Chicago: Chicago III (1971) by Ben Miler
Chicago was a band that really threw their credibility in the crapper with those cheesy ballads. Peter Cetera obviously laying a lot to blame, many of their cheesy hits, if they were not necessarily written by him, they were sung by him.
You can be thankful in the early ’70s Chicago had so much better to offer. Although it’s easy to get scared off even by these early albums mainly because they all sport their cheesy trademark logo (Chicago Transit Authority aside, although you can still see elements of what would become their trademark logo). I really felt as Chicago later went the route of Genesis or Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship, each group had major success in the mid ’80s, receiving lots of money, but sacrificing creative credibility to do it. 1969’s Chicago Transit Authority proves that the group had plenty to offer without the commercial restraints that would later bind themselves into with an often aggressive bluesy sound on many of their songs, with Terry Kath allowed to stretch on his guitar, sometimes showing that Hendrix influence (Kath openly admired Hendrix and he never hid that fact). Their second album, just called Chicago (1970) (after a shortened name change to just Chicago after some legal wrangling with the real Chicago Transit Authority, the city’s public transportation system) was a mellower album over all, more emphasizing the horns and less of Terry Kath, with some experimentation with classical, and giving us three popular hits with “Make Me Smile”, “25 or 6 to 4” and “Colour My World” (strange an American band would spell the British way, again, spelled that way on “Fancy Colours” off the same album).
Next year comes yet another double album, Chicago III, and proved that Chicago still had plenty to offer, and avoiding those cheesy ballads that the band was later famous for. They went for a more eclectic approach (meaning they were all over the place), some of the cuts you might have a hard time believing it’s Chicago! There’s an often more experimental approach as well, and Terry Kath gets more time than their predecessor, and even the blues influence of Chicago Transit Authority had returned. “Sing a Mean Tune Kid” has a rather funky feel, with an extended solo on electric piano and guitar, with a rather jazzy feel. Robert Lamm’s “Loneliness is Just a Word” is a fantastic jazzy piece, showing Lamm’s organ work, and no denying it’s not played in 4/4. Peter Cetera’s “What Else Can I Say” has a country feel, complete with steel guitar, but it’s more country rock. Strange for Chicago. Then comes Robert Lamm and Terry Kath’s “I Don’t Want You Money”, which is a blues song, with Chicago’s trademark horns dominating, but giving it sound more that of a British blues band (like what Savoy Brown did on their 1970 album Raw Sienna, they incorporated Chicago-like horns with their British blues sound on that album). I wouldn’t be surprised if they were inspired by very early Jethro Tull or Raw Sienna-era Savoy Brown on “I Don’t Want Your Money”. Next is “Travel Suite” divided into several movements. “Flight 602” finds Chicago sounding much more like Crosby, Stills & Nash than you can ever imagine, right down to Graham Nash-like vocals. The lyrics deal with homesickness and the difficult life on the road. Drummer Danny Seraphine gives us “Motorboat to Mars”, which unsurprisingly is a short drum solo. Next is “Free” which is probably the most familiar song, as it received some radio airplay. It’s a rather short piece, but a highlight for me. Terry Kath, Robert Lamm, and Walter Parazaider gives us the highly experimental “Free Country”, featuring Parazaider’s flute work, plus use of vibes, and musically it reminds me a bit of King Crimson’s more experimental work (it’s almost like Chicago’s own “Moonchild”, but nowhere as lengthy). Lamm’s own “At the Sunrise” has a more pop-oriented feel, while “Happy Cause’ I’m Going Home” (also written by Lamm) has a rather extended us of electric piano, this song does overstay its welcome a bit, but hardly weakens the album. That ends “Travel Suite”. “Mother” is another fantastic highlight, showing Chicago at their best with great horn and vocal arrangements. “Lowdown” is the other song (besides “Free”) to receive radio airplay, unsurprisingly more pop-oriented, but has some interesting twists so not to be like later Chicago. Terry Kath gives us “An Hour in the Shower” suite, which is basically “A Hard Risin’ Morning Without Breakfast”, “Off to Work”, “Fallin’ Out”, “Dreamin’ Home”, and “Morning Blues Again”. This all has an oddly Southern rock feel, having more in common with the Allman Brothers than Chicago. Told you how this album was all over the place, and how this group succeeded with flying colors. Then come the side-length instrumental suite “Elegy”. Starts off with some spoken dialog, some medieval-like fanfare on the horns, before starting off with some mellow flute-dominated passages, then the sounds of horns blowing like the sound of Chicago (the city) traffic, and some highly experimental passages, before Terry Kath starts giving some guitar solos, as well as horn solos from James Pankow and Lee Loughnaine.
Really, this is probably Chicago’s most underrated and overlooked of their early albums, but full of great material, and certainly one of their finest, in my opinion!
– Robert Lamm: vocals, organ, piano, ele