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The Thursday Throwback Track - Episode 183: Chicago & "One Minute Shy of Forever"

Welcome to WEEK 183 of 4T! (Video Episode #9) Chicago – (1967-present)

How is it that a band mostly known for its awesome but highly cheesy 1980s power ballads and launching the solo career of Peter Cetera has made it into my top 10, maybe even top 5? Sit tight and I’ll tell you. (NOTE: I won’t be going into the full history of the band – that would be book length. I’m happy to talk Chicago shop with anyone who wants to.)

There have been many Chicagos. As with most bands, people tend to know their most commercially successful period. But the 1980s was actually their FOURTH phase, in my estimation (don’t get me started on sub-phases or we’ll be here all year).

PHASE ONE (1967-74) was all about fusion & eclecticism and experimentation. Just about any type of music that was respected or popular, Chicago tried. Jazz, classical, blues, funk, heavy rock, light rock, progressive rock, pop, folk, political, Latin, free form, spoken word, electronic. It was all there. They followed up their first THREE DOUBLE ALBUMS with a QUADRUPLE album, then two shorter ones, then another double album. They were a true prog-rock band. And so much of it was done so well.

PHASE TWO (1975-77) was them getting tighter & focusing more on singles. They still had lots of the above elements, but more & more they were being used in the service of shorter songs. This was also their first true commercial height, and saw Cetera take more of the hit lead vocals than the other two main vocalists – Robert Lamm & Terry Kath.

PHASE THREE (1978-80) was them just trying to stay afloat after the death of the incomparable Terry Kath (one of the greatest guitarists of all time so stop what you’re doing and look him up RIGHT NOW). They dabbled in disco. They had a revolving door of replacement guitarists/vocalists, some of which took them in a Cheap Trick-y direction. There are some hidden gems here, but not much of it worked.

PHASE FOUR (1982-91) was the money phase. New producer. Outside songwriting help. The ascendance and eventual defection of Pistol Pete Cetera. The uber polishing of their jammy jazz-funk tendencies into mass marketable mega hits. It was a true make AND break period. They managed to keep the hits coming years after Cetera (and drummer Danny Seraphine) left. But if Phase 3 didn’t adequately display how they were losing their direction AND their soul, Phase 4 sure did seal that deal.

PHASE FIVE (1995-present) has been them wandering in the wilderness – continuing to cash in on their history and their still incredible live show presence, while pumping out the holy trinity of dreck: unremarkable jazz standards covers albums, overproduced Christmas albums, and supremely subpar originals. Rarely have they come close to any of their prime periods (Phases 1, 2 & 4), other than maybe when the worked with Lenny Kravitz in the late 1990s.

And yet I’m still a fan. I’m a loyalist to death. I’ll keep listening. I’ll keep hoping something sparks them to stop trying to be so commercial and get back to their roots, even as original members continue to retire and are replaced by soulless session veterans. Why? Because they deserve the reverence and consideration. They did what they did so well for so long, and clearly love music and the life so much, and managed to hang in despite so much strife & heartbreak. Beyond all that, their first phase kicked SO MUCH ASS, that even if they called it quits in ’78, they’d still be revered as a massive American band.

I have only two of their albums on vinyl – IX (a greatest hits collection) and II, and all of their albums up to XXXII on CD. I’ve listened to everything they’ve ever released. So there’s no question that just by default they’ve influenced me. Crafting progressive pop music, with funky backbeats and layered harmonies – all of that has become a part of my wheelhouse. Here’s one of MANY of these songs:

Gotta talk favorite albums here, since fave tracks would be way too long. I’m going with Chicago Transit Authority (their first album and original name), Chicago (II), III, V, VII, VIII, X. If you haven’t listened to any of those, DO IT NOW. I’ll also give honorable mentions to VI, XI, 16 & 17.

What are your thoughts on Chicago? Any other ‘70s progressive bands (Journey, Genesis, etc.) that transitioned to massive success in the ‘80s that you like – or hate? Discuss dammit!

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