Chicago features the talents of original members Lee Loughname, left, Walt Parazaider, James Pankow and Robert Lamm, plus Bill Champlin, Jason Scheff, Keith Howland and Tris Imboden.
Big-horn groovers are still on a roll
Let's talk longevity, which is not a word often associated with rock 'n' rollers, except when you're talking Chicago, which is, let's face it, the land tortoise of bands. And Chicago is a band, no error, the members of which are so non-starlike and intertwined that four of the original six are still in it -- not only still in it, but have never quit and rejoined, or taken a hiatus or a rehab stint or, apparently, even a long vacation. Many of their albums are double albums. Their newest, "Stone of Sisyphus," due out this summer, was actually recorded in 1993 and has been ripening in the vaults.
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Whew. Wotta work ethic.
They were Big Thing in the late '60s, a collection of Chicago-area musicians old enough to have been influenced by big-band sounds (ironic, isn't it, that the "big-band era" lasted less than a decade, and rock more than half a century?). These big-band wannabes picked up horns instead of Stratocasters. Robert Lamm on keyboards, James Pankow sliding the trombone, Walter Parazaider blowing the sax, Lee Loughnane on trumpet, Terry Kath on guitar, Danny Seraphane on drums -- and when bass-player and vocalist Peter Cetera heard them play, he quit his old band to join theirs.
It's 1968. Yes, 40 years ago. Big Thing acquires trail boss James Guercio, who moves the band to Los Angeles and redubs it Chicago Transit Authority. Of that original lineup, Lamm, Pankow, Loughnane and Parazaider are still with the group, and the most recent addition, guitarist Keith Howland, joined 13 years ago. Instead of Big Thing, maybe they should have been called Long Haul.
The real Chicago Transit Authority, BTW, objected to the name and it was shortened to simply Chicago. Their debut was a double album, a rare-enough thing, and it was essentially hitless on the pop charts but sold massively at colleges. The second album featured the classic CHICAGO logo -- designed by artist Nick Fasciano and not, as urban legend has it, by Phil Hartman -- that has been splashed across nearly all of their album covers. With only a couple of exceptions, each record is titled only by a Roman numeral, like the Super Bowl.
Almost from the beginning, Chicago's music has engendered intense discussion, mostly of the kind fostered by wee-hour thought-jamming in college dorms. Hey, are they an edgy rock band fueled by brass instruments, or a jazz-pop orchestra trading on smooth ballads? Both? How the heck do they sell so many records? And to whom? Oh, that song "25 or 6 to 4" -- hah? Straightforward tune about the difficulties of writing a song at 3:35 or 3:34 in the a.m., or deeply coded treatise on mystical druggie pharmacopoeia?
Anyone really know what time it is?
The largely anonymous presentation has cemented the band's corporate identity as a group, rather than a pack of individuals. The only breakouts were singer Peter Cetera, who went solo to concentrate on droning ballads, and guitarist Kath, the acknowledged band leader who died in a firearms accident in 1978 -- his last words were, "Don't worry, it's not loaded."
Although the band considered breaking up after this tragedy, Chicago soldiered on. Even though the visual presentation of Chicago has varied little over the years, the musicians have continued to push the boundaries of their big-horn groove. No one else quite sounds like Chicago, and next to the Beach Boys, they're the second-most productive American band of all time.
But what have the Beach Boys done for us lately? Chicago remains on a roll, and if they keep this up, the Beach Boys are dust.