CHICAGO — Transit Authority (review)

CHICAGO — Transit Authority album cover Album · 1969 · Jazz Related Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
Chicago's 1969 debut has enough dynamic power to blow the sugar off all their hits of the 80s.

Chicago Transit Authority is a tremendous energetic, daring debut from a group that would soon be known around the world as Chicago. I had been brain washed or ear washed into believing that Chicago were only capable of saccharine sweet love power ballads, as the radio waves were soaked by the inundation of 80s slush such as 'If You Leave Me Now'. Everytime the song comes on women everywhere sing it with affection, oh, the romantic lyrics and schmaltzy vocals, it was enough to cause me to steer well clear of this band. So to hear this album is a wakeup call like no other; it may well be the revelation of the year for me personally.

The jazz fusion and avante approach on this incredible debut is astounding. The jazzy brass and odd time sig on 'Introduction' is a prime example. Kath's bluesy vocals are always a delight, but the brass section with sporadic percussion are truly mesmirising. There are touches of Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra scattered in the music, and some of the most bizarre guitar playing I have heard. Most of this is sheer creativity embellished by brass, keyboards and fuelled by the power of improvisation; just listen to 'Does Anyone Know What Time it Really Is' as an example, a great melody backed with jazz time swings and bluesy vocals. Of course this was 1969, the birth of prog in a sense, so creativity is the name of the game, people were searching for a new sound. The drums remind me of Santana, there are influences of Canned Heat and Grateful Dead, and Davis among others. I am certain this double album would have had a dramatic impact on other bands and musicians. This is ground breaking masterful playing. 'Liberation' is notable for the jazz fusion style and a blazing guitar solo. There are some experimental moments especially in the guitar solo of 'Free Form Guitar' which explains the free form feel. It is as inaccessible as the band can get, rather disturbing, and would send all those women running who love to sing along to 'I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love'. Of course this is a different beast, and it wasn't until the 80s that the band would succumb to the money churning pop ballads that would skyrocket them to worldwide acclaim.

In the meantime the prog or jazz fusion addict can revel in this early Chicago, including extended wah wah guitar solos on 'Liberation' or some truly weird rants on 'Someday' and 'Prologue', the protest era is evident in the crowd chants. 'Questions 67 and 68' is a powerful track with a ton of heavy brass and fast guitars, and the vocals sing a fairly catchy melody, a majestic feel is generated, almost anthemic, and the famous Chicago harmonies are here.

The constant time sig switches are key features, but there is a sound structure on each track. 'South California Purples' has great Hammond and very cool bluesy guitar riffs with strong Zeppelin like lyrics, "Since I lost my baby I been losing my mind". This was quite typical of the era, songs about break up and make up, over a bluesy riff with extended solos. When they throw caution to the wind the creativity is astounding; they even throw in a verse from The Beatles 'Come Together' on this track. Kath is a powerhouse on vocals and guitars on this album; Chicago are a force to be reckoned with when they go into full flight.

The riffs are great on this debut, the bluesy guitars and striking Hammond on 'Listen', enhanced by the ever present brass; it is excellent musicianship. 'Poem 58' has a cool riff and Kath's guitars with Peter Cetera's bass are a driving force. There are psych prog nuances in the guitars improvised over a strong riff, and at times there is a break and the time sig takes off in another direction, as was the case in a lot of 1969 music. 'I'm A Man' is one I had heard on some 60s documentary but I was startled that it was a Chicago song. The cool riff and fast percussion are a feature along with Kath's indelible vocals.

The extended solos drag the album out to a wonderful 76 minutes, perfect for a CD, you might say. There is not a dull moment, even though the guitar solos can be cumbersome, there is always a compelling edge to this early incarnation of Chicago. So forget everything you know about this band if you are new to them. Like me, I am certain this music will take you by surprise.

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