So Peter Cetera turned 73 years old today. Earlier this morning, I posted a video of “Hard Habit to Break,” one of my favorite later songs by Chicago, on Facebook.
A conversation with a couple of old friends ensued. One reminded me what a great album the original “Chicago Transit Authority” album was. Is. It still is. My friend commented on what a great bass player Cetera was, and that he had not realized it “back in the day.” The other friend commented on the greatness that is the second Chicago album, specifically, “25 or 6 to 4,” which, if I understand correctly, was what time it was when they decided on a name for the song.
Anyway, all of this inspired me to listen to “Chicago Transit Authority” on the way home from work today. It was just about the perfect length, save having to sit in the driveway for the last four minutes of the long song on side four, “Liberation.” I listened intently to Cetera’s bass playing as I drove. My friend was right. Cetera was masterful on this album. Like most bass players who sing lead, Ceter’s bass work is somewhat underrated. Geddy Lee of Rush is another player who is extremely underrated. By the way, if my memory serves me, which it frequently does not, “Chicago Transit Authority” was the first album I every bought.
As I listened to the album, I tried to pay closer attention to who sang on what songs. I found it interesting that Terry Kath got the opening song, which is, aptly, called “Introduction.” It’s a great piece to introduce us to this new (in 1969) fusion of rock and jazz.
Next up is a song that will always be a Chicago favorite, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” Bobby Lamm wrote and sang this one. What you don’t hear on the radio is the interesting and complex piano introduction to the song.
Another single/hit from that album follows right on the heels of “Does Anybody Really Know . . .,” “Beginnings,” another song by Bobby Lamm. Almost everyone has heard this song a hundred thousand times, so I won’t say much more about it.
Those three songs comprise side one of a four-side album.
Side two begins with a favorite of mine, “Questions 67 and 68.” This one was written by Lamm and sung by Cetera and Lamm. It is Cetera’s first appearance as lead vocalist. Supposedly, this was Chicago’s first single release, but I don’t remember hearing this on the radio until much later, when stations played “deep tracks” from albums. The title is supposed to refer to a relationship that Lamm had in 1967 and 1968. You can hear Terry Kath shining on lead in this song.
Another favorite follows. It’s called “Listen,” and you can hear the greatness of both Terry Kath and Peter Cetera on guitar and bass. Lamm wrote and sang the song. It’s the shortest song on the album.
“Listen” is followed by “Poem 58.” Again, you can hear Kath and Cetera blazing away on this song, which features no lyrics until 5:24 into the song. Again, Lamm wrote and sang.
Side two is undoubtedly my favorite side of the album.
Side three takes a weird and interesting turn with a “song” that could only be considered filler. On “Free Form Guitar,” Terry Kath hammers away on a Fender Stratocaster for almost seven minutes. From the Wikipedia article on the album: “According to the album’s original liner notes, the solo performance of Kath on ‘Free Form Guitar’ was created without the use of any pedals. In a nod to Hendrix’s guitar expressionism (Hendrix most notably used wah and fuzz pedals), Kath instead plugged directly into his studio amplifier and improvised the entire track in one take for the purpose of pure tone. ‘Free Form Guitar’ is also noted as being another influence on the genre of noise music.” When I was a pre-teen, I thought this song was amazing. By the time I was middle-aged, I had decided it was pure noise. But . . . as I listed to it this afternoon, I tried to listen for the sounds, for what Terry Kath might have been doing. I tried to imagine how he made some of those sounds. I have to believe that he was one of the pioneers of the technique of “tapping” on the frets (there is a segment that sounds like computer noises), because I had never heard anyone do that before.
Following “Free Form Guitar” is another song that I loved from the first time I heard it. “South California Purples,” again, written and sung by Lamm. Interestingly, Lamm quotes The Beatles in this song, a little over halfway through: “I am he is you are he is you are me and we are all together.”
Next up is the only cover on the album. Chicago didn’t do many of those, but for some reason, they chose to record Steve Winwood and Jimmy Miller’s “I’m A Man.” All three lead vocalists are featured on the song. It’s worth noting that I didn’t know it was a cover for years. Cetera also has fun on the bass on this song.
That’s it for side three. Now for side four, which is, in it’s own way, somewhat epic. It begins with a thing called “Prologue, August 29, 1968.” It’s just under a minute, and appears to be live audio recording from the 1968 Democratic National Convention, in Chicago. It’s unclear what is being said at the beginning, but the crowd can be heard chanting, “The whole world’s watching! The whole world’s watching!” James Pankow (the trombone player) and Bobby Lamm then took the rhythm of that chant and created the song that follows, “Someday (August 29, 1968).” This is Pankow’s first writing credit on the album. The two tracks are linked together in this clip (as they should be). It is Chicago’s first time to “get political.”
The final track on the album is a fourteen and a half minute almost entirely instrumental jam called “Liberation.” The only vocal (outside of the conversation before the song actually begins) is Terry Kath singing what sounds like, “Whoa, thank you people,” at around the thirteen minute mark. The piece was entirely written by James Pankow. It’s great fun, classic Chicago sound.
People who know me know that I’m a trombone player. You might wonder why I didn’t talk more about Pankow in this article. Hey, it’s Peter Cetera’s birthday! Not James Pankow’s. Hahaha.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s my ramblings about what may be the best album ever produced by Chicago, their first recording. And one other friend commented on my Facebook post. He said that Chicago was never the same after Terry Kath died, and then after Peter Cetera left. He was absolutely right. They carried on fairly well after Kath’s accidental death, adding the husky vocals of Bill Champlin. But Peter Cetera was never adequately replaced, in my opinion. I mean, how could they ever do “Dialogue” live without the two of those guys??