Chicago IX: Chicago's Greatest Hits


Warner Brothers, 1975

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Chicago is one of those bands that I—as the kid brother of three music-loving older brothers—grew up on without knowing much about them. The problem, of course, is that by the time I was choosing my own music in the mid-70s, Chicago had already begun to fall off many people’s radar as the eight-man, horn-heavy collective’s early adventurousness was increasingly overshadowed by the formulaic power ballad singles sung by bassist Peter Cetera, one of the group’s three lead vocalists.

The beauty of the group’s first hits collection Chicago IX is that it shines a spotlight on the very best of the group’s very best sequence of work, the early albums where the band was still in exploratory mode, delivering an often smoking-hot mélange of rock, soul, jazz and Latin influences. These songs were all over FM radio back in the day, with the result that for a listener of my vintage, every song on this album is familiar from the first few bars.

What makes early Chicago special is that the tunes are infused with genuine enthusiasm and joy. They’re playful and expansive; they stretch out and entertain, and they hold up. They hold up because the melodies are terrific, and the interplay between Robert Lamm’s rhythmic piano playing, Terry Kath’s fiery funk-influenced guitar, and the punchy horn section of James Pankow, Walt Parazaider and Lee Loughanne is incredibly dynamic. Which is not to underplay the importance of drummer Danny Seraphine’s Keith-Moon-plays-fusion flair and the Latin textures contributed by percussionist Lauder de Oliveira (originally a sideman, soon a member)—both were essential pieces of the puzzle as well.

When these elements come together on instantly memorable singles like “25 Or 6 To 4,” “Saturday In The Park,” “Make Me Smile” and “Beginnings,” the results are nothing short of magic; these are four of the very best radio singles of the early ’70s. (Trivia note: All-Music Guide maintains that based on Billboard statistics, counting both albums and singles, Chicago is the second most successful American rock band of all time after The Beach Boys.)

Interestingly, by today’s auto-tuned everything-must-be-perfect standards the vocals can sound a little loose or even ragged in places on these early tunes. The thing is, that’s exactly why these songs hold up so well 40-plus years later—they feel heartfelt and authentic in every respect. When tracks like “Saturday” and “Smile” come on, with their upbeat lyrics and syncopated horn blasts punctuating every riff, it’s almost physically impossible not to snap your fingers and tap your feet. (And if the line “Can you dig it / Yes I can” feels like it’s every single cliché ever conceived about the year 1971 packed into just seven words, well, why shouldn’t it?)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Another unusual element of early Chicago is that it was a true collective. Of the 11 songs here, four were written by Lamm, four by Pankow, one by Loughanne, one by Cetera, and one is a Cetera/Pankow co-write. Their three lead vocalists—Lamm, Cetera, and Kath—were gifted on their own and a powerhouse any time they joined forces into a wall of vocal sound, as on the choruses of “25 Or 6 To 4.”

The first of two Kath lead vocals here is the ironically dreary ballad “Colour My World”; the second is one of the most irresistible tunes the band ever recorded, the explosive “Make Me Smile.” Kath’s gruff exuberance at the mike, his ferocious guitar playing and the wide-open arrangement lend the whole thing a Randy Bachman/Guess Who feel in places, and each time the chorus rolls around and the horn section punctuates Seraphine’s stutter-stepping drums as all three vocalists lean into their mikes, it’s nothing short of brilliant.

The seeds of the band’s future were apparent even here, though. Cetera and Pankow’s “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” has a nice pulsing rhythm to it, but strays off-trail in the early going in the direction of formula pop songwriting before delivering a rousing second half. Cetera’s solo write “Wishing You Were Here” is a cliché-ridden “missing my baby but I’ve got a job to do” road song that’s rescued by the addition of the Beach Boys on background vocals, turning an otherwise pedestrian tune into a Pet Sounds-ish fantasia. And then there’s Pankow’s “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long,” an early prototype for the plethora of syrupy Cetera-sung power ballads to come, though the final chorus does eventually pack some punch.

The album closes where it had to, with the extended, dynamic “Beginnings,” another career highlight. An outstanding example of early ’70s rock, it’s alternately lively and soaring, with a sunny, uplifting lyric. When the horns and Lamm’s lead vocals rise together into the “whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoaaaa” refrain, it’s once again pure magic. The extended outro features a terrific series of horn solos over de Oliveira’s smoldering percussion bed, before it breaks down further to just the percussion line. (This kind of thing just doesn’t happen when you’re churning out formulaic 3:25 power ballads…!)

Chicago would go through all manner of ups and downs and lineup shifts from here—starting with Kath’s tragic accidental death in 1978—but this early material built the foundation that has keep the group going ever since. (For those wondering if a band that’s down to less than half its original members should still be using the name Chicago, consider this: 10 of 11 songs on this collection were written or co-written by one of the four founding members still in the band.)

Serious Chicago fans already have all the albums these songs are drawn from. For the casual fan, though, this collection has everything you could ask for from the strongest period of the band’s long career, and for the curious listener trying to understand (or remember) what the fuss is about, Chicago IX makes an excellent starting point for your journey.

Rating: A-

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