Things Everyone Liked That I Hated, But Found Something To Like Anyway

When I was in high school and college, music majors – and the high school kids who planned to become music majors – weren’t supposed to like rock and roll.

But the music kidz were always given a pass for Chicago.  The band’s pseudo-jazz roots made Chicago sort of a safe space for young people in the seventies who wanted to be accepted by both their music teachers and their rock’n roll-listening friends.

And so every time a new Chicago album would come out – for the first eleven albums, they were just numbered – the music kids would flip rhetorical cartwheels; “it’s like rock and roll, only better!“, I remember our high school stage band’s star sax player hyperventilating.  “Terry Kath is one of the great guitar players!”, others would exclaim as I practiced windmilling a la Pete Townsend.

I didn’t buy it – not even at the depths of my need to be accepted.  Oh, the part of me that appreciates technical skill could listen to Robert Lamm (keyboards), Terry Kath (guitar), James Pankow (trombone), Peter Cetera (bass), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), Walter Parazaider (reeds), Danny Seraphine (drums) and Laudir D’Oliveira (percussion) [1] and go “there’s some musical skill going on here”, all right.

But when it came to the part where the music was supposed to grab me in the liver, Chicago did not.  Part of it was that jazz, at least jazz from after about 1950, has always bored me stiff; how is a watered-down second-generation copy an improvement?   To be fair, it was the same problem I had with Blood, Sweat and Tears and all of the other jazz-rock fusion experiments; neither needed the other to be valid music.

Part of it was Peter Cetera’s soggy contralto voice.   There.  I said it.

As to those who said Terry Kath was one of the great guitarists ever – in a league with Hendrix, Beck, Page and Clapton?

Terry Kath was a great guitar player in the same sense that I was a “great aeronautical engineer” because I’d built a nifty model of a Supermarine Spitfire.  I was not!  I had simply pieced together a bunch of plastic parts to make a scale facimile; Reginald Mitchell was the engineer.  Likewise, Terry Kath took the bits and pieces of a bunch other great guitarists’ styles, mixed in some technical chops of his own (all respect due), and put it on a record.   Oh, Jimi Hendrix once told Parazaider that Terry Kath was better than he was; Hendrix had a bit of a drug problem, you know.

“But Mitch – have you heard “Free Form Guitar”, off of the first Chicago album?”

Yes. Yes, I have. I have not only heard it, but I played something exactly like it, or maybe much better, in Voorhees Chapel at Jamestown College in January of 1985, at three in the morning, with an Ibanez SG with a Duncan “Jeff Beck” pickup, hooked up to Fender Deluxe and a Big Muff fuzz pedal and room and space to crank my amp to 11, after six or seven cans of Strohs. And so has every other guitar player, given the chance.

So when the music majors, and music majors-to-be jabbered on about Chicago, I usually mentally checked out.

Except, of course, when I didn’t.

All of Chicago’s worst ingredients – the soggy droopy horns, Danny Seraphine’s indifferent drumming, and of course Peter Cetera, full stop – are on display in this live version of “I’ve Been Searching So Long”:

And yet I have always loved the song. Why? The vocal interplay in the bridge? A part where the droopy, treacly horns actually complement the song itself? Terry Kath’s guitar fills during the big finish? Sure, why not?

Because every once in a while, skill plus craft breaks the right way, and you get decent music.   Because Terry Kath may have just assembled other guitarists parts into his own songs, but sometimes it just plain worked.

Oh, it’s been a long time since Chicago had “decent music”; after Terry Kath’s death in 1978, the band turned into a hit machine; after Cetera left in 1984, it turned into an adult-contemporary elevator music production house; since about 1990 it’s been a nostalgia act (only Lamm and the horn section remain from the band’s heyday).

And the music majors?  They were wrong.  No genre needs to be “better than” another to have merit; no genre’s merit is measured by the degrees its practitioners have.


[1] – Yep, I can’t remember my kids’ social security numbers, but I can recall all the members of Chicago’s “definitive” lineup by name and instrument without going online.

11 thoughts on “Things Everyone Liked That I Hated, But Found Something To Like Anyway

  1. As long as there are high school bands, we’ll always have Chicago. I still hear “25 or 6 to 4” and “Make Me Smile” all the time in that context. And “I’ve Been Searching So Long” was always an ace “slow song” at the desultory high school dances of my youth.

  2. My kid took piano lessons from Chicago’s original keyboardist. He left before it became a hit machine and went into academia – to teach music majors.

  3. Like many groups, the early stuff rocked and the later stuff sucked. The Chicago Transit Authority album included Questions 67 & 68; Beginnings; Anybody Know What Time It Is: these simply are not in the same bargain-basement league as the later works.

  4. I didn’t care for Chicago then, or now. As Mr. D notes, though, it was cool when my high school band got the sheet music for 25 or 6 to 4. For me, though, the jazz/rock band of the era was Blood, Sweat and Tears with David Clayton Thomas on vocals. (“Ah, Lucy you’re just so damn bad.”)

  5. My understanding is that you can’t buy the sheet music for 25 or 6 to 4 anymore. Licensing being what it is. And I remember playing it when I was in High School. It was neat to have the trombone featured in a popular song.

  6. “Chicago 17” in 1984 was a terrific record – actually, 1984 was a great year for 80’s pop music by any measure. My favorite song on there was probably “Stay the Night” – that featured some bad-ass guitar playing, both in terms of riffs and soloing. I have no idea who did the actual guitar work; apparently several notable players were involved. But I loved and love it. And so many other cool songs were on that record. When I think of Chicago I pretty much think of this record – and then the Peter Cetera solo stuff. I celebrate his entire catalog! How can you not like Peter Cetera – “The Next Time I Fall”, man. What a voice.

  7. They have a horn section every bit as tight as Tower of Power, and can play anything (check out the album “Night and Day”) and make it instantly recognizable as Chicago within about three bars. Not too shabby AFAIAC.

  8. Sorry, but I could never get into their music and would not consider them among the top bands of our time.

    That said, there were a couple of their songs that I like.

  9. EI wins the “tacky comment of the day” award, I see.

    Reading our host’s comments, I’ve got to admit that I never really compared Chicago to the best of real jazz with a keen eye. However, they were IMO one of the more tolerable examples of the habit of using non-rock-n-roll instrumentation in pop music.

    They lost me with Peter Cetera’s solo career, though. The jazz was lost and the overall effect was like Garth Algar at the Kenny G. concert.

  10. Always the drama queen, BB.
    Why shouldn’t an adult be allowed to buy a gun and shoot himself? As long as he doesn’t do it in a manner than endangers others, he should be able to live life and end life as he chooses. I’ve never understood why an otherwise liberal society attempts to make suicide illegal.

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