10 Great Tracks From Chicago’s Early Years

I always challenge people who say of a particular Classic Rock artist that “only their early stuff was any good”, or that “all their later stuff was crap”. Part of the problem is that nostalgia is such a powerful emotion when it comes to music, and nostalgia grows stronger the further back you look. But mostly the problem is that people are much less familiar with the later day works of the Classic Rock greats.

I have and will continue to argue that artists like The Stones, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan have made some music in the last 30 years that easily matches their classics from the Sixties and Seventies. But I have to admit that this is not true of all Classic Rock artists. And after watching Now More Than Ever: The History Of Chicago the other night I can say with certainty that it is definitely not true of Chicago. I was reminded how damn brilliant some of their early stuff was, and how badly they sucked from the mid-70s onward.

For their first ten years Chicago was led by founder Terry Kath, a brilliant vocalist and lead guitarist, and a pretty good songwriter too. He gave the band an edge and a muscularity that was lost forever when he died in a tragic gun mishap in 1977. The remaining members should have had the courage to end the band right then and there, and keyboard/vocalist Robert Lamm admitted as much in the documentary. If they wanted to become a David Foster ballad band they should have done it as a new entity instead of going against just about everything Terry Kath stood for musically. To me it showed a complete lack of integrity on the part of the remaining members.

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Even though the documentary (you can stream it here) was somewhat controversially produced by the band itself, I found myself feeling less and less respect for the four original members as the story unspooled into the Eighties and beyond. The last straw was the way they discussed dumping original drummer Danny Seraphine in 1990. At the time the explosive, acclaimed drummer was going through a tough spell, but here were his former bandmates 25 years later talking about how he had lost it. I thought it was disgraceful.

In any case, the doc played some great old Chicago tracks, some familiar and some forgotten, and I thought we’d revisit what made them great oh so long ago, from their first four studio albums.


1. Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon

The big suite from Chicago II that yielded both the irrepressible punch of “Make Me Smile” as well as the prom dance cheese of “Color My World”. It sure packed a ton of interesting musical ideas into a small space, and is pretty much regarded as their signature piece. This live performance in two parts shows just how much Kath and Seraphine meant to this band.


2. Beginnings

A sweet, hooky acoustic guitar riff and vocal melody evolves organically into an epic jazzy jam, the album version of this track has everything that made early Chicago so great. Memorable solos from the horn section made it onto our lists of best Rock trumpet solos and trombone solos.


3. Poem 58

In the documentary the surviving members all gleefully recounted the time Jimi Hendrix came into their dressing room and told the band that their guitar player was “better than me”. Not sure about that but this psychedelic nugget was a definite facemelter.


4. Dialogue Part 1 & 2

Great pop track with a great lyric that is as relevant today as ever. Fabulous vocals from the three lead singers. Peter Cetera was not only a great singer but a hell of a bass player too. Of course Kath knocks it out of the park again.


5. I’m A Man

The band got its start in 1966 playing British Invasion and R&B covers, as most bands did back then, but their take completely overpowers the Spencer Davis original.


6. Free

After the unprecedented success of two double albums to start their recording career, Chicago III was not nearly as successful, although today it seems highly underrated. This was the only hit from the album, a minor one at that.


7. Movin’ In

I guess it’s both a strength and a weakness that these guys were so full of ideas that they insisted on making suites, loading their songs with distinct “movements”. It’s a technique that loses its impact if you do it all the time. But I love this soul/bebop mashup and the great sax solo by Walter Parazaider.


8. Flight 602

Talk about versatile, in its early days this band could deliver real blues, real soul, real jazz, real psychedelia, and here on this track they sound like Crosby, Stills and Nash. Even the horn section guys could sing and sing well.


9. A Hit By Varese

To the list of styles above you could add prog, as evidenced in this track from Chicago V. It’s got Zappa written all over it.


10. Free Form Guitar

Wow, six minutes of Terry Kath’s astounding avant-garde guitar. This is not just another planet compared to their later work, it is galaxies away. Maybe that’s it, maybe the surviving members were abducted and replaced by adult contemporary aliens sometime around 1978. The truth is that Chicago’s reputation is generally pretty low among music fans young and old nowadays, but nostalgia aside, people need to go back and recognize how innovative and exciting this band once was.

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