The American Breed
American Breed (1967)
A highly un-politically correct cover graced this album.
Bend Me Shape Me (1968), *1/2
Pretty much one-hit wonders, the title track was this group's biggest hit, and it has everything you could want from the "Chicago sound": big horns, handclaps, a catchy chord progression and a danceable beat. It could have been re-mixed for the disco era and succeeded. The only other decent number is the driving "Green Light" written by Anna, who was behind most of the Electric Prunes' I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night. Beyond that ...it gets ugly. Slower, bland pop, written by mostly anonymous songwriters fill out the rest of the album, although there are a couple of real dogs from the Goffin-King duo ("Sometime in the Morning" and "No Easy Way Down" which involves toy balloons). The band's two contributions ("Don't It Make You Cry" and "Bird") are just as bland, with the later featuring a pitiful guitar solo break. But at least it has audible guitar - producer Bill Traut did the usual thing of consigning the guitar to the background, and layering on horns or strings, while focusing on the vocals. Yet, Gary Loizzo wasn't a very strong lead vocalist, and the group winds up doing a lot of alright group vocals or using overdubs. Maybe the fact that he was also their lead guitarist has something to do with their lack of lead guitar. This is one of those groups where the fact that a member had a voice seems more important than their actual playing skills. Heck, drummer Lee Grazanio may have earned some extra dough by playing trumpet with the horn section. Actually, rhythm in general is their strong suit - it's just that the songs are junk.
This isn't to say that the band is entirely without traces of personality; they just get subsumed by the production like the Buckinghams did - with the guitars buried, and horns or strings often given as much importance as the band's playing. Their playing or singing isn't as good as the Buckingham's, however. They do seem to draw more on soul and old fashioned 50s R&B than other Chicago groups did ("Something You've Got"), and they do cover Curtis Mayfield's "I've Been Tryin'", which I can't really see other Chicago groups doing. They were also integrated, a rarity, with an African American bassist in Chuck Colbern (or Colbert). All interesting, but none of it changes the fact that this music is icky pap. Take the two good tracks (the title track and "Green Light") and run. The band is Loizzo (lead guitar/vocals), Al Ciner (rhythm guitar), Lee Grazanio (drums/trumpet), and Chuck Colbern (bass).
Pumpkin Powder Scarlet and Green (1968), *1/2
All the crap of the previous album, without the hits, with the sound improved marginally, and with a lame attempt at a concept album (the title refers to the suits worn by band members on the cover and brief tracks that bookend each side of the album). There's no "Bend Me Shape Me" here. Here's some good news - rhythm guitarist Al Ciner shaved off his bad mustache and beard and looks like he lost some weight. Bassist Chuck Colbert's mustache is still large enough to look fake, however. To be fair, the band still does an excellent job on the rhythm front - they just need songs that aren't second-rate cliché-fests and a good vocalist. At least they didn't lose it all, and turn completely lame-o like the New Colony Six. I mean, what the heck happened to those guys? Produced by Bill Traut again.
I thought it would be more interesting to look at the songwriters responsible for these tracks, but it was taking way too long. I'll just make a few comments, since I don't normally deal with professional songwriters. My rudimentary understanding of how the business worked is this: songwriters, usually working for a publishing company, recorded demos of their songs. These demos would often be just guitar or piano with one voice. The publisher would then send these out to interested people (record producers) in the hopes that they would record it, and both the writer and the company would make money. Not all professional songwriters were bad, although the field is littered with hacks. Most of Motown's catalog was written by songwriting teams, and songwriters are responsible for a great portion of pop. Sometimes they had enough talent to become performers - Carole King is the quintessential example, although Lou Reed falls into this category as well.
Veterans wrote most of the songs on this album, which does not make them less bad. The guy who wrote "Under the Boardwalk" shows up collaborates with the person responsible for Barry Manilow's "Mandy", with "Cool It (We're Not Alone)" resulting. Chip Taylor may be famous for writing "Wild Thing", but not the "Anyway That You Want Me" on this album. The point I am trying to make (with this paucity of examples) is that songwriting appears to be hit or miss if you are the songwriter. Too much is outside of your hands - the artist's talent, the production, the marketing. Some of these people have hundreds of songs registered, although you may only recognize a couple. I think there may be too much of a disconnect to have a real steady stream for many songwriters, unless they are part of a large stable system like Motown. If you are in a band, or are a solo artist, you have a say on how your idea is actually presented. Otherwise if you do have some innate talent like Carole King, it may not show up when presented by a band like the American Breed. Instead, it will blend into the song by a guy with a recurring role on the Rockford Files (Stuart Margolin, who co-wrote "Welcome, You're in Love" on the album). There might be good songwriters (or just good songs), but underneath them it falls on the talent of the band.
Oh, and Eddie Higgins's first name turns out to be Haydn. If I were named Haydn, I would probably use another name too. Can you imagine being a kid named Haydn?
Them: Are you Haydn?
Them: Then how come I can see you? (stupid adult laughter).
Them: What's your name?
Lonely Side of the City (1968)
Three albums in one year, huh. I'm sure this is high quality stuff. One last interesting tidbit - the band later evolved in Rufus (featuring Chaka Khan).
The Cryan' Shames
Sugar and Spice (1966), **
Boy, somebody likes the Byrds. The Cryan' Shames sound like a local Byrds cover band, which makes sense for mid-1966. They don't do anything silly like play the hits, but "We'll Meet Again" and "She Don't Care About Time" are played outright, and the band's entire approach is Byrdsian. Fairs does a good McGuinn impersonation on 12-string, and the group has their harmonies down, but why listen to this when can listen to the original? To be fair, it's not all Byrdsian; the band covers other top acts - Beatles ("If I Needed Someone"), Motown ("Heatwave"), the Leaves ("Hey Joe"), Animals (an odd version "We Got to Get Out of This Place" with an unfunny spoken intro, and possibly overdubbed crowd noises). Even the fun, bouncy title track was a Searchers hit from 1963. There are some good signs here - the band plays well together (as expected from a cover band), and lead guitarist Jim Fairs penned four tracks. His work is at average pop-rock ("I Wanna Meet You", "We Could Be Happy"), but "Ben Franklin's Almanac" is a small step beyond their Byrds copying. It's still quite Byrdsian, but more rocking, as the rhythm guitar plugs away at a Bo Diddly beat, and Fairs allots himself a nice solo spot. He is, well, at least fair, at lead guitar, although nobody else in the band really stands out. Again, they were probably fun to see live, but only a substitute for what was readily available. So, there really isn't anything original about this album, unless you include the guy with a hook (Jim Pilster aka J.C. Hooke) for an hand playing tambourine. Although that may be enough for some. The rest of the band is Dennis Conroy (drums), Tom Doody (lead vocals), Dave Purple (bass), Gerry Stone (guitar).
A Scratch in the Sky (1967), ***
Just like scientists posturing the existence of an unknown particle, or a planet through gravitational pull this had to be out there - a Chicago psychedelic pop-rock album. Okay, maybe you didn't, but it exists and if you accept the fact that the Cryan' Shames never had an original idea in their entire lives, you'll enjoy this album. They key is that Fairs and new bassist Larry Kerley do a great job writing hooks, coming up with catchy melodies, and getting the group's vocal harmonies into . Instead of the Byrds, the Chicagoans now echo West Coast harmony groups like the Beach Boys and the Association, as well as British psychedelia. So, the group gathers up every conceivable instrument they could play, and goes on a psychedelic pop-rock binge. This isn't a masterpiece by any means, but it's more cutting edge than Paul Revere and the Raiders ever got. The band's flexibility is apparent, from happy little tunes "The Town I'd Like to Go Back To" and the cosmopolitan "In the Cafe" to more Beach Boys influenced songs like "It Could Be We're In Love." The group has enough chops to successfully venture into more rock territory ("Sunshine Psalm" and the humorous "Dennis Dupree from Danville") and their psychedelic jams are rather, erm, pretty (the intricate "The Town I'd Like to Go Back To"). The main thing is that there's just a pile of fine pop songs such as "A Carol for Lorelei", "In the Cafe", "Cobblestone Road" and the tripped out "The Sailing Ship" among those already mentioned. Sure, there's plenty of outright copying: "Mr. Unreliable" is a fine Beatles knockoff and "I Was Lonely When" bears an frightening resemblance to a Marty Balin led Jefferson Airplane, and there's an unnecessary cover of the Goffin/King "Up on the Roof". The main thing is that the band's playing is credible and detailed enough to enable the Fairs/Kerley songwriting team to present all this without it coming off as crude. Isaac Guillory (guitar) replaced Stone as well. If you like psychedelic pop-rock (or think you might) check this out - it's rather good, even if unoriginal.
New Colony Six
This is reportedly one of the key Chicago albums, as the New Colony Six were a organ-dominated punk band at this point.
Attacking a Straw Man (1969)
The Shadows of Knight
Produced by Bill Traut.
Backdoor Men (1966)
Shadows of Knight (1969)
Illinois Speed Press
Illinois Speed Press (1969)
Sometimes it's easier to write about a "scene" if a city's bands share common traits. A well known example of this is Detroit, which cranked out a pile of loud, heavy, and generally high quality bands. But what about Chicago? The then 3rd largest city in the United States did foster a particular musical sound for rock music. The problem is that this sound is more pop-rock, with horns and the like. Yes, this was the city of the The Cryan Shames, The Buckinghams, The American Breed, none of which really lasted beyond the late 60s. But even promising talents like garage-rockers The New Colony Six later ruined their reputation with a string of sappy singles, and the Shadows of Knight wound up working on bubblegum. Just like some East Coast bands, it seems that most more serious sounding Chicago bands left if they found initial success (Chicago (who also devolved into pop), The Flock, H.P. Lovecraft). But, what is Aorta? It's best described as English-influenced psychedelia seen through a Chicago pop lens - i.e., rock with strong pop leanings and orchestral overdubs. There's a veritable laundry list of psychedelia on here, as the band attempt to create an American Sgt. Pepper's perhaps. Strange repeating linking tracks? Check - 4 separate tracks called "Main Vein" generally repeat the phrase "Have you ever wondered what it is? It's your main vein." Tracks all run together? Check. Strange sound collages? Check. Buzzy psychedelic guitar? Check. Bizarre drug-induced lyrics? Check. Don't misunderstand - the band does some of these things very well. Guitarist Jim Donlinger does a good job playing some trippy electric guitar lines on "Ode to Missy Mxyzosptlk". He and organist Jim Nyeholt wrote most of the tracks (although not together), which is a good sign. Nyeholt seems to be the in the traditional rock keyboardist mold. He inserts classical motifs into the music, plays a cathedral-like organ at some points (the ending to the otherwise fine "Sleep Tight", an early Lowell George/Russ Titleman composition), and commendably orchestrates several tracks. But, all of this is done with the traditional Chicago bent. The rhythm section of Billy Herman on drums and Bobby Jones on bass are decent, if rarely remarkable (the Mick Avory standard). While there's a lot on this album including overamplified triangle, an odd drum solo, telephones ringing - the band's stylistic experimentation doesn't always pay off. Sometime their psychedelia with strong pop leanings works - "Magic Bed" is a delightful romp through whacked out dreams, and the good "Strange" certainly reflects the Chicago heritage, featuring belted-out vocal harmonies and lyrics about "proving I'm a man," balanced by Donlinger's wily guitar. The psychedelic rock generally works - the panting before "Heart Attack" is nice touch to a good song, "Ode to Missy Mxyzosptlk" is excellent, "What's In My Mind's Eye" has an Eastern flair to it, and all feature nice work from Donlinger and Nyeholt. Trouble arises in the "Main Vein" tracks, and a gag-worthy lounge song that at heart lies closer to Chicago ("A Thousand Thoughts"). Of course, it wouldn't be a psychedelic album without a happy pop song with lush orchestration - a slot nicely filled by "Sprinkle Road to Cork Street", although it doesn't add anything new. Even more interesting are the jazzy underpinnings found in "Ode to Missy Mxyzosptlk" and Donlinger's solo section in "Strange", although not surprising given that this was the band from which Peter Cetera joined Chicago. Despite all the psychedelic bells and whistles the album is still produced like a pop album - Herman's drums get dumped in the center, and Nyeholt's orchestrations still resemble a pop producer's add-on ("A Thousand Thoughts" sounds like the Moody Blues' leavings). None of this overly surprising given that the album was co-produced by Donlinger and Bill Traut, who was working with pop groups like The American Breed at the same time, and later worked with (yuck) Styx. But while diversity is important and generally interesting with psychedelia the album has too many ideas, and not enough good ones making Aorta the sort of album that psychedelic fanatics will likely slobber all over themselves for, but everyone else will be unimpressed.
Reportedly, the album was released at the same time as Chicago Transit Authority, The Flock, and Illinois Speed Press by Columbia in mid-1969, in an attempt to push a "Chicago" sound. However, all the copyright dates are from 1968 in the album, so it might have sat on the shelf for over 6 months, making it dated upon arrival. The group recorded a follow-up, cleverly titled Aorta 2, and then broke up. Donlinger later joined Lovecraft, and now goes by the name of James Vincent. Herman joined a declining New Colony Six.
Chicago Transit Authority (1969), ***1/2
Wait a minute, Chicago? You mean that group who did those overwrought annoying ballads in the eighties? Yes, but let's not forget their brief string of success in the late sixties and early seventies, before they became soft rock schlockmeisters. A good portion of that aforementioned success came from their self titled first album, which mixed various styles in most songs. They got sued real quick by the real C.T.A. and changed their name to Chicago. They formed around the same time as Blood, Sweat and Tears, but didn't record until after that group made it big with the horn sound. Not surprisingly, James Guercio, who produced BS&T, produced this album as well, which rocks harder than expected. The big hits are all here - "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is?", "Introduction", "Beginnings" and the rest of the tracks are equally as good, which is a real surprise for a double debut album. Equally unusual is the lack of cover material - limited only to an OK rendition of Steve Winwood's "I'm a Man". The weak moments are guitarist Terry Kath's experimental instrumental "Free Form Guitar" (name says it all), and the 14+ minute instrumental live track "Liberation", which demonstrates that the band really could play well live, but Kath's guitar gets a little tiring after awhile. Robert Lamm (keyboards) is the dominant songwriter, picking up half the tracks. But the group really has their stuff down - the rhythm section of Daniel Seraphine (drums) and Peter Cetera (bass) are top notch, and Kath shows that American guitarists can play loud and well (the opening of "Questions 67 and 68"). The horn section is James Pankow (trombone), Walter Parazaider (woodwinds) and Lee Loughnane (trumpet). Produced by James Guercio.
Chicago II (1970), ***
After their first album Chicago decided they didn't want to be a rock band after all - they wanted to be a soft rock band. The parts are more equal, with the horns everywhere, no real long instrumental passages and Kath's guitar has been muzzled. They get softer (example - light flute solos), but they tend to experiment a lot, which is not always a good thing. The result is that they play around with the time signature a bit, add in a fake Sell Out style needle skip, and have a Pankow-written ballad (consisting of 6 tracks), a Kath written orchestrated piece (with 4), and the hideous political crap that is "It Better End Soon" in no less then 4 "movements". Just in case you didn't think they were pretentious they also add a "u" to the word "color". That being said, some of it's good, some of it's bad, but overall it's listenable. The opening jazzy numbers, "Movin' On" and "The Road", pull it off. Even some overtly pop works like "Make Me Smile" and the 70s prom favorite "Colour My World" have a certain charm. On the second half, "Fancy Colours" is 3/4 fun and "25 or 6 to 4" is the only time Kath lets loose. The album's closer "Where Do We Go From Here", itself good, makes you want to answer "Anyplace but this annoying soft-rock hell you seem bent on doing." Otherwise its filler galore! Interesting to note that the writing has really been split amongst the group, vs. the Lamm-dominated debut. Lineup remains the same.
I have some of their albums past this and I can summarize them real quick: Crap.