OUR WEEKLY LOOK AT CLASSIC ALBUMS
GRABS THE BUS BACK TO A WINDY CITY GREAT'S DEBUT
This week in 1976, Chicago scored their first No. 1 hit with "If You Leave Me Now." However, the song was the group's eleventh Top 10 single in a career that was off to the races from day one. Such was the freshness and sculpted togetherness of their self-titled 1969 debut, when they were still known as the Chicago Transit Authority, that folks pricked up their ears immediately. Eschewing the looseness of the time, CTA poured rock heat into a framework not unlike the road heavy Midwest jazz orchestras of the '40s and '50s. Call it Lionel Hampton or Count Basie with big amps and a few copacetic tokes. The words were a mingling of Summer of Love musing and end of decade apprehension that would fully blossom in the confused, me-me-me '70s. The only thing like them at the time was Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Sons of Champlin, and while the Sons' first (Loosen Up Naturally - 1969) and BS&T's debut (Child Is Father To The Man - 1968) give 'em a run for their money, Chicago Transit Authority takes the prize simply by it's ambition, breathless vision and visceral nature.
Spread out over a double record set, it set the blueprint the band would follow until the late '70s when their sound shifted strongly towards lighter fare. The original lineup – guitarist-singer Terry Kath, keyboardist-singer Robert Lamm, bassist-singer Peter Cetera, drummer Danny Seraphine and brass/woodwind players James Pankow, Lee Loughnane and Walter Parazaider - were capable of sophisticated eloquence and punchy radio numbers, giving each equal weight on their sprawling first salvo. Like many of the finest groups to come out of the sixties, there's a hungry edge to Chicago at this time, and they held onto that roughness a bit longer than many of their peers, balancing out increased commercial expectations with their own fairly lofty artistic aims. But, they never soared quite as high or dug quite as deep as their debut again. For jam fans, this is either a holy piece of vinyl sacrament or an undiscovered treasure waiting to enrich your listening. Either way, it's essential stuff that remains remarkably un-weathered by the years.
Chicago Transit Authority track list:
"Introduction" (Terry Kath)
"Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" (Robert Lamm)
"Questions 67 and 68" (Lamm)
"Poem 58" (Lamm)
"Free Form Guitar" (Kath)
"South California Purples" (Lamm)
"I'm A Man" (Jimmy Miller/Steve Winwood)
"Prologue, August 29, 1968" (James William Guercio)
"Someday (August 29, 1968)" (Lamm/James Pankow)
Much of the footage of the band from this era is a bit dog-eared, but please forgive the shoddy film quality or dodgy sound for a glimpse into young men doing their part to infuse high level musicianship into rock's rapidly evolving sound.
We jump back with what may be the definitive arrangement of the Spencer Davis Group's "I'm A Man," captured live on the BBC with Chicago firing on all cylinders. This is an unbelievably righteous performance. Seriously, take a five minutes to get yo' head blown!
This clip of CTA doing "Questions 67 & 68" on their first tour of Paris in 1969 is warbly but fascinating.
Despite having one of the most irritating premises ever (if you walked up to someone with a watch and asked the time and they responded with this light philosophy lesson you might slug them), "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" is a terrific bit of radio music. The running time code here adds a nice bit of irony.
Last, it's "Beginnings" live at Budokan in Japan on the '72 tour.