you know the original well enough. That’s rather disconcerting.

(By the way, can someone with a chart of “If She Would Have Been Faithful” please tell me what the hell the harmony chord the group sings at the end of the bridge is? As the lyric being sung at that point says, it defies all logical explanation.)

Chicago had one last blast of Eighties Pop left in them, and they brought in Ron Nevison to produce Chicago 19. Nevison had made his name resurrecting Heart from the dead a few years earlier, and had a good reputation as a pop producer. He also was good friends with Diane Warren, the hottest songwriter of the era, and the group was “talked into recording some Diane Warren songs,” in Pankow’s words. Warren’s songwriting did two things: they almost drove Pankow and Lamm out of the group, and they gave Chicago their third and last Number One, “Look Away”, the Number One song of 1989. Looking over the final Billboard charts for 1989, it really wasn’t a very good year for music. Please, don’t look; you’ll only end up crying too. The only solace for me is Chicago at Number One and the presence at Number Twelve of one of the greatest pure pop songs ever, Boy Meets Girl’s “Waiting for a Star to Fall”. Personally, I blame this on my leaving for Germany. If I’d been in the States, I’m sure things would have been different.

But enough of my guilt complex. 19 brings four songs to this collection, including the magnificent single version of “You’re Not Alone”, a surprise Top Ten single but definitely worthy. Personally, I would have made it five and threw in “We Can Last Forever”, yet another beautiful ballad from a group that by this time had mastered the form. As for the next decade and a half, that’s pretty much it for this collection other than two tracks from last year’s critically acclaimed Chicago XXX, a return to form for the group. And the two tracks pulled out of there for this collection, “Feel” and “Love Will Come Back”, are two of the best on that album, so there’s no room to complain.

So is this collection worth it? As a primer on Chicago, it’s perfectly well and good. It’s certainly not comprehensive, but the group already has a five-CD box set available, which contains tracks from the unreleased Chicago 22 (otherwise known as Stone of Sisyphus). If you’ve never listened to Chicago in depth, I’d definitely pick up this set. Then, when you find out that you really enjoy this music, buy the box set. Just don’t not listen to Chicago. As I said, I’m immersed in this music as a birthright, so I’m certainly not the most objective person in the world on this subject. But you’ll have to trust me on this. Just because you weren’t involved in it for the past forty years doesn’t mean that you don’t have time to catch up. It’s worth your time. Just open your ears and let the horns work their magic. That’s not much of a commitment, is it?