Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Opening Credits Starring New York City

I lived an hour outside Manhattan between 1973 and 1994. The city I knew and loved is gone, replaced by a shinier, cleaner, safer version that no longer feels like home to me. This is a ridiculously personal reaction, but nonetheless I am firm in my conviction that a lot of what made New York unique and wonderful has disappeared since I left the area. Of course, an aging dude who knew NYC in the fifties could say the same thing during the 1980s, and he'd be right. So don't mind me and my ramblings, but do take a look at these videos of some of my favorite opening credits for TV shows and films, all depicting the New York I knew best, for better or worse.

Manhattan (1979) “Chapter one: he adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. Uh, no. Make that “He romanticized it all out of proportion. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin. “

"Taxi" (1978-1983) Angela's Theme was one of the best-known instrumentals of its time.

"Million Dollar Movie" WOR-9, New York  This introduction to a long-running movie show on channel 9 is well-loved by anyone who grew up in the New York metropolitan area during the 70s and 80s. I swear, it used to make my heart race and made me want to run into the city and explore. It made me think of my dad coming home in the evening after a long day working in Lower Manhattan, and how in the winter the cold clinging to his coat smelled of the good, honest smells of the city.

Taxi Driver (1976)  Blurry and blobby, but still NYC as it was, as seen from Travis Bickle's POV.

Working Girl (1988)

"The Odd Couple" (TV, 1970-1975)

"The Jeffersons" (1975-1985) One of the great 70s TV themes, sung by the great Ja'Net DuBois (who played Willona Woods on "Good Times")

"All in the Family" (1971-1979)

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)  A bit of a cheat, since I wasn't yet born in 1961. Still, great shots of 5th Avenue during that era.

The Warriors (1979)

I'm certain I am missing or have forgotten some great NY opening scenes, so comment below if you think of any!

Friday, March 9, 2018

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set By... Chicago

One of my favorite music sites, Wilson & Alroy’s Record Reviews (“We listen to the lousy records so you don’t have to”) sums up Chicago’s career very nicely in the first and last sentences of their review for Chicago III: “Formed in the Windy City in 1967, this group was halfway between pop and prog, cutting lengthy fusion jams but also reining themselves in to craft catchy singles… The band famously ruined its reputation with a string of schlocky AM ballads, but continued to sell strongly through the end of the 80s.” Their first few albums were compared to Blood, Sweat & Tears (a band on the same label with a horn section and similar inclinations toward jazz), but while BS&T (arguably) had better musical chops, Chicago had much better songwriting, and an early inclination toward experimentation. So while BS&T petered out after one huge album with three singles peaking at #2, Chicago had a chart career that saw them hit the Billboard Hot 100 47 times between 1969 and 1991. The band started losing its experimental edge in the 1970s, and after Terry Kath’s accidental death in 1978 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, moved slowly into adult contemporary territory, jumping in full force in the 1980s after a record label switch and more reliance on outside songwriters and musicians.

The band still tours today (they’re in the middle of a major tour as I write this, and I might be more inclined to see them when they play in my area if the supporting act wasn’t REO Speedwagon), and their set lists apparently favor the earlier material (a recent show in Las Vegas included almost all of their second album, with only three songs recorded after 1978’s Hot Streets). But of the original seven members, only four remain with the band (and one, saxophonist/flutist Walter Parazadier, doesn’t tour). Kath was replaced by several guitarists (in fairness, current guitarist Keith Howland has been with them since 1995), and bassist Peter Cetera and drummer Danny Seraphine both had pretty bitter departures from the group between 1985 and 1990. Keyboardist Robert Lamm, trombone player James Pankow, and trumpet player Lee Loughnane are still full members of the band, however. They’ve also had a shuffle in the last few years, with both Bill Champlin and Jason Scheff, who handled the bulk of lead vocals, both departing.

As far as I can tell, all of Chicago’s music is now under their ownership – the material they recorded for Columbia Records between 1969 and 1980, as well as the 1980s/early 1990s material released on Warner Brothers and its subsidiary labels (Full Moon, Reprise). They tried making a go of handling their catalog themselves through their own Chicago Records label, but since the late 1990s all of their reissues have been through Rhino Records, with the occasional original release elsewhere (2014’s Chicago XXXVI: Now is on Frontiers Records).

The band has released plenty of retrospectives throughout the years, but this is the most obvious one:

This is a lengthy double (it runs over 157 minutes; the maximum that fits on two CDs is 160) that manages to include all of Chicago’s top forty hits save two (1974’s “Harry Truman”  and 1989’s “You’re Not Alone,” neither of which appear to be band favorites), as well as a few key minor hits. There are a few single edits, some out of necessity (many of the band’s early hits were part of longer suites on the albums), a few to fit the disc (especially the 1980s hits). Mostly in chronological order (“If You Leave Me Now” and “Old Days” are reversed, probably to fit their discs) as well, which makes it easier to decide what to skip (hint: most of disc 2). $13.99 for the two-disc set on Amazon, $18.99/$19.99 for the download on Amazon and iTunes, respectively. I have this, and it’s very solid.

Here are the rest (the links go to the appropriate Wikipedia pages):

Chicago IX: Chicago’s Greatest Hits (1975) – most record collections in the late 1970s and early 1980s included this one; I have it on vinyl as well. Columbia did a nice job, jamming over 47 minutes of music on one LP (which also probably discouraged people making tapes, since it wouldn’t fit on one side of a 90-minute cassette). A couple of minor edits (well, the edits on “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” are more than minor) don’t hurt the listening experience. $7.99 for the CD and $19.99 for the vinyl reissue on Amazon, $9.49/$9.99 for the download on Amazon and iTunes. This is a great purchase, but since all of these songs are also on The Very Best of Chicago: Only the Beginning (along with 28 others) I would get that set and make a playlist of just the songs on this album (or a car CD).

Greatest Hits, Volume II (1981) – released by Columbia to fulfill contract obligations after both Chicago 13 and Chicago XIV bombed, so they could pay off the band’s contract and dump them from the label. That turned out to be a mistake, but so was this misbegotten attempt to get fans to pick up another greatest hits set beside IX. Taken primarily but not exclusively from Chicago VIII through Hot Streets (two early minor hits, “Dialogue: Part I & II” and “Happy Man” are also included), missing some hits from the latter era (“Another Rainy Day in New York City” really should be here, along with “Harry Truman”), full of single edits (“Dialogue: Part I & II” loses part I altogether, which is all of the dialogue), this barely made Billboard’s album charts, hitting #171 (IX made #1 and has sold over five million copies). Out of print, and good riddance. (A note to Wikipedia, however: contrary to your assumptions, a cover that included 70 small cover photos was not cheap to produce in 1981 – that meant 70 color separations in those days before digital prepress.) I have this on CD, ripped from a library copy, before I knew better to do such things.

If You Leave Me Now (1983) – less than 18 months after Greatest Hits, Volume II (and six months after the band’s comeback hit, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” hit #1 in Billboard), Columbia Records came up with a new rip off. This spans the band’s entire career, but nine of the eleven songs included here are on one of the other of the previous two hits sets (the exceptions: “Another Rainy Day in New York City” and the flop single “Song for You” from 1980’s Chicago XIV), so there’s no real reason for this to exist other than to raid fans’ wallets again. The band ignores this one (it’s not listed on their discography page, and isn’t included in the number sequence of albums), and you should too. This is out of print as well; the few new CDs on Amazon are from third-party sellers. Unbelievably, I have this on a pirated cassette; since it was in my wife’s collection before we started dating, I plead ignorance.

Take Me Back to Chicago (1985/1990) – holy mackerel, there were some greedy execs at Columbia around this time. This was the title for two compilations, both with nearly completely different track selections (the only two songs in common were another Chicago XIV flop single, “Thunder and Lightning,” and “Take Me Back to Chicago”), issued five years apart. The first one is a mishmash (at least “Harry Truman” finally got a reissue here), while the second focuses on Peter Cetera songs, as he had established a pretty good solo career. As with If You Leave Me Now, this one is disregarded by the band, and both versions are out of print.

Greatest Hits 1982–1989 (1989) – there’s no chance I would buy this compilation of all 1980s songs by the band, but somebody did; it’s also sold over 5 million copies. This only misses two of their hits to make the upper 2/3 of the Billboard pop chart during this era: the aforementioned “You’re Not Alone” and a gimmicky synth-driven remake of “25 or 6 to 4” that I suspect hasn’t been played by any radio station in the world in the last quarter century. $9.99 for the CD (there are a lot of copies in used record stores, however), and $17.88 for what I think is a vinyl reissue on Amazon. Strangely, this one’s unavailable for download.

Group Portrait (1991) – Columbia’s last release before the material reverted to the band, and this one isn’t bad. A four-disc box set (back when all legacy acts released them), and while there are very few rarities (a B-side, “Closer to You,” and “Doin’ Business,” which didn’t make Chicago XIV), it’s chock full of music from the band’s peak (Chicago Transit Authority through Chicago VII) and includes highlights from after that. This also isn’t included in the band’s album numbering, but since all of the band members are included in the commentary, there must have been some level of cooperation. Out of print, and while I wouldn’t break the bank looking for it, I’d probably grab it if I found it cheap and in good shape.

Chicago Presents The Innovative Guitar of Terry Kath (1997) – major props to the band for issuing this one on their own label. Terry Kath was one of the founding members, their lead and rhythm guitarist, a key songwriter and great singer (Peter Cetera was the tenor, Kath was the growling low voice, and Lamm took the middle). His guitar work was extraordinary; listen to the solos on “25 or 6 to 4,” “I’m a Man,” and “South California Purples” and see if you agree. Long out of print on disc (and somewhat of a collector’s item); $10.49 for the download on Amazon and $10.99 on iTunes. You might want to assemble your own set from the songs you have on hand after buying a few of the early discs.

The Heart of Chicago 1967-1997 (1997) and The Heart of Chicago 1967-1998 Volume II (1998) – the band’s attempt to merge their two eras together started with the “red” album, a single-disc release that mixed eight songs from the Columbia years, seven from the Warner Brothers years, and two new recordings. A good idea but not handled particularly well; fans complained about what songs were missed (at first glance: “25 or 6 to 4,” “Wishing You Were Here,” “Will You Still Love Me”). The result was the “blue” album released a year later, with nine Columbia songs, five Warner Brothers songs, and two new ones. These appear to be out of print and unavailable for download as well.

The Box (2003) – smart move by the band; it’s about time they had an all-encompassing box set. This incorporates all of the Columbia and Warner Brothers material in one place, and includes several songs not available elsewhere (two 1980s songs placed on We Are the World and the Days of Thunder soundtrack, three songs from the then-unreleased mystery album Stone of Sisyphus, and the four new songs on the two Heart of Chicago releases from 1997 and 1998). Every album is represented (even Chicago 13), and a DVD is included featuring some live material from 1972 (good!) and promo videos for Chicago 13 (bad!); this made it impossible to get the entire box without buying it (since in those days copying a DVD was much, much harder). $60.05 new from Amazon (they may be clearing out the warehouse at that price), not available for download.

Love Songs (2004) – I guess this was inevitable, but it doesn’t mean I’m ever going to buy it. No newly-written and recorded-in-the-studio material, but two live versions resulting from their occasional tours with Earth, Wind & Fire: “If You Leave Me Now” with Philip Bailey on lead vocals, and “After the Love Has Gone,” the EW&F ballad that was cowritten by then-Chicago keyboardist Bill Champlin before he joined the band. Amazon doesn’t seem to have this for download, but iTunes does at $9.99 (it might make sense to just download the two EW&F-related songs, however). Amazon does have the disc for $10.87, however – beware the vinyl option, which leads to what looks like a grey-market release of material from the Columbia years. The international version of this album has a somewhat different track listing, including “Saturday in the Park” (huh?) and two solo Peter Cetera songs, “Glory of Love” and “The Next Time I Fall” (how did the band sign off on that one?).

The Best of Chicago: 40th Anniversary Edition (2007) – totally unnecessary product, compared to The Very Best of Chicago. Over 40 minutes shorter with nine less songs. Yes, two songs from Chicago XXX are included along with one of the Heart of Chicago songs, but so what? It’s even more expensive than The Very Best of Chicago on Amazon at $14.99, and it’s unavailable for download. Avoid this one.

The Studio Albums, 1969-1978, Vol. 1 (2015), and The Studio Albums, 1979-2008, Vol. 2 (2015) – these are exactly what they sound like – every note from the studio albums, rereleased. Both are from Rhino (they’re both imports), and feature the bonus tracks included on the single-disc rereleases. If I didn’t already have much of what’s on Volume 1 I’d probably consider it (I have all of the first five studio albums on CD, and the next five on vinyl); Volume 2 doesn’t interest me. Volume 1 is $41.21 for the discs and $66.49 for the download on Amazon, Volume 2 is $43.02 and $66.49, respectively. iTunes has both for $69.99 for the download. I have no idea if these include the original album art in sleeves or liner notes, but I do know the discs include one album apiece.

Original Album Series (2013) – Rhino’s low-budget series of boxes does have its virtues. This includes four early releases (Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago II, Chicago V, Chicago VI), but since two of those were doubles, you’re getting six albums’ worth of music on four discs. No bonus tracks, but $19.23 on Amazon for this material is a nice price. Not available for download; none of these are.

Original Album Series, Vol. 2 (2015) – this does have Chicago IX, the first greatest hits set, along with Chicago X and XI, and the latter-day Chicago 16 and Chicago 17. So to me this one’s a lot less tempting, but others may disagree. $25.04 on Amazon.

Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago (2016) – soundtrack to the “documentary” about the band. (The documentary ran into some controversy when it ran on CNN; the filmmaker is Peter Pardini, whose uncle Lou is now the band’s keyboard player, and there’s a line in the credits noting the movie is produced by Chicago. Pardini says he didn’t consult with the band, and it’s fine if he wants to work that way, but CNN should have been more up front about this.) Anyway, none of that affects this collection, which includes 53 songs, 46 of which are from the Columbia years. $23.99 for the download on Amazon and $24.99 on iTunes, which isn’t a bad price at all. No physical disc set available.

Other “If You’re Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From…” Blog Posts: