by Debbie Kruger
There are several versions of Chicago.
There is the original Chicago, the band that released the groundbreaking Chicago Transit Authority in 1969 followed by a string of self-titled, sequentially-numbered albums produced by James William Guercio, with soaring brass, improvisational jazz fused with rock and roll, gut-wrenching guitar from the late Terry Kath, and songs with themes ranging from politics to romance to the industrial revolution.
The first eleven albums are Chicago, says composer, keyboardist and vocalist, Robert Lamm. And Guercios genius was that he captured it.
Next is the born-again Chicago that producer David Foster metamorphosed in the 1980s, the band that became best-known for power ballads, even surviving the departure of power ballad prince Peter Cetera (If You Leave Me Now, Hard Habit To Break).
With the 1990s came the disenfranchised Chicago, recording under the sway of various other producers and outside songwriters such as Diane Warren, surrendering control to music industry suits with fixed ideas on how to keep the band relevant.
Chicago is viable because we have remained evolutionary and flexible, says composer/arranger/trombonist James Pankow. What you hear on the radio in terms of our music is only a small slice of the picture.
There is a popular misconception that the members of Chicago dont write any more, they only arrange. It's a suspicion that was partially confirmed when they released an album of big band standards entitled Night & Dayin 1995, which they followed in 1998 with Chicago XXV was a collection of deftly arranged Christmas songs.
But there is a hidden Chicago. A band whose own songs are rarely accepted by their managers as marketable, whose last album of entirely original material, 1993s Stone of Sysiphus, was never released because their management and record company didnt get it. A Chicago whose members, while still deeply committed to the concept of a rock and roll band with horns often find more challenging terrain outside the band.
Ive been writing more in the last ten years than I did in the first ten years, says Lamm. Recent projects such as his latest solo album In My Head, or Like a Brother in which he teams up with two other legendary rockers, America's Gerry Beckley and the late Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys show Lamm to be a serious and prolific songwriter who would prefer if his new songs received the kind of mass attention as Saturday in the Park and other Chicago classics he's written.
James Pankow, too, flourishes outside of the group, collaborating with younger writers on funky, hip-hop inflected numbers that Chicago is unlikely to record in its remaining years, while also contemplating a return to his classical roots with a symphonic piece. He's delighted that audiences are still moved by his most famous songs like Just You N Me which he wrote after an argument with the girl who became his first wife, and then printed on their wedding invitation but says he's weary of having to fight for every horn line on every new Chicago song.
Its not that these two original members of Chicago are blasé about their success with Americas most enduring rock group. Lamm and Pankow, together with other founding members Lee Loughnane (trumpet) and Walter Parazaider (reeds), relish the prospect of a hit in the new millennium. It could come from their current album, Chicago XXVI, a live set featuring three previously unreleased studio tracks. Or it could come next year from their 27th album, which promises to be the first Chicago album of entirely original material since 1991.
But they concede that the cutting edge style of 1969s Chicago Transit Authority is long gone. It suffered a major blow with the worldwide success of If You Leave Me Now and died altogether when Terry Kath fatally shot himself in 1978. And the market has changed. It wasnt that we were more creative in those days, Pankow explains. Its that if we approached records and writing today like we did in those days, wed be a garage band.
Along with Lamm and Pankow, bassist Jason Scheff and keyboardist Bill Champlin members of Chicago for 14 and 18 years respectively are also prolific writers. Their input has definitely broadened the horizon and the scope of how we look at music, says Pankow. And their musicianship and their approach to songwriting has definitely embellished what the band has done in the past.
But when pondering the longevity of Chicago its sometimes hard to get beyond the timelessness of Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is or the innovative genius of The Ballet for the Girl From Buchannon song cycle, which contains Make Me Smile and Color My World. And in talking to the bands longest-serving songwriters, there is an undeniable longing in their conversation.
In my world Id love to do things that are daring, Pankow admits. Whether or not I could get an agent to sell them to anybody remains to be seen. In the old days I had this wonderful climate of fertility to write anything I wanted, like a 13-minute piece called the Ballet, and see it received with enthusiasm. I could no longer take that 13 minutes of a record today with a self-indulgent piece than the man on the moon. You know, I just cant.
When writing, what element of a song comes first for you?
If it's between melody and lyrics, the melody usually comes first. I do keep a notebook of lyric ideas, because actually what comes together first is the harmonic structure of the changes and the rhythm pattern. Then I try to write a melody to match that, and then I go to my lyric notebook to see if there's anything in it that either sparks an idea or actually fits.
Has the process changed over the years?
Yes, because now we are in a day of writing fairly complete song arrangements with sequencers and computers and drum loops. Whereas before I would just sit down at a piano and play, ad lib the words off the top of my head and then see where that would take me. It used to be a much more organic process, and one that I would consider using again. But in this age of computers, I'm caught up in the possibilities of that.
Jimmy [Pankow] said in the earlier days you used to sketch the horn arrangements, but you don't do that any more. Is there any reason for the shift there?
I have to confess that that's been more sheer laziness on my part than anything else. Although on some of the arrangements I did on the Christmas album and the big band album, I did concentrate on composing many of the horn lines. It's just not the easiest thing for me. Jimmy has really defined his style of arranging for Chicago, and the last couple of things I gave him with a horn line, he didn't agree with. His comment was, "Well, this is not what we do." So it was kind of an issue between us. And I said, "Maybe it's not what you do, but Chicago is more than what you do." I think that that's healthy, and proves that our hearts are still beating.
Did you consciously write "Beginnings" without rhyme, and was there a reason for that?
Yes, and the reason was to see if I could do it. At that point I was reading contemporary poetry, and I noticed that this wasn't the poetry I was reading in high school. It was a little freer. So I wondered if I could do that for a song.
Can you still connect with the original inspiration for that song?
Whenever we play "Beginnings" I always think of the girl that I was with when I wrote it at the beginning. Because for me, yes, when I'm singing one of the songs that I wrote, I always go back to the moment that I wrote it.
Do you walk through Central Park in your mind when you perform "Saturday in the Park"?
Yeah, all of that. But with "Beginnings," as I sing the song I bring myself back. I let the lyrics bring me back into where I am now, and I think about my wife, Joy.
Both "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" and "25 or 6 to 4" were rumored to be underground drug songs
Well, I've always been intrigued with the idea of time, and how we attempt to keep track of it, and I talk in other songs about crossing over into other dimensions, even temporarily, on any given day. But "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" is just recounting an experience I had when I was a teenager. I asked somebody what time it was and he said. "Does anybody really know what time it is?" I went with that idea, fleshed out the rest of the song, and made it into a larger subject than what time it was at that particular moment.
"25 or 6 to 4" is really a song about just writing a song, and a reference to time. It was written up in the Hollywood Hills above Sunset; I was living in a house with some other people and I could look out across the city and see flashing lights against the sky.
Which is why people thought it was about hallucinogens.
I wrote one song about drugs, and that's "Fancy Colors," which is about an acid trip. But that's about it.
Your songs are often about your perceptions of ordinary situations, whether it's "Saturday in the Park" or "Another Rainy Day in New York City" or "Beginnings."
You're talking about the early songs, and my latest songs are far deeper. There's a song on the Beckley-Lamm-Wilson album that I wrote called "Feel the Spirit" which is about Terry Kath. It was gut-wrenching to write that song, very cathartic. I'm much happier with the power of lyric writing I've accumulated over the years, versus something like "Beginnings" or "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is."
What kind of themes have you been working on lately?
When my last marriage ended and I moved [from California] to New York, that was really a huge upheaval for me, and it caused me to examine not only myself but the world around me. So there are a couple of songs, one is "Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed" obviously. That's some serious lyric writing, I think. And there's another song called "Will People Ever Change" which is really kind of a socio-political song.
When you write a song, where do you start?
Typically, I'll start with a germ of an idea, which is usually a harmonic progression of chords with a groove. That will inspire a feeling, which in turn will inspire a lyrical train of thought. It's kind of a step-by-step process which typically takes place.
"Just You 'n' Me" was the one exception in my many years of writing songs. All the elements of that song happened simultaneously. The inspiration of that song and the output that created it was the result of intense emotion. Wed had a very emotional disagreement and rather than punch walls or release negative energy, I ran out and sat at the keyboard and this whole lyric and feel and chord progression all just poured out simultaneously and resulted in that song.
Since your marriage status changed, and since Just You n Me had such a personal and beautiful conception, is that song difficult to connect with in performance?
When you write a song and you look out into crowd during the song and see people relating to each other because of what that song represents in their relationship, you can re-live the feeling that you had when you wrote it. It's really quite delightful. We're very lucky to be able to be so personal with so many, and that is what gives the song continued life. I do flash on the moment that I wrote it. And again, it also has meaning for my current love.
Your horn arrangements have always been a prominent part of the Chicago sound, especially in the early days. How would you write horn arrangements for another writer's songs? Would he give you the song with a big blank in it for you to fill?
No, there wasn't a big blank in the middle of the song. The horns were prevalent, they were in the song from the beginning to the end. And that's still the way we work. But music has changed, and we have changed. I've always wanted to approach the brass as an equally important lead voice that is interwoven throughout a song. Not as frosting on a cake, but as an integral part of the arrangement.
How would you do that on a song such as "Free" which has horns throughout?
Typically, I would just take the song and do my thing, and that's the way I've always done it. Composers of various songs have been more prepared in some instances than others. Robert basically sketched out most of the horn parts on "Beginnings," which I still love to play, and which he is still capable of doing, but has stopped doing. He wrote the horns to "Saturday In The Park." He wrote the horns to a couple other things that he composed, and I just embellished on the harmonics and the voicing. But generally speaking, I have been responsible for taking a song devoid of all arrangement, and creating the horn arrangements.
"Free" is a song that's up-tempo and frenetic and grooving, and the horns just become a different participant in that type of song. It's not an instrumental lead. "I just want to be free" is the lyric theme and the predominant character in that song. But the horn riffs are probably more crucial to a song like that in terms of generating the velocity and excitement required. There is one small ensemble, as exists in most of our songs, where the horns have an opportunity to step out and do a little instrumental passage. And Robert wrote the instrumental section and most of the brass on that song as well. For whatever reasons Robert has no longer really attempted to write as much brass as he used to.
What inspired the "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon" song cycle? Was there an actual girl from there?.
Yes. She was my first true love, and she enrolled as a student at the University of West Virginia, in Buchannon, West Virginia, and so that was a piece with her in mind.
Why did you write it as a Ballet?
From the inception of that I had intended to number each movement by number and Latin description of the tempo and feel. Andante Cantabile was the title of "Color My World" and it was Movement II, which comes out of the Overture, which is "Make Me Smile." And I envisioned it as a piece that, because of its rhythmic quality, could be performed to dance.
Do you think the "Ballet" allowed others in the group to move in a more expansive direction?
Everybody was just doing their thing. See, the late '60s/early '70s was a period of great fertility. We were very fortunate to come onto the scene on the threshold of that renaissance. I think it started probably with the Beatles. All of a sudden pop music was in the throes of this incredible renaissance. We were allowed to write and perform musical pieces as far as we could possibly be inspired. And radio would play it in its entirety. We could virtually do anything we wanted to do and have it received with incredible enthusiasm. Those days are gone forever.
Nowadays the music business focuses on music for the sake of dollars. You're not really free to do, for instance, double discs like we used to do. You can put more than ten songs on a CD, but whether or not that music is going to go on that CD with the same fulfillment to the artist or the same recognition is questionable.
These days formats are the thing on radio. Radio grabs so many songs and they play those songs for so many months, and that's the only songs they will play. We became successful to the point of being recognized solely on the basis of one type of song, and that's the power ballad. With the enormous success of "If You Leave Me Now" radio decided that that was Chicago's sound on radio. And I can't tell you how many attempts we made at pushing up-tempo songs to get on records. Fans would come up to us and go, "What happened to you guys? You've been eating too much pabulum. What happened to that, you know, the guts and the soul and the funk that you guys had back when? Now you guys have sold out." Our answer to that was that we became victims of the success of one type of song that was embraced by mass media as our sound. And no matter how hard we tried to knock that door down and to get another, like a "Make Me Smile" or a "Beginnings" or an up-tempo
"25 or 6 to 4"
A "25 or 6 to 4"! We've been one up-tempo song short for 30 years. You know, "25 or 6 to 4" is the encore every night, I don't care where we are, when it is, that song has to be the closer of the show, because that is the rock 'n' roll anthem from this band. There ain't any others.
And that's the real Chicago.
Well, that's not the real Chicago. That's part of the real Chicago. "If You Leave Me Now" is just as much Chicago as "25 or 6 to 4". "Hard To Say I'm Sorry", "You're The Inspiration", those are all Chicago as well. But after the success of that genre of song, the "25 or 6 to 4" aspect side of this band got put on the back burner, and every year it gets farther and farther back. We've been fighting tooth and nail to come back. We're up against this image thing, and no matter how prolific we are, in terms of up-tempo songs, it's like they don't trust it. Our manager comes to us and says, "Hey man, that'll never get on the radio. It has nothing to do with our lack of being prolific.
Given that frustration, what keeps you in the band?
The fact that we can't write another "25 or 6 to 4" and get it on the radio is not going to ruin my day. There are other ways of presenting songs and there are other things to write songs for. But regardless of whatever frustration we might have, I enjoy writing songs. Chicago has been a wonderful platform to do what we do. We're very lucky that we've had such a great springboard to write what we write and have such a successful vehicle to present our songs with. I think we're very lucky people.