An Interview with Chicago’s James Pankow
by Josef Woodard
Chicago, the Windy City-born, L.A.-based horn pop band that won’t die, spent decades dodging Santa Barbara on its touring map. But lately, the band has become the veritable house band in town. When Chicago stops at the Bowl on Saturday, on a double-header with Huey Lewis and the News, it will be its fourth S.B. show in less than two years.
The thing is, 39 years into it, this is one “nostalgia act” with enough musical muscle and catalogue to make its live shows — even on repeat visits — lively affairs. The hits keep coming, from the sweet ditties we hear daily in grocery stores to the spunkier early hits, and so does the thrill of real-time musicianship and intricate arrangements. As of 2006, there’s a new twist, being Chicago XXX, the band’s first new pop studio album in 15 years, with a single, “Feel,” faring nicely on the radio. Unlike many veteran acts on the Boomer scene, Chicago is not going gently into the sunset of the oldies jukebox circuit.
Trombonist James Pankow, a founding member and composer in the band, spoke with me over the phone, with the confidence and also humility of someone who knows his job and is happy for its career track continuance. “It’s been quite a ride,” he said. “I’m pinching myself every year. I’m amazed by a career that doesn’t seem to want to tire out. I tire out, but the career doesn’t.”
Have there been periods of inactivity or maybe even soul-searching in the band’s history? Well, we haven’t taken off a year. This is our 40th touring season and I haven’t had a summer vacation in all those years. So it’s not like we’ve taken so much time off that we had to look inward and examine this. We’ve been too busy to do that. We’ve always been a journeyman type of act, a road band. It’s that communion with a live audience that remains the big pull here. People wonder, “How can you play ‘Saturday in the Park’ year after year and keep it fresh?” The answer to that is that every night onstage, it’s a new set of circumstances. It’s yet another audience. Without that, it would be same old, same old. It works because of that adrenaline from a live audience.
This is exciting music to hear live not only because of the recognition factor with the hits, but also the sophistication of the arrangements and playing. Do you intentionally work that balance? We do it the old-fashioned way, with musical ability. It’s all about the music. We don’t go onstage with pyrotechnics and dancers and lip-synching, like so much of the current genre. It’s all about the music. It’s not about the theater or the circus act, built around the lack of musicianship, which describes so many acts today. Don’t get me wrong — there are a lot of incredible artists who are still emerging. There have always been good artists and bad artists, since we started. But I think the genre we’re looking at today is so much about theater, and marketing and packaging. It’s not the same business today as it was when we emerged.
People may associate Chicago as a maker of “lite” pop hits. But when you did emerge, the band was musically ambitious and even a bit experimental, wouldn’t you say? Yes. If you can believe it, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” was “underground.” When we first arrived, AM radio wouldn’t touch our stuff because it was too avant-garde. Of course now, it’s mainstream, classic pop. But back in the early ’70s, radio didn’t know how to deal with this music, because it was so different — this brass-oriented rock and roll. Once “Make Me Smile” became a hit song, songs that were released by Chicago Transit Authority and didn’t go anywhere were re-released — and embraced — because they got it. But it took commercial radio a year or so to catch up, to digest what we were doing. That’s kind of funny. Back in those days, the career was driven more than anything by college audiences. We were, like, required listening on college campuses. They had their underground FM stations that played whole sides of records without interruption back then. That became a steamroller. By virtue of necessity, radio had to take notice. We went from being strictly underground FM to commercial mainstream radio with the release of “Make Me Smile” in 1970.
The early hit “25 to 6 or 4” features one of the wildest guitar solos ever on Top 40 radio, by the late, great Terry Kath. Terry, rest in peace, was a brilliant innovator. We’ll never know where we could have gone had he remained with us. The good Lord took him too soon. He was one of the real driving forces within the band, and took us into some very challenging directions. We didn’t want to get too outside. We made the mistake one year, I remember, of getting too complacent. At one point, we were one of the biggest acts in the world and the streets were paved with gold. Everything we touched had the Midas effect. With so many albums on the charts and so many hits, suddenly we became full of ourselves. We decided, “Hey, enough of this commercial pabulum. Let’s do a show for us.” We went on the road and did all of the obscure songs, the instrumental things, and more experimental cuts from the albums. People in the audience started scratching their heads, wondering, “What the hell is this? Is it Weather Report or Chicago?”
Could this thing go on indefinitely? As far as I can see, that appears to be the case. This music just seems to be something that has taken on a life of its own, and it is perpetuating this audience base. We keep being discovered by younger people, who discover it through their older siblings or their parents, and you’re looking out at a whole new generational audience. It’s an enviable position for any artist. That’s why the Stones are still working. Without an audience, frankly, there’s no point. You can be the greatest thing since Swiss cheese and it wouldn’t matter, because what’s the point? It’s the communion with the audience that drives that. Without that, you’re punching air.
4•1•1 Chicago, with Huey Lewis and the News, plays the Santa Barbara Bowl on Saturday, June 10, at 6:30 p.m. See sbbowl.com.