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The best and the tritest: Chicago's claims to rock 'n' roll fame



Isn't it ironic that of the city of Chicago's two biggest rock 'n' roll claims to fame--the most successful American band of the 70s and one of the best--one left town before cutting its first record and the other is really from Rockford? The first group, of course, is Chicago, whose string of singles and consecutively numbered albums (Chicago II, III, ad infinitum) made it one of the largest-selling groups of all time; the other was the fiery and funny hard-rock foursome Cheap Trick, whose bruisingly clearheaded first couple of records are among the best and most influential of the 70s. Many years on from their respective heydays--Chicago's over the entire decade and Cheap Trick's in the years '77 to '79--the reputations of both bands have been distorted: Chicago's by its unaccountably successful first decade, Cheap Trick's by a few latter-day Top 40 singles.

On such matters, however, are record releases predicated. Chicago, probably the most unforgivably terrible rock 'n' roll band of the 70s, has been memorialized in suitably monstrous fashion: Group Portrait, a lavish four-CD retrospective of the years 1969 to 1981, has come out on the CBS subsidiary Legacy, the same outfit that's been putting out classy boxes on the likes of Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, and Mahalia Jackson.

Chicago certainly had some decent singles, collected on two single-LP greatest-hits albums, but Group Portrait's hours of retrospection and endless pages of annotation are a bit much. Cheap Trick, by contrast, is a band that deserves some research and annotation; Epic's recent The Greatest Hits, unfortunately, is a 13-song cheapo that entirely ignores the band's seminal first two albums in favor of its later AM fame.

Together these two releases nicely illustrate the arbitrariness of the industry's current reissues craze.

There is one thing you can say about the 63-song, four-hour Group Portrait--it is an altogether fitting testament to Chicago's hippie self-absorption and dopey excesses. The group, remember, began its career with the two-record Chicago Transit Authority, and after shortening its name continued with two more two-record sets (Chicago II and III) and then the four-record Chicago at Carnegie Hall. The 63 songs in the new set are drawn not from Chicago's entire 22-year recording career but just the first 12 years of it, leaving open the possibility that another four-CD set will come along in the next couple of years. The liner notes, by one William James Ruhlman, look to be about 25,000 words long--about three times the length of an average Reader cover story, or a fourth the length of an average novel. I submit that this is all far out of proportion with both the amount of listenable music Chicago produced and its musical importance, which of course is nil.

The original seven-member band formed around a bunch of horn students at DePaul and included guitarist Terry Kath, bassist Peter Cetera, and pianist Robert Lamm, all of whom sang; the band's most important component, however, was producer Jim Guercio. Guercio was from Chicago too: he'd played in local bands and eventually went on the road with Chad and Jeremy, even cowriting their last Top 40 hit, "Distant Shores." He moved to LA early on, flirted with the Mothers (he left 'cause they were too weird), and during the 70s became one of the more successful producers and managers in the business, overseeing the careers of both Chicago and the revivified Beach Boys, and eventually directing his own movie, Electra Glide in Blue.

Ruhlman's notes, exhausting to read and occasionally outlandish but otherwise lucid and intermittently interesting, tell the story of how Chicago got its first album produced. Guercio was an independent producer allied with CBS, and his success with the Buckinghams gave him some leverage with the label. An early Chicago supporter, he invited them to move to LA, where he promised to try to interest CBS in the group. His frustrated efforts paid off after the company asked him to produce the second Blood, Sweat & Tears album. (The first, overseen by Al Kooper, had gone nowhere and Kooper had left, with the previously unknown David Clayton-Thomas moving in as lead singer.) Guercio cut the deal, only to have CBS try to renege after the company decided the album, Blood Sweat & Tears, was going to be a flop. But the album, which included the songs "You've Made Me So Very Happy," "Spinning Wheel," and "And When I Die," went on to become an enormous hit. Guercio earned the clout to do Chicago his way, and the rest is history.

Early on, the big thing about Chicago was its supposed fusion of jazz and rock. In the notes, Ruhlman goes out of his way to establish that Chicago was the innovator here, rather than Blood, Sweat & Tears. (He doesn't mention the Electric Flag.) This is a little like arguing over who invented quadriphonic, but rock 'n' roll was already being brought to jazz by the likes of Miles Davis and John McLaughlin, who were inspired not by the rather banal idea of having horns in a rock band but by the improvisational doors opened by Jimi Hendrix. Chicago didn't improvise as a matter of course: it was merely a rock 'n' roll big band that produced passable radio hits with some tasty horn flavorings. Ruhlman convincingly establishes that Chicago was doing this back home in Chicago in 1967, months before Al Kooper thought of doing the same thing, so I guess I'll concede him the point that they were first.

Actually, if you read the notes carefully, it's not exactly clear on what front Chicago was supposed to be breaking ground. Guercio talks a lot about Stravinsky and Glenn Miller in addition to Thelonious Monk, and how important it was to incorporate them into rock 'n' roll. The very idea probably horrifies you as much as it does me, but these were apparently the inspirations behind songs like Lamm's "A Song for Richard and His Friends," from Chicago at Carnegie Hall, an almost unbearable mishmash of "modern music" cliches, or "A Hit by Varese," from Chicago V. Both sound a little like Monty Python doing Brecht; Columbia has preserved them for the digital age on Group Portrait. Similarly, here's trombonist James Pankow on his song-cycle contribution to Chicago II, the excruciatingly titled "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon": "I had bought the Brandenburg concertos, and I was listening to them one night, thinking, man, how cool! Bach, 200 years ago, wrote this stuff, and it cooks. What a concept, I mean, if we put a rock 'n' roll rhythm section to something like this, that could be really cool. I was also a big Stravinsky fan, and his stuff cooked. These Russian composers, they boogie."

I suppose if you have to do something as pointless as injecting Stravinsky--or Glenn Miller, or Bach, or whoever--into rock 'n' roll, the least you can do is do it creditably. Chicago sold millions of records to teenyboppers who liked "Saturday in the Park" but had little credibility with the serious rock audience. The press didn't like them either. Rolling Stone sneered at just about anything they did (I distinctly remember being outraged as a kid at a review of, I think, Chicago VII), and they never made it onto the magazine's cover.

That slight is more severe than it sounds. Only Elton John sold more records than Chicago did during the 1970s; every other rock artist even approaching Chicago's commercial stature has made it to the cover of Rolling Stone. (Christ, even Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show made it.) So why not Chicago? Well, because Chicago was almost laughably lousy right from the beginning. The OK singles from some of the first albums ("25 or 6 to 4," "Beginnings") aside, Chicago Transit Authority and its successors are self-indulgent on an epic scale. Early Chicago albums make Emerson, Lake & Palmer look like Emily Dickinson. And matters aren't helped much by Lamm's monotonous voice, which is uncomfortably Mark Farner-ish--sometimes you'd swear you were listening to Grand Funk with horn tracks stripped in. The first records include excursions like the 15-minute 41-second "Liberation" ("This track was recorded entirely live. The performance embodied in this recording is complete and uncut") and the 6-minute 53-second "Free Form Guitar"--"performed on a Fender Stratocaster Guitar through a Showman amplifier equipped with a twin 15 bottom utilizing a Bogen P.A. amplifier as a preamp. No electronic gimmicks or effects were used in the recording of this selection, the intent being to capture as faithfully as possible the actual sound of the performance as it occurred." I see--just natural electric-guitar playing.

Unsurprisingly, both of these are shapeless, pointless, just about tuneless, and seemingly interminable. The second album included both the seven-part, not remotely Bach-like "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon" and the genuinely pathetic "It Better End Soon," one of the most tepid antiwar cries ever recorded:

If we want to have the whole world right

We got to put up a fight

But a peaceful fight

Can't go around killing--and contradicting ourselves

We gotta do it right--within the system

This was one of several "political" songs the band essayed over the years; the whole second album, in fact, was dedicated to "the revolution in all its forms." One of the dumber examples is Lamm's "Dialogue," done in two parts on Chicago V and included on Group Portrait. A dialogue between a political activist and a callow college student, the whole thing is so heavy-handed--"Don't you feel repression, just closin' in around?" / "No, the campus here is very, very free"--and preposterously styled that it's a wonder it made it even onto a Chicago album. Ruhlman goes out of his way to speculate that the song, unaccountably released as a single, was commercially hurt by its political content. But the thing actually made it into the Top 40, and for crying out loud, what was Lamm thinking? College students--particularly rock 'n' roll-loving college students--were the very heart of the antiwar movement. And Chicago wonder why they weren't invited to more parties.

There's a precious moment in the notes where Pankow says that the band had even gone as far as encouraging voter registration at concerts, but this "was misinterpreted by a lot of the nut cases. . . . People were approaching us on the basis of rioting, of 'Hey, let's tear the system down.' . . . So, we decided to put our objectives in perspective and entertain people." With misinterpretations on that scale going on, you can see why the band took cover.

In other words, a major reason Chicago never got any critical respect is that nothing the band ever did remotely lived up to its pretensions; predictably, the band's skin was pretty thin on this issue. On Chicago VI's "Critic's Choice," Lamm, winding up his emotions for a performance that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Plastic Ono Band, calls critics "parasites," and intones "What do you need? / Is it someone just to hurt / So that you can appear to be smart?"

But another reason Chicago never got any critical approval paradoxically became the key to its long-running success: the band's slow but certain move toward the middle of the road. Originally Lamm was the band's chief songwriter and frequent lead singer--that's his slightly flat instrument on early songs like "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" Kath, who sang lead on songs like "Make Me Smile" and "Beginnings/Colour [sic] My World," had a deeper, more bluesy voice. (It's been said that Kath's death, in 1978, was the result of a game of Russian roulette; Ruhlman hints that Kath had been depressed but says his death was the result of an accidental pistol shot--from an automatic, not the revolver you'd use to play Russian roulette, unless you were dumb even by Chicago standards.) After a few albums, both Lamm and Kath were overshadowed by the developing skills of Peter Cetera, first as a singer--he's the constricted tenor on songs like "Feelin' Stronger Every Day" and "Just You 'n' Me"--and then, ineluctably, as a songwriter. Cetera songs like "Wishing You Were Here" stood out creatively from the band's usual unsubtle approach, and others like "If You Leave Me Now" and "Baby What a Big Surprise" became major hits. Simply on the basis of "Wishing," whose restrained arrangement and Beach Boys backing vocals make it to my mind Chicago's most notable performance, Cetera stands out as the most interesting person in the group. (He left in 1985, and despite some hits, his solo career since has been undistinguished.)

Soon everybody got into the game: Lamm ("Saturday in the Park," "Harry Truman"), Pankow ("Just You 'n' Me"), and even trumpeter Lee Loughnane ("Call on Me") were contributing songs to tug the heartstrings of America's preteens. Though Ruhlman lets band members go on about not wanting to turn into a singles band, that's what it was from the second album on. People weren't buying Chicago VII for the ten-minute combo of "Prelude to Aire" and "Aire"; they bought it for "Wishing You Were Here," and "Call on Me," and "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long." Not that this progression represents any sort of a loss: it's not as if there were anyone out there saying, "Hey, do some more suites!" The band's rock demographic went into the toilet very early in its career and has stayed there ever since.

Now, this isn't to say that there aren't some nice moments in Chicago's oeuvre: As I said, I like "Wishing You Were Here" just fine, and there's a nice outro on "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long." The rolling guitar at the start of "Beginnings" still courses out of your speakers with its old charm, and "25 or 6 to 4" is an interesting bit of faux hard rock. But the rest of the stuff belonged where it rests today--the singles on the playlists of lite radio, the rest in the nether reaches of our subconscious. Which is where it would have stayed had not the Godzilla that is this compilation reared its ugly head.

Back when I was growing up in the southwest, my friends and I felt--even after Rolling Stone gave Cheap Trick's second album a major review--that Cheap Trick was somehow a secret. Obviously things were a little different here in Chicago. Our first chance to see them live was an event, and it was in one of those ludicrous revolving-stage concert halls that I heard "Surrender" for the first time. The volume was punishing, the band's famous iconography--pretty-boy singer and bassist with a manic munchkin on guitar and a paunchy undercover cop on drums--in full view as the stage turned. (We could also see a roadie contributing keyboards behind the amps.) The song, from the band's third album Heaven Tonight, is a generation-gap update; but instead of making a cheap point the band tries to make a gentle one: parents were once kids, and kids are going to be parents, but neither party is ever really going to get it. The song ends with an arresting key change as singer Robin Zander plows into the now famous last verse, in which the kid wakes to find--or dreams that he wakes to find--his parents making out on the couch, smoking pot, and listening to his Kiss records. After the final chorus ("Mommy's all right / Daddy's all right / They just seem a little weird") the band went into a long outro. On record, you can hear Zander name each of the band members in turn: "Robin's all right / Bun's all right / Tom's all right / Rick's all right!" And I'll always remember the exuberant, anthemic, triumphant chorus at song's end: "We're all all right! / We're all all right!"

Moments like that explain why Cheap Trick holds a special place in certain people's hearts. (To this day, in fact, "Surrender" is rivaled only by "Sweet Home Chicago" as the song most likely to be played by touring bands passing through town.) Most groups don't write about subjects like that, and when they do they're too serious. Cheap Trick were never serious; they were lovable because they were basically misfits. They didn't look right in the first place, and in the second they never seemed to be trying to be a "great" rock band. It's important to remember that what made Cheap Trick so interesting was its hard-rock, almost heavy-metal beginnings. Like Kiss and Aerosmith, its direct musical forebears, Cheap Trick built its career--and eventual success--out of a no-nonsense guitar attack and laborious touring. The band's giddy Zen came out of the tension between this rather limited heritage and their own fuck-all sarcasm. So the band had a big guitar sound and a pretty-boy lead singer--these still couldn't hide the goofy pop sensibility of the man behind it all, songwriter Rick Nielsen.

Even in his 20s Nielsen looked about 12; he wasn't tough at all, and he never had much in the way of hair. He'd never be mistaken for a guitar hero, so he turned himself into a clown, hiding behind beanie caps, mugging, and about 57,000 guitars, sometimes worn three and four at a time. And even using the gorgeous blond Zander as a foil he couldn't bring himself to write standard arena-rock ballads: instead he tried to reform rock from the inside. The band's first album, Cheap Trick, begins with "ELO Kiddies," a Gary Glitter-esque spoof on "School's Out." (It's not really about the Electric Light Orchestra: the chorus is pronounced "Hello, kiddies.") There are all sorts of Beatles references, from "Taxman, Mr. Thief," which I think is a spoof on George Harrison's "Taxman," to the homage to John Lennon's "Well Well Well" on "The Ballad of TV Violence." Cheap Trick also contains "He's a Whore," a song about what I don't know, with a riveting guitar line and one of the clearest, most heavenly pop hooks in rock 'n' roll history. Even in the punk-drenched days of 1977 the album demanded attention, and to this day a lot of people ("One of the world's all time greatest albums," writes Ira Robbins in the Trouser Press Record Guide), including me, are still kinda awed by it.

In Color, the band's second album, is a magnificent continuation. The production is not exactly crystalline, but it is an adequate base for the manic Nielsen's talkative guitars, Zander's silky voice, and hook ("Oooh, baby needs some brand new shoes") after hook ("It's so good to see you") after hook ("I want you to want me"). And the band's third album, Heaven Tonight, besides "Surrender," included an amusing rewrite of "I Want You to Want Me," "How Are You?," and a funny song about rock 'n' roll one-upmanship under the bawdy title "Stiff Competition."

If you wanted to compile a record that makes a case for Cheap Trick, you could just throw together the first three albums and toss out some of the filler and you'd be left with a single CD that could stand as the legacy. A short annotation could say something to the effect that, even at a juncture when American rock 'n' roll wasn't exactly in the doldrums (it was the time, remember, of the Ramones and Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty and Talking Heads and Television and Pere Ubu and Neil Young and . . .), Cheap Trick stood out by putting a premium on humor, cool guitar chords, and hope. They were tough and funny, hard and soft; they didn't take themselves too seriously; and they are today largely forgotten except in the moves of the great American rock bands of the 80s they inspired, among them the Replacements, the Young Fresh Fellows, and Husker Du (this last spiritually, if not musically--as Bob Mould acknowledged when he closed his last show in Chicago with "Surrender").

So why does The Greatest Hits almost entirely ignore the band's first three albums, with the exception of "Surrender"? Because after that the band got big. The potential had been building for some time. "I Want You to Want Me" was a minor hit, the Rolling Stone review helped, and Heaven Tonight and "Surrender" consolidated the band's attack. The fourth album, the live Cheap Trick at Budokan, was originally brought here as a Japanese import; once the heavy-metal kids got wind of its ferocious contents, CBS put it out stateside, where it quickly went platinum on its high recording level, ear-splitting audience response (Japanese kids always loved the band apparently), and bulldozer-strength versions of everything from "Surrender" to "Ain't That a Shame."

The band was suddenly a monster--they got a Rolling Stone cover--but just as quickly went into a long decline. Nielsen abruptly stopped writing good songs; successive albums went nowhere, musically or commercially. The group toyed with producers--George Martin on All Shook Up, Roy Thomas Baker (he produced Queen and the Cars) on One on One. Fans would point to this or that song--"If You Want My Love," "Stop This Game"--but the cost-benefit ratio of listening to whole albums to find a few good songs eventually got too steep to bother. The last time I saw the band live was in late 1983 on the west coast. Still loud as hell, they played to a half-full small theater with verve but little else.

Then with 1989's Lap of Luxury they pulled the cheapest trick of all: bringing in outside help with the songwriting. They were rewarded with a number-one hit in the anonymous power ballad "The Flame," and lesser ones with the dull "Ghost Town" and a cover of "All Shook Up." CBS interpreted this as new commercial potential and got behind Lap's follow-up Busted in a big way. But it flopped, justifiably, and the band seems to be heading back into limbo.

To some extent, the programming on The Greatest Hits is just cynical. Besides ignoring the first two albums altogether, it includes the less charming live version of "I Want You to Want Me" from Budokan; filler like "Tonight It's You," a nonstarter from the forgotten Standing on the Edge; and "Can't Help Fallin' Into Love," which sounds like one of those latter-day Rod Stewart schlock hits. At the same time, the set leaves off some of the more interesting of the band's minor AOR hits: "Everything Works if You Let It" and "Stop This Game" come to mind. (They're not great songs, but you wouldn't mind having them on a greatest-hits disc.) But of course what's really missing from The Greatest Hits is Cheap Trick's soul. These are the things that aren't here: In "Surrender" the wit, hope, understanding, and love; in "He's a Whore" the drama that comes out of the joy of a simple hook; and on Cheap Trick at Budokan the exuberance of a misfit rock 'n' roll group that found itself, all of a sudden and for who knew how long, standing on top of the world. The Greatest Hits is the story of a different band.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Phil Moloitis.

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