If you’re someone who knows what’s going on with me via stuff I mention in my blog, chances are you have no idea that since late November 2010, I have become a huge fan of the band Chicago.
As in HUGE fan. They’re nearly all I’ve listened to for over eight months. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the raised eyebrows that I get sometimes when I confess this, but there’s a lot more to them than 80’s power ballads and the launching of Peter Cetera’s solo career. Since first getting into them, I’ve spent lots of my free time learning about their history, including (and peaking with) the autobiography of the original drummer, Danny Seraphine. As is the typical situation when one learns a lot about a subject, I’ve noticed that there are plenty of people around that pretend to know what they’re talking about when it comes to Chicago, but don’t. They’ve been fed myths, and they believe them all. Well, I’m going to set the record straight on some of these. They come from comments I’ve seen from people on the internet, my own misconceptions that I’ve noticed other people shared, and some that are more widely known and are almost “urban legend,” if I could actually call it that. I’m going to do seven of them, because there were seven original members and I needed to pick a number somehow.
Take note that if you know Chicago even remotely as well as I do, you won’t find new information here. This is for the masses.
Myth #1: Chicago is just an adult contemporary band from the 80’s.
Okay, let’s start with the bare-bones basics. Prior to being told otherwise in the early 2000’s, I thought this. My wife thought this prior to me getting into them several months ago. Many of my friends that are kind of annoyed that I’m still listening to them so much thought this. Tons and tons and tons of people who have heard of Chicago have heard the songs “You’re the Inspiration” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and assumed that the ballads and soft rock is what Chicago is . . .
Now let’s get one thing clear. I love 80’s Chicago. Saying they “wrote some 80’s power ballads” is like saying Rembrandt “painted some pictures” or Frank Lloyd Wright “built some buildings.”
I’ll admit the video is completely nuts, though. I can’t figure out exactly what’s going on in it, Peter Cetera is NOT left handed, everyone except Peter and Danny (drums) are playing keyboards, with the third exception of Walt (sax) who appears to be taking a dump in the heating register behind Jimmy at 2:12. But it was 1984, and we really need to demonstrate a lot of grace and not judge bands or songs on their early-80’s music videos; it was an odd time. Plus, for my purposes, the song is the point. That’s our image of this band. Yet, for more than 10 years, THIS was the image of Chicago:
Chicago was a hard-rocking, big-concept, high-art, almost avant-garde rock ‘n roll band. They were a group made to make music, not to create stars. This was especially true for their first three albums. A great example of this, though it is only one of many, is the full piece “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon.” It was written on the road by trombonist Jimmy Pankow, who had been listening to a lot of classical music and wanted to do an extended rock piece with movements and sections the way a lot of larger classical pieces did. If someone were to do that today, I feel it would be easy to write them off as pretentious or hipster. But this was 1969 or 1970, meaning that rock music as art was just coming into form, and yet here’s the band destined to be known as the group that the “Glory of Love” guy left, and they’re at the forefront.
The band then was known most for their intricate horn section, but the whole group was made up of top-notch musicians who were all masters at their instruments (most of them classically trained), and they all played at the peak of their abilities for every song.
Clearly this is not a band that deserves to be ranked among Toto and Hall & Oates.
Myth #2: Peter Cetera joined Chicago and used them to launch his own solo career.
We’re knocking out the two myths that were most prevalent in my mind until seven months ago, first. I’ve heard at least one other person equally ignorant of the band as I was state this myth. Peter Cetera is known by those of us 30-ish and younger as Mr. Soft Rock. The guy who not only did that song from the Karate Kid Part II soundtrack, but did that duet with Amy Grant and recently was the theme of a beer commercial that insists he could only be “cool” because the ladies like him (there must be an age gap for that fact, because my wife can’t stand him).
Well, many people learn, if they didn’t already know, that Cetera got his start in Chicago. When the Chicago you know is “Hard Habit to Break,” it’s not too far of a shot to conclude that Cetera was a pretty powerful driving force in the band. That much is true. When you then learn that Chicago had a very rock-based past, coupled with the fact that the band continued after Cetera left, some people (such as myself) conclude that Cetera was a late-comer who treated the band as a springboard to his own success.
Well, I don’t know if you caught it, but he’s in that photo from 1970 and the older video up there. Far left in the photo, 1:24 in the video (as well as other places). He was an original member, and was part of the band for 17 years.
The band was formed with the first six members and were playing shows around the city of Chicago under the moniker “The Big Thing.” They had guitar, drums, keyboard, sax, trumpet, and trombone, but no bass. Apparently around that time it was a cool thing to have your keyboardist carry the bass line with bass pedals. A perfect storm occurred only months after getting started in 1968 when The Big Thing decided they needed a third vocalist, a high tenor, since the two they had were more baritone and were getting lost behind their horn section.
It just so happened that around the same time the lead singer of a well-known Chicago band, The Exceptions, was looking to move on from that group. Turns out the guy was a high tenor and also played bass. That was Peter Cetera. The Big Thing easily convinced him to join, and within a matter of months their name changed and their real career began.
I’ll expand further on the misconceptions about Cetera’s role in Chicago a bit later.
Myth #3: Their first album, “chicago transit authority,” was self-titled.
Up until a few days ago, I had Myth #3 here as something else regarding their well-known name change in 1969 from “Chicago Transit Authority” to simply “Chicago.” Well I recently came across some information that mildly invalidated what I originally said, and was actually much more interesting.
I’ve already mentioned that their first name was “The Big Thing.” According to drummer Danny Seraphine, their very first manager named them that after they refused his first idea, “Top Banana.” Well they switched up managers after a year or so to a guy that some of the members knew named Jim Guercio. Jim heard the band and loved them and immediately went into getting them noticed. Step one: everyone moves to Los Angeles. By 1969, The Big Thing didn’t live in Chicago anymore. Also, right away, Guercio changed their name to one he had thought of years before when working in Chicago, “The Chicago Transit Authority.” The band soon started referring to themselves as CTA.
At some point early on, they played a well-received show back in their hometown. Their success drew more eyes to them, such as the eyes of the actual Chicago Transit Authority. The REAL CTA informed Guercio that they would sue if the band name didn’t change. They had already had issues with people getting the name wrong on marquees (a rather funny one was “The Chicago Transients”), so it was an easy decision and they shortened it to just “Chicago.” Plenty of people know that story, and if you didn’t, you do now. What many people don’t know, and what I thought up until just a couple weeks ago, was that this all happened shortly AFTER the release of their first album. This is a reasonable assumption, since the album is called “Chicago Transit Authority.” However, in the liner notes, Guercio emphasizes that the band chose to name their first album after their moniker up to that point, but the name had already changed. So the name of the album would technically be “Chicago Transit Authority, by Chicago.”
One quick note: knowing what I know about Guericio, I could probably state that it’s a myth that “the band” chose to name the album anything, let alone name any album anything, but I can’t back that up with much.
Myth #4: “25 or 6 to 4” is about drugs.
If you spend any time looking into information on Chicago, you’re bound to quickly run into the controversy over the hit single off their second album, “25 or 6 to 4.” As with many songs with ambiguous titles or subjects, especially from the 60’s and 70’s, it is concluded that the song must be about drug use. “25 or 6 to 4” is Chicago’s very own “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
If you listen to the lyrics, you can figure out where these assumptions are coming from.
“Flashing lights against the sky”
“Sitting cross-legged on the floor”
“Wondering how much I can take”
“Should I try to do some more?”
“Spinning room is sinking deep”
Yeah, it’s not completely out of left field, that’s for sure. Add to that the kinds of music fans who KNOW that a song is about drugs when a song is about drugs, and you’ve got a one-way ticket to myth-city.
Let’s look at some facts. First, Chicago didn’t write songs about drugs. None of their other songs (and there are a lot) have anything close to a drug reference in them. All of their songs are about girls, relationships, social issues, personal experiences, and playing music. So a song about dropping acid is not in familiar company. That doesn’t definitively prove anything, I know, but keep going . . .
Second, we need to ask if the lyrics really make sense in the context of a drug reference. Well, the ones I already listed do. But what about these?
“Waiting for the break of day, searching for something to say.”
” . . . giving up I close my eyes.”
“Getting up to splash my face, wanting just to stay awake.”
“Feeling like I ought to sleep, searching for something to say”
I guess if you squint a little, they kind of do, but that takes us to the third and main point. Chicago’s keyboardist Robert Lamm wrote the song. Very early on people were asking him about its meaning, including his band members. He said back then, he said all through the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and he has said up to now, that this song is about writing a song. That he was up late one night trying to finish one more song for their new album and he was tired and frustrated but didn’t want to go to bed until he finished it. The title means he can’t tell if the clock says 3:35 or 3:34 a.m. That’s twenty five minutes or twenty six minutes until four in the morning. He’s never altered his story.
So listen to the lyrics again. They all make sense in the “I’m staying up late and really want to go to bed and need to finish this song” context. They don’t all make sense in a “doing drugs” context. Plus, the guys in Chicago were never incredible lyricists. I don’t mean the lyrics are bad–not at all, but they’re not especially poetic or cryptic. People debate over lines in “Saturday in the Park,” but that’s really the extent of their deep and artistic lyrical prowess. Most of the time, they sang what they meant.
Now with that in mind, I bring you some of the geniuses of the internet.
“This song is about being wasted from drugs, simply. 25 or 6 to 4 is the site of a clock. Look at a clock when its 3:54 or “6 to 4″. Then look at that same clock upside down and its 9:25 or 10:25. The song is about losing track of time and seeing the clock and you can’t tell exactly if its 9:25 or 3:54.”
“This song is written (or at least everything points to) about a trip on acid. Specifically LSD-25…The big question that I see is that it’s 6:24 (Six Two Four perhaps?) and our hero is wondering if he should ‘drop’ more ’25’…or maybe it’s just about forcing writing…cause that works really well…”
“You are ALL wrong!!! …”25” is LSD 25, which was popular in the late 60’s. “6 to 4” is the amount of time the drugs effects last in your system. LSD would last 10 hours in your system. In this case, from 6pm to 4am. The lyrics clearly explain an acid trip. You must remember the time frame when this song was written (1968). Hendrix had “Purple Haze” and the psychadelic era was happening. The band members of Chicago always avoided telling the real meaning of this song, but if you’re an old hippie like I am, you know what it is about.”
“I ran a small investigation and I go for the LSD-25 story, even though that for all of you who dont now what is 6 to 4, its not an hour, it is a reference for 624-Qualudes which were “hypnotic sedatives” used in the 60s and 70’s, and LSD 25 was the second most popular lsd of the time, so it makes perfect tense, and taking more qualudes to sleep cos the LSD has you with insomia its a pretty good idea…”
“”LSD’s action was about 6 hours. Short term tolerance (24 hours) meant you would have to take 2x/3x when you were coming down to get the same (but lower quality) high. Too much sensory input and you could get a “bad trip” which is emotionally wrenching. To cancel the LSD high one would take tranquilizers, quite often methylqualone or Qualudes (or ‘Ludes for short) which were large flat yellow tablets with the numbers 624 on them, hence 25 or 624, should I continue the trip or stop it.”
“Actually it’s a drug reference, on qualudes (pills) the numbers 624 are inscribed on the tablet, then, the scientific code for acid is LSD25. So we have a choice my friend, take some Ritalin or some good ol’ LSD?”
I really did not have to search hard for those. Amazing how far some people will go to prove that a song is about drugs. There’s some very interesting psychology there. (Also, I did a quick search for “quaalude 624” in Google, and the only results were about how this song is about them. That’s not huge, but something to take note of.)
One last thing. I’m not a druggie, never was, and I’m certainly not an old hippie, but I’m someone who’s written songs. I can read the lyrics and get how they’re about not wanting to give up on finishing a song. It’s usually the case that leaving a song unfinished now means it will remain unfinished forever, or at the very least finished in a way you didn’t intend. So you’ve got to stick with it. But hey–what do I know?
Myth #5: Guitarist Terry Kath died while playing Russian roulette.
I had thought this one was put to rest decades ago, but I saw a couple comments somewhere within the two weeks prior to writing this in which people stated this myth.
Let’s examine all the angles of this. First, Terry Kath was the guitarist of the group, and one of the founding members (with Danny Seraphine and Walt Parazaider). Second, the guy was a freakin’ monster on guitar. He is my hero on the six-string.
So getting straight to it: Terry Kath did shoot himself in the head. But it was not suicide (in the strictest definition of the term) nor was it “Russian roulette.” The gun wasn’t even a revolver.
On the evening of January 23, 1978, Kath was at a party at the house of some guy named Don Johnson. Unfortunately, it wasn’t THAT Don Johnson; I think it was his guitar tech or something. So things have wound down, and I’ve read or heard from sources I don’t recall that Kath and this guy were actually going to start working on Terry’s solo album. (To greatly paraphrase Peter Cetera and add in my own assumptions based off of stuff I’ve read and seen, Kath would have likely been out of the band by the end of 1978 had he lived, especially if their career had taken the same dive in the late 70’s with him there). Johnson and Kath were the only ones at home, and Kath was most likely either drunk and/or high. All band members have noted since his death that his drug usage was out of control. Also, Kath was a gun enthusiast and often carried a gun on his person. Don Johnson had a couple hand guns, and Kath was messing around with them. He took an unloaded .38 revolver to his head and pulled the trigger several times, laughing at Don’s pleas for him to stop. He put the gun down and picked up a 9 mm semiautomatic, took out the clip and saw that there were no bullets in it, replaced the clip, put it to his temple, laughed at Don and said, “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded” and pulled the trigger. You probably guessed there was a bullet in the chamber. He died instantly.
Another side of this myth says that his wife and daughter were in the room when it happened. That’s not true at all; no accounts of this mention them being there. In fact, in the Behind the Music episode on Chicago, his widow actually talks about walking from the door to the gate of her home where police were waiting to tell her what had happened.
Of all the things that people can get wrong about Chicago, this is the one that I find the hardest to keep from stepping in and correcting. It’s tragic enough from all angles, so we don’t really need to have the truth embellished or stretched.
Myth #6: After Terry Kath’s death, Peter Cetera took control of the band and turned them into the ballad band they’re known most for being.
This is one that I see a lot that gets under my skin. It makes it sound as if Kath died, and shortly after Cetera took over and said, “Okay, now we’re going to do soft rock hits!” It’s actually ludicrous if you think about it for even a second. The evolution of Chicago-the-hard-hitting-rock-band into Chicago-the-band-who-writes-songs-for-weddings-and-proms is much more complex than that.
First, before the band stepped into the studio to record their fifth album Chicago V, they made a conscious decision to not do overly-long songs. This is according to Seraphine. This choice is perfectly understandable, since their first album didn’t get any radio play in its early days due mostly to the length of the songs. Their second album made it big only because some jerk somewhere chopped up “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” and named it after the first movement, “Make Me Smile.” It’s good in the sense that it got the band noticed, but it became practice to trim down their songs for radio play, and that bugged the band as it would most song writers and musicians. So to save themselves the heartache, they decided to take their songwriting into a more radio-friendly-format direction. Seraphine insists that this was the most important moment in them becoming who they were to become, and notice that the year was 1972.
That’s the first part. The second part is that apparently around that same time, Columbia Records (their label) made it official that they would only pay artists royalties on the first ten tracks of an album. Naturally that means that artists are only going to put ten songs on an album.
The style jump from Chicago III to Chicago V was very significant (“IV” was a live album recorded at Carnegie Hall). III had styles all over the place, including jazz, country, rock, 20th century modern, and even spoken word. The only song to really get any attention was the middle part of one of the larger pieces, called “Free.” I say it’s a great album as a whole, but it’s not celebrated on the large scale as being one of their best since so little came from it.
V on the other hand has ten songs on it that go down easily. The styles are less diverse, but some of them are still pretty edgy, especially my personal favorite Chicago song of all time, “A Hit by Varese.” Then they showed how they still had a hard time keeping away from multiple-movement songs with “Dialogue Pt. 1” and “Dialogue Pt. 2.”
I don’t own or even really know much about the albums VI-IX first-hand. But I’ve heard some things here and there, and this is a song that shows they still had their chops and were rock-minded for Chicago VI . . . but it was fading. Very slightly, but still fading.
As I said, I don’t know much about their stuff through Chicago IX. But I have Chicago X on vinyl. Aaaaand . . . I’m not much for it. I’ve enjoyed it as I was focusing on things like washing dishes, but really paying attention? The songs are either pillowy soft or uneasily jumpy. The true rock edge is almost all but gone, with maybe the exception of the opener “Once or Twice,” but that’s “rock” in the way that Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ‘n Roll” is rock.
It’s crazy how much changed in the four years between V and X, but keep in mind that by the time X came out, it was 1976, and they were entering into the late 70’s. In that time, you were a hard-ass rocker (a la AC/DC, KISS, etc.) or you were goofy pop music (a la The Captain and Tennille, most disco, etc.). The band really could have gone either way at that point . . .
And Cetera happened to write a cute little ditty for Chicago X called “If You Leave Me Now.”
Seraphine says in his book that no one, not even Cetera, expected that song of all the others to get much attention, but it went to #1! It caught everyone off guard, and when that sort of thing happens, your record label says, “Keep ’em coming!” At that point, they knew they needed to have a slow ballad-type song on each album.
And Kath was still alive and part of the band.
They had one more album prior to Kath’s death, Chicago XI, and the ballad on that one (again penned by Cetera, admittedly) was “Baby What a Big Surprise.” That’s two major ballads by the band before Terry died.
Shortly after the release of XI, the band split with manager Jim Guercio. Suddenly they are the masters of their own destinies . . . and then Kath dies. Kath’s death wasn’t devastating just because of the personal loss, but his guitar style and distinct voice were a significant part of the group’s sound. (It’s interesting how much difference a single person can make in a group’s sound, even when they’re not the leader. I always think of the differences between Weezer’s first two albums and their later stuff, the personnel change being only bassist Matt Sharp.)
Take a look at where we’re standing now. Kath is gone. Around that time, their sales started to slip, too. They tried a few things to climb back on top, including touching into disco a bit on one album. It all failed. They were forced out of Columbia Records and all of them thought the end was in sight. But by 1982, Chicago bounced back with Chicago 16, new band member Bill Champlain, new producer and co-songwriter David Foster, and the hit ballad “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” Two years later, they really hit it out of the park with Chicago 17, which included “You’re the Inspiration” along with several other of their most recognizable 80’s hits. The ballads actually saved the group.
The story of Chicago ending up what they were in the 80’s is similar in spirit to the story of many musical artists who change dramatically at one point or another. It is a series of artistic choices mixed with business pressures, market needs, and current culture. But where I have seen some groups go from artistic mastery to pop-radio trash in a single album . . .
. . . Chicago slowly altered and changed, album to album, and fought through loss and years of struggling to keep going, all to end up where they did. It certainly was not evil Dr. Cetera spitting on the grave of the holy Terry Kath and taking the band hostage into adult contemporary hell.
Myth #7: Chicago broke up in the 80’s.
Yeah, this one’s a little weak. I admit it. But I promised seven myths, and hot darnit I’m going to deliver.
Chicago is still together, though rather pathetically in my opinion.
Cetera left in 1985. He was replaced by a guy named Jason Scheff, who is literally the only person I’ve ever seen that I want to punch just because of how he looks.
They fired Danny Seraphine in 1990. He and the band have said it was because he was too involved in the business side of things (Bill Champlain in the Behind the Music from 2000 said, “Danny wasn’t focusing on what he should have been focusing on, which is drumming.”) Reading his autobiography, however, it kind of appears that part of their reasoning might be because of his tendency for violent outbursts, one of them that may have indirectly led to the death of a long-time friend of the band. But neither Seraphine nor the remaining band has ever suggested that.
Champlain left a year or two ago, after close to 30 years with the band.
Their drummer is the same drummer who replaced Seraphine, and their guitarist has been the same guy since the mid-90’s. Original members Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, and Walt Parazaider are still in the group, touring the country regularly.
They released Chicago XXX in 2005, and finally got their long-awaited Stone of Sisyphus album released in 2008. That’s currently their latest release. I’ve only heard snippets of each. I intend to really listen to them as I get through all the older stuff first, but honestly it sounds like they’re trapped in the early 90’s. Their concerts show that they’re trapped in their former success. And it’s all very sad to me because even if Seraphine and Cetera came back for a special reunion tour (and trust me, the Beatles reuniting with two new members is more likely), Kath couldn’t be there and he was the heart of the group.
So . . . yes, Chicago is still technically together. But is it worth it?
Street Player: My Chicago Story by Danny Seraphine, 2010
InnerVIEWS with Earnie Manouse: Peter Cetera, 2009
VH1 Behind the Music: Chicago, 2000
Chicago NBC TV Special, 1970
Liner notes to the albums Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago (II), Chicago III, and Chicago V.
Songmeanings.net, You Tube, and of course Wikipedia.