Saturday, February 18, 2012

My favorite Chicago album - CHICAGO VIII

Now, I can appreciate Chicago on some levels, but I am by no means a rabid fan. I can dig some of the jazz stylings even though sometimes the horn section tends to play in the “safety zone” a little too often. But this is supposed to be commercial music anyway – and that’s where Chicago really shines. Its those tracks that have what I call the “Chicago Magic”. These guys had an uncanny way of coming up with some truly awesome pop/rock material. Even if you’re not a true fan – could anyone really deny all the great tracks on Chicago’s Greatest Hits? You just don’t have soul if that stuff doesn’t hit you. But even beyond the hits, the early albums had some experimental and rockin’ moments. Actually, most Chicago albums featured extended 10-minute plus pieces with a few commercial pop songs sprinkled throughout. Part of the experience was finding out what well-known, radio hit was lurking amidst whichever progressive jazz-rock opus pocus was dominating the groove space on the platter. It remains a puzzling combination: were the hits there to lure the listener into the extended pieces or were those extended pieces just “filler” to pad out a double-LP with a few hit songs thrown in? I guess it depends on your point of view towards the more experimental tracks. If the results weren’t always compelling, at least they were trying to do something out of the ordinary. And for that I have to cut them a few points.

    But by the 80s, Chicago lost a lot of edge in their music. Mainly due to the tragic death of guitarist Terry Kath – possibly THE most under-rated guitarist of the 70s (somewhere near Eddie Hazel from Funkadelic, but that’s for another entry!). The 80s Chicago was long on the Peter Cetera ballad and short on, how shall I say……BALLS? This was not a rock band anymore. I think we can appreciate the “what happened” concept, but this once-rockin’ group got tagged with a stigma of uncoolness by the 80s that hasn’t let go. Even the distinctive logo became a calling card for ……….. unrelenting MILDNESS.

    Anyway, I’ve been grabbing some Chicago records on the cheap over the years. Got a nice original copy of the second album – have I played it very often? Nah…..but hey, like I said I really like those hits. And Terry Kath too so I’ll give ‘em a shot once in awhile. But these guys had a LOT of records – many of them double albums and that’s a lot of information to sift through for the admittedly casual fan. So I’ve kinda worked my way up through the numbers – skipping a few here and there…’s like this funny “Chicago Game” I like to play……..find the records used and see how they fit into the puzzle of their career. I’ll probably even end up buying the cheesy albums eventually ‘cause that’s what I like to do. Its no fun if all you ever hear is the best stuff from an artist. It’s refreshing to hear artists struggle with their art once in awhile – humanizes them because, hey – they’re only HUMAN after all.

    So lesseee….I got Chicago I through III. I don’t have the live album. Then there’s V, VI and VII – all these albums had big hits on them and I don’t have those yet. In 1975, the group put out two records -  VIII (a new album) and IX (the Greatest Hits album).  VIII was the first new Chicago LP with no major hit singles on it. The Greatest Hits had, well, all the great songs on it. Which one do you think sold? No contest, right?

    So I rescued a copy of VIII from the dollar bins last summer. It even had the cool iron-on decal and obligatory-by-now goofy poster stuck inside the cover. Since it was only a single-album release I figured it would be a quick listen and, never having heard it before, I gave it a spin. SURPRISE! This may be my favorite Chicago record ever! Chicago VIII is the sound of a hit-making group struggling to figure out their identity after establishing themselves on the charts for years, almost effortlessly. They’re really trying on this record, but ultimately the plot is lost. And they’re throwing in the kitchen sink here – every possible attempt to do something that captures “the magic” and ………it just doesn’t happen. In the meantime though Chicago covers some unlikely territory. The styles run the gamut. There’s even a song that sounds like a cross between Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. And, of all things, it’s a Peter Cetera song! It all revolves around a really basic bass-guitar riff that’s downright GRUNGY! I LOVE IT!! It almost sounds like a Kiss song – just not as (can’t believe I’m writing this…..) sophisticated? Unthinkable, but true!

    Chicago VIII could be considered more of a Terry Kath record. He’s got some tunes on here that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Moby Grape album. In fact, if they’d hired the Moby Grape guys to sing backup on some cuts that would’ve cemented the coolness factor for sure. "Oh, Thank You Great Spirit” is a Terry Kath tribute to Jimi Hendrix – cooler still since Terry’s lead vocal sounds a lot like Richard Manuel of The Band! My God, if Terry Kath had lived he could have replaced both Robbie Robertson AND Richard Manuel in The Band if he’d wanted to! The mind boggles!

As it stands, this LP is a totally schizoid affair. It’s really saying something when the “hit single” was an unlikely ode to Harry Truman. Well, that must’ve gone over real well with their Japanese fans don’t you think? Though they might be stuck in identity-crisis mode they’re still rockin’. In some ways, it’s like the last hurrah. The next all-original LP would be X – the one that looks like a chocolate bar. The X album would feature the smash hit Peter Cetera ballad “If You Leave Me Now” – the song that would set the standard for that kind of material folks would expect from Chicago henceforth which would ultimately force Cetera out of the group and into a short-lived solo career.

     So there’s a lot of reason to love Chicago VIII. There were no rules then. The album opens up with a BLUES SHUFFLE for God’s sake. Sadly, it would be the last time Chicago let their guard down and just let the music take them wherever it might lead. Within a few short years, Terry Kath would be gone and so too would Chicago’s right to call themselves a rock band. So if you see that lonely Chicago LP with the cardinal bird on the cover sitting in the dollar bin somewhere – grab it, take it home and marvel at a time when a major group could load up the 24 track analog tape machines, let them roll and play whatever came to mind. If it wasn’t immediately commercial – ah, no big deal. Just keep playin’ the music. At least it was an honest record – not contrived, but not forced-sounding either. Kinda like a garage band just getting together and tryin’ out some tunes. Only in the 70s could a group get away with a record like Chicago VIII. I can dig it!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Fleetwood Mac - THEN PLAY ON

By 1969, a group called Fleetwood Mac had been pounding stages across Europe for about two years. Started by guitarist Peter Green after serving an apprenticeship in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the original Fleetwood Mac’s mission was to serve a diet of straight-up blues to British audiences eager to hear something authentic. In that regard, Fleetwood Mac delivered the goods – big time! Yet, just as Eric Clapton had done with Cream, Peter Green would navigate his own ship through more progressive waters beyond the blues lagoon. In September of 1969, the above record appeared as the group’s third official LP. THEN PLAY ON came in the wake of several chart-topping single releases that placed the group at the forefront of Europe’s rock scene at that time. Aside from these popular record releases, Fleetwood Mac earned a reputation as one of the most blistering live acts of the era. Witness the “Live at the Boston Tea Party” discs recorded in the USA in February of 1970 – the material from those shows offer a glimpse of what the band was capable of at their peak. Downright mindbending, in fact.
    Yet, as 1970 wore on – Peter Green would lead the charge in a different way – he would abandon the group he founded due to personal problems with the other two guitarists following suit over the next few years. Green, in particular, would have to deal with the onset of legitimate mental health issues that undermined the momentum of a career once bent on superstardom. Though he remained active, Green would never quite recapture the spark and fire of his days leading the Fleetwood Mac. That September 1969 LP release would serve both as his undisputed progressive blues masterpiece and his swan-song to a former life. Even the front cover image reflects a sense of “leaving” and “loss” – the white horse is in full gallop with the naked man looking behind him with a slightly forlorn expression on his face. The orange leaves falling in the air around him reflect the changing of the seasons from summer to autumn.  It’s a spooky visual – a near-premonition of Green’s own gallop into the winter of his tortured spirit that would soon follow the release of this record.

    Now, you might say I could be reading a bit too much into the symbolism of the record cover here, but even one casual earful of the music itself quickly betrays an artist in turmoil. And considering what came AFTER this record, personally and artistically for Peter Green, it’s a story that ranks right up there with Brian Wilson’s SMILE / SMILEY SMILE drama. The last fully-realized track released from this edition of Fleetwood Mac with Green at the helm was the 45 “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown)” – unleashed in May of 1970. On the Boston Tea Party tapes Green introduces this song with the casual statement “This is a song about the Devil”, although he has since maintained the song was equally a commentary about the evils of money. What it sounds like is an audio equivalent of a man struggling with personal demons – and not exactly winning, either!

    THEN PLAY ON was the first album delivered to Warner / Reprise under a new contract the band had signed with a hopeful eye to the future. Although that future would look pretty shaky six months down the road, the move to Reprise was an obvious attempt to have a better presence in the American market – something that had eluded Fleetwood Mac up to that point. They were huge in Europe, but relatively unknown in America. The desire to make a splash in the United States would lead to some futzing around with the running order of tracks on the album. There are basically three vinyl versions of the album and one digital (CD) version – each with a slightly different order / inclusion of tracks. Somehow, despite the confusion, the record manages to retain its power and sense of artistic integrity. Whichever version you may prefer is up to you. Here’s the short version of the differences:

1. UK LP -  14 track LP

2. US LP #1 – 12 track LP (same as above minus 2 Danny Kirwan tunes that had already been released on the Epic Records compilation “English Rose”)
3. US LP #2 – 11 track LP – a few songs deleted from the above order, shuffled around slightly with the whole 2-sided single “Oh, Well” stuck in as one big track.
4. Universal CD – 13 track edition (includes everything but the two Kirwan tracks featured on the original UK LP and cut from all Warner/Reprise releases).

        As it happens, my first encounter with this record was the US #2 LP version – the one with “Oh, Well”. I imagine this was the most well-known edition since the change to the running order happened pretty early on and remained the longest in-print. In a weird way, it happens to be my favorite version of the album. “Oh, Well” is such a strong track and does indeed fit in perfectly with the rest of the material on the album. As a 45 release it was split up into parts 1 and 2 – each quite distinct from the other: Part 1 being a pretty rocking, near-heavy metal rave up. Part 2 being – I kid not – classical chamber music. Trust me – it works and isn’t contrived or cheesy at all! Quite powerful stuff, in fact! In some ways the whole vibe of THEN PLAY ON is encapsulated by this one song – near-maniac heavy jamming on the one hand and heart-wrenching melancholy on the other. I really hesitate to even put this link up here since the sound is so awful, but here’s a u-toob version:
      No matter where the thread of the music leads, the beginning and ending of all versions of the record are the same – with “Coming Your Way” as the leadoff track on Side One and “Before the Beginning” as the last track on Side Two.  Where the listener is taken in between those two points depends on which version of the album you wound up with. There were two “Madge” jams – one “Fighting for Madge”, one “Searching for Madge”. These are instrumental detours away from some of the more serious and searching songs that seem to dominate the sonic landscape here. Songs about self-loathing / doubting show-biz performers, alienated men and women………..melancholy daydreams and inner-torment allsorts alike. Even in the jam segments, the dual lead-guitar pyrotechnics of Peter Green and Danny Kirwan are like shouting, screaming and pleading matches between the instruments to prove which is the more tortured……it’s brilliantly raw and scorching stuff with the thunderous pummeling from Mick Fleetwood’s drums and John McVie’s bass. California smooth-rock this AIN’T! (The un-cut studio jams have since been released on a 2-disc import set called “The Vaudeville Years” – for those who are familiar with the studio albums, hearing the raw takes is a revelation and a half!)

    When Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Mick Fleetwood quoted a line from Shakespeare that provided the inspiration for the title of this record. At the podium that night stood the well-known version of the band – Mick, John McVie, Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham and some little gnarly looking old dude – who just happened to be THE Peter Green. In the world of rock music – Mick Fleetwood’s little gesture of including Green and reading that Shakespeare quote had to be one of the more touching moments I’ve witnessed connected to that much-maligned institution that is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Equally inspiring is Peter Green’s return to regular guitar-duty over the last 20 years or so. The fact that he continues to make music in defiance of his illness is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. The fact that he turned his struggles into timeless art with THEN PLAY ON is nothing short of a miracle. The fact that there are three different versions of this classic make for a record-collector’s dream. The fact that all three versions still maintain the integrity of the artists’ vision is absurdly unlikely.

    Yet this album is merely ONE of the great things about that original Fleetwood Mac – scout out some stuff on the net – sample a few things, read some reviews – they’re usually laudatory for a REASON – the accolades are deserved. Fleetwood Mac Mark I still remains one of rock music’s best kept secrets – THEN PLAY ON, one of rock music’s least-recognized moments of pure genius! Grab a copy today!

US open-reel features the US #1 running order of tracks
Rare tri-color Spanish pressing. Features the US #2 running order, oddly enough!
Back cover of the UK reissue edition