Chicago VII, originally a two-record set released in March 1974, contains an amazingly diverse kaleidoscope of styles with some of the best sounds that made the classic era of Chicago so great, including musically free and jamming moments next to some now timeless radio-friendly classics. Like all albums, VII is just one snapshot of where they were as a band, at one moment in time, but it deserves fresh reconsideration as an artistic and sonic statement. The new Rhino Record’s Quadio boxed set provides the perfect time for a new evaluation. So, what is VII’s place in Chicago’s canon?
I hadn’t been born yet, but I imagine that if I had been a young person in 1974, I would have felt a huge amount of anticipation for VII. Chicago V and VI were the first two Chicago albums to be single LPs. Both focused more on the craft of songwriting, with some mighty fine vocals and horn arrangements, rather than the extended solos found on their earlier works. V is one of my favorites, and VI is an album I have come to appreciate more recently (see previous essay). With VII there was a great deal of build up upon its release. In an article from the April 1973 edition of Circus Raves magazine, “Chicago VII: Inside the FM Experiment,” Jimmy Pankow told the reporter that “it was time to concentrate on complex things as well as melodious stuff.” Some fans had heard the complex direction well before VII’s release when Aire was added to the setlist in 1973.
This new Blu-ray reveals the full beauty of these recordings, and the Quad mix is, in my opinion, the most wonderful way to enjoy the first two sides. One could consider the first side, including Prelude To Aire, Aire, and Devil’s Sweet, to be its own suite. The tunes flow together with compliments and contrasts. The Quad mix on the first two tunes is lighter and clears up some muddiness, allowing the flute, brass, and electric piano to sound clearer and more discernible in the mix. Another highlight, Terry Kath’s blazingly fast and articulate guitar solo on Aire is even more appreciated due to the cleaner tone on the Quad mix. The wind instruments breathe! Listening to my vintage vinyl copy of VII, I never considered the mix to be anything by fantastic, but now hearing the Master Stereo and Quad mixes side-by-side on this brand new disc provides the contrast between the two.
Another ear-opener, the keyboards are also noticeably louder in the Quad mix. The different panning helped a lot. It felt like hearing for the first time all the great work on keys here, a great live feel. The tones of the analog synthesizers (a Fender Rhodes, an ARP, and a Mellotron are all used on VII) show why musicians are still interested in these neat vintage keyboards. Prelude to Aire features Robert Lamm playing a Beatlesque bassline on a Mellotron, and with Walter Parazaider on flute, it makes me remember the first time I heard it and wondering if it really was Chicago, beyond impressive.
Devil’s Sweet also features a considerable different mix in Quad as compared to Master Stereo. Kicked off by Walter’s soprano saxophone, he continued his embrace of this skinny horn. His fury of notes brings to mind the truth and intensity of other great woodwind players, like Coltrane, who also returned the soprano to prominence during this era. The tune settles down to a brassy and beautiful melody with Lee Loughnane’s trumpet and Jimmy Pankow’s trombone playing with great spirit and virtuosity in unison. Guest artist David “Hawk” Wolinski, then a member of Madura, a band who toured with Chicago and also recorded at Caribou Ranch, played the ARP synth on this track. The Quad mix lightens up on the ambient feel of the Stereo mix, less heavy on the percussion, and the whole mix continues the brighter and cleaner sound.
Side two also takes on the feeling of a suite. Robert’s keyboard work on the ARP and Fender Rhodes on Italian From New York show the contrast between his classical piano training and how he adapted to instruments like some of these synths that were not designed to be played like pianos. His comping meshes perfectly with the brass. Terry’s mid-rangey vowely guitar tone compliments the analog keyboards. On Hanky Panky, Jimmy’s trombone in the Quad mix has a fair amount of ambience, a sense of space, in contrast to the rather dry presence of the stereo mix. Personal preference will dictate which mix one prefers on this tune. Life Saver’s Quad mix tones down a lot of the harsh high end found in the Stereo mix. Side two ends with Happy Man, a jazzy and beautiful ballad by Peter Cetera and a perfect segue to the different character of the rest of the album. Lee has sang it with loads of convincing soul in concert in recent years. In all, the first record of VII is impossible to categorize. The jazz roots show but it is uniquely Chicago.
If the first two sides of Chicago VII present us with some of the most avant-garde music of their careers, the second record starts off with a slow and introspective ballad, all sweetened with orchestration. It is, of course, Jimmy’s song (I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long. This is a good time to mention that Jimmy and Robert are both nominated for the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame this year, well deserved! Jimmy’s vocal on the verses, answering the lead vocal, provides a husky foil for Cetera’s pretty tenor and in retrospect foreshadows Jimmy’s later lead vocals. Searchin’ is another moment that makes me feel very glad that I invested in the Quadio set. There are so many different instruments and textures here that the Quad mix makes all the difference. Terry’s Binson Echorec was responsible for that under-watery sound all over this record. Also, just listen to the cello come alive in quad. Jimmie Haskell, who had an illustrious career, arranged the strings. With the brass arrangement, it is a golden combination. Searchin’ reached #9 on the pop charts, and VII attained Gold status a week after its release!
Surprisingly, I prefer the Master Stereo mixes for most of sides three and four. We should remember that Rhino has remastered the original Quad mixes rather than remixing them. Mongonucleosis puts the spotlight on Lee’s trumpet, a fan favorite and setlist staple to this day. The Master Stereo mix captures the intensity of the performance. Lee also takes his first lead vocal on a Chicago album with a song Terry wrote, Song of The Evergreens, a poetic song full of imagery inspired by their time at Caribou Ranch. Lee also makes his songwriting debut with the beautiful and melodic Latin-tinged Call On Me, making it to #5 on the pop and #1 on the adult contemporary charts.
Terry’s charming story song, Byblos, gives us an opportunity to hear this master of the electric guitar in an unplugged song. The Master Stereo mix shows how nicely the acoustic guitars were recorded and mixed. As a long time fan of The Beach Boys (my first Chicago show was with them in 1989), I was amazed at the combination of voices from both bands when I first heard Wishing You Were Here, a coming together of the urban Chicago with the epitome of the suburban southern California sound. That feeling of wonder has never worn off. The mixes are substantially different, both lovely in their own way. The Master Stereo mix retains all the lushness, while the Quad mix has a more minimalist and organic feel. Do listen up for Carl and Dennis Wilson’s vocals mixed up in Quad.
Ending Chicago VII are two truly funky Robert Lamm-penned tunes. Jimmy’s brass arrangement on Women Don’t Want To Love Me shows of the energy and dynamics of the Chicago brass. Robert’s Skinny Boy, featuring The Pointer Sisters on backing vocals, features his fiery vocal and syncopated comping with brass accents. This song (without the horns) became the title track of his first solo album also released in 1974.
VII is one of my favorite Chicago albums, The first two sides show the creativity of a band who dared to take risks, experiment with new sounds, and play their hearts out. Their underground status evolved into something greater. At the same time, they responded to the demands of the music business with very marketable songs, not that they sat down to write hits. Rather, they wrote personal songs that were well-crafted and sincere. Radio and their audience responded. Many moments on VII are forever enshrined as being among Walter Parazaider’s finest moments, and for that I am thankful. Admittedly, I am incredibly jealous of everyone who was lucky enough to hear him play Aire live, perhaps the most beautiful instrumental in Chicago’s canon. Chicago VII showed Chicago’s capacity to adapt to change, a trait that has lasted to this present day. This Blu-ray give us a definitive way to listen to Chicago VII and is my favorite piece of the Quadio boxed set.
(The gatefold of VII. Their second album recorded at Caribou Ranch.)