This one belongs in the better late than never file.
After a wait of 15 years, Rhino Records finally released Chicago's 32nd album, "Stone of Sisyphus" this week.
That's a long time for a ready-to-be-released disc by one of the best-selling American groups of all time to gather dust before finally seeing the light of day.
No, the group which last year celebrated its 40th anniversary as a unit, had not been working the past decade-and-a-half on the project, and no, the master tapes did not get lost in some huge, musty warehouse. The band actually finished recording the project in 1993 and turned it into Warner Bros., for what at the time would have been Chicago XXII (remember how the band seldom used titles for their albums, instead using Roman numerals? II, XII .. etc?). But when Warner Bros. had one listen at the tapes that were to make up "Stone," they refused to release them. Seems like Chicago's new project was not "commercial enough" for the record label.
Chicago thought it had hit one out of the park with this one, while the label thought the group had went down swinging for the fences.
By the time the early 90s rolled around, Chicago, a group that had a run of 20 straight Top 10 hits in the 1970s, had been in kind of a slump with the record-buying masses and had not had a true hit off their last five releases. And the way the powers-that-be at Warner Bros. saw it, "Stone" was not about to change that. If anything, "Stone of Sisyphus" was moving closer to the band's groundbreaking work in the late 60s/early 70s than it was to the group's radio-friendly offerings during the latter part of the Me Decade and early 80s. Warner Bros. wanted more songs like "You're the Inspiration" from Chicago XVII. The band wanted more songs like "Dialogue" from Chicago V.
The way Chicago figured it, despite some major personnel departures over its platinum-selling years, notably when co-vocalist and bass player Peter Cetera went solo in 1985, they had earned the right to record one from their own heart, not one suited specifically for the radio dial. Warner Bros. thought otherwise and held firm.
So after sitting on a shelf since 1993, at which time Chicago left Warner Bros., no doubt in response to the label's refusal to stand behind what the group felt like was to be another jewel in its crown, Rhino Records finally issued the long-awaited, hotly-discussed and much-bootlegged (by Chicago fans and collectors) "Stone of Sisyphus" this week.
So, who was right? Chicago or Warner Bros.?
Turns out they were both right. Or both wrong.
"Stone of Sisyphus" (which apparently is loosely based on Greek mythology) is much closer to the group's first six or seven albums than it is to the group's sugary-sweet ballads that ruled the airwaves in the 1980s. It's easy to tell that Chicago was certainly inspired to make a good album, one closer to the roots of their creation, when they went in the studio to record "Stone."
And to Warner Bros.' credit, it's hard to imagine many of the disc's original 11 songs making any kind of a dent at radio, especially in the grunge-filled days of the mid-90s.
"Stone" has some straight-ahead pop/rock (the title track, The Pull), a dash of horn-fueled funk (Mah Jong), a couple of ballads (Bigger Than Elvis; Let's Take a Lifetime) and even a slice of rap?! (Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed).
The bottom line is, fans who already are in the Chicago camp will find something to like on the disc, while on the flip-side, this offering is unlikely to convert many non-believers into Chicago followers, especially via much radio play.
Myself, I kind of gave up on the group pretty quickly after Jan. 23, 1978.
That was the night that guitar player and founding member Terry Kath died of a accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound at a friend's house, one week shy of his 32nd birthday (which to me is a little odd, since "Stone" is also being called Chicago 32, or XXXII).
Kath not only sang, wrote and played on the band's first 11 albums, but he was truly a major driving force behind the group he helped form in the Windy City.
And for my money, Kath was one of the best electric guitarists to ever grace this earth.
Just check out what Jimi Hendrix told Chicago horn player Walter Parazaider after seeing the band perform at The Whiskey in Los Angles: "Your horns are one set of lungs, and you know your guitar player is better than me," Hendrix said. That's lofty praise delivered from the master himself.
Or better yet, check Kath out with your own ears.
The next time you hear "25 or 6 to 4" off the group's second album on the radio, listen how Kath guides his blonde Telecaster through a chugging, grinding rhythm to a fiery, burning wah-infused solo, all the while playing at lightning speed, but never overshadowing the song. And by the way, the fact that Rolling Stone magazine left "25 or 6 to 4" off its recent list of 100 greatest guitar songs of all time is a joke. A bad joke.
Kath is all over the group's debut, "Chicago Transit Authority" a record that broke new ground in 1969 with its mind-blowing combination of straight-ahead rock-n-roll blended with a horn section. That debut earned Chicago a Grammy nomination as Best New Artist, along the likes of Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills & Nash (CS&N won that year).
So while "Stone of Sisyphus" probably won't earn the band another Grammy nomination, and it doesn't quite take us back to the heady days of the band's trail-blazing early work, it is nonetheless a solid effort from a group that still has something to say 40 years after its formation.