When most general music lovers think of the band Chicago, they think of the soft rock ballads and saccharine laced pop hits of the late 70’s and early 80’s. At that time, Chicago were one of the biggest selling bands in the world and a major player on FM radio everywhere. Even today, songs such as ‘If You Leave Me Now’ are staples on classic hits radio.
But in January 1969, Chicago, then known as The Chicago Transit Authority, were a different beast altogether. Primarily a 4 piece rock band augmented by a 3 piece horn section, they mixed heavy guitar and organ driven rock with big band jazz and soul, creating their own eclectic tapestry of sound.
Their self-titled debut album was interestingly a double album, which was as ambitious as it was rare for a debut, as record companies were loath to fork out big bucks on an untried artist. But Chicago Transit Authority were well championed by their manager, and after willing to forego some royalties, were given the green light to record their incredible first effort.
The last couple of years of the 60’s were heavy times in America, and generally, most of the music recorded at this time reflected that weighty vibe. The CTA album was heavy too…heavy brass and heavy fuzz guitar courtesy of guitar genius, Terry Kath. Kath has been seriously underrated over the years. Jimi Hendrix listed him as his favourite guitarist and you can hear why on this album. But Kath’s playing aside, their sound was driven by the powerful horn section, which became their signature. The first third of the album has the horns, organ and the soul dipped vocals dominating each song before Kath eases his guitar into the spotlight. The album’s vocals were shared between Kath, bassist Peter Cetera and organ player Robert Lamm.
Although the album initially failed to take off commercially, radio friendly songs like ‘Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?’, ‘Questions 67 and 68’ and ‘Beginnings’ eventually all did very well on the singles charts and the album made its way into the American Top 20 and amazingly stayed on the album charts for over 3 years.
Sometimes they sound like Blood, Sweat & Tears. Other times they sound like Cream or Jimi Hendrix. And more often than not, all in the same song! ‘Poem 58’ and ‘Listen’ are great examples of this. Other highlights include the jazzy opener, ‘Introduction’, which plays like an overture and sets the scene for the twists and turns to follow; and the blues heavy ‘South California Purples’.
They also throw in a cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s ‘I’m A Man’ which they truly make their own. The band was so tight and oh so groovy. Lyrically they kept things fairly simple. Nothing seemingly abstract or full of message. They let the music do the talking.
The band had to shorten their name to Chicago not long after the album was released, as the Chicago Transit Authority, the governing body of transport in Chicago, thought that there may be some confusion as to who was actually producing this raucous music and insisted that the name was changed!
This is an album that I recommend to a lot of people who simply dismiss Chicago as light weight and syrupy. In fact, their first five or six efforts were of a similar vein. The beauty of this album is that whilst it sounds very much ‘of its time’, it stands up really well today. Chicago’s next 11 albums all went multi-platinum, but it all started with this.
Check it out and turn it up!