Fifty years ago I was just six years old. I was growing up in Sydney, Australia. The major music landmarks of 1969 in the United States were worlds away. Yet this year I will find myself preoccupied with many anniversaries of great albums and monumental events. Woodstock, for one, and Crosby Stills & Nash, Sweet Baby James, Morrison Hotel… and today I am thinking about Chicago Transit Authority.
I might not want to see Chicago in concert again, as stated here last year, and I might not play their albums as often as I used to, but if the social media news feeds remind me that today is exactly 50 years since the release of what I still deem to be the greatest debut rock album of all time, then I should pay tribute to that.
Especially as I spent time today with my dear friend Nanette, whose Terry Kath devotion brings her to LA now and then to make pilgrimage at famed Kath and Chicago sites, and in so doing brings that band I loved so deeply for so long back to the forefront of my mind and my heart. Driving up the Pacific Coast Highway today to meet her for lunch, and on the way back home, I played Chicago Transit Authority. What an amazing, a truly magnificent album it was and still is. Robert Lamm, who wrote most of the songs on it, might assert that his more recent solo work (more recent meaning from the past 20 years) is superior musically or lyrically to his early Chicago compositions, but to that I just say, nah, sorry Robert, much as I adore the Subtlety and Passion album of 2003, there is nothing as startling and spine-tingling as “Someday”, the musical riposte to the horrific events during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when anti-Vietnam War protesters were beaten and arrested by police, that you and James Pankow wrote on CTA.
Twist and turn your head around
‘Till everything’s unclear
Twist and turn your arm around
Until it is not there
And they’d love to burn you
Or at least to turn you around
Now you know what I mean
Nor is there anything quite as bleakly bittersweet as your ode to broken hearted blues turned purple in the chilly LA winter in “South California Purples”.
Cloudy every morning
Sun don’t never shine
Cloudy every morning
Sun don’t ever shine
Since I lost my baby
I been losing my mind
And your put down of any audience member not getting it, not feeling it, not realising what groundbreakers you were, when all you want is for people to “Listen”.
If you don’t understand it, no no no no
You got to try to fly
And don’t you put me down, please
For creating beyond your mind
I said all you got to do is listen
And then there were those songs that became classics fairly quickly, songs you still sing today in that lineup you still call Chicago, because the songs, you say, are what people come to hear more than original players performing them. “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is”, “Beginnings”, “Questions 67 and 68”. Genuis songwriting. Gorgeous singing from you and Peter Cetera. Mindblowing guitar solos from Terry and pivotal drumming from Danny Seraphine and horn lines from James, Lee Loughnane and Walter Parazaider that I still sing my heart and soul to. Yes, those songs, some of the best, most brilliant works you ever created. It’s okay, you know, to have given the world such great work at such a young age. And to stand alive and healthy 50 years later because those songs made you the success you’ve been all these years. Not too shabby at all.
It was the beginning of Pankow’s glorious songwriting career, offering the closing instrumental “Liberation”, which jumped, indeed flew with huge crazy improvisational wings off the vinyl, and while Kath’s contributions were just two tracks, what tracks they were.
For all the indulgence of his “Free Form Guitar”, which I have never felt qualified to have a view on, the fact is that the first track on the first side on the first album by Chicago was a monumentally breathtaking, arresting, impassioned plea for consideration, Terry Kath’s “Introduction”.
Hey there everybody
Please don’t romp or roam
We’re a little nervous
‘Cause we’re so far from home
So this is what we do
Sit back and let us groove
And let us work on you.
All these albums and lineup changes and performances later, this first album stands as a master work, one I would take with me to the desert island, powerful, riveting, raw, blistering, perfectly imperfect.
I wrote about it for a column in The Courier-Mail newspaper more than 20 years ago. It was my calling for many years back in Australia, through my journalism and my weekly radio program, to educate people about Chicago, because the band had – and still has for many – an unfair reputation as a soppy eighties power ballad band. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction three years ago put paid to that and until recently so did their live shows. Things aren’t the same nowadays, but this album will always sound exactly the way it did when it first came out on vinyl in 1969.
To those who bought it that year and still have it 50 years on, I defer to you. My copy is from 1978 or so. It’s in perfect condition. But I don’t have a turntable to play it on so the digital replica of the remastered CD is what I played in my car today. And that was just fine. Happy Anniversary Chicago Transit Authority!