Chicago Transit Authority: Brilliant Debut
There are few bands on the American landscape as popular and well-known as the group whose albums have almost all been named with Roman numerals (a few if Arabic numerals, too). And their mega-hits are pop staples everywhere: “Just You ’n’ Me,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Wishing You Were Here,” “Hard Habit to Break,” and “You’re the Inspiration.”
Chances are you might even know “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Beginnings.” We’re talking about Chicago.
So, just for a moment, forget all those other songs. Forget Chicago 19. Forget Chicago XXXVI. Forget the sweet pop stylings of this band that first formed in 1967. Let us take you back. WAAAAY back, to April 28, 1969, when Columbia Records released one of the best albums you may never have heard: CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY.
This was in the era of the rise of horn-driven rock. The Paul Butterfield Band was first with East-West in 1967, followed by The Electric Flag, the band Mike Bloomfield put together when he left Butterfield; their 1968 album was A Long Time Comin’. Both came from the blues perspective.
Two other horn bands debuted in 1969, wrapped around their respective female vocalists. The eponymous Cold Blood release featuring Lydia Pense in 1969 was followed by a 1970 masterpiece, Sisyphus. And Ten Wheel Drive’s first album, Construction #1, centered on the vocals of Genya Ravan.
The biggest name at the time belonged to Blood, Sweat and Tears, whose 1968 debut featured Al Kooper on keyboards and vocals, titled Child is Father to the Man; later in the year their self-titled sophomore effort introduced David Clayton-Thomas to the world.
Hey there everybody
Please don’t romp or roam
We’re a little nervous
‘Cause we’re so far from home
So this is what we do
Sit back and let us groove
And let us work on you
We’ve all spent years preparing
Before this group was born
With heaven’s help it blended
And we do thank the Lord
So if you’ve nothing to do
Sit back and let us through
As we play for you
Now we put you through the changes
And turned around the mood
We hope it’s struck you different
And hope you feel moved
So forget about your troubles
As we search for something new
And we play for you
That was how Chicago Transit Authority made their “Introduction” to the world, Track 1 on Side 1 of the original double album. C.T.A., as they were often abbreviated at the time, came roaring at us with a harder punch than those other bands. Over the course of 76 minutes, four album sides, and a dozen album tracks, we were introduced to a great rhythm section, spectacular guitarist, super horn section, and several engaging vocalists. The recording took place January 27-30, 1969.
(While touring on the album, the other Chicago Transit Authority sued, and thus the name was shortened to Chicago.)
It is impossible not to pay attention as Chicago comes at us with “Introduction.” Peter Cetera’s bass line is killer, interwoven with the drums and percussion of Daniel Seraphine. And those horns! WOW! Laid in on top of all that is this magical voice, a real rock voice courtesy of guitarist Terry Kath. Then, two minutes in, the song shifts to a tender trombone solo from James Pankow, followed by an equally loving trumpet feature from Lee Loughnane. The tension begins to build again, with Robert Lamm’s organ pulsing and Cetera’s bass line again rocking. Kath’s wailing guitar makes its first of many stunning appearances, followed by the amazing horn section and some brilliant work from Seraphine.
Most people are familiar only with the next three songs, truly unlike the remainder of the album. They are beautiful, starting with a lovely piano intro that got chopped off the radio version of “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” The song itself introduced us to the excellent vocals of Lamm, who handles most of the lead vocals from here out, sometimes with Cetera joining him. The backing vocals here are outstanding.
“Beginnings” is the tenderest of ballads, Lamm’s vocals perfect. The song is introduced by Kath’s acoustic guitar, then Seraphine’s bouncing drums and Cetera’s bass. The mixture of horns and backing vocals make this such a delight. Pankow’s horn arrangements throughout are exemplary, and the production of James William Guercio is spot on. Pankow solos at the end briefly, then Loughnane, as an army of percussion rises along with the first notable example of “Chicago vocals.” The “Only the beginning” vamp lasts almost a minute and a half before yielding to a percussion orgy for another 90 seconds. Of course, most of that got cut on the radio version as well.
The last of the songs most people know from this debut masterpiece is “Questions 67 & 68,” with Cetera and Lamm sharing lead vocals. A quick drum figure, horn fanfare, and guitar flash lead to the first stanza. There is a fine horn section feature in between vocals.
From here, things take a darker turn (in the very best way). “Listen” is a song many new bands could have performed in terms of message. Kath gets a fine solo in this short song.
If you think that we’re here for the money
You could be right, you know-ow-ow-ow
But the bread is not too good here
It wasn’t always like that, you know
I said all you got to do is listen
If you don’t hear what you can tell us
If it’s good you can tell us all
Or you can smile, that’s alright my friend
It could be so nice, you know
If only you would listen
If you don’t understand it, no no no no
You got to try to fly
And don’t you put me down, please
For creating beyond your mind
I said all you got to do is listen
And then “Poem 58.” They finally turn Kath loose of guitar, but be sure to pay attention to Cetera, because he is a monster, and Seraphine is right there with them every step of the way. Almost five minutes into this trio tune, it shifts to a wicked vamp, vocals bouncing from Lamm’s lead to backing chorus, punctuated by the horns. Kath delights again, the horns kill, and they close strong.
Many listeners (then and now) were simply not ready for “Free Form Guitar.” Here are the album liner notes:
* FREE FORM GUITAR was performed on a Fender Stratocaster guitar through a Showman amplifier equipped with a twin 15 bottom utilizing a Bogan P.A. amplifier as a pre-amp. No electronic gimmicks or effects were used in the recording of this selection, the intent being to capture as faithfully as possible the actual sound of the performance as it occurred.
If you were still not convinced of the genius of Terry Kath, “South California Purples” might do the trick. Kath pours out of one channel, then bass, drums, and organ out of the other, Lamm’s vocals, too. Enter the horns. DAMN! Lamm’s organ is dynamite. Later in the song, Lamm quotes “I Am the Walrus,” a nice touch.
“I’m a Man” is the only non-original on the album; this is the great Spencer Davis Group song penned by Stevie Winwood. Cetera gets the first nod, then Seraphine on drums, and percussion enters the picture early (Pankow, cowbell; Parazaider, tambourine; and Loughnane, claves), then organ and guitar. The moment Kath’s vocals surface, it’s all over. This is genius. Lamm and Cetera also sing. At 3:10, it’s Seraphine’s show with a phalanx of percussionists before Kath reinserts his guitar into the fray.
Those of a certain age can tell you exactly where we were during the summer of ’68: watching the Democratic National Convention unfold, devolve, and explode all over Chicago and televisions across the nation. WE WERE THERE. WE WATCHED. Mayor Richard Daly. The Chicago Seven. Julian Bond. Yippies. Grant Park. Police riot. Flower children beaten in the streets. In case we had missed myriad messages prior to this, it was now abundantly clear: America was ugly. The fourth side of the album tells the story brilliantly.
“Prologue, August 29, 1968,” from the album linear notes
** PROLOGUE, AUGUST 29, 1968 – Actual recording, Democratic Convention (Chicago, August 29, 1968). Black militants exhorting demonstrators: “God Give Us the Blood to Keep Going”; March begins; Police attempt to disperse marchers; Chant: “The Whole World’s Watching.”
That chant carries into “Someday (August 29, 1968),” a superb song with horns punctuating the apocalyptic tension, leading directly to “Liberation.”
*** LIBERATION – This track was recorded entirely live. The performance embodied in this recording is complete and uncut.
This is 14:37 of Chicago doing what they do best. Kath gets the main outing, in case he hadn’t abused his wah-wah pedal enough. He goes on an eight-minute romp, then gets spacey as the horns wiggle behind him. Suddenly, at 11:21, it goes quiet as they play a mellow tune which builds and builds and then re-explodes as Kath hollers with joy and Chicago climbs to the finish.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Chicago first introduced themselves to America and the world. They are acknowledged as the best-selling American band along with The Beach Boys. Get an earful of their debut!