At least one unkool person rates this album…88%
Several ghosts haunt this album and it is the end of an era in more ways than one. Around the time of the recording sessions the band elected to sack James William Guercio as their manager – he’d managed (and produced) the band from the beginning, and while he completed the sessions (or did he…Robert Lamm once posted that this was more or less a self-produced set, sorry Robert, but I don’t actually buy that!) this was the last time they would work together.
Perhaps even more significantly – and certainly more tragically – it was, of course, the last album recorded with guitarist/vocalist Terry Kath, prior to his untimely death in 1978.
To some degree Chicago were able to overcome these losses and soldier on, but I’ve always felt their reputation and integrity could have been better maintained had they not had to deal with both in quick succession (for many reasons I’d opt for the non-JWG album with Kath on board rather than a JWG-produced Kath-less Chicago album). While it wasn’t to be, the final collaboration between JWG and the original line-up did at least prove to be one of the highlights of the entire Chicago catalogue.
Song by song then:
Mississippi Delta City Blues kicks things off in fine style. Originally pegged for inclusion on Chicago V and actually issued on Live in Japan this old Terry Kath tune finally made it to an official (international) release just in the nick of time. The arrangement didn’t change much over time, but with all the elements in place – Kath’s guitar prominent (although not dominant) and some fine playing from Peter Cetera on bass, and one of Pankow’s best horn arrangements – not to mention Kath’s own fiery lead vocals – this is as fine an album opener as the band had provided listeners with since the first two albums.
Baby What a Big Surprise was, of course, the albums first (and only major) hit single, peaking at #4. An obvious follow-up to If You Leave Me Now I’ve always preferred it to its more famous predecessor – possibly in part because it hasn’t suffered the extreme overplaying of the earlier ballad. Cetera’s only writing contribution to the album, but far more notably also his only lead vocal – by comparison he would handle 12 lead vocals over the course of the next two albums alone. Trumpeter Lee Loughnane is rarely heard outside of the three-piece horn section; here he gets to demonstrate his talent, playing piccolo trumpet while Parazaider and Pankow sit the song out.
Till the End of Time is another ballad, but bears little resemblance to your ‘typical’ Chicago ballad; this one features swagger and a bluesy feel – oh, and a weak lead vocal courtesy of writer James Pankow. I’m not actually knocking it, as it actually fits the song quite well, but at the same time there’s a good reason Pankow’s vocals were never heard on a Chicago album again. Also, the song is structured to build to a satisfying climax with some great vocal interplay towards the end. The horns are used throughout, but mainly for colouring rather than as an integral part of the arrangement (much as they would be in the 80s – when they were used at all), strange given the song was written by the band’s horn arranger.
Robert Lamm, up to this point the band’s primary songwriter, contributes his first of only two compositions here. Policeman is vaguely Chapin-esque (lyrically at least) although it lacks Lamm’s former childhood acquaintance’s deftness for storytelling. His other contribution, Vote For Me, which opened side two of the original LP, is a fun, up-tempo piss-take on the promises politicians will make in order to get elected; unfortunately not much has changed since 1977 and this tune is unlikely to ever become dated. Both songs are solid, and while not amongst Lamm’s best, are light years ahead of his contributions to the previous record.
In between Lamm’s writing contributions, he provides a rare lead vocal on another band member’s song – Danny Seraphine’s Take Me Back to Chicago, the first of several tunes the drummer would co-write with David ‘Hawk’ Wolinksi over the next few years. There’s some nicely understated flute on the early part of the track, courtesy of woodwinds player Walt Parazaider. I’ve always felt this aspect was underused; Parazaider to my ears is a far better flautist than saxophonist, (particularly when it came to soloing - check out his terrific solo on the title track of the follow-up album, Hot Streets for an example of this). As with Till the End of Time this track starts slowly, before building to a crescendo dominated, in this case, by vocals from guest Chaka Khan. I have to confess that apart from (I think) ‘south side’ I can’t make out any of the Chicago-area place names she’s reeling off in the preach section, but it sounds great just the same. Still, it doesn’t sound like a song with hit potential, so it’s not particularly surprising that it only crept up to #63 when released as the third single – not helped, I’m sure, by the fact the album was already gone from the charts.
The last few tracks on the album are the best, starting with Kath’s Hendrix-inspired rocker Takin’ It on Uptown. As with many of Kath’s songs over the years the horns do not feature at all (actually online speculation maintains that Kath is the ONLY member of the band performing on this cut) but it doesn’t matter, this is simply terrific, and like Lamm, Kath has delivered something that blows his songs on Chicago X out of the water, only more so. Love that cowbell too… (Check out a live performance of this cut below – and notice the difference in the drumming between the studio and live versions – is that Danny Seraphine on both? I really don’t have a clue…)
This is followed by Lee Loughnane’s This Time, the song that should have been the second single – if not the first! Like Pankow, Loughnane sings his own tune, unlike Pankow he actually pulls it off with some aplomb. A mid-tempo rocker, this features a fantastic Kath solo, but listen to what he plays under the horn section when they take over at the end of the solo, now that is truly outstanding. Following the instrumental section the song actually runs out of steam for a few seconds, as the final verse kicks in with a whimper (it’s pitched at the same intensity as the opening verse, but given where the song had gone since then needed to be much stronger). Thankfully momentum is quickly regained, and you probably wouldn’t have noticed this minor quibble if I hadn’t pointed it out, so apologies for that…
Finally, the album closes with the first musical suite the band have offered since, depending on your point of view, III or VII. The entirely orchestrated The Inner Struggles of a Man is the perfect introduction to another Seraphine/Wolinski piece, Little One. Now, something strange happens here. Normally songs dedicated to band members’ children make me come out in a rash, but this is every bit as beautiful and heart-warming as it was intended to be, thanks primarily to Kath’s extraordinarily emotional vocal. Of course, Kath also had a young daughter, so perhaps it wasn’t a stretch for him, but it proves that his vocals were just as integral to the original Chicago sound and spirit as his guitar playing.
From the opening track, with his ominous laugh, to the closing track with his heartfelt vocal capable of making a grown man cry, this album belongs to Terry Kath, and would have done, even had senseless tragedy not been just around the corner. If looking for a silver lining at least we can say that he went out in style and Chicago XI serves as a fitting tribute to his many talents; something the ghastly Chicago X would not have done had it proved to be his swansong. Fans of the early albums need to have this one in their collections as well, regardless of what they think went wrong with Chicago after Chicago V. Strangely, and against all the odds, Rolling Stone actually gave this one a largely positive review…but don’t let that put you off!
In terms of chart stats, the album was Chicago’s first since their debut to miss the top 5 (albeit only just, peaking at #6) but more significantly its chart run was severely reduced, managing only 20 weeks on the chart; it’s immediate predecessor had lasted for 44 weeks; most earlier albums had spent well over a year in the charts. Also, that big (non-surprise) single spent 17 weeks in the Hot 100, so the album lasting in the Billboard 200 for only a few weeks longer than that is nothing short of shocking. Still, a top 10 platinum album can hardly be considered a flop, but it was far less than the album deserved given its quality, and pointed the way to Chicago’s declining (commercial) fortunes in the late 70s, regardless of the other issues they had to face at the time.
(Note that the 2003 Rhino reissue contains two bonus tracks, Pankow’s Wish I Could Fly and Lamm’s Paris. It’s pretty clear why the latter wasn’t developed further, but it would be interesting to hear Pankow’s effort with lyrics and a horn arrangement; perhaps the band would like to revisit this for a new release instead of doing yet another Christmas album? No? Oh well, just a thought…)