Monday on the flight line, not Saturday in the Park

For the second time, my favorite rock group, Chicago, will play the opening-night concert at the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh Monday.

Unlike 2010, however, I won’t be there. It is basically impossible for me to be there since I now live about three hours to the southwest, and unlike most of my career before now, Mondays are marathon days at work. And my work doesn’t require an EAA media pass, so I have no professional reason to be there either.

I’m in this photo. Over by the stage.

The 2010 EAA concert was the third time I’ve seen Chicago.

The first time was in Madison (accompanied by much of the UW Marching Band) in 1987, and the second time was in Fond du Lac, when the group was brought in by a local radio station for a fundraiser, in 1997.

The EAA location, however, is the most unique place I’ve ever seen them — on the flight line, with the notes bouncing off airplanes. It’s not a typical music experience, but the opening-night concert has turned out to be one of the best additions to AirVenture.

Chicago is one of the best selling rock acts in rock music history, with 47.7 million albums, singles and music videos and more than $100 million sold, more than such acts as George Michael, Bob Dylan, Cher, the Beach Boys, Kiss, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, the Who, Santana, Foreigner and other rock icons.

Chicago is also one of the few rock acts of the ’60s and ’70s that continues to record and tour with at least some of its original members — trumpet player Lee Loughnane, trombone player James Pankow, saxophone player Walter Parazaider, and keyboard (and “keytar”) player and singer Robert Lamm. Chicago is not, however, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even though it should be.

Chicago is either the first or second, depending on how you measure it, brass rock group to get radio airplay. (The second or first was Blood Sweat & Tears.) Horns have been part of popular music for a long time, but Chicago was the first or second act to use horns as part of the melody, not merely as accompaniment.

The first Chicago song I remember hearing was “Just You and Me” in the early ’70s. The first time I saw Chicago was on an ABC-TV special taped at the Colorado recording studio/ranch where the group recorded at least one album.

I got hooked on Chicago a few years after that. It was at my aunt and uncle’s house, which included a reel-to-reel tape player on which my uncle had the entire 12-minute-55-second-long “Ballet for a Girl in Buckhannon,” which includes Chicago’s first released single, “Make Me Smile.” And he played it. Loudly. And as a middle school trumpet player, suddenly playing trumpet meant something. Our wedding 15 years after this included another part of “Ballet,” “Colour My World,” in part because it was part of one of Jannan’s sister’s weddings, but also because of who recorded it.

There are at least five versions of “Make Me Smile” in existence. The three-minute radio single version …

… is the first and last parts of “Ballet,” technically “Make Me Smile” and “Now More than Ever.”

WIBA-FM in Madison used to play “Make Me Smile” from the album and stop on the fadeout before part two. WLS radio in Chicago did a longer single version, initially played only on their airwaves, that combined “Make Me Smile” up to the second “Ballet Song,” that is also part of “The Very Best of Chicago: Only the Beginning,” which runs 4 minutes 25 seconds. Between WLS’ and “The Very Best” was my version, done on a cassette recorder (you remember cassettes, right?) that was about 4 minutes 25.5 seconds, because it included two drum beats that preceded “Now More than Ever” on “Ballet.”

Chicago’s second album, now called “Chicago II,” though it wasn’t at the time (the band’s original name, Chicago Transit Authority, got truncated because of a threatened lawsuit by, you guessed it, the CTA, which apparently didn’t care about nationwide free advertising every time the band got airplay), also includes “25 or 6 to 4,” a song about … writing a song …

… although it could be about filling a weekly newspaper in the middle of the night before production day:

Waiting for the break of day
Searching for something to say
Flashing lights against the sky
Giving up I close my eyes …

Staring blindly into space
Getting up to splash my face
Wanting just to stay awake
Wondering how much I can take
Should I try to do some more
25 or 6 to 4

Feeling like I ought to sleep
Spinning room is sinking deep
Searching for something to say
Waiting for the break of day

Anyone who played for a high school or college band should be a fan of Chicago. (That might explain the impressive age range of those attending the concerts, the upper end being, I assume, fans who heard their music in its original release.) The horns are not just an add-on like in the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”; they were integral to nearly every song, at least until the regrettable sappy ballad phase began with the band’s first number one single, “If You Leave Me Now.” Even in the ’80s, when excessive keyboards crowded out nearly everything else, Chicago still used horns more than any other rock or pop band.

The group’s songs incorporate two of the universal themes of rock and roll, love and rebellion, with ’60s why-can’t-our-world-be-better-than-it-is idealism, and, contrary to most other groups, what you could call observational songs, including “Saturday in the Park” and “Old Days.”

Chicago has a somewhat epic backstory. (Then again, what ’60s group doesn’t?) Pankow tells this story about “Make Me Smile,” which came from Chicago’s second album:

“I was driving in my car down Santa Monica Boulevard in L.A.,” Pankow remembers, “and I turned the radio on KHJ and ‘Make Me Smile’ came on. I almost hit the car in front of me, ’cause it’s my song, and I’m hearing it on the biggest station in L.A. At that point, I realized, hey, we have a hit single. They don’t play you in L.A. unless you’re hit-bound. So, that was one of the more exciting moments in my early career.

If you ever watched singer and bass player Peter Cetera sing, he sings without moving his jaw. That’s because he went to a Los Angeles Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium where, according to Cetera, two Marines took a dislike to him (hair? Cubs fan?) and broke his jaw. Since he was making no money while not singing, he sang through his wired-shut jaw, and ever since then, he hardly opens his mouth to sing.

Chicago played, and recorded albums from, concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Chicago also had a TV special, “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch,” set at the Caribou Ranch recording studio in Colorado.

Then singer and guitarist Terry Kath died in an accidental shooting incident.

A decade later, singer and bass player Peter Cetera left for a (sappy ballad) solo career, right about the time the group was descending into Sappy Ballad Hell.

(Ironically, Cetera’s replacement, Jason Scheff, who looks somewhat like and sounds a lot like Cetera, has been in the band longer than Cetera was.)

Yet, the four originals — Loughnane (whose last name I vow to use for the hero in a future novel), Pankow, Parazaider and Lamm — still play on the road.

That seems to be because, despite the road’s drawbacks (see Bob Seger’s “On the Road Again”), the concerts themselves are a blast to play in. (I learned from my five years in the UW Band and my 25 years out of it that I prefer playing in the band to watching the band. Strange.)

The four of them appear to be having the time of their lives almost five decades after the group began. That’s a really good indicator of how good a concert will be.

The other thing the band appears to have reconciled themselves to is what its fans want — the “old stuff.” The band is now up to 30 numbered albums, plus a couple of concept albums (Big Band and Christmas), so they are still occasionally recording new stuff.

Chicago fans were all atwitter a couple years ago when an unreleased album from the 1990s, “Stone of Sisyphus,” was finally released.

I don’t recall anything from it being played at EAA.

I criticize Chicago for getting away from their early sound. Others criticize Chicago for being popular, as if one cannot do good work and sell a lot of records. (Popularity does not always equal quality, but popularity doesn’t necessarily mean lack of quality, Britney Spears and One Direction notwithstanding.)

One thing Chicago has done since before 2010 is auction off a chance to Sing with Chicago — specifically, on “If You Leave Me Now,” through an online auction whose proceeds go to the American Cancer Society.

The only musical ambition I’ve ever had was, as you know, the UW Band. (Which tried to have Chicago perform with them the day of the Madison concert; unfortunately, the logistics didn’t work out.) The only Walter Mitty fantasy I have (similar to my father the piano player‘s getting to play with Bobby Darin and Ray Charles) is playing with Chicago, although the fantasy of being pulled out of the crowd to perform is, to say the least, highly unlikely. (I’m sure I could play all the Chicago songs I’ve heard, with the exception of the really high notes, but not right off the bat.)

Today, Chicago’s only radio airplay is on oldies stations. Keep this in mind, though: “The Very Best of Chicago: Only the Beginning” (which is currently trapped in my car’s CD player) went double platinum with no new music on it.

Since this post is already hellishly long already, I will conclude that Chicago is the band that … makes me smile.


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