I hear all you naysayers. You’re going, “Wait. This is a guitar mag, and you’re reviewing three albums by a lame pop band?” Well, that may be partially true. But these are the first three efforts by an excellent pop/rock band that featured one of the best and most underrated rock guitarists of his generation – Terry Kath.
But don’t take my word for it. Jimi Hendrix once told other members of Chicago after catching the band in 1968, “Your guitar player is better than me!” While it may not be true Kath was actually better than Hendrix, he managed to mix some of Hendrix trademark sounds with a little bit of jazz and his own personality to develop a style that still sounds fresh.
A lot of the songs on these three reissues from Rhino are familiar to most of us. They’re played nonstop on classic rock stations. Don’t let that wear you down, though. The guitar solo from Chicago II‘s “25 or 6 to 4” is still one of the gems from that era. It actually starts with the fills after the vocal lines. Then goes through some killer licks into a wah solo. The jabbing solo on “Make Me Smile” is truly a unique effort, especially for the times. Not a lot of other guitarists were throwing jazz-influenced lightening-fast runs into their solos.
On Chicago I, Kath’s bluesy lines set the table for the horns on cuts like “Introduction,” and the wonderful “South California Purples.” The latter actually was one of the first riffs I ever learned. Both songs have solos to die for. And killer tone, as usual for Kath… thick and tubeish when called for, otherwise clean and bright for runs that’ll make your jaw drop. That first album also has the odd “Free Form Guitar,” which is basically seven minutes of Kath, alone in the studio, wreaking havoc on his guitar. Divebombs, screeches, things running across strings, massive amounts of feedback… it’s all there.
Yes, Hendrix and Jeff Beck had done this already. But to hear a guy do it in the midst of songs like “Beginnings,” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” causes one to pause and reflect.
Chicago II has plenty of great Kath moments, too. The aforementioned “25 or 6 to 4” and “Make Me Smile” stand out, but so do cuts like “It Better End Soon: 1st Movement” which is funk heaven. And the fills on “The Road” are awesome.
Chicago III also has its share of guitar moments. The opener, “Sing a Mean Tune Kid,” lets Kath show off his funk/wah chops. The big, bluesy bends of “I Don’t Want Your Money” let him show off a rootsy side. And the breezy “Happy ‘Cause I’m Going Home” lets Kath shine on acoustic.
I’ve always thought he was the best singer in the band, too. His Ray Charles-influenced vocals were a highlight. That’s him on “Make Me Smile.”
The other musicians here were all more than capable. And listening to Peter Cetera’s wonderful bass playing throughout these records, it’s hard to imagine the same guy having hits with god-awful songs like “The Glory of Love.” And hats off to drummer Danny Seraphine. He was the perfect player for this kind of band.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that Kath was the heart and soul of this band. After his death in a firearms accident in the ’70s, the band was never the same. They did manage another album or two of decent stuff, but that was followed by some of the worst “adult contemporary” music you’d find. Yes, in the old days they could come off as pretentious and boring when the “artsy” bug bit them, and even time can’t justify some of the lame “us against them” late ’60s lyrics they came up with.
In the past decade or so they’ve become almost a parody of themselves. Filling in spots occupied by Kath and Cetera and others with young guys only serves to amplify the original band. Members of the band did say Kath’s death finalized a pull for the identity of the band. Needless to say, the soulless part won.
Okay, I’ve said my piece. Kath was one of the major guitarists of this era. The fact that the band was universally hated by critics probably didn’t help. Tough to grab someone’s ear when they’re being told by the so-called “hip” that this band is no good. Check out these nice reissues from Rhino. Kath’s playing won’t disappoint you.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.