Happy Anniversary: Chicago, Chicago XIV

Monday, July 21, 2014
Happy Anniversary: Chicago, Chicago XIV

34 years ago today, Chicago released an album which was, uh, not exactly what you’d call one of their most significant commercial triumphs. That’s not to say that it’s a bad album, because heaven knows you can’t necessary base an album’s quality on how many copies it sells, but let’s just say that, when it comes to those who hold it up as a highlight of the band’s discography, it ain’t exactly Chicago XVII.

For Chicago, the ‘70s were equal parts wonderful and wearying: the band started out the decade by turning in albums which nailed the trifecta of being creatively, commercially, and critically successful, only to go through shifts in their sound and lineup – most notably the loss of guitarist Terry Kath, who died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978 – which resulted in some moves which, in retrospect, turned out to be significant missteps. The culmination of these ill-conceived efforts came with 1979’s Chicago XIII, an album that may or may not have had something to do with the death of disco, but either way, it’s likely no coincidence that it proved to be Chicago’s lowest-charting album up to that point, only hitting #21 on the Billboard Top 200.

Unfortunately, the key phrase in that last sentence is “up to that point,” as Chicago XIV ultimately only made it to #71, but for what it’s worth, it’s easily arguable that it’s a better album than Chicago XIII. Yes, we realize that’s not actually worth very much at all, but in the band’s defense, they were in the midst of a difficult transitional period where, if there was even going to be a Chicago, they had little choice but to just start throwing things against the wall to see what might stick.

With Kath’s initial replacement, Donnie Dacus, having hit the road, Chicago opted to bring in Chris Pinnick to play on Chicago XIV and tour with the band but, unlike Dacus, he wasn’t actually a proper member as much as he was a hired gun; they also brought in a new producer, Tom Dowd, who had the unenviable job of trying to take the increasingly disparate musical mindsets of the members and bring them together to form a coherent album. Did it work? Well, it’s doubtful that “coherent” would be the first adjective to come to most listeners’ minds – certainly, listening the album’s lone charting single, “Thunder and Lightning,” answers the question, “Why didn’t Peter Cetera and Robert Lamm write together more often?” – but there’s no doubt that Chicago XIV sounds a damned sight more like a Chicago album than its predecessor.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, the world at large wasn’t interested in a Chicago album at all in 1980, and after its failure to find an audience, Columbia – the band’s label at the time – suddenly found that they weren’t particularly interested in Chicago. As such, the next time the band released a new studio album, they were on Warner Brothers, but as they were also back in the top 10 again, at least there’s a happy ending to this story.

Have you listened to Chicago XIV recently? If not, then consider this your excuse to give it another spin. It’s like we said at the beginning: just because it didn’t shift mass units doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing.