By Brian Wise.
NOW MORE THAN EVER: THE HISTORY OF CHICAGO (NETFLIX & FILMRISE BLU-RAY)
There was a time when the band Chicago was alternative. Those who have only heard the saccharine hits of the past three decades might find that difficult to believe but it is true. Though the band’s last performance here some years ago was underwhelming, I recall a time when I saw them at Festival Hall, Melbourne in 1972 and they were almost avant-garde.
I must admit that I had to be restrained from walking out after they performed my favourite song of theirs, ‘Dialogue Parts 1 & 2,’ from the Chicago V album but I am glad I stayed. A forthcoming five-disc live collection contains plenty of tracks from that era (with one from the Australian tour) that will provide plenty of evidence that Chicago was truly a great live band.
Unfortunately, the two key members of the band who sang that song have since died (Terry Kath), pursued a solo career (Peter Cetera) or left (Danny Seraphine et al). However, co-founder Robert Lamm has kept the band name going and, as so often happens in America these days, a living can be made playing ‘heritage’ gigs, festivals and casinos. It must be working well because the band has a full slate of gigs until mid-year, including a season in Las Vegas.
This documentary traces the band’s roots from its humble beginnings through to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2016 but it really should come with an advisory that the film was not only produced by the band but also directed by Peter Pardini, nephew of Lou Pardini, the keyboardist who has been a member since 2009. This has a large bearing on the angle of the documentary and while it does cover the major events in the band’s history some of them are open to interpretation.
Former co-founder and drummer Danny Seraphine, who left the group in 1990, is not happy with the film, which he called ‘revisionist history.’ “The History of Chicago, my ass!” he wrote on Facebook. Seraphine has recently formed a band called California Transit Authority, a tribute band to the earliest period of Chicago’s music. That’s sticking it to his former band members in no uncertain terms!
Formed in 1967 in Chicago, Illinois, the band took on the name of the Chicago Transit Authority the band and released its first album – a double – in April 1969. It was produced by James William Guercio who had recently produced Blood,Sweat & Tears and convinced CTA to move to Los Angeles. Guercio was to figure prominently in the Chicago story and not always in a good way.
That first album featured a robust re-working of Steve Winwood and Traffic’s ‘I’m A Man’ (a live favourite) and the ballad that became their first chart hit, ‘Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?’ Apart from those songs, the album contained an intriguing mix of all the band’s influences: blues, rock, jazz and even classical. The line-up, which we saw just a few years later in Australia, featured Lamm on keyboards and vocals, Cetera on vocals and bass, Kath on guitar and vocals, Seraphine on drums and a horn section of James Pankow, Lee Loughnane and Walter Parazaider. It was just about the definitive line-up and one that I recall sounded fabulous.
The band worked hard to define its sound, playing at the Whiskey a Go-Go and The Fillmore West becoming friendly with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix (who claimed that Kath was “better than me”). By the time the second album came around they had shortened the moniker and created the distinctive logo that adorned their albums. Chicago, 1970, was the breakthrough reaching the Top 5 on the album charts and yielding three Top 10 singles: ‘25 or 6 to 4’, ‘Color My World’ and ‘Make Me Smile.’ By 1976 they had released 8 albums and Chicago X gave them the No.1 hit single ‘If You Leave Me Now.’ Eventually, the band would release 24 studio albums (and counting) and six live albums, selling over 100 million and charting 70 singles. That is major success by any standards.
Just like all good rock ‘n’ roll stories success was tempered by reality. Terry Kath, who by 1978 had severe drug and alcohol addictions, died playing Russian Roulette. In 1985, vocalist Peter Cetera left to pursue a solo career after the other band members refused to let him continue to work on his own projects as well as being in the band. James Guercio, who refused to be interviewed for the film, took advantage of a contract apparently gave him 51% of profits with the other 49% split between the six band members. It is a familiar story but one that basically left the band broke after which it was paid out by their record label, convinced that success was in the past. Other members either fell victim to the trappings of success or left.
Apart from record sales the band has received plenty of kudos and awards. In 2014 the Chicago Transit Authority album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame after the band had already won 5 Grammy awards (and been nominated another 14 times). In 2016 Chicago was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and last year Robert Lamm and James Pankow were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Chicago’s survival saga has enough drama to make this a very interesting film but probably not the whole story.