In 1969, Chicago Transit Authority – a.k.a. Robert Lamm, Peter Cetera, Terry Kath, Danny Seraphine, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walter Parazaider – released its first album on Columbia Records. 46 years and a total of 36 core albums later, the band simply known as Chicago is still intact with Lamm, Loughnane, Pankow and Parazaider. In the waning days of 1971, another band made its first appearance on records. America – the trio of Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek – arrived on December 29 of that year with a self-titled set on the Warner Bros. label. And indeed, roughly 43 years later, Beckley and Bunnell are still touring and recording as America. Now, both of these geographically named bands and conspicuous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame omissions have seen their catalogues boxed by Rhino. Chicago: The Studio Albums 1979-2008 continues the series begun in 2012 with a 1969-1978 volume; America: The Warner Bros. Years 1971-1977 covers the band’s entire period at the label.
The seven-man ensemble Chicago Transit Authority, along with producer James William Guercio, offered something for everyone in their sprawling, stunning double-LP debut of the same name: big, hook-filled pop singles (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Beginnings,” both of which went Top 10 in the U.S.), heavy blues-rock (the wailing “South California Purples”), political agit-rock (“Someday (August 29, 1968)”) and even seven minutes of searing, avant-electric guitar (the aptly-named “Free Form Guitar,” courtesy of the band’s incendiary Terry Kath). Brassy and bold, the Top 20 U.S./Top 10 U.K. CTA augured for some of the most enduring classic rock and pop tunes of all time. By the time the new, second volume collecting Chicago’s studio albums picks up with Chicago 13, much had changed for the band. Terry Kath had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after recording Chicago XI; it was also the final album produced by Guercio. Chicago’s twelfth album, eschewing a numerical title in favor of the name Hot Streets, brought on board guitarist Donnie Dacus and producer Phil Ramone for a set nodding towards disco. The Bee Gees and associate Blue Weaver even made an appearance on the LP featuring two hit singles, “No Tell Lover” and “Alive Again.” But the album was Chicago’s first studio set to miss the U.S. Top 10.
Chicago 13, from 1979, is the first of the ten albums included in The Studio Albums 1979-2008. The box has a much less consistent sound than its predecessor as the band struggled to retain its footing in the wake of Kath’s death before wholly reinventing itself and its sound. 13, the final album to feature Dacus as well as the participation of Phil Ramone, failed to yield any hit singles. (Its fan favorite leadoff track, “Street Player,” still features in Chicago’s live set today.) Chicago XIV foundered even more, leading Columbia to drop the band. Little did the label know that a second period of tremendous success was around the corner. With 1982’s Chicago 16, producer David Foster and singer-songwriter-keyboardist Bill Champlin came on board, reinventing Chicago’s sound. The vision of Foster and lead singer/bassist Cetera transformed the band into a soft-rock powerhouse, driven by the chart-topping success of “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” Cetera would only stay on board for one more album before going solo, but that album – Chicago 17 – spawned four more hit singles including “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re the Inspiration.” Foster stayed on board, though, guiding the band with new recruit Jason Scheff for one more LP. Ceding the producer’s chair to Ron Nevison and Chas Sandford for Chicago 19, the hits kept on coming, with Bill Champlin in the lead on the No. 1 “Look Away” and No. 3 “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love.”
The music of Chicago had become as ubiquitous to the 1980s, and as tied in to the sound of that decade, as it had been in the 1970s. 19 was the end of an era, though, as it was the last Chicago album to feature drummer Danny Seraphine. With the sound of music changing once more in the 1990s, Chicago slowed down its recording pace (if not its touring schedule). The Rhino box concludes with 21 (1991), a last hurrah of the big ’80s pop sound, the big band salute Night and Day (1995), and two of the band’s non-holiday 21st century releases: 2006’s Chicago XXX and 2008’s XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus, which had been recorded in 1993 but shelved. The box set does not include Chicago’s Christmas albums, nor any live albums including 1999’s XXVI: Live in Concert (which featured three new studio tracks including one with vocals by Michael McDonald and another written by Burt Bacharach).
The 1979-2008 collection is in the same no-frills design as the first box set. Each of the 10 discs is housed in a mini-LP paper sleeve and the box itself is in clamshell style. All discs utilize the masters from the last round of Rhino’s reissues, and as there are no booklets, all of the liner notes (and equally if not more unfortunately, all of the credits for songwriters, personnel, etc.) are absent. However, unlike many box sets of this nature, the bonus tracks contained on those reissues have all been retained. This is particularly good news, as Rhino’s expanded editions of Chicago 18, 19, and 21 were previously released only in Japan. The six bonus tracks spread across these three titles (including alternates of “Will You Still Love Me?” and the remake of “25 or 6 to 4” for 18; three single versions for 19; and the promo single version of “Explain It to My Heart” for 21) make their U.S. debuts here, and the box set will set you back less than just one of the Japanese reissues would. The Studio Albums 1979-2008, like the first volume, is handy one-stop shopping for those fans who didn’t pick up Rhino’s remastered editions the first time around; the addition of the Japan-only bonus tracks could be incentive enough for collectors to shell out for this second set, a portrait of a band triumphantly reinventing itself for a new audience.
America’s The Warner Bros. Years 1971-1977 captures the entire studio album discography of America Mk. I featuring the complete original trio of Beckley, Bunnell and Peek, from 1971’s America to 1977’s Harbor, plus 1977’s Live with just Beckley and Bunnell. These eight key albums illustrate the band’s frequently shimmering fusion of rock, pop, country and folk into a distinctive sound America could call its own.
Army brats who recorded their first album at London’s Trident and Morgan Studios, Beckley, Bunnell and Peek each brought their own strengths to the group. Peek played lead guitar to Beckley and Bunnell’s rhythm parts, and infused his songs with a pronounced country influence. Beckley’s natural gift for traditional balladry was a counterpoint to Bunnell’s quirkier, abstract songwriting, but all three members never lost sight of the importance of melody. As America’s tight, compact pop creations were very much descended from the British pop the trio loved during the 1960s – albeit filtered through a sensibility that aligned with the sounds coming out of Southern California at the turn of the 1970s – it was a natural progression when Beatles producer George Martin took the controls for the string of albums between 1974’s Holiday and the 1979 Capitol album Silent Letter (not included in this set). Martin’s widescreen production technique suited America, particularly the achingly romantic music supplied by Gerry Beckley.
Naturally, you’ll hear the Top 40 hits that were an inescapable part of any ’70s radio playlist – and still are today, most of which came from albums beginning with the letter “H”: the Neil Young-evoking “A Horse with No Name,” the yearningly gorgeous “I Need You” and the haunting “Sandman” (America, 1971); the infectious and breezy “Ventura Highway” and banjo-flavored “Don’t Cross the River” (Homecoming, 1972); the memorably impressionistic “Tin Man” and sweetly optimistic “Lonely People” (Holiday, 1974); the jubilant “Sister Golden Hair” and wistful “Daisy Jane” (Hearts, 1975); and the happily affirming “Today’s the Day” (Hideaway, 1976).
All seven albums, however, offer gems beyond the hits. Beckley’s “Here,” from the Ian Samwell-produced debut, looked forward to the more elaborate productions to come. From Homecoming, perhaps America’s most beautifully-crafted long-player, “Only in Your Heart” is a catchy slice of pop from Beckley that stalled on the U.S. singles chart at No. 62 but deserved better. (Wrecking Crew session veterans Hal Blaine and Joe Osborn served as the rock-solid rhythm section for Homecoming.) Hat Trick, the final album produced by the band before George Martin entered the fold, featured Blaine again on drums. It introduced America’s rendition of Willis Alan Ramsey’s offbeat “Muskrat Love,” later adopted by Captain and Tennille. Musician and photographer Henry Diltz, who had played banjo on “Don’t Cross the River,” did the same for the album’s “Submarine Ladies,” and Joe Walsh guested on guitar for Bunnell’s rocking “Green Monkey.” Carl Wilson, Bruce Johnston and Billy Hinsche of America’s pals and touring mates The Beach Boys added their unmistakable harmonies to “Hat Trick.”
George Martin, naturally, added more colors to America’s musical palette, whether the orchestration of “Another Try” or the atmospheric effects of “Hollywood,” both from Holiday. The band took advantage of Martin’s famed production skills, broadening their sound with R&B and even reggae on tunes like Peek’s “Woman Tonight” and Beckley’s “Lovely Night,” from Hearts and Hideaway, respectively. The strife-laden recording of Harbor ended America’s Warner Bros. studio tenure on a less impressive note, but The Warner Bros. Years concludes with Live, on which Beckley and Bunnell revisited their past hits at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater with an orchestra led by film maestro Elmer Bernstein.
There are some added attractions to The Warner Bros. Years. Original Warner Bros. labels have been recreated on each disc, and the original sleeves have been replicated for each album, including the gatefold for Homecoming. Every album from Hat Trick on also contains an insert with credits, lyrics or photographs from the original album packaging. Even better, every album in the box set has been newly remastered (by an uncredited engineer), and the crisp, detailed sound is an improvement over most past issues of this work. (Many of these titles were most recently available on the Collectables label in the United States.) Alas, no bonus tracks have been added, and the best-selling Greatest Hits album with George Martin’s remixes of the early hits is not part of the set. The wonderful 3-CD box set Highway: 30 Years of America from 2000 is still the best place to obtain rarities from America’s Warner years, including the single B-side “Everyone I Meet is from California.” Again, there is no booklet in The Warner Bros. Years with full credits or liner notes.
The collections from both Chicago and America should prove ideal introductions to the groups’ recordings for new fans looking to acquire large swaths of material in one fell swoop, while the improved sound of the America box makes for a worthy upgrade for those who have long owned the (equally no-frills) Collectables reissues on CD. Chicago’s The Studio Albums and America’s The Warner Bros. Years are timely reminders of the power of the enduring music created by both bands, from Chicago all the way to Ventura Highway.