Tuesday, January 12, 2010

SONG #68: Questions 67 & 68


OK, so I totally cheated. It's not a "68" coincidence. So what? It's my blog. Deal with it.

This track comes from Chicago's debut album, released in 1969. I love this first Chicago record. It's big and bold and weird and groundbreaking; nothing sounded like it in rock music before it came out. Combining complicated horn charts with a classic rock rhythm section, the first album features both late-60s jamming and some very catchy songs. Some of it doesn't work and hasn't dated well, but about 3/4 of it does, its heart is in the right place, and it suggested an exciting new band with a lot of potential.

That did not turn out to be the case. The second album, Chicago II, has about fifteen minutes of good material, and then... well... you can fit the rest of Chicago's worthy music in your pocket. Since 1973, pretty much all of the band's catalog is disposable. Here is a band with a window of about four years of interesting music, and 36 years (and counting) of schlock. How does such a thing happen? Guitarist Terry Kath died in 1978 (in one of the most sadly senseless self-inflicted deaths of all time, shooting himself in the head with what he thought was an unloaded gun after ALREADY shooting himself in the head FIVE TIMES with another unloaded gun), but the band had already descended into lite-rock hell by then. Perhaps the key is Peter Cetera-- the band's bassist and a terrific musician, he does not become the band's principle songwriter until the mid-70s. Robert Lamm, who basically wrote the first three albums, stepped aside, and Cetera's pandering, simpering ballads became the band's calling card. Cetera, of course, left the band in the 80s for solo fame with EVEN MORE INSIPID material! It's hard to believe that Chicago was actually giving his work a hard edge. Who knew we'd look back at "If You Leave Me Now" and think, "Wow-- that's pretty dark for a Cetera track!" Why is there so little nostalgia for 80s music? Take a look:


As I think on it a little more, is there any other band whose catalog stands up so poorly to its first album as Chicago? We'd need to find a band who, upon looking at its discography, we could say about its albums "Great, Good, Fair, Bad, Bad, Bad, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful." What other band got to make thirty terrible major label albums? It's truly an amazing feat.

But buried back behind all that dreck is one great album, with a bunch of great songs, including this one, which I've loved ever I first heard it on the radio as a kid. I love the mix of these early Chicago songs-- everything is so BIG! The vocal, the horns, the bass, the drums, Kath's solos-- how do they keep it all together?  It's a remarkable job of balancing at least four different harmonic components.  I've always thought that this song sounds like "happy"-- that "I won tickets to Supertramp**!" happy or "Apollo! Apollo!" (any 30 Rock fans here?) happy. It's the sound of exuberance. When Cetera sings "Can this feeling that we have together?," it makes me want to lift my arms over my head and sway them back and forth, Hair-style.

Like so many late 60s / early 70s songs, it's a full 45 seconds before the vocals start, so we've already had a chance to soak in the sound of the band, especially Kath's guitar playing. There is a cult surrounding Kath these days, believing that he was the equal to Hendrix and that, had he lived, he'd be talked about in the same hushed tones as Clapton and others. I think he was both too off-beat a player and also too much of a follower for that to have happened. I love his playing, and his solos here are terrific. (Check out "South California Purples" sometime for some of his best work.) At the same time, he stayed in a band that betrayed his talents and underused him tragically, so it's hard to see him leading a musical revolution.

My favorite part of the song is the horn break in the middle. First of all, what a killer horn section! Have you ever played live with a horn section? Let's just say that they don't make tuners for horns, and you can tell a lot of the time. The Chicago horns are bright and locked in and musical-- they kill it all the way through the tune, including an awesome doubletime groove break at 2:45 where they play what sounds like the theme to a groovy 70s TV show about two guys who are cops by day and bartenders by night.  The horns give way (barely) to Kath, who blazes until the vocal comes back in.  I love that you can't hear the vocal at first because everyone is playing so loud over it-- it's classic first album overplaying.

As for the lyrics? Who the hell knows. They're pretty hysterically nonsensical. I await some snarky responses below as to what Questions 67 and 68 actually are-- don't let me down, readers!

Chicago is still going, and is still frequently numerically naming their albums (coming soon: Chicago LXXXIV: Music to Gum Food To). What a mess-- the band goes out and performs the Cetera-penned schlocky ballads without him. I think that when musicians die and are found to have lived a purposeless, selfish life, they have to spend time in purgatory playing in a Chicago tribute band that only plays the band's 80s and 90s output. They're called Peroia.

A final note: while I'm tempted to make Song #69 "Goin' Down," that's just too easy a joke, and I'd never stoop to such base levels of humor.

It'll be "Shaft" by Isaac Hayes instead.

LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3NMszrfjio&feature=related

** that's two references in the blog to Supertramp, if you're counting, tying them with Zora Neale Hurston.

P.S. Credit to the 20,000 Songs Gal who, upon being subjected to this tune, said, "This sounds just like that Toto song." Gold star! Decide for yourselves: compare verse one of "Questions" to verse one of "Africa" (about 30 seconds in).


Always a good sign when your music is compared to Toto.


  1. This whole record suffered from pretty major Peter Cetera blowback for me. I so hated Cetera from his 80s work that I just couldn't stand the sound of his voice, even with less offensive backing tracks. I'm also not nuts about the horns on this song in particular. It is an almost motown arrangement, but there's something aggressively white about the horn sound, if that makes sense. The least offensive song on the record is the "I'm a Man" cover, but I don't think Cetera sings that one actually.

    Also agree on the Toto comment. And that's not a good thing.

  2. Everyone agrees that Chicago lost the plot at some point but there are differing opinions on exactly when. Some only like the first album, others think the first three are brilliant. Another blogger thinks that V is their overall best. Me, I enjoyed almost everything until Terry Kath died. Sure there were the ballads that radio loved but they were balanced out by rockers on the albums, and at least through the 70s the group still remembered that they had a horn section. After Kath died, though, it was all over for me. I took one listen to Hot Steets and knew it was time to move on.

  3. Comparisons to Toto are lazy and uninformed. Chicago V is a perfect record and not "awful" or "bad" by any stretch of the imagination.

    Chicago is the most snarkable band ever for cynical hipster pricks and some of that comes out here in the post and comments below. Rest assured the bands you love are hated by someone but Chicago seems to embolden haters more so than other bands. Perhaps its the facelesseness of the first few album covers. Anonymnity, however the f--k you spell it, makes hate easier. Political correctness also works against the band. They are white, mid-western, average guys and thus easy targets. No such vitriol and/or contempt for Stevie Wonder, whose so-called "music", particularly that abortion "Songs in The Key of Life" gets over-praised a la the prose of Kerouac, the intelligence of Obama, and countless other liberal sacred cows.

    There's more talent in the 3 minutes of this song than in the entire catalog of The New York Dolls but hipster is hipster and pop music is pop music, so Chicago, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and many other brilliant artists get contempt, condescension, and snark from sites like this while NY Dolls, Blondie, and all that shit gets worshipped.

    Incidentally, the title refers to a woman in Robert Lamm's life who incessantly questioned him about things.