Unpopular Opinion: Chicago, the Kings of Soft Rock, Are Awesome

Chicago: even their logo could not be smoother
Chicago: even their logo could not be smoother
Columbia Records

[Ed. note: Barely a week after we published this, it was announced that Chicago would be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Coincidence? We think not.]

Around the time I wrote my cry for help letter to Henry Rollins I started getting pretty bored with the hardcore punk of my youth. Eventually I returned to hardcore, then left again … then went back and left again, again. But I’ll never forget the first time I looked for something far more viscerally mind-blowing and friend-annoying than Dropdead or Despise You could ever be.

I’m talking, of course, about soft rock.

Soft rock is a bit like harsh noise (see: Merzbow, Coil, Metal Machine Music). People who dig it swear that it’s not the most annoying thing on earth, that we actually enjoy listening to it. Everyone else assumes we’re full of it, putting on airs for effect. All I know is, years before Yacht Rock, I finally gave in to the part of me that secretly loved America, England Dan & John Ford Coley, and of course the kings of the genre, Chicago.

Christopher Cross might have given soft rock its “Smells Like Teen Spirit” moment with “Sailing.” Chicago were the survivors, through — the guys who carried the torch into the new decade.

The octet named after a city Nelson Algren once likened to being in love with a woman with a broken nose has its roots in a heavier blues- and jazz-based sound. You can safely admit to liking their early stuff in certain circles. I dig it, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the tunes you hear when you’re shopping for organic quinoa and craft whiskey in the supermarket.

I’m talking about tracks like “If You Leave Me Now,” which kicks off with some strings and a triangle chiming. Those of less erudite tastes are already running for the hills, even if deep down inside they’re swaying back and forth to the sound. The more refined can fully appreciate both the song and your friend’s skin crawling right off his body.

“Old Days"? Total banger. It’s street corner Italo-rock beefed up with some slick strings and a wailing axe solo. Don’t even pretend that you don’t turn this up when it comes on the radio. Sure, you close the door to your room, make sure no one else is around, but there you are, in spite of yourself, staring at yourself in the mirror, hairbrush in hand, crooning to an invisible audience of millions. The live version below doesn't have the strings, but it does have the band in tuxedos, which is almost as good.

Feelin' Stronger Every Day” is a nice little shamble through pop melodies. It revolves around and around and then, out of nowhere, it becomes a totally different song. The fat bass kicks in and the drummer plays double time. The horns kick in and all of a sudden Pete Cetera is singing about your pain, the road you took back from getting spurned, jilted and put down. It’s cool, though, because his sweet and soulful voice reminds you that you are, in fact, feeling stronger every day.

As the band moved into the 1980s, they were able to do the impossible: They smoothed out their sound even further. Few at the time likely thought it was possible that waitingroomcore could get even more velvety, but Chicago did it. That’s why they’re the undisputed champs.

Listen to Cetera’s bass on “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” It’s thick. It’s fat. It walks through the entire track. Yet it never detracts from the silken quality of his vocals, or from the soaring string section playing in the back.

Not even the wailing axe soloing toward the end can take away from the smoothness, as the song segues seamlessly into its violin and piano coda.

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They also learned how to rock again without diminishing any of the smoothness. I mean, let’s take a listen to “Hard Habit to Break.” No drums for the first full minute of the song, then bam! Right in the face with the rock. Every time that chorus comes in, the band backs off a little bit again … then smacks you in the face with nine inches of uncut, limp rock fury.

“Along Comes a Woman” merges the funky bass and keys with the smooth. These are guys who knew how to play their asses off, but also knew how to use a production studio to take things to the next level. And doesn't Cetera look killer dressed up as Indiana Jones?

After that, Cetera departed for the greener pastures of his solo career. It’s not that the band were nothing without him, but something was definitely missing. Cetera struck gold with the duet with Cher and the Karate Kid II theme, but what has the band Chicago done for me since? Not much.

Free secondary unpopular opinion: When Stone Temple Pilots were big, I automatically assumed anything on alt-rock radio was garbage. For the most part I was right. Nineties radio alternative was almost universally a bunch of moping, simpering posers. Two men defied this blanket condemnation: Layne Staley and Scott Weiland. Weiland was the genuine article, one of the last true rock stars, and he will be sorely missed. Dope is gross, kids. 


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