Review Summary: A landmark album fusing rock and jazz, Chicago Transit Authority was a progressive rock masterpiece way ahead of its time, one that would never be matched again, by Chicago or anyone else.
In 1967, Walter Parazaider (saxophone), Terry Kath (guitar), Danny Seraphine (drums), James Pankow (trombone), and Lee Loughnane (trumpet), fellow students at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, started a band with a grand ambition: to make rock and roll music with horns. Robert Lamm, a student at Roosevelt University, was also added on as a singer and keyboardist, and the group called themselves "The Big Thing", becoming a successful cover band of Top 40 hits, while also writing original material behind the scenes. Realizing the need for a tenor voice to complement Kath and Lamm's baritones, local tenor singer/bassist Peter Cetera was recruited into the group. In June of 1968, the band moved to Los Angeles, where the band changed their name to the "Chicago Transit Authority" upon the recommendation of band manager - and later producer - James William Guercio. With a record contract from Columbia secured, the group went to New York in January 1969 to spend four days in the studio to record their debut album. Much musical ground would be broken over those four days, and the music industry would change forever.
Peter Cetera - Bass, Lead Vocals on Tracks 4, 9, 11
Terry Kath - Guitars, Lead Vocals on Tracks 1, 9, 12
Robert Lamm - Acoustic piano, Hammond organ, electric piano, maracas, Lead Vocals on Tracks 2-6, 8-9, 11
Lee Loughnane - Trumpet, backing vocals, claves
James Pankow - Trombone, cowbell
Walter Parazaider - Woodwinds, backing vocals, tambourine
Danny Seraphine - Drums, percussion
"Jeez, your horn players are like one set of lungs and your guitar player is better than me." - Jimi Hendrix to Walter Parazaider
The first thing you notice about Chicago Transit Authority
is the heavy incorporation of horns, unlike anything ever before heard in popular rock music. The first track is aptly titled "Introduction", because it is an introduction to an entirely new style of rock music that hasn't been matched before or since; unfortunately, not even Chicago could match this sound in their many following albums, but that is not for this review to discuss. From the opening track of their debut, Chicago made it clear that they were playing a style of music that was distinctly their own - an innovative combo of rock, jazz, pop, RnB and classical. Aside from that, the band played with confidence and swagger, not holding anything back. In fact, the fact that they decided to record a double-lp as their first record indicated that they were oozing with confidence, and they played like it.
If Miles Davis was playing jazz that was leaning towards rock, then Chicago was doing the opposite; they were playing rock music that was leaning towards jazz. That perhaps explains why their sound would get mellower and more jazzy as the band progressed towards straight-up jazz fusion, but in 1969, Chicago was clearly a progressive rock band, highlighted by Terry Kath's searing guitar jams and solos which take on a life of their own on the second lp. On Chicago Transit Authority
, Chicago display a real wild psychedelic side with their horns, with lengthy jams that allow for much interplay among the band members, the first of which appears on "Beginnings", the track where this album really takes off and doesn't look back. The previous track, "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is"", became a chart topper in its edited form, reaching #7 on the billboard charts, but is really the most uninteresting song on the first lp. The rest of the first lp is rounded out by "Questions 67 & 68", "Poem 58" and "Listen", all of which have excellent horns, but Terry Kath steals the show with his excellent guitar work, particularly on "Poem 58", which also contains Seraphine's best drumming on the album.
The second lp is much more open and experimental, allowing for Terry Kath to showcase his magnificent guitar work and freestyle jamming ability, very likely what Mr. Hendrix was referring to in his comment earlier in this review. Starting off with the off-center avant-garde of "Free Form Guitar", Mr. Kath makes it clear that he has taken over, and his domination continues on the piledriving blues-rocker "South California Purples", which contains a Beatles reference about 4-and-a-half minutes in, but never mind that, the bluesy guitar, heavy bass and pounding drums and organ make this track a highlight of the second lp. The lone cover on the album, a pulse-pounding version of the Steve Winwood-penned "I'm a Man" - which sounds like it was recorded live - showcases the true power and energy of the group. After listening to this track, it's a hard to make a case that anybody played with more intensity and passion in the late-60's than Chicago. The organ and guitar fantastically complement each other, and this recording easily makes for the heaviest song Chicago has ever put out on record (Chicago as a heavy metal influence" In the late-60's, anything was possible). The next two tracks, "Prologue" and "Someday (August 29, 1968)", are politically-charged tracks that slow down the album quite a bit and allow your brain to rest for the epic finale, the 15-plus minute extemporaneous free for all "Liberation." The track starts with a bass and drum tempo that slowly builds up until the guitar cuts in like a buzz saw. Much experimental distorted guitar follows as Terry Kath proceeds to blow all of our minds. The drums are showcased late in the song, but the last impression the listener will have of "Liberation" is Terry Kath's awesome axe-work, very Hendrix-like.
Even if this record is not perfect, Chicago Transit Authority
is clearly Chicago's finest hour, an astonishing musical journey through the virgin territory of progressive-jazz-rock. For any fan of progressive rock and jazz fusion, or anyone who wants to expand his or her musical horizons, give this album a try. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.
This review is dedicated to the memory of the late, great Terry Kath (1946-1978), one of the greatest guitarists to ever grace the stage. A unique talent that will be forever missed.