Despite a controversial new remaster, the double-length debut of this legendary big band at its most experimental continues to reveal new shades of fancy colours a half-century later
Half a century ago, a scrappy, scruffy, iconoclastic young band of Midwestern hippies convened to release their first album.
Those who know Chicago best as unctuous purveyors of mind-numbingly bland ’80s power ballads may be shocked to discover the enormous distance between those sappy sounds and the band’s beginnings as Chicago Transit Authority.
Their guitarist Terry Kath, for instance, was hailed as an innovator by Jimi Hendrix, and amidst the giddy collisions of rock, jazz, and R&B, CTA’s first record included an extended avant-garde, non-tonal piece spotlighting those innovations, appropriately entitled “Free Form Guitar.” It’s all quite a ways from the later likes of “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re the Inspiration.” Fortunately, the 50th anniversary remix of that self-titled album arrives just in time to set the record straight about just how Chicago started out.
Not that there was anything wrong with the album’s original mix — it’s been serving just fine for the last five decades. But for this milestone, Rhino decided to spiff things up a bit. There’s no need to fret, though. Nothing drastic has been done to alter the sonic integrity of the recordings. It’s not as though Danny Seraphine’s supple, jazzy drumming is suddenly baked in ’80s reverb or anything. The new mix simply manages to make things cut through a bit more while still sounding like an album that was recorded in 1969.
With the benefit of hindsight, just as amazing as the contrast between early CTA and ’80s Chicago is the shockingly broad range of styles represented right here on the debut album. Only in 1969 could you have Beatles-influenced pop tunes like “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” barnstorming groove-based R&B cuts like the funky Spencer Davis Group cover “I’m a Man,” and the aforementioned “Free Form Guitar” on the same record without inducing some sort of aural whiplash.
AUDIO: Terry Kath “Free Form Guitar”
Another aspect of this period in Chicago history that often falls between the cracks is the fact that they were a solidly countercultural force, closely aligned with the political aims of the hippie-era youth movement. This is underscored by “Someday (August 29, 1968).” The date in the title refers to the notorious ’68 Democratic National Convention where police went wild on anti-war protesters. The song is preceded by a recording from that event, with the protesters’ now-famous chant “The whole world is watching.” The tune itself is sort of a rock variation on the theme of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” perfectly in tune with the spirit of the moment.
Chicago Transit Authority was, of course, also the world’s introduction to the mighty horn section of trumpeter Lee Loughnane, trombonist James Pankow, and sax man Walter Parazaider. Amid the countless lineup changes the band would undergo through the decades, the team that gave Chicago its signature sound remained intact all the way up till Parazaider had to hang it up in 2017 due to health issues.
Brass rock didn’t start with this album — Blood, Sweat & Tears and Sons of Champlin, for example, were already on the map by the time it was released. But in the course of their career, Chicago did more than just about anybody to define the way a dedicated horn section could work within a rock format. And much of that started right here, with Loughnane, Pankow, and Parazaider’s riffs on hits like “Beginnings” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” as well as their intricate parts on less ubiquitous tracks like “Listen.”
AUDIO: Chicago Transit Authority “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”
But for all the well-schooled musicality the band brought to rock, let’s not forget that they made their debut in the era of the almighty jam, when psychedelic improv was the way of the day. And on the album’s final cut, the live-in-the-studio “Liberation,” they prove themselves fully up to that task, cranking out a 14-and-a-half minute instrumental that quickly becomes a modal jam, tossing Terry Kath’s Hendrix-like guitar fireworks up against dashes of free jazz and funky syncopation for a feel not a million miles from Miles Davis’s early-’70s fusion outings.
So next time you’re dismayed by some saccharine track from the period when Chicago singer/bassist Peter Cetera became the Top 40’s favorite crooner, remember where the band began, and reach for the effective antidote of Chicago Transit Authority.
AUDIO: Chicago Transit Authority at the Fillmore West August 1969 (full set)