Believe it or not, there are rock critic circles. That's where pent-up, penned-in pop music detractors spew their spleens making fun of all the music that you good people manage to enjoy. Mention Chicago in such ellipticals and you get a head-for-the-hills reaction akin to Typhoid Mary with horns, and I've never fully figured out why. Maybe it's the Roman numerals they despise, because it reminds them of the Catholic Church. Or those damned '80s ballads with David Foster and Diane Warren ("Look Away," indeed). Or maybe some critics got their asses whupped to Herb Alpert as a child and have hated the beat of the brass ever since. But what these laggards won't tell you is that they do in fact own several Chicago albums. Number IX, certainly. Everyone alive since the invention of wax owns that one. They might even fess up to owning a copy of VII or XI stashed at their ma's house.
You might ask, "What has Chicago done for us lately besides release countless greatest hits collections, a big-band album, a Christmas album (the suitably named Chicago XXV, just like Jesus' birthday) and a live album, only their second in 35 years?" Consider that they've been together longer than the careers of the Ides of March, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Madness and your precious Baha Men combined. If you hadn't let your subscription to International Trumpet Guild Journal lapse, you'd not only know what kind of mouthpiece Chicago trumpeter and flügelhorner Lee Loughnane uses, but also that the Chicago horn section has been together longer than any other section in the history of music.
And as that live album you so dutifully dismissed named Chicago XXVI proves, this band can still blast your sorry ass clear across the room and rock the rock in a live setting. Even a limp '80s ballad like "Hard Habit to Break" suddenly tramples out of the speaker like it could do someone bodily harm once the horns kick in. Just listen to how Robert Lamm, or whoever says "I'm addicted to you, babe," says "I'm addicted to you, babe." We're talking chills -- better than hearing Lou Reed pretending to still jones after demon heroin, better than any 12 current junkstars you can round up and turn harsh lighting on.
That the last handful of albums didn't sell in quantities befitting a legendary band can be chalked up to the fact that since 1995, Chicago the band has been Chicago the short-lived record label. Staying in the business this long, the group's Columbia masters reverted back to them after 25 years and it was their responsibility to keep their music in stores, something Chicago Records didn't quite manage, as anyone who tried buying a Chicago Greatest Hits this Christmas could attest to.
"I guess you can call that mismanagement," chortles the amiable Loughnane, who penned the band's hits "Call on Me" and "Together Again." "When we had the record company, we got bogged down with trying to run it. You try to get distribution and the other countries want to put out a greatest hits package. So we've become overrun with greatest hits packages. That's going to be rectified through Warner/Rhino. I don't know how quickly they'll [rerelease the band's catalogue], but they'll digitally remaster and change the packaging on all that stuff."
After 35 years, one burning question remains: Was there ever a Chicago album cover where something inappropriate was molded in the shape of their infamous logo? Like a nipple ring or some raw sewage?
"No," says Loughnane, laughing. "We never had any babies chopped up in the shape of the logo, no umbilical cords twisted around. No rejected cover ideas."
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