Written by Malkmusian
I thought that when I first heard The Chicago Transit Authority by the band that soon would become rock’s worst nightmare because of pressure from their label, Columbia, and bassist/egomaniac Peter Cetera, Chicago could never top it. CTA had so many perfect areas in it (the noise rock forefather “Free Form Guitar”, the showmanship work of Terry Kath on “Introduction” and “Poem 58″) and also detractions (“South California Purples”, a fun tune to cover but a boring tune to listen to). My opinion was grounded when I heard Chicago (aka II) and saw that it was a bunch of showing off, “Make Me Smile”, and Robert Lamm making others whine about how the Vietnam War sucked; I also took a listen to Chicago V, Chicago VI, and Chicago 17 and saw that even if they were good collections of ten tracks, they did not expand on the greatness that would be their first four albums, all of which were in sets of two LPs, with the exception of the fourth album, a live box set.
Then I heard Chicago III, despite the dismal two-star rating on All Music Guide and my guitar teacher having a copy of it, and I saw really no fault with it. The album, to me, felt like a boss hit-bound album that, sadly, never was a boss hit-bound album, save for two extracted tracks, “Free” (from the Travel Suite) and “Lowdown” (a song by its own because it’s written by Peter Cetera). The singles were not as amazing, but when I really listened to the album, I felt as if I was taken into a world that I only experience with albums like CTA and Trout Mask Replica. From the opening song, nine minutes of Terry Kath showing off more of his prowess titled “Sing a Mean Tune, Kid”, to the ending track, “The Approaching Storm/Man Vs. Man: The End”, the album had almost no fault. What’s so amazing about this album is that how stressed the band was when they recorded it; not only did they have to tour non-stop to get their songs played on the radio, they also had to do some acting in their producer’s directorial debut, Electra Glide in Blue, yet they made what appeared to be an album that was on par as that of their first.
The first side, consisting of “Sing a Mean Tune” and three other songs, is a very good side, strengthened by the songs that make up the median portion of the side: “Loneliness is Just a Word” and “What Else Can I Say?”. The songs that bookmark are Kath-centric, focusing more on the performance of the band rather than the context of the song, which adds to the appeal of Chicago: that one has to focus on the performance rather than the typical “CHILDREN PLAYING IN THE PARK THEY DON’T KNOW” lyrics/bawwing from Lamm and/or Cetera. Still, the performance-heavy songs are good and make up for the boring material that makes up most of Chicago. Soon, the second side comes on and it is titled “The Travel Suite”, opening with a very underrated country-rock-pop-folk song, “Flight 602″. After that is a drum solo from Danny Seraphine, “Motorboat to Mars”, which leads into “Free” and “Free Country”, which make up an experimental track I would like to title “Motorboat/Free”. The rest of the songs in the suite range from good instrumentals (“Happy ‘Cause I’m Going Home”) to somewhat forgettable Robert Lamm whining (“At the Sunrise”). The Suite is in itself a very great series of songs and makes you feel as if you want to go home.
The third side starts off with one of Robert Lamm’s lamentations that does not borderline on whiny, “Mother”, but it mostly a horn-and-drum-driven song dealing with the exploitation of nature by modern society, which is the whole theme of the album in a nutshell. Next up is “Lowdown”, one of Cetera’s earliest compositions and probably one of his best, which is a guitar-driven pop song that became one of the charting songs from the album (in the Top 40, no less; “Free” reached the Top 20). After those two, the album goes off into the Terry Kath progressive-rock composition “An Hour in the Shower”, which seems like a typical song you’d expect from the guitarist but soon morphs into a secretly-demented track satirizing modernity, commercialization, marketing, and religion. This is why the album gets a lot of dismal reviews: “Hour in the Shower” is not one five-minute track, but is five one-minute tracks split into the sections of the songs that deal with whatever topic (i.e. “A Hard Risin’ Morning Without Breakfast” – commercialization, marketing; “Off to Work” – modernity, commercialization, the limited range of life). When I listen to the Shower “suite”, I do not listen to one track as itself but as the track as a whole, which makes it more palatable.
The fourth side, which is Pankow’s “Elegy” suite, starts off with one of two Chicago’s pre-Hot Streets songs not written by the band (the other is “Prologue” from CTA, recorded by their producer/manager in the midst of the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago) that is not really a song but more of a poem lamenting how society will fall upon itself. From there, “Elegy” comprises mostly of the horn section playing instruments not of the brass variety and inserts samples of monotonous city life that all cumulate with the sound of a flushing toilet on “Progress?”, signifying man’s loss over nature in the end. From there, the band then creates the chaotic atmosphere that ends up becoming the conflict of man against nature, which is bastardized into man against man in the end due to the loss against nature. The playing is very solid on the suite and the motifs used are very interesting, if all they do are to serve the album’s purpose again.
Overall, I give Chicago III my approval because, unlike Shiver or How Ace Are Buildings, there is nothing on this album that will bore a casual listener of the band. If anybody knows them only for “If You Leave Me Now” and that “Satanic messages” joke from Little Nicky, they should go the store and buy the record in its remastered form. They will not regret it, save for the anger over the fact that ‘An Hour in the Shower” is only five minutes. Heck, if they seem to like this, they might want to move on to CTA, which is the definitive Chicago album in terms of the Terry Kath era (1967-1978), and, if they really want to, Chicago 17, the defining album of Chicago itself and of the Peter Cetera era (1978-1985). Be warned: for those who wanted me to rant how much this sounds like Stone of Sisyphus, you all need to listen to this and observe its showmanship rather than the reflective lyrics tainted by 1990s pop music and Robert Lamm trying to act like Eazy E that defined Stone of Sisyphus. In fact, why would anybody go on from here?