Monday, May 6, 2013

Chicago: Hard To Say You're Selling Out

Many, if not most, of the artistically credible mainstream acts of the '70s grew a little slicker as they entered the '80s, but few of them pulled a Chicago.

Some time around 1969 and 1970, Chicago, along with Blood, Sweat & Tears, attempted to create "jazz rock," a genre that the world did not necessarily ask for. Perhaps taking the term a bit too literally, Chicago melded horn instruments with rock guitars and thought it was cool. Hey, "Good Morning, Good Morning" was a fun song off Sgt. Pepper, but did we really need an entire band that wanted to sound like it? If anything, the bands that got closer to the spirit of "jazz rock" were probably artists like the Doors and Pink Floyd. But Chicago were JAZZ ROCK in capital letters, with super-duper fancy musicianship, and they wanted you to know it. True Chicago fans would say that their early '70s albums, none of which I've actually heard, are their best, but based on the singles I know, I am not rushing out to listen to them. I don't dislike early Chicago, but they strike me as somewhat humorless and stiff. For example: Chicago were the kind of band who named every album Chicago III, Chicago IV, Chicago V, etc., and thought it was a good idea.

Then one day, Chicago decided to exploit the vocal prowess and romantic appeal of co-lead singer Peter Cetera. It was time to increase the syrupy ballad quotient. I imagine one of the horn players at the session crying "Sellout!" and storming off in a huff, while the other band members waved him goodbye with the $1,000 bills that they happened to have been holding in their hands at the time.

Fast-forward to 1982. The band is in the commercial toilet. They've finally abandoned their numerical album-naming motif, only to name said album Hot Streets, and have promptly switched back in a flush of embarrassment. But Chicago XIV has peaked at a measly #71. It's time for drastic measures. All notions of propriety and taste and "jazz rock" are to be cast aside. The band needs a hit.

A piano dances along like a sparkling stream, only to fall into a stately, martial rhythm. A cello groans in the distance. The wait. The unbearable, agonizing wait.

"Everybody needs a little time a-whhhey/I heard her seyyy/From each uhhhh-thuhhh."

Peter Cetera's voice is like heroin sprinkled with M&M's. Every syllable is smooth, yet firm. He begins all alone, and then on "I heard her say," he becomes double-tracked, and then on "From each other," the backing vocalist joins him. It's staggered to perfection.

And just when you think the song's got nothing left, there's the bridge. Oh God, the bridge. "Afterrrrall that ah-wuh-heeve been threuuu/Ahh will make it-up-to-you." Particularly distinctive is Cetera's elongation of "done," rendered something like "said and duhhh-hunnn." And just when you realize the only thing the song needs is drums ... well, in come the drums. The second time around is even more brutal than the first, particularly the teasing pause at 2:22, where you're just waiting, waiting for that bridge, until finally it arrives, even more glorious than before. One TUKC later and this baby's gone nuclear.

Chicago doesn't seem to have made an official video for the song, but on Youtube there is a clip that appears to be from a Spanish television show. The funny thing is, Peter Cetera looks exactly like how I'd always imagined he'd look when he's singing the lyrics. He clenches his jaw in all the precise places I pictured him clenching his jaw. He closes his eyes in all the precise moments I imagined him closing his eyes. He turns his neck at all the exact times I figured he would turn his neck. The man just feels the music.

Of course, no power ballad is complete without a guitar solo, and on "Hard To Say I'm Sorry" we get a tasty one from ... wait for it ... Steve Lukather of Toto (although the overweight gentleman in the YouTube clip does not appear to be Lukather, and this touring stand-in also clearly did not receive the memo that Chicago were now supposed to be chiseled romantic hearthrobs). Cetera mutters something to the effect of "You're naugh gunna be the lucky one!" and all the instruments recede, leaving only the piano, which fades softly in the distance.

And that's it, right? Well, that's it for the single mix. But on the album mix, Chicago couldn't leave well enough alone. See, on the album, "Hard To Say I'm Sorry" segues into a peppy, uptempo track called "Getaway." At first, there's a monolithic drum roll that seems to suit the track well, but then the brass section comes in, and ... I just ... here are the lyrics: "When we get there gonna jump in the air/No one'll see us 'cause there's nobody there/After all you know we really don't care/Hold on, I'm gonna take you there."

No, wait, Chicago! What are you doing? You're totally killing the mood! It was like they couldn't quite stomach the idea of completely abandoning every last remaining shred of credibility they had left, so they tried to tack a more typical "Chicago" sounding bit onto the end of their glossy power ballad. "Look! See! We're still jazz rock!" Radio DJs heard that last part and gently put their fingers on the "fade" button.

Chicago couldn't even sell out properly.

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