Normally, when I take a particular band as my subject I listen to their music while I write. This installment of “Sins of the ’70s Week” is an exception. Our guest band this evening is Chicago, but after listening to a few tracks from Chicago Transit Authority (1969) and skipping desperately to Chicago II (1970) I felt that I was about to lose molecular containment.

Right now I’m listening to a disc from 1979: Jackrabbit Slim by the singer-songwriter Steve Forbert. Forbert sings a mash-up of folk, country, and Americana. (He’s Canadian, so I should call that North Americana.) I hear him as a happier version of Gram Parsons, who was glum, or of Elvis Costello, who started out angry and still strikes me as grumpy. I would also rate him approximately 1,000 times more literate than anyone in Chicago, the band that gave us the following thoughts, from “(I’ve Been) Searching So Long”:

I’ve been searching
So long
To find an answer
Now I know my life has meaning
Whoah whoah

When I was in high school I loved Chicago (the two albums I mentioned above). To try to understand why I did, I must first consider the case against them.

1) When Terry Kath, James Pankow, Robert Lamm, and the other Chicagoans formed their group, they called themselves The Big Thing. Great name! What compelled them to adopt Chicago Transit Authority? Did it sound more grown-up? Shortening it to Chicago when the real grown-ups at the CTA threatened to sue didn’t help. There is no personality involved in calling your group Chicago (or Boston, or Kansas). You’re just borrowing a label with its own emotional shadings, not venturing any of yours.

2) Almost all of Chicago’s hundreds of albums are double-record sets with the word “Chicago” on the cover with artsy things involving the letters and then a number. I guess this makes it easy for their fans to find their records. You might as well print covers with “Music Product” in black letters on a white background and then add the number.

3) OK, let’s get to the music. That’s what really counts. Chicago has an unsurpassed ability to write songs that are too sweet for Muppets. Exhibits A through D are “If You Leave Me Now,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Wishing You Were Here,” and “Colour My World.” Why were they using British spellings in the Midwest in 1970? Did the Brits win the War of 1812?

4) OK, let’s stay with the music. Much has been made of Chicago’s horn section, but what I often hear are a lot of held notes as in The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life.” I have much more respect for their first guitarist, the late Terry Kath, and their keyboard player, Robert Lamm. They could take a pop song and floor it.

That fourth point helps explain why at the ages of 14 and 15 I so enjoyed this band. “Beginnings,” for example, impacts like a meteor. The lyrics are easy to learn and sing and the emotions are imaginable, if not tangible, for any teenage male geek:

When I’m with you, it doesn’t matter where we are
Or what we’re doing. I’m with you, that’s all that matters

“Beginnings,” which is just short of 8 minutes, ends with 2 minutes of congas, cowbells, and guys shouting like they’re living la dolce vida. The ending didn’t mean much to me then because this self-indulgent stretch was usually cut off on the radio. Also, if you owned the LP you could turn the volume way up on your console stereo and hear an extra 30 seconds of congas and etc. that the engineers had faded out. It was like spinning Beatles records backwards to find out what happened to Paul.

Chicago sometimes broke songs into prologues, movements, and “ballets”; this seemed significant to me. The adults in my life considered my music juvenile; I could counterattack with Chicago, because they had brass instruments just like jazz players and their songs had movements so shut up. You can see how this perception would change as I got a little older.

But the final reason why I liked Chicago was because of, yes, “Colour My World.” (The formal title is “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon: Colour My World”). When they played it at a school dance in 1970 it was the signal for girls and boys to pair off on the dance floor and crush themselves into each other while circling very slowly so as not to get dizzy and topple into the crushed couples nearby.

When I played “Colour My World” today, after not hearing it for almost 40 years, I was immediately up to my neck in that hormonal melting pot. I still didn’t make it to end of the song, though, and it takes up a mere 2 minutes and 39 seconds.

Chicago (the current highest-numbered album is Chicago XXXII, but there are also a few unnumbered albums) is one of those bands that are popular for reasons I don’t understand. But there’s plenty in this life I’m trying to understand. “Does anybody really know what time it is?” Chicago asked on their very first record, “time” meaning life in general. Their best metaphor.

Tomorrow, “Sins of the ’70s Week” continues with: Grand Funk Railroad! I’m your captain, yeah yeah yeah yeah.

Random Pick of the Day
Steve Forbert, Jackrabbit Slim (1979)
This gentleman is pretty good. I haven’t listened to him since forever. The individual songs don’t stand out for me yet but I’ll listen again and try some of his other releases.

Random Pan of the Day
Chicago, Chicago 25: The Christmas Album (1998)
Panning this one is totally unfair because I refuse to listen to it, but I get paid to be unfair. Well, no, I don’t get paid, I just like to be unfair. I have an uneasy relationship with Christmas music, as I demonstrated here and here. The thought of Chicago muscling in on Mannheim Steamroller territory makes me wish for a silent night. Produced by Springsteen pianist Roy Bittan.

 

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