Chicago Transit Authority


Columbia Records, 1969

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


You don't hear too much from the rock band Chicago these days (never mind the fact they have a new album due out May 12th), but at one time, this rock and brass ensemble was putting out some of the best-known singles of their time. And even though it might be unhip to people in my age group to admit to it, I still like a lot of Chicago's singles - the same music I grew up with in the mid- to late-'70s.

Unfortunately, the band's albums could be spotty, and often you'd have to wade through some real granola to get to the songs you liked. (This is one reason why "greatest hits" compilations are so popular - you don't need the musical pooper-scooper.) As an example, let's look at Chicago's 1969 debut album, Chicago Transit Authority. This longer title, by the way, used to be the band's name - that is, until then-mayor Richard J. Daley got pissed off and threatened to sue the band.

At first glance, who would think such a combination would ever work? On the rock side, you had lead guitarist/vocalist Terry Kath, basisst/vocalist Peter Cetera, keyboaridst/vocalist Robert Lamm and drummer Daniel Seraphine. On the "horn" side, you had Lee Loughnane on trumpet, James Pankow on trombone and Walter Parazaider on woodwinds. Admittedly, this was a strange mixture -never mind the fact that Jethro Tull had successfully worked a flute into a rock band, and Blood, Sweat & Tears had pulled off a similar combination.

But on the first record of this set, Chicago shows they have the capability to pull off such a combination, as well as combining rock and jazz (and even a touch of blues) into the mix. Two early hits, "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and "Beginnings," demonstrate the mystique and power that Chicago had in these early days. Pankow's chances to solo should serve as a surprise to any kid whose parents are "making" them take music lessons on an instrument like the trombone. (Ironically, Pankow graduated from the same high school that I went to... but that's giving almost too much away about who I am...)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The first record continues to hold its own quite well, even on some of the lesser-known tracks (at least lesser-known these days) on "Questions 67 And 68" and "Listen". But by the time you hit "Poem 58," one rather nasty habit of Chicago's becomes evident: their playing often seems self-absorbed, and that hurts the overall groove. "Poem 58" is a jazz mixture that is seemingly played for its own sake, and the track, while not atrocious, doesn't hold up as well.

The second album is where the problems really come into their own - and makes me wonder if lopping this double-set into a single release wouldn't have been a bad idea in 1969. "Freeform Guitar" pretty much lives up to its name, as Kath makes his axe sound like he's thrown it into a wood chipper - it ain't pleasant to hear. "I'm A Man" goes off into a bizarre tangent in the middle that doesn't seem to have a logical ending in it at all - so they just jump back into the song. Bad idea.

The fourth side is the weakest, a side that epitomizes the anger and the excess that was in the United States in the late Sixties. Two cuts revolving around the protests that occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 (including one which is just a soundbite from a protest outside the Convention) echo the anger in the country at the time - would I be wrong to say this was part of the Yippie movement? The "power-to-the-people" message was relevant in 1969, I'm sure, but it sounds ever so dated now, almost 30 years afterwards. (Plus, the Democrats have been back to Chicago since then, and have made nice-nice with the city.)

The excess of that time took the form of improvisational "jamming," as witnessed in the almost 16-minute gutbuster "Liberation". There are a few good moments to this piece, but after a while, you find yourself praying for the song to end. Now, there aren't that many bands that can pull improvisational material off that well, though there are a small handful that come to mind. (Even the Dead couldn't do it successfully every night.) Why should Chicago be an exception on their first album?

Admittedly, Chicago Transit Authority is not a bad album overall, and on subsequent listens you do find more to enjoy. But no matter how many times you slap this one on the turntable or in the CD changer, it is hard to get past the filler and the more dated material on the album - and that may be the biggest obstacle that Chicago would have to overcome. (It didn't seem like they learned their lesson by the time they reached album number four, a four-record live set that you have to be either a sadist or a fanatic to get through in one sitting.)

Chicago Transit Authority showcased a young band that, when they had all the cards aligned, demonstrated their great abilities and their future stardom. But when you have to pick through the album to find those songs, you understand the popularity of the greatest-hits compilations.

I often wish that the liner notes gave a clue as to who was performing the lead vocal on what track. I know Cetera's voice; you can tell that's him on "Questions 67 And 68," but I'd guess that Lamm handled the bulk of the lead vocals on Chicago Transit Authority.


Rating: C+

User Rating: C-



© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.