The Beach Boys are the most successful American band in rock history. But who’s Number Two? Go ahead, take some guesses. I’ll wait.
Hints? OK, they didn’t start out like a band that was going to rule the radio. Their 1969 debut album features live sound from the 1968 Democratic National Convention and a track called “Free Form Guitar.” Their first three albums were double-disc sets; the fourth was a four-disc live set. After 11 years and millions of records sold, their label sacked them. A year later, their first single on their new label went to Number One.
At the beginning, Chicago’s creative impulses were as pretentious as any prog-rock band you could name. Those first monstrously long albums frequently featured lengthy multi-song suites—there are two of them on Chicago II alone, “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” and “It Better End Soon,” which strikes me as an ironic title for a piece with five parts. But two parts of “Ballet” were excerpted for hit singles, “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World,” and by the time the suitemaking stopped (on Chicago V in 1972), the band had established itself as one of the premiere singles acts in the biz.
I wonder if Chicago’s practice of numbering their albums consecutively actually made those albums seem less important, like succeeding issues of a magazine and thereby somewhat disposable. The singles definitely were not. When “Beginnings,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Dialogue,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” and “Just You ‘n’ Me” were new, they were absolutely thrilling every time they came on the radio. (To this day, “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” remains one of the greatest records with which to start your radio show.)
The hits had already started to seem less monumental by the time Terry Kath accidentally killed himself in 1978. After that, the band broke with its past and released an un-numbered album called Hot Streets, which would have been Chicago XII. After being famously dropped by Columbia in 1981—a clear case of “what have you done for me lately” after seven straight singles missed the Top 10—they rebounded with Chicago 16 (weirdly enough, their 15th album) and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” which went to Number One in 1982. The 1980s were pretty good to Chicago, if not as good as the 70s had been—they hit Number One as late as 1988 with “Look Away.” But tastes changed in the 90s, and Chicago started flailing around, releasing a big-band album and a couple of Christmas discs. They continued to tour successfully, though— sometimes with the Beach Boys, which is serious value for your ticket dollar right there.
One of the weirdest moments in Chicago’s history was on your radio this week in 1986. The band released Chicago 18, their first album after the departure of Peter Cetera. Apparently to signal a new direction, they elected to remake “25 or 6 to 4” and release it as the lead single. In its original incarnation, “25 or 6 to 4” is one of the mightiest records in Chicago’s catalog, proof that a horn band can kick as much ass as a legion of electric guitars. But the remake had absolutely none of what made the original great. It even played down the horns, burying them behind a multitude of sonic tricks from the mid-80s producer’s bag. While that wouldn’t have been especially objectionable then—a fish doesn’t know it’s wet, after all—it makes the record sound horribly dated today. Perhaps the remake appealed to people who couldn’t remember the original—it squeezed into the Top 50 in both Billboard and Cash Box—but lots of us who could remember the original were simply appalled.
In case you’ve never heard it, here it is. Think of listening to it as scholarship. Do it for the sake of history.