Chicago Transit Authority (self-titled)

Opinion on what is surely one of the finest debut albums ever made tends to be somewhat polarised these days. Detractors of what eventually, sadly, unforgivably, metamorphosed into the ultimate slush-rock outfit simply ignore it; admirers of the earlier stuff who nonetheless try to distance themselves from the currently unfashionable genre of jazz-rock describe the band as a mainstream hard-rock quartet accompanied by a more-adventurous-than-average Memphis-style horn trio. In fact Chicago Transit Authority has real jazz in bucketloads, alongside blissed-out rock, blues, funk-soul and some wilful psychedelic oddness, particularly in the lyrics and occasional sound effects. And in this instance the mixture really does work.
The first thing that hits your consciousness is the bullhorn-brash confidence of this nascent outfit. Seven unknown but uncompromising musicians offer as their first recording a double album containing eleven lengthy tracks (and one short prologue). The staple fare is meticulously arranged songs, some of which contain enough modulations and changes of tempo to allow them to qualify as suites. Heaven knows how long they rehearsed to get their sh*t this tight, but they are that good and they know it. What other band had the chutzpah to include on its debut a seven-minute solo guitar piece comprising only electronic feedback, long before Lou Reed or Neil Young did so? No wonder the guitarist can be heard laughing into the amplifier mike half way through the piece. He’s not giving the finger to the record company; he’s saying, “this isn’t gratuitous noise, this is our art: make up your own mind whether it’s valid”.
All the musicians are excellent, but in particular guitarist Terry Kath can give Hendrix a fright in the sustain/widdling stakes (“Poem 58”: reportedly, Jimi rated him as a peer) and can perform a continually-inventive twelve-minute strut on the pentatonic comparable to Frank Zappa at his best (“Liberation”). Yes, the horns can throw in the choreographed stabs, but they show themselves capable of ambitious yet economical improv soloing (“Introduction”). Together, the septet move beyond finely honed jazzy pieces (“Beginnings”) through a bludgeoning riff-blues (“South California Purples”) to a latin-drenched drum solo (the fine cover of Steve Winwood’s “I’m A Man”), while the lyrics veer from hippy-dippy mysticism (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”) to abrupt political statement (“Prologue, August 29, 1968” / “Someday”). The latter segues seamlessly and intelligently out of the former, a location recording of a chanting civil rights crowd, to drum the message home.
Chicago’s second release was also a jazzy double album, but the experimental weirdness was gone, leaving only a more sterile virtuosity. After that, it was downhill all the way to “If You Leave Me Now”. Chicago Transit Authority stands as their finest.

Chicago Transit Authority

Opinion on what is surely one of the finest debut albums ever made tends to be somewhat polarised these days. Detractors of what eventually, sadly, unforgivably, metamorphosed into the ultimate slush-rock outfit simply ignore it; admirers of the earlier stuff who nonetheless try to distance themselves from the currently unfashionable genre of jazz-rock describe the band as a mainstream hard-rock quartet accompanied by a more-adventurous-than-average Memphis-style horn trio. In fact Chicago Transit Authority has real jazz in bucketloads, alongside blissed-out rock, blues, funk-soul and some wilful psychedelic oddness, particularly in the lyrics and occasional sound effects. And in this instance the mixture really does work.

The first thing that hits your consciousness is the bullhorn-brash confidence of this nascent outfit. Seven unknown but uncompromising musicians offer as their first recording a double album containing eleven lengthy tracks (and one short prologue). The staple fare is meticulously arranged songs, some of which contain enough modulations and changes of tempo to allow them to qualify as suites. Heaven knows how long they rehearsed to get their sh*t this tight, but they are that good and they know it. What other band had the chutzpah to include on its debut a seven-minute solo guitar piece comprising only electronic feedback, long before Lou Reed or Neil Young did so? No wonder the guitarist can be heard laughing into the amplifier mic half way through the piece. He’s not giving the finger to the record company; he’s saying, “this isn’t gratuitous noise, this is our art: make up your own mind whether it’s valid.”

All the musicians are excellent, but in particular guitarist Terry Kath can give Hendrix a fright in the sustain/widdling stakes (“Poem 58”: reportedly, Jimi rated him as a peer) and can perform a continually-inventive twelve-minute strut on the pentatonic comparable to Frank Zappa at his best (“Liberation”). Yes, the horns can throw in the choreographed stabs, but they show themselves capable of ambitious yet economical improv soloing (“Introduction”). Together, the septet move beyond finely honed jazzy pieces (“Beginnings”) through a bludgeoning riff-blues (“South California Purples”) to a latin-drenched drum solo (the fine cover of Steve Winwood’s “I’m A Man”), while the lyrics veer from hippy-dippy mysticism (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”) to abrupt political statement (“Prologue, August 29, 1968” / “Someday”). The latter segues seamlessly and intelligently out of the former, a location recording of a chanting civil rights crowd, to drum the message home.

Chicago’s second release was also a jazzy double album, but the experimental weirdness was gone, leaving only a more sterile virtuosity. After that, it was downhill all the way to “If You Leave Me Now.” Chicago Transit Authority stands as their finest.

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“Prologue, August 29, 1968”

:D CD Reissue | 2002 | Rhino | amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1969 | Columbia | search ebay ]
;) MP3 Album | download ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]


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4 Comments.

  • eddie

    have you checked out the old live concerts of Chicago on the Wolfgang’s Vault website? I’m not a huge Chicago fan but that one 1968-69 concert on there is really good. it’s free btw but you have to register

  • W. Stacy

    I have to, perhaps unfairly, draw the BS&T comparison.

    Both Chicago and BS&T maxed out on their sophomore efforts. By their third records they both began straying from the formula to incorporate a more friendly sound and both eventually morphing into bands completely different from their original concepts. However, I like both bands output for approximately the first five albums. Both bands’ fourth studio albums (BS&T 4 and Chicago V, cos IV was live) are among my favorite outputs.

    However, both bands’ debuts are also incredible—this one being a little more of a classic than Child is Father to the Man.

    And it really f***in’ swings.

  • Norman

    This is one of my all time favorite records. It’s hard to believe one album can have so many quality songs and, as you said, so much confidence. The fact that this is a debut is even more remarkable. I still listen to side 1 of the first disc the most, because I always want to know ‘What time it is”.

  • Brad

    How great to see this here. Just went and bought the mp3s at Amazon! I was in high school in the mid70s, bought Chicago II and Black Sabbath Paranoid as my first album puchases. Then got this, and the world changed. kath was my first guitar hero, and I still rank him with the greatest. How sad that he died so early. I’ve been listening to some old live shows, but cannot wait to ear this agan! Thanks!

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