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…..it’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!

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