Music News

Chicago

Ask anyone, of any age, to name the first album she or he purchased, and you can bet that the disc mentioned will be cool: a brilliant recording that's truly stood the test of time. And do you know why?

Because people lie.

Okay, maybe some of them are telling the truth; they might have had older siblings who were able to steer them in interesting directions (I was the first-born), or they simply stumbled upon a future benchmark by sheer coincidence (no such luck in my case). But I find it difficult -- no, impossible -- to believe that every single music buyer on the planet aside from me started on a remarkably beautiful note. Otherwise, it makes no sense that the first recording I paid for all by myself, shortly after my eleventh birthday, was 1972's Chicago V.

Over the years, I've explained away this personal catastrophe in a variety of ways, most of them centering on my hometown of Grand Junction, whose sole pop-music station of the era would play Top 40 hits only if they were performed by Caucasians. I also point out that the second album I purchased was Stevie Wonder's Fulfillingness' First Finale, a great platter that somehow avoided being blacklisted, and my first cassette was the soundtrack to Superfly, which remains super-cool even today. But not until Rhino began reissuing Chicago's back catalogue did another possibility occur to me: What if, I wondered, Chicago V is actually terrific? An overlooked classic, perhaps. If so, that would make it even cooler than all those obvious classics everyone else boasts about, right?

No such luck -- although my first listen to the album in about three decades did contain some surprises. I remembered that "Saturday in the Park," the album's irritatingly catchy hit, included some really dopey, hippie-era lines such as, "Will you help him change the world?/Can you dig it? (Yes, I can!)" But I had completely forgotten that the other tunes were packed even more tightly with revolution-speak -- and none of it has aged well. "While the City Sleeps" laments that "Men are scheming/New ways to kill us/And tell us dirty lies"; likewise, "State of the Union" features a voice "in the darkness" crying "Tear the system down! Tear it down!" to the sound of sludgy jazz rock that wasn't even radical when it was new. Worst of all is the two-part "Dialogue," in which Peter Cetera and Terry Kath engage in the most banal political debate since the development of human speech. (Terry: "Does it make you angry the way the war is dragging on?" Peter: "Well, I hope the president knows what he's into.") Afterward, the band chimes in with an allegedly rousing call to arms: "We can make it better! We can make it happen!"

For Christ's sake. Where's a nightstick when you need one?

When the disc -- which sports three bonus tracks that weren't bonuses to me -- finally came to a merciful conclusion, I understood the bitter truth: Chicago V blows even harder than I feared. But at least I don't feel the need to lie about it. Can you say the same?

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts