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Sing a Mean Tune, Kid: Chicago for people who hate Chicago

Mark Lempke By

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When people rebuff my attempts to share my love of jazz-pop-rock group Chicago with them, I understand their qualms. Really, I do. Few bands went from being quite so inventive to quite so predictable in the long, tough slog between 1968 and 1984. (The political parallels alone are terrifyingly relevant: many of the exact same people who were in SDS went on to become Yuppies by the midpoint of the Reagan years, but I digress.)

So, I understand when people tell me why they don't like Chicago. I might disagree, but I do understand. These are good folk who grew tired of 80's synth-hits like "You're the Inspiration" and "Look Away" and the 70s AM pop of "Call On Me" and "Old Days." They resented "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" taking up four perfectly good minutes of their prom. They long for the day they can shop at Macy's without hearing "What Kind of Man Would I Be?." I believe, however, that by focusing on the hits, they miss the band's true accomplishments. More than any band I can think of, Chicago's best material wasn't the songs that made it on the radio. Throughout the band's history, but especially in their first four studio albums, one can see bold experimentation, weird time signatures, avant-garde influences, and most importantly, attempts to make music that was most certainly not radio-friendly. These pieces, which exist almost entirely outside popular memory, are everything the band could have been, but ultimately was not.

To lend credence to my belief that Chicago doesn't suck, I have compiled a list of Chicago songs that least resemble the elements of Chicago that most people dislike. This runs a gamut from lengthy instrumentals with jazzy and even atonal solos, acoustic guitar exercises, and raunchy rock tracks. Many of these songs verify that Chicago's secret weapon throughout their first 10 years as a band was guitarist Terry Kath. Kath almost never shows up in anyone's list of great rock guitarists possibly because of his obscurity in a famously faceless band, and partly because to the extent that he is known, nobody would take Chicago's guitarist seriously. That would be a bit too close to declaring that, say, Bread's drummer or Air Supply's bassist were serious musicians. This is a shame, because Terry's guitar playing is both inventive and technically astute. Yet, his muted ego rarely felt the need to make his guitar solos the defining moment of most Chicago songs. Rock never rewards the humble.

While scientific research has shown that haters are, indeed, gonna hate, let us explore this list of Chicago songs that I feel are most likely to impress or win over the Chicago skeptic.

"Loneliness is Just a Word" from Chicago III. Listening to this song now, you might swear that your car's cd player momentarily switched to radio tuner, and you were listening to a jazz piece on NPR. Smooth and classy, this piece is keyboardist Robert Lamm at his most authentic with tasteful. Muted horns and Lamm's velvety voice carrying this short, low-key song through.

"Questions 67 & 68" from Chicago Transit Authority: A minor and largely forgotten top 40 hit, this gem from the band's debut effort deserves a closer listen. Stately and magisterial, the horn section is well used here, and Terry Kath's guitar plays a key, though understated role, playing electric guitar scales in the background with laserlike speed and proficiency. Cetera's soaring tenor and Danny Seraphine's drum chops add the finishing touches to a minor masterpiece. "Mississippi Delta City Blues" from Chicago XI: Recorded, but shelved, for the band's first and fifth albums, the group finally got the sound they were looking for by 1977's Chicago XI. This would be the last album they would record before Kath's death, and their acrimonious departure from original producer James Guercio. Terry Kath just drives this song, and the horn section even struggles a bit to keep up with him. "The Approaching Storm" from Chicago III. If you were intrepid enough to listen to Chicago's indulgent four-record Live in Carnegie Hall set, you would hear audience members audibly clamouring for this song. Chicago never played it at Carnegie, though, so you'll have to content yourself with this fine studio recording. Part of trombonist Jimmy Pankow's "Elegy" suite—an attempt to capture a coming apocalypse in musical form—this piece nails what a jazz concert on the eve of Armageddon might sound like. Everyone in the band is given a brief solo, showing off Chicago's virtuosity in fine form.

"Byblos" from Chicago VII: In a piece closer to a cafe performance than anything else in the band's catalog, Terry Kath goes subtle and acoustic. The result is a most intimate piece from a band that usually throws out punchy horn lines and aggressive 80's electric pianos with abandon.

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