Review Summary: Almost universally regarded as Chicago's breakthrough masterpiece, Chicago II ventures into many different musical directions. Rock, jazz, and classical tracks mesh with lyrics ranging from love to politics. Everybody will find something they like on this
In August 1969, Chicago
went to work on their second album. Their debut album, The Chicago Transit Authority
, released a mere four months earlier, broke much musical ground, and rock and jazz fans alike flocked to record shops to get their hands on a copy. However, the album didn't make a big dent in radio play (yet), so the band set back to the studio to record another album. The resulting album, which would not be released until January of 1970, is considered by many critics and fans alike as the band's breakthrough record, scoring the band three Top 40 hits on the Billboard Chart - "Make Me Smile" (#9), "Colour My World" (#7), and "25 or 6 to 4" (#4). As a result of the success of Chicago II
, singles from the previous album also hit the charts, including "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is"" (#7) and "Beginnings" (#7). The success of Chicago II
would establish Chicago as a dominant force on the Billboard charts, where they would remain a force throughout the '70s and '80s.
Peter Cetera - Bass, Vocals, Lead Vocals
Terry Kath - Guitar, Vocals, Lead Vocals
Robert Lamm - Keyboards, Vocals, Lead Vocals
Lee Loughnane - Trumpet
James Pankow - Trombone
Walter Parazaider - Woodwinds
Danny Seraphine - Drums, Percussion
As for the album itself, Chicago II
would prove to be much different than its predecessor. Whereas Chicago Transit Authority
was based on horn jams and guitar solos, Chicago II
operates in a much more controlled environment. Not only are the horns tampered down, but Terry Kath's guitar playing is nearly non-existent, with the exception of a few tracks, most notably Poem for the People
, In the Country
, 25 or 6 to 4
and the exceptional It Better End Soon
suite. However, Chicago trades improvisation for cohesiveness, as the songs on Chicago II
are much more consistent and friendlier to the average listener who does not have a prog rock-trained ear. This is something that most '70s prog bands ended up doing in the '80s, but since Chicago was the first to "sell out", they are forever villainized for their mutiny. That said, Chicago II
is still very much a progressive rock album, it just leans much more toward jazz fusion than its predecessor. In 1970, it was still cool for prog fans to listen to Chicago.
Side One opens up with Movin' In
, the first of five consecutive standard jazz-rock songs. "Movin' In" opens with all horns blazing before settling into its groove. The song is a lyrical statement, penned by James Pankow, that the group is here to stay and make some noise. The Road
is Peter Cetera's vocal entrance on the album. The horns and drums standout on this track, but the real star is Peter Cetera, as he turns in a showstopping performance, showcasing the golden pipes that would soon become an FM radio staple for decades. Poem for the People
is my favorite track of the opening five tracks. The tracks opens with piano, followed by horns and then drums. The tempo changes quite a bit throughout the track, and tasteful guitar is sprinkled in by Mr. Kath. Lots of Beach Boys
-style harmonies in the bridge and towards the end really make this track special as the horns take over just before the track fades. In the Country
is probably the most passionate song of this set, as a prominent bass takes over, and we finally hear a good helping of guitar playing in this sweet, rollicking ode to country living. Terry Kath and Peter Cetera share vocal duties and turn in a delicious performance. The sound of these songs is very much like the songs on their first album, minus the long jams and solos. Rather, these songs are much tighter in construction, featuring excellent horn sections and tight bass and drumming. Finally, we have Wake Up Sunshine
, which actually opens up Side Two, which features terrific vocals and harmonies from Robert Lamm and Peter Cetera along without standout horns and drumming. However, the tracks ends abruptly and is much too short.
We have now come to the highlight of the album, the thirteen-minute song cycle Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon
. Also known as the "Make Me Smile Medley", it was Chicago's first attempt at an extended song cycle, and is perhaps their most famous work. Two of the songs from the medley, "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World" were released as singles and are now regarded as quintessential Chicago pieces. "Make Me Smile" especially is an incredible tune with sharp vocals and intensity, all the instruments clicking on the same page. "Colour My World" is a slow ballad dominated by piano and Terry Kath's crooning. At the 2:00 mark, Walter Parazaider's now-famous flute solo takes over and sends the listener into a dream sequence. The flute also serves as a fantastic bridge into "To Be Free", which opens with horns and then a drum solo. The last song of the medley, "Now More Than Ever" is a reprise of "Make Me Smile", which ends with a last long chord and a wall of horns. The grand crescend follows typical progressive rock fashion.
begins with wind chimes that tickle the listeners ear before the horn section and Peter Cetera's excellent vocals explode onto the scene. "Fancy Colours" is an excellent song that is an album highlight, and remains a fan favorite many years later. Cetera's vocals give way to a funky guitar and flute section, joined by terrific vocal harmonies. The horns are showcased briefly before giving way to the guitar and flute once again. We hear the organ for the first time here, and Terry Kath's guitar finally breaks out of its shell, just in time for 25 or 6 to 4
. Now, everybody knows this song; it's probably everyone's favorite Chicago song. A thumping bass line reminiscent of Led Zeppelin
's "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" is joined by Peter Cetera's soaring vocals and some excellent soloing by Terry Kath. What follows next is a huge shift in focus on the album. The Memories of Love
suite is mostly orchestral with some really
torturous vocals from Terry Kath. Who does he think he is, Pat Boone"
At first, I wondered, what the heck were these guys thinking when they put these songs on the album" Especially after "Fancy Colours" and "25 or 6 to 4", it really kills the vibe that they were setting. It then occurred to me that these tracks must be an extension of the "Ballet". I have a very interesting theory on how all these songs connect, but since this is a review, it may be best if I refrain from telling you. Maybe we can start a discussion in the comments if you guys are interested. You can also share your own thoughts if you want to, I'd be very interested to hear your takes on the "Ballet" or the "It Better End Soon" suite.
Side Four begins with the It Better End Soon
suite, which is quite an impressive end to the double album. Mostly written by the politically outspoken Robert Lamm, the lyrics are a plea for peace, harmony and political sanity. The suite opens as an aggressive rocker that is very structured, and Terry Kath growing more and more exasperated with the failings of humanity - remember, the war in Vietnam was still raging in 1970. Walter Parazaider gets an extended flute solo as the band builds up the intensity to an emotional finale that contains a stirring flourish of horns. This suite more or less encourages revolution. To quote the album's inner sleeve: "With this album, we dedicate ourselves, our futures and our energies to the people of the revolution. And the revolution in all of its forms." Was it just a moral revolution that Chicago was championing, or was it an outright revolt" You can decide for yourselves. Finally, the album ends with the very first Peter Cetera-penned song in the Chicago catalog. While Cetera would later go on to play a crucial role in the writing of the band's music and their later style shift, Where Do We Go From Here"
is a well-written, but unimpressionable, song inspired by the moon landing and man's progress in technology, but the resulting decline in morals. One can argue that in an album full of big bangs, the band went out with a whimper. Perhaps they just didn't know how to finish this masterpiece.
While Chicago II
would be recognized as Chicago's breakthrough and their introduction to the Top 40 crowd, many listeners would be torn by this album. Chicago's Transit Authority
album was very edgy, loud and progressive, and was hailed as a hallmark of the underground music scene. Even to this day, fans of Chicago's debut bristle when they are asked if they are Chicago fans. "No, I'm a Chicago Transit Authority
fan", they quip. Many fans of their debut viewed Chicago as "sell outs" and quickly left the bandwagon. Nevertheless, Chicago began amassing record crowds with their new found success, which led to a gruesome touring schedule that would eventually end up severely taxing the band's members, particularly Terry Kath.
While many fans may have jumped ship with the release of Chicago II
, it is still universally regarded as a masterpiece by almost all who have listened to it. I can attest to this fact. I have a friend who is a concert pianist, and all he listens to is classical music. I'm trying to get him hooked on progressive rock, because I know that classical and prog share many improvisational qualities. Well, I gave him some Rush
, Deep Purple
and King Crimson
. No dice. I then gave him a copy of Chicago II
. He loved it! He said he played it over and over non-stop and couldn't get enough of it. He still gushes about it. If this album can leave that much of an impression on someone as traditional and conservative as that, I think that speaks volumes about this album.
Well, you're probably tired of reading this review by now, so I'll try to wrap this up in a few sentences. Chicago II
was the group's breakthrough album, establishing them as a strong singles band for years to come. But Chicago II
is more than just a few stellar singles surrounded by filler and fluff. Chicago II
is genuinely entertaining, a cohesive effort by a terrific band with serious musical chops. Now, I can't defend the absurdity of what Chicago would later become, and I can't make the claim that this album had a profound impact on the music industry as their debut album did, but I can say this: this is a really good album which many people enjoy. It probably marks the brightest spot in Chicago's history, the point when everything came together and life was just swell. This was a period of productive creativity for Chicago, and this music touched many people's lives. Now, if that doesn't get you to listen to this album, I don't know what will.