CHICAGO — Chicago XIV (review)

CHICAGO — Chicago XIV album cover Album · 1980 · Pop/Art Song/Folk Buy this album from MMA partners
0.5/5 ·
The fateful tale of Chicago’s trek through the glorious 70s was a classic riches to rags story. They’d come bursting in as one of the most promising, adventurous American bands of the era by bravely melding rock & roll with a big band jazz mentality better than any ensemble ever had before and their music appealed to an amazingly wide spectrum of the population of the world. After a few years of a lot of blood, sweat and tears (wry irony intended) they arrived at the top of the heap. Slowly but surely, however, their escalating addiction to hit singles and the steady cash flow they brought with them eroded their rebellious, risk-taking attitude to the point where they no longer challenged themselves or their audiences. With the exception of their brilliant VII LP released in ‘74 they consistently played it so safe it got to the point where, by the end of the decade, they’d lost their fan base, their reputation as innovators and their reason to exist. Losing the fiery Terry Kath along the way was a tragedy but rather than honoring his legacy by using his death as a spark to reignite their original flame of creativity they responded by becoming even more conservative. As the 80s began some (but not all) of the aging 70s groups facing the end of their viability and the onslaught of the New Wave and Punk movements simply called it quits and wisely left the “biz” for good. Considering what a waste of time XIV turned out to be, perhaps Chicago should’ve done the same.

Their opening the record with the only decent tune they had at their disposal, Robert Lamm’s “Manipulation,” is the only thing positive I have to say about this album. It owns an energetic track that’s built upon a forceful guitar riff played by session cat Chris Pinnick (the blasé Donnie Dacus had been jettisoned) and the number was decent enough to inspire a ray of hope in me that a reinvigorated Chicago might emerge. The horn section and Danny Seraphine’s drums punch the accents with gusto and Pinnick shreds his fretboard with passion. Alas, the fun bus runs out of gas as soon as the song ends and is promptly looted and set ablaze before being abandoned on the side of the highway. The vague sense of optimism that first cut cultivated dies the second “Upon Arrival” reaches your ear drums. Lamm and bassist Peter Cetera penned this sappy-as-a-grove-of-Maple-trees ballad that’s utterly devoid of anything even approaching passable status. They follow that odorous turd with Cetera’s ridiculously mushy “Song for You,” a 12-string acoustic guitar-dominated, gather-by-the-campfire love song that sours your stomach and demonstrates beyond a doubt that these guys had been neutered and were now as inert as elderly bulldogs. They’d brought in renowned producer Tom Dowd to oversee this album but he must’ve had second thoughts as soon as he heard the tunes they’d brought to him because they had so little potential. Peter’s vapid “Where Did the Lovin’ Go” lopes along like a high school orchestra’s first rehearsal with absolutely no feel or emotion to be found. My reaction to Seraphine’s “Birthday Boy” was one of disbelief that they’d string four slow, laborious numbers in a row. Holy moley, they’d flushed every semblance of their once-mighty mojo down the toilet! This song is a dirge-like turkey that shines a glaring light on the group’s dearth of basic common sense and self-respect. They repeat the line “Good days are coming” but Chicago desperately needed them in the present tense at this juncture, not in the future.

One of the many problems with XIV stems from glamour boy Cetera having become the predominant songwriter. He was talented in many areas but not in the role of composer. His “Hold On” is an anemic “rocker” (I employ that term loosely here) that frankly made me embarrassed for the band. It makes them appear about as cool as middle-aged geezers wearing “hip” threads to attract the ladies but not having a clue as to how foolish they look. Next is Peter’s “Overnight Café.” I knew it was bound to happen and here it is. Chicago tried to be trendy by incorporating a New Wave vibe into their sound and it’s a shameful disaster. It’s yet another hefty file in the dossier of evidence proving that their well of creativity had run bone dry and they were accepting any material available from the members without discretion in order to fill up two sides of vinyl. Robert, Peter and Danny teamed up to concoct “Thunder and Lightning” and, this far into the swamp, I was at least grateful for an upbeat groove and a few jazzy inflections interspersed in the arrangement but the tune is still too weak to make a lasting impression or make much difference. Lamm’s “I’d Rather Be Rich” is so lousy that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he’d tossed scraps of paper in a jar with chords written on them and put the piece together by pulling them out at random. It has no backbone or focus; it just lays there like a lump of dead notes. Trombonist James Pankow, formerly a river of interesting ideas and concepts, contributes the closer, “The American Dream.” This political protest ditty lacks conviction or purpose and comes off as a bunch of high-rollers sitting around, complaining about how unfair life is. It’s pathetic and demeaning.

I find the cover to be highly appropriate. Sometimes at a crime scene the victim’s face is so disfigured or mutilated that the corpse can only be identified through fingerprint analysis. That’s the case here. XIV is so dismal that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to being a product from the vibrant group that shook up the music scene when they broke out of the Midwest in ’69. Whereas their earlier LPs had shot up into the upper regions of the charts like rockets this one struggled to reach #71 and then disappeared into oblivion. It was not only their last record with their long-time label but the story goes that Columbia actually paid them to leave! Ouch! While I still consider the pretentious “Hot Streets” to be the nadir of their career, this one seriously rivals it. The only good news I can convey about Chicago’s state of the union in the summer of 1980 is that they were soon to do something smart and beneficial by hiring the multi-talented Bill Champlin to finally fill the gaping hole left by Terry Kath’s passing. They’d never again be the influential force in progressive jazz/rock they once were but at least they’d start making R&B-flavored pop music that was listenable. XIV isn’t.
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