Dr. Perry Alexander

The University of Kansas

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Chicago is among my favorite bands of all time. I started listening in junior high school, when through a time in high school when I wanted to be their trumpet player, and have never been able to sit still for Saturday In the Park. Very few bands that I listened to in 7th grade still appeal to me in any way shape or form. In fact, Chicago might be the only one.

For those of you born post 1990, you know Chicago as a ballad band that produced such Cetera sung hits as You’re the Inspiration and Hard Habit to Break. Slow dance inspiring love ballads that represented the section of every high school dance in the late 80’s when you actually got to stand and sway while touching your date. This is not the Chicago that I refer to. Not at all.

Starting off as Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago was a hard charging, politically active, self-described “rock band with horns.” Not a bad description, but I would call them a “jazz band with rock sensibilities and screaming guitars.” Along with Blood Sweat and Tears and Chase, the greatest of the horn bands. Every pep band in the world still plays 25 or 6 to 4 to appease the need for every trumpet player to scream out that staccato riff for one moment of fleeting fame. I digress…

Chicago was a great horn band whose albums far exceed their singles. Yes, those singles are great, but if you listen to Chicago II you’ll discover that Only the Beginning and Color My World and 25 or 6 to 4 are actually movements in a ballet. And what a ballet it is! Time signatures dancing from 3 to 11, amazing jazz, rock and classical licks juxtaposed, flute solos, astounding drumming. All juxtaposed in a way that belies the label “horn band.”

Sorry folks, music like this just doesn’t make it on the radio today. It just doesn’t. Mind you, there is great music being released, but not this kind of great music. When is the last time an album was released with voter registration cards in the packaging? Lyrics that implore youth to become politically involved? Chicago is a classic mix of politics, rock, horns, and brilliant vocals. You’ll also hear Chicago’s missteps right there with their best work. Somehow I find that refreshing.

If you’re looking for great Chicago albums, Chicago Transit Authority, II, V, and X are considered classics that I love to hear. Live at Carnegie Hall gets mixed reviews, but I like most of it. I much prefer the early stuff over the later stuff1. Also, don’t mess with the greatest hits albums or download singles. Often times what is Chicago happens between the hits or even between the tracks.

  1. Note that I don’t consider anything after Peter Kath died Hot Streets and later to be Chicago. Think The Rolling Stones without Jagger or the Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia. Might be good. Just not the same.