Since I did a post recently on 10 songs to convince the Chicago skeptic of their sound musicianship, I thought I might post something to validate the haters. By the mid-1970s, Chicago realized that they could record pretty much anything and be assured of good sales. “We could fart on record and people would buy it,” saxophonist Walter Paradaider once observed in Chicago’s Behind the Music special, and several of these songs come strikingly close to testing Parazaider’s thesis. But what is fascinating is that there is such a wide breadth of bad songs here: failed experimentation, pointlessly lewd and disturbing lyrics, and cringe-inducing 1980s power ballads. Here, you will find a veritable smorgasbord of artistic misfires. And amazingly, only three of these songs are written by Peter Cetera.
10. “You Get It Up” (from Chicago X): The gist of the song is pretty much in its title, but the creepiness of the song reaches exponential levels when its sung in unison by all 8, um…, members of the band. Oh, and the lyrics rhyme “you get it up” with “I’m your buttercup.”
9. “Good for Nothing” (from We are the World): This song was initially available only through the We are the World charity album, but “Good for Nothing” was literally the worst possible entry in the entire band’s catalog for this kind of philanthropic act. The song’s lyrics seem to be about loaning a friend some money and never getting it back, or even being thanked for the gesture. No one has yet given a satisfactory answer as to why Chicago would put a cynical song about the futility of alms-giving on the goddamned We Are the World album.
8. “Aloha Mama” (from Chicago XIII): In addition to writing songs about underage girls (see #5), Cetera has a counterbalancing Oedipus complex that surfaces in his prolific use of the word “Mama” when addressing his love interests. To be fair, this was the 1970s, but Cetera takes the practice to absurd lengths (other songs of his from this era include “Mama Take”, “Mama Mama”, and the prodigious use of “mama” during the fade-out of “If You Leave Me Now”. Also, queue up any live performances by Chicago during the late 1970s. Virtually every ad-lib Cetera uses has “mama” in it.) Absurdly, the track doesn’t even try to use any Hawaiian instrumentation in a song with “Aloha” in the title. It was as though Cetera just wanted to do another “Mama” song, and figured that the path of least resistance was by setting the song in Oahu.
7. “You Come To My Senses” (from Chicago Twenty-1): At the band’s nadir, they were left without Cetera’s radio friendly voice, and resorted to ready-made power ballads written by studio songwriters. Despite having an almost unlimited supply of standards and established hits and songs from up-and-coming writers to use, Chicago went with this awful, awful song. (It’s abysmal qualities don’t come out fully in the studio recording, you’ll have to see their performance on the Arsenio Hall Show. The problems here are manifold: the chorus is well out of tenor Jason Scheff’s considerable range, the synthesizer parts were already out of date by 1991, and the lyrics insist on informing the listener that the singer’s relationship with the woman at hand is a full-sensory experience. (“the touch of your skin, the smile on my face, the way that you taste” and “I picture you in a car”) Not surprisingly, Chicago would avoid recording another studio album of original material for 15 years.
6. “Stay the Night” (from Chicago 17): I’m going to put this song on the list just for following up an aggressive line like “I won’t take ‘no’ if that’s your answer” with “at least that’s my philosophy.”
5. “Little Miss Lovin'” (from Hot Streets): This is from the band’s 1978 Hot Streets album, where in an attempt to appear edgy and hip, they gave their album a name that wasn’t a roman numeral. I just commented on quasi-pedophilic qualities of 1970s songs with 33-year-old Ringo’s cover version of “You’re Sixteen” in 1973. While “You’re Sixteen” is largely a harmless tongue-in-cheek romp, “Little Miss Lovin'” lusts for LML’s “tight blue jeans” because composer Peter Cetera is a “fool for the younger squeeze.” Lyrics like these cause a discomfort not unlike brain freeze, but the Bee Gees’ background vocals add an attack on the sinuses to this aural and physiological onslaught.
4. “If She Would Have Been Faithful” (from Chicago 18): This song is different from the others on this list in that it was a Top 20 hit, but this is from 1986, widely recognized as ground zero in the annals of pop music. “If She Would Have Been Faithful” is another curiously bad song contributed by outside songwriters, meaning Chicago would have been well within its rights to refuse to record it. Instead, they straddled rookie bass player and Cetera-replacement Jason Scheff with this turkey. Its first problem is that it follows the formulaic power ballad recipe to a tee: soft, synthesizer opening and demure verses, which explode into a bombastic chorus with screeching guitars and screeching vocals before a fade-out at the end. Now, that alone is not enough to make this list; lots of Chicago’s songs from the late 1980s have these qualities. What makes “If She Would Have Been Faithful” especially bad is that it tries to an intellectual power ballad. And by “intellectual,” I mean that it merely throws a lot of big words at us. “She had another lover, she emphatically denied”, Scheff tells us as he “reconstructs details” with an “objective point of view.” Leaving the woman and finding a new beau is, Scheff tells us, a “paradox, full of contradiction,” and moreover, “defies a logical explanation.”
3. “Critic’s Choice” (from Chicago VI): Chicago’s feelings were badly hurt by the poor reviews their first four studio albums had received, especially from Rolling Stone magazine. While many of these poor reviews were, in fact, unearned for their generally excellent early work, Chicago started to deserve its bad reputation somewhere around 1973. This song is a three-minute bromide featuring only Robert Lamm on piano lambasting his critics as “parasites” who are “quick to jeer” and spout “musical blasphemies.” Amazingly, this did not enamor any critics when Chicago VI came out and earned almost universally bad reviews from rock critics.
2. “Free Form Guitar” (from Chicago Transit Authority): So, Terry Kath plugs in his guitar and plays about six minutes of feedback and sound effects unaware that he is being recorded. Somehow, the band insists that Kath’s noodlings are a brilliant piece of avant garde musicianship, and successfully lobbies to have this song included on their first album with extensive liner notes about Kath’s technique. If used within the context of one of Chicago’s extended jams, or as a 20-second snippet between songs, this might have worked. However, and I can’t emphasize this enough, it takes up six minutes of an already-long double album, and keeps the band’s otherwise sterling debut album from being considered a truly excellent lp. It prevents the sane listener from taking the entire album in during one sitting.
1. “Window Dreamin'” (from Chicago 13): On unlucky Chicago 13, the band decided to let everyone in the group contribute at least one number for the album. This, unfortunately, included saxophonist Walter Parazaider who seemed to have never composed a song before, demonstrating the bad sorts of things that can happen when a rock band abandons its meritocratic principles. The song is a tortuous sort of travelogue about life on the road– and if there’s one thing the record-buying public loves, it’s rock stars complaining about how miserable it is to be a rock star (See also Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer” and Elton John’s “Holiday Inn.”) With such lines as “Gigs are fun/when they’re done/feel so down/act like a clown” we should be grateful that this was the last time Parazaider foisted his songwriting efforts on an unsuspecting public. (Some of Parazaider’s rejected verses included “Went to home/not a dome/slipped off couch/fell down, ouch” and “Hated work/boss a jerk/ate Swiss chard/read the Bard.”) To add window dressing, so to speak, Peter Cetera decided to sing this song in his P.C. Moblee persona, which he used on about 4 or 5 songs on Chicago 13 and Chicago XIV and is credited in the liner notes as if Moblee was a real person being used as a guest vocalist. Think of what your 55 year old uncle sounds like when he tries to sing karaoke after a couple screwdrivers. This is a fair approximation of Cetera’s “P.C. Moblee” voice- deep, gravelly and indecipherable, but mostly indecipherable.
Runners up in infamy: “Birthday Boy” (from Chicago XIV), “Song for You” (also from Chicago XIV), “Memories of Love” (from Chicago II), “Take A Chance” (Hot Streets), “God Save the Queen” (Chicago Twenty-One), “Get On This” (from Stone of Sispyhus), “Policeman” (Chicago XI), and “Back to You” (Chicago 26).