Monday, February 25, 2008

Chicago -- "Ballet For A Girl In Buchanon" (1970)

Much like art rock band Ambrosia, which also became symbolic of 70's "soft rock" when they sugar coated their style, Chicago Transit Authority (aka Chicago) was very much a whole different band earlier on. They experienced quite a bit of commercial success early on with their then fresh merger of psychedelic rock, free form jazz, and horns, only to then go through the roof when they added syrupy stuff with each new album.

When they came on the scene in 1969, Chicago was considered very hip because of their unusual sound at the time. Blood Sweat & Tears were also pioneering the jazz/rock genre, except they were a little less on the "rock" and more on the "bebop jazz." Chicago wasn't afraid to let their Hendrix-worshiping guitarist Terry Kath loose with an overheated Strat and lots of feedback.

Although it was technically called Chicago, their second album became known as Chicago II because of the band's habit for numbering their albums. The album's centerpiece, following the wonderful "Fancy Colors," with its unusual multiple-take one chord faded ending, was an 18-minute multi-song epic called "Ballet For a Girl From Buchanon," written by trombonist James Pankow. Several pieces blended into one, some of them short instrumentals, this lengthy workout actually produced two hit singles -- "Make Me Smile," an edit of the song that begins and ends the "Ballet," and "Color My World," a pretty ballad with a flute solo that's right in the middle.

Changing keys and tempo along the way, "Ballet For a Girl In Buchanon" is full of dissonance, angst and conflict, resolved by sheer joy. Chicago took the unusual step of cranking out double albums right from the beginning, Columbia Records allowing them to not hold back the band's creative roll. Not that all of these albums were great from beginning to end... they could have easily been sliced down to one album each.

"Make Me Smile" was notable for drummer Danny Seraphine's acrobatic moves around his kit, the very melodic middle horn break, and Kath's solo during the Em-A7 break. I used to go to music stores, study the sheet music, and then play the whole thing on the piano, solos and all. Starting from the Ab buildup, changing from E major to G major and then three unusual chord stabs, and into C minor. Woosh!

Children play in the park, they don't know
I'm alone in the dark, even though
Time and time again I see your face smiling inside

I'm so happy
That you love me
Life is lovely
When you're near me
Tell me you will stay
Make me smile

Living life is just a game so they say
All the games we used to play fade away
We may now enjoy the dreams we shared so long ago.

I'd put "Color My World" in the same category as Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "From The Beginning" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven" -- a song you had to know to show off your chops on your instrument. For "Color My World," it was the very simplistic Fmaj7-Aminor-Bb, etc. single note pattern, that made it one of the biggest prom songs of the 70's. And you had to know the flute solo as well to make the grade. Yes, this was a corny song, I'm not denying it, but it impressed the chicks.

I give Chicago a lot of credit that to this very day when they tour, they play the entire "Ballet For A Girl In Buchanon," not just the two individual hits, and often open up their shows with it.

From 1970, just as Chicago II was released and "Make Me Smile" was already a hit single, here is the two-part video of "Ballet For A Girl In Buchanon." Note how the band was ragged, long-haired and hippie-ish, with Kath leading the group. The first part ends just as the band is about to go into "Color My World." For whatever you think about Chicago, these videos are a truly invaluable early look at this band's early power and impact with Kath front and center, several years before the charismatic guitarist accidentally shot and killed himself.


Anonymous said...

Cool blog, but I would be careful about using copyrighted album cover art and videos, and especially quoting lyrics extensively (which exceeds fair use). If a publisher wanted to make an issue out of it, you could be held liable for substantial damages for copyright infringement. Just because other sites make these elements available doesn't make it legal.

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