BAD ALBUM ANNIVERSARIES: ‘Chicago Transit Authority’

Not all anniversaries are good.

There have been many great albums celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. The self-titled debut of Chicago Transit Authority, better known as Chicago, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. That’s where the comparison ends.

It’s been said that most double albums could be edited down to a solid single LP. Not the case here. I’m not even sure they could get a solid side out of this mess. I know there are longer double albums in the world (the White Album clocks in at a solid 98 minutes), but rarely has 70 minutes of music felt like forever end to end like this one.

There is so much fat on this album: long noodling guitar solos that go on endlessly, entire sections that could’ve easily been edited out, introductions that go on for longer than the song, pointless changes in tempo, and did I mention the guitar solos that go on forever and go absolutely nowhere? There’s one track titled (appropriately enough) “Free Form Guitar,” which lasts for about 600 hours and is as soporific as the title suggests.

This record has some nice moments: those horn breaks in “Questions 67 & 68,” and the only extended coda on this album that works, as well as the first five minutes of “Beginnings” (another ironic title). But when every track causes me to lose interest during its over-bloated intro (do you see a pattern here?), it makes me wonder what the fuss is all about. And this was the first of three double albums by these jazz-rock dynamos, which they followed up with a quadruple live album. Did no one understand editing?

Accompanying this rant is a picture of my mother circa 1973, snoozing her way through Chicago Transit Authority, which says far more about this album than anything I’ve said so far. Even my dad now admits he has no idea why he bought this record. And he’s from Chicago, so he oughta know something about good music. Which he does. Which this ain’t.

UPDATE 1: I have to confess that Chicago’s 1984 track “Hard Habit to Break” is one of the greatest songs in the history of recorded music. It took ’em 15 years to finally get it right, but everything clicks on this one: the vocal arrangements, the harmonies, the lovely trombone solo, the aching symphonic coda. Heck even the lyrics perfectly match the mood of the music, and this one doesn’t outstay its welcome.

So, if not having Chicago’s debut album means not having “Hard Habit to Break,” then I guess it’s worth having around. I just won’t listen to it, and it will continue to be the subject of hilarious arguments between me & one of my best friends who is a HUGE Chicago fan and thinks their first four albums are some of the grandest music committed to vinyl!

UPDATE 2: Please enjoy a text I received from my dad when I sent him the link to this article:

“I bought that album just before or just after you were born. Purchase was influenced by a friend, co-worker who was a jazz fan like myself. He thought the album was so cool. The first song was so-so and went down from there. I told my friend that, in my opinion, it sucked. If I could have gotten a refund I would have. Bet it hasn’t been played no more than ten times since. It wouldn’t even qualify as an ‘acquired’ taste.”

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