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Chicago: Chicago II - Album Of The Week Club review

14-legged juggernaut Chicago changed their name and forged ahead with this energetic double album that took in free jazz, hip-shaking R&B and an Abbey Road-like six-song suite

Chicago II cover art
(Image: © Rhino Records)
Chicago - Chicago II

Chicago II

(Image credit: Rhino Records)

Movin' In
The Road
Poem For The People
In The Country
Wake Up Sunshine
Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon
Fancy Colours
25 Or 6 To 4
Memories Of Love
It Better End Soon

Chicago II arrived in January 1970, after year after their self-titled debut album Chicago Transit Authority (the actual Chicago Transit Authority threatened them with legal action, hence the name change). It came complete with Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon, a near 13-minute piece split into seven movements, encompassing film soundtrack-style instrumentals, and beginning with guitarist Terry Kath’Make Me Smile

The album’s other hit-in-waiting was 25 Or 6 To 4, a Robert Lamm song that captured every facet of their sound: musical virtuosity, melodic nous and Kath’s hooligan guitar. A double album – like their debut – it took them into the Top 5 in the US and Top 10 in the UK, while  an edited 25 Or 6 To 4 went Top Five in both countries, cementing Chicago's reputation as one of the most exciting new bands on the scene. 

No sooner was the album out than Chicago headed to Europe, where, at London's Royal Albert Hall, each band member was introduced separately and received a standing ovation. Interviewed for an NBC news story in 1970, band producer James Guercio declared: “If Johann Sebastian Bach were alive today, he would probably be performing in a band similar to Chicago."

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in January 1970

  • On the Boards - Taste
  • Stone the Crows - Stone the Crows
  • The Madcap Laughs - Syd Barrett
  • Magic Christian Musicb - Badfinger
  • Back in the USA - MC5
  • John B. Sebastian - John Sebastian
  • A Song for Me - Family
  • John Phillips (John, the Wolf King of L.A. - John Phillips
  • Bridge over Troubled Water - Simon & Garfunkel
  • Moondance - Van Morrison
  • American Woman - The Guess Who
  • Argent - Argent
  • One Day at a Time - Joan Baez
  • Try a Little Kindness - Glen Campbell
  • Redbone - Redbone

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What they said...

"Chicago had certainly not abandoned its active pursuit of blending high-octane electric rockers such as 25 or 6 to 4 to the progressive jazz inflections heard in the breezy syncopation of The Road. Adding further depth of field is the darker Poem For The People as well as the politically charged five-song set titled It Better End Soon. These selections feature the band driving home its formidable musicality and uncanny ability to coalesce styles telepathically and at a moment's notice." (AllMusic)

"Whereas Chicago Transit Authority was based on horn jams and guitar solos, Chicago II operates in a much more controlled environment. Not only are the horns tampered down, but Terry Kath's guitar playing is nearly non-existent, with the exception of a few tracks, most notably Poem For The People, In The Country, 25 Or 6 To 4 and the exceptional It Better End Soon suite. (Sputnik Music)

"The seven-piece jazz-rock aggregation went on to find mainstream fame with If You Leave Me Now in 1976, but this double album is so much better: less wimpy and much more sonically ambitious. They scored US hits with Make Me Smile and 25 Or 6 To 4, but the breathtaking suite, Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon, steals the show. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Sadly." (Record Collector)

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What you said...

Greg Schwepe: So, while Chicago II is the band’s second album (duh!), it actually contains a few firsts. The first album with the shortened name. Now just “Chicago” instead of “Chicago Transit Authority” (which the real CTA took issue with). And the first album to use the Roman Numeral titling methodology they would adopt for most of their career. And depending on your Roman Numeral skills, that made figuring out which album came before another easier or harder.

There’s that age old question about Chicago; are they a guitar band with horns, or a horn band with guitars?” And in listening to this album, I can’t even give you a good answer! Maybe the answer is; “yes.” 25 Or 6 To 4 gives you the best of both worlds; that driving guitar riff punctuated with the iconic horn sound.

This album comes with a boatload of future Chicago classics as well; Make Me Smile, Now More Than Ever, and Colour My World. While Colour... is a beautiful song, it will forever be known as The 70’s Prom Song for me. I remember being at an aunt’s house when I was probably about nine and her showing us her daughter’s prom pictures; with the prom theme Colour My World spelled out in crepe paper on the high school gym wall. I didn’t know the song or who Chicago was back then, but when I later got into music and heard that song, that picture from long ago got permanently attached to it.

The mini-suite It Better End Soon with its various movements is an interesting adventure. Luckily for me that “70’s freeform flute” sound backs off in each section before it trips my “that’s too much” fuse. Really like the whole section though.

A few years ago, I watched a documentary about late-guitarist Terry Kath and his daughter’s quest to find his famed Telecaster used on many Chicago albums. And if I thought Chicago was a “horn band” before that, the documentary definitely rounded out my perception of Chicago. Lots of great guitar playing on this album. As the credits rolled on that documentary, I immediately ordered a ’69-’78 studio albums collection on Amazon to check out more of their albums. Once listening, Chicago II was one of the albums I came back to more and more.

What’s also interesting is that a record company would allow a newly signed band to release two double albums in a row. Guess that shows confidence that they will get their return.

This is one of the albums in the catalogue that I would steer people to if they wanted to see what Chicago is all about. Turns out to be very representative of their sound even as it evolved over the years. 8 out of 10.

Adam Ranger: Tried to like this, I really did. Not a big fan of their 80s onwards stuff, so never really listened to any older stuff.

Great muscianship here, but its all a bit sprawling for me. Not really a fan of Jazz, so I guess that doesn't help. Some great moments , but I got disinterested in the songs really quickly. Liked 25 Or 6 To 4 a lot, but other than that, I cant say I will be listening to more of the band.

Alex Hayes: In my personal version of Hell, there are giant loudspeakers on every street corner. They exist for one reason and one reason only. To constantly blare out those thirteen trumpet blasts at the close of Flying Colours, the seventh track of Chicago's second album. On a loop. Endlessly.

My heart sank when I saw this week's album choice for the Club, for a few reasons. Firstly, I knew that I would be incapable of enjoying this, what with it's jazz-rock leanings and incessantly tootling horns. I tried Chicago II, but, sure enough, just couldn't get on board with it in the slightest.

Secondly, back in the days of vinyl, this was a double-album, and is thus over an hour long. It felt like it too. The only track that I was familiar with prior to this week was 25 Or 6 To 4. I've always found it difficult to sit through the sub-five minute length of that song, let alone 66 minutes of this kind of stuff. This album felt interminably long to me.

Thirdly, I knew that I would have to give a bad review on here, which I do not enjoy doing. Especially when we are talking about a band as obviously talented band as Chicago. The pedigree of the musicians on display here is certainly not in question.

I just don't like jazz-flavoured rock, simple as that. I usually give the Album Of The Week at least a couple of full listens, to give it the time and attention sometimes necessary for an album's hidden qualities to make themselves known. I can't do that this week. The thought of spending another hour plus of my life with Chicago II just leaves me cold.

Definitely not my cup of tea. Sorry, I tried.

Mike Canoe: Partly Chicago II makes me nostalgic for concerts in the park on gently warm and breezy summer days. Party Chicago II makes me nostalgic for a 1970s that I don't remember and may not have actually existed. A time of good times and good vibrations, an unshakeable feeling that we're going to make it after all.

The excellent musicianship and strong songwriting really draw me in. "Wall of sound" is almost a musical cliché now but there's so much to hear here: meticulous guitar noodling, horns, woodwinds, honky-tonk piano, a deep rhythmic groove, and - for me especially - multiple vocalists chiming in.

Favourites include the gospel tinged Movin' In, the funky In The Country, the warm and inviting Wake Up Sunshine, and the joyous and buoyant Fancy Colors. Upbeat music to cheer the soul. It's telling that while I've always enjoyed 25 Or 6 To 4 it's nowhere near the brightest spot on the album for me.

If I have a quibble - and this is more a streaming or CD complaint, I guess - it's with the sequencing. The songs that make up the suite Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon sound like individual songs and it makes sense to sequence them individually. However, breaking up the suites Memories Of Love and It Better End Soon into their individual bits reduces them to excerpts disconnected from the whole. Ultimately it comes down to me not being able to put It Better End Soon in total on my annual playlist, but I'll just have to get over that.

Chicago II is another classic rock album that arguably does not rock - if rock is defined as power chords, locomotive rhythms, and cat scratch vocals. But as our altruistic and all-loving admins have declared, "Classic rock is a big tent." And I find plenty of room for Chicago II under the canvas.

Roland Bearne: I found a Chicago Greatest Hits a year or two ago, totally forgot I had it and was pleasantly surprised. "My" Chicago album had always been 17. Teenage love and heartbreak, mid 80s endless summers n all that. Listening to the earlier tracks made me realise what and immense guitar player Terry Kath was. His extraordinary musicality and ability to blend with the horns, including sweeping flourishes which are not at odds with the orchestration but meld and enhance the arrangements, quite a feat and in delightful contrast to Deep Purple's splendid but confrontational use of the band on Concerto For Group And Orchestra

As to this album overall, a bit of a "curate's egg" for me. As the authorised transit sets off, I wonder if we're listening to the soundtrack to a 70s Hollywood blockbuster of politics, crime and legal grand guignol! Then in West Virginia Fantasies we get all proggy complete with tootling flute (which is used throughout). 

The whole vibe changes with the very splendid 25 Or 6 To 4 which seems to act as a fulcrum between this album's game of two halves. So, the second half. What's going on here then? A tribute to Grieg? Is it classical, prog? No idea, it wafted along with admiral musicianship but very nearly lost me. Isn't it terrifIc that record labels used to sanction and bankroll such musical excesses?! So, much to take in, sometimes admirable, some highlights (particularly Kath's contribution) and sometimes a bit of a head-scratcher!

Bill Griffin: I am not a fan of horns in general (except the saxophone), particularly the trumpet. I loathe the sound of the trumpet, therefore, with the exception of a few tracks in their vast catalog, I do not like Chicago. This album is no exception.

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Final Score: 7.16 (67 votes cast, with a total score of 480)

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