The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘Watch This!’

Posted on | January 13, 2022 | No Comments

The headline is a two-word text message I sent to my youngest daughter after watching producer Rick Beato’s “What Makes This Song Great” video about the 1970 Chicago hit, “Make Me Smile,” which is an absolute must-see. I’ve talked before about my love of Chicago:

It happened the other day (thank you, YouTube algorithm) that I started watching old videos of the jazz-rock band Chicago. Did you know that Chicago’s guitarist Terry Kath was Jimi Hendrix’s favorite guitarist? To listen to Kath play on “25 or 6 to 4” is to be amazed, and it’s a pity that Kath (who died tragically in 1978) is so seldom mentioned among the rock-and-roll greats. Kath could also sing like Ray Charles, a distinctive bluesy baritone . . .

Rick Beato is not just a music producer, but an accomplished musician who earned a master’s degree in jazz from the New England Conservatory of Music. What he provides on his YouTube channel is a far better educational experience than most kids get in school nowadays. One of the things Beato does occasionally is to review the Top 10 list on Spotify, the general point of his reviews being that most contemporary pop is puerile four-chord garbage produced by computer simulation of actual music. (See 357 Magnum’s “Rick Beato Listened to These Songs, So You Don’t Have To.”) Of course, it’s a steady fact of history that every generation believes that the younger generation’s music is crap (e.g., Richard Weaver denouncing the “barbaric impulses” of jazz), but things have gotten very bad indeed now. My teenage daughter is, God help us, a Harry Styles fan and, to be honest, some of his stuff is OK, but he is nearly the apex of sophistication in the vast wasteland of contemporary pop.

Baby Boomers like me grew up with Top 40 radio without realizing at the time we were living through the Golden Age of Classic Rock, to say nothing of all the other excellent music that was being produced. Some of the pop stuff that we sneered at back in the day — when cool kids were into Zeppelin and Floyd, and disdained those catchy singles on radio — was, in retrospect, very good music. For example, I wasn’t really “into” Steely Dan as a teenager, but they were excellent and “Do It Again” (a Top 10 hit in 1973) is a marvelously sophisticated piece of work. Because we were absolutely inundated in quality music in our youth, Boomers are not likely to enjoy the simplistic dumbed-down stuff that is popular with our children and grandchildren. But I digress . . .

Terry Kath was the heart and soul — especially the soul — of Chicago. As a guitarist, he was incomparable — so good that Jimi Hendrix, after seeing Chicago play a club date in L.A., said Kath was better than him. And his vocals were just so incredibly soulful. How could a Midwestern white guy in his early 20s sing like an aged blues legend? Very rarely do you encounter a lead guitarist who is also a talented lead singer, and Kath had that magic combination. “Make Me Smile” was the first time Chicago had a single make the Top 10, and there’s an important story behind that.

Like most rock bands of the late 1960s and 70s, Chicago was album-oriented — serious music listeners weren’t interested in 45-rpm records, but in the aftermath of what the Beatles did with Sgt. Pepper’s in 1967, were more focused on producing long-form music on 33-rpm albums.

As part of their deal with Columbia Records, Chicago secured an agreement that their first album would be a double album — something usually reserved for proven hitmakers, but Columbia’s president Clive Davis really believed in the band, so 1969’s Chicago Transit Authority was a double album with 12 mostly long tracks, including their 7-plus-minute cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man.”

 

How strange it is that a band who could jam like that should have gained a reputation, just a few years later, as an “easy listening” pop group. And yet, by the time I was in my mid-teens, that’s how I thought of Chicago. But this was because of their subsequent success with hit singles that smashed through the Top 40 charts, completely against the wishes of the group itself! The earliest attempts to turn Chicago’s songs into singles flopped, but after the release of their second album in 1970, Clive Davis personally intervened to insist that “Make Me Smile,” which was more than four minutes long on the album, be edited down to under three minutes as a single. It has even been claimed that Davis himself was in the booth for the final edit, although this has been disputed and may be apocryphal. At any rate, the horn introduction to “Make Me Smile” was shortened, and Kath’s guitar solo was deleted from the middle of the song so that the single version was 2:58. It is this version that Beato analyzed in his “What Makes This Song Great” video:

You really must watch that video, as Beato isolates individual tracks to call attention to parts of the song you might never have noticed before. One thing that particularly impressed me was just how great drummer Danny Seraphine was (and is, as he’s still playing at age 73). Some of those parts are just incredible, and the whole group’s performance is a tour de force, made more enjoyable by Beato breaking down the chord progressions — A-flat+4, C-minor and so forth. Did we even know we were listening to Phrygian mode back in the day? No, but after Beato pointed it out, I felt ashamed that I didn’t appreciate it before.

Anyway, after watching that video, I sent it to my daughter in hopes that she will appreciate it, but she’d probably rather listen to Harry Styles, I suppose. Alas, these kids today . . .




 

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