Monday, November 30, 2015

Chicago: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part I

On November 3, 1979, basketball great Bill Russell hosted "Saturday Night Live" in the third entry of that show’s misbegotten fifth season, and the musical guest was introduced as Russell’s favorite band: Chicago. (The show did feature one of the best sketches from that season: Russell coaching a high school team of white kids in “The Black Shadow.”) No one could have anticipated it at that moment, but it turned out to be a very awkward time to be celebrating Chicago. 

After charting 22 Top Forty hits throughout the 1970s, ending with “No Tell Lover” the previous January, Chicago was about to disappear from the charts for more than three years. The first song they played that night in New York, a cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” was a bizarre choice, having been a B-side for one of their first singles back in 1969. It didn’t even have the group’s signature horn charts; all those guys played little handheld percussion instruments instead.

The first phase of Chicago’s career was definitively over by then. They had released many pleasant if not quite Hall-worthy singles – “Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” the charming “Old Days,” the majestic “Questions 67 and 68.” “If You Leave Me Now” went to Number One on October 23, 1976, giving the band its only chart-topper of the 1970s.

Post-Bill Russell, the band spent three years in the wilderness, before deciding that “If You Leave Me Now” should serve as the template for the rest of the group's career. They finally returned to the charts with another solidly Adult Contemporary single, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” which spent two weeks at Number One in September 1982. From that moment on, jazz-inflected, horn-saturated pop was out, and Peter Cetera-soaked big ballads were in.

Cetera left the band in July 1985, which somehow goaded them into becoming even goopier, culminating in the egregious “Look Away,” the band’s third and final Number One single in December 1988. It’s hard to overstate how bad this record is. Lobo think it’s unmanly. Michael Bolton thinks the vocals are overwrought. Peter Gabriel thinks it’s pretentious. Dave Matthews thinks it’s poorly composed.

Chicago’s string of hits petered out in 1991, leaving the band with a very impressive track record of 35 Top Forty singles and 20 Top Tens. That’s as many Top Ten hits as the Supremes, and more than the Beach Boys. And if they were all at the level of “Questions 67 and 68,” or even “Alive Again,” they’d be an easy choice for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But it’s my judgment that the second half of Chicago’s career is without merit, even though I kind of like “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” I think I’m doing them a favor by pretending their career ended that night onstage with Bill Russell. And as nice as those early singles are to hear on the radio, they’re more on the level of the Steve Miller Band catalog or the Hall & Oates catalog than the Beach Boys’.

Baseball fans sometimes discuss whether it’s possible to play your way out of the Hall of Fame. If Albert Pujols hits .190 over the next three seasons, with 17 homers in total, does that detract from his case for Cooperstown? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know how you can play your way out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: record “Look Away.” With my deepest apologies to Kurt Blumenau, I’m going to have to vote NO on Chicago.


  1. Wow! I'm honored.

    I profess not to care about halls of fame, rock or otherwise, so I honestly don't have a strong feeling on whether Chicago belongs in the RnRHoF.

    But, for what it's worth, I am not sure they played their way out. I think the folks who run the place wouldn't have let them in based on the perceived unhipness of their '70s work, even if they'd split up when Terry Kath died.

    Walt Parazaider will have to content himself with enough gold and platinum records to tile Wrigley Field.

  2. Tom, what are your qualifications as a hall voter?

    Also, I mostly agree with you. Chicago was one of my all time favorite bands through VII in 1974. They still are. I can't get enough of those early records but after that they only had sporadic good to great moments, especially after Terry died.

    After that much of their work was hideous. XI was a fine album as was Hot Streets but after that they really may have played themselves out of the Hall.

    I know bands such as the Beach Boys sunk to all time lows late in their career too but they were also cultural icons, something Chicago never was so their transgressions are more easily forgiven and, of course, they are Hall worthy.

    As much as I love the original septet I'm not sure they belong because of what they became and still are.

    By the way, if you think "Look Away" is awful try "you Come to My Senses" from 21. It's even worse.

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  4. I spent several years as an editor at Rolling Stone, and have been writing about music on the Internet, both at my own site and more professional venues, for years now. This is sort of my most recent magnum opus:

  5. Interesting perspective on Chiicago. Who else will appear on your ballot! Janet Jackaon would be. Solid choice!


    01. Walter Parazaider (1967-Present: saxophone; clarinet; flute; songwriter)
    02. Lee Loughnane (1967-Present: vocals; trumpet; flugelhorn; songwriter)
    03. James Pankow (1967-Present: vocals; trombone; songwriter)
    04. Robert Lamm (1967-Present: vocals; piano; keyboards; songwriter)
    05. Terry Kath (1967-1978: vocals; guitar; songwriter)
    06. Peter Cetera (1967-1985: vocals; bass guitar; songwriter)
    07. Danny Seraphine (1967-1990: drums; songwriter)
    08. Laudir De Oliveira (1973-1980: congas; percussions; songwriter)
    09. Bill Champlin (1981-2009: vocals; keyboards; guitar; songwriter)
    10. Jason Scheff (1985-Present: vocals; bass guitar; songwriter)
    11. Tris Imboden (1990-Present: drums; songwriter)


    01. The Beatles
    02. The Rolling Stones
    03. The Beach Boys
    04. Chicago
    05. The Bee Gees

  8. Did you actually ask Lobo, Michael Bolton, Peter Gabriel and Dave Matthews about Look Away.

  9. Yes, we had brunch together over the weekend, then watched the Browns vs. Bengals game.

  10. Chicago is definitely going to be inducted in 2016. Chicago is this year's Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Beach Boys on the ballot. Chicago is the top selling and highest Billboard charting act on the nominees list this year. They will win the Rock Hall's fan poll and win the votes of the Rock Hall committee and past inductees.

  11. Chicago will win the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame poll and they will be inducted. Will Chicago finally get a Rolling Stone Magazine cover story? Will there also be a Rolling Stone Special Collectors Edition on Chicago? If so, should it just be the Chicago logo all over the front cover, staying in theme with all of Chicago's album covers?

    The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Bee Gees have all been on the cover of Rolling Stone, as well as having been given special collectors edition magazines made just for them. RUSH and KISS made it onto Rolling Stone Magazine after they were inducted. I think Chicago is next!

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    Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, David Foster, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, Al Kooper, Bobby Colomby, Barry Gibb, Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson, Al McKay, Jeff Lynne, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Shmit, Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Billy Joel, Sting, Gerry Beckley, Steve Lukather, Bobby Kimball, Alistair Ian "Ali" Campbell, Huey Lewis, Johnny Colla, Chris Isaak, Dave Matthews, Lenny Kravitz, Axl Rose, Slash, Chris Cornell, Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Tom Morello, Rob Thomas, Stephan Jenkins, Mark McGrath, Steve Malkmus, Trey Anastasio, Justin Vernon

  14. Chicago finishing # 1 in the fan poll is no surprise to me. Let me remind you who you are dealing with here! This is Chicago! Of the 15 nominees on this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot, Chicago is the number one all-time selling and charting act on the list. Chicago at # 1 makes sense!! Rock and Roll's Holy Quintet on the Billboard charts: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees, Chicago! Chicago will join the rest in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2016!

  15. Abba, Donna Summer and the Sex Pistols are in the Hall.
    But you quibble about this group? You can't be serious.

  16. If SNL's fifth season was misbegotten, then what does that make the following year?