Friday, March 04, 2016
I wrote about their first album, but for this post I listened to a double-disc greatest hits collection. Listening to these kind of collections, arranged in chronological order, are very instructive on how bands sell out, because Chicago sold out in a major way.
The first disc is pretty awesome. From the opening brass fanfare of "Make Me Smile," then one of my favorite songs, "25 or 6 to 4," with a killer guitar riff and an equally impressive horn section, to "Questions 67 and 68," and the seemingly mind-mannered hit "Saturday in the Park," this is some of the best music ever made. But then, toward the end of disc 1, things start to curdle. I don't know who was responsible. Maybe it was the death of guitarist Terry Kath (he accidentally shot himself), or maybe it was just dollar signs, but the band transformed into making the worst kind of soft-rock love ballads you'd ever want to hear.
I blame it on Peter Cetera, who took over vocals full time (before that they were shared by Kath and Robert Lamm). He sang some great songs, but his voice, a tenor, can really start to bug you. At first the songs aren't too bad, like "Feelin' Stronger," but soon they are pure dreck. I think the tipping point is "If You Leave Me Now," which amazingly earned Chicago their only Grammy award.
The second disc in this collection is practically unlistenable. The first track is the only Chicago record I bought as a kid, "Old Days," which despite its trite lyric about nostalgia has some pretty great musicianship. Then comes "Baby What a Big Surprise," which is probably the last song Chicago did that I was aware of. The rest of the side is love ballad after love ballad, in Cetera's increasingly annoying voice. The collection concludes at 1991, though I still think they're together (not Cetera, though, who went on to record one of the worst songs ever, "The Glory of Love") and touring. There is nothing, musically, that connects that music to the music of their early years.
So, Chicago is a two-headed beast. The early stuff is great, some of the best rock and roll ever made. If you buy the two-disc greatest hits package, listen to the first one over and over again, and use the second one as a coaster.