Longtime readers know of my deep fondess for the music of Chicago, in particular the band’s ’70s output. My dad played Chicago albums a lot around the house when I was small, and as a result, they are familiar and comfortable to me, the way Campbell’s chicken noodle soup or a Snoopy doll might be to other Seventies kids.
This being a Saturday and the Fourth of July, it seems an appropriate time to gather some thoughts on “Saturday In The Park,” which in my estimation is the definitive Seventies Chicago tune if you had to pick one. (This reflects my preference for Robert Lamm’s singing and songwriting above that of the other guys in the band.)
I’m sure I’ve tossed out some of these observations in other posts in other years; and I don’t guarantee any of them are worth anything, individually or together. But, here you go. Enjoy your Fourth, and any other Saturdays in the park you might come across.
– “Saturday In The Park,” despite being one of the great all-time pop songs to mention the Fourth of July, wasn’t actually a Fourth of July hit. The invaluable ARSA radio-play database shows the song beginning to pop up on local radio charts in late July 1972, and it would not reach its Top 40 chart peak until well after Labor Day.
Ironically, it could have been a Fourth of July hit. According to Wiki, the songs on the Chicago V album were recorded in late September of 1971, but were held in the can until the following summer to allow the band’s Live at Carnegie Hall album to run the charts.
Perhaps patriotic Fourth of July airplay would have helped “Saturday In The Park” get all the way to Number One, instead of stalling at Number Four. And maybe if it had, the Chicago sound would not have been so firmly defined by Peter Cetera — who succeeded in giving the band its first Number One single four years later, with “If You Leave Me Now.”
(Or maybe not. Number One for the week including July 4, 1972, was Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” not a song to be easily elbowed aside.)
– I’ve described this song in the past as a Norman Rockwell painting rendered by hippies, and I still find that charming.
Chicago, keep in mind, had dedicated an album just two years earlier to “the men and women of the revolution.” And on their previous studio album, released a year before “Saturday In The Park,” they’d appeared on a poster dramatizing the deaths of American combat soldiers throughout history.
“Saturday In The Park,” in contrast, finds them connecting with the eternal sunshine in the American bloodstream — flags and celebration, and people pouring into shared public areas just to experience a special day, and people free to tell stories their own way, and even people speaking different languages. (Lamm’s delightfully garbled line of mock-Italian deserves a blog post all to itself, but I’ll leave it be for now.)
There would be political and social comment on Chicago V — witness the superb “Dialogue (Parts I & II),” the follow-up single to “Saturday In The Park.”
But the album’s lead single seems to me to serve as a vote of confidence in the American spirit. It’s an anthem for the shared thread within us that comes together, without being maudlin or jingoistic, to recognize that we’ve got a good idea going; our forefathers came up with something special; and our great democratic experiment is worth continued support.
Some might see that as selling out or giving up. If I’d been a hippie in 1972 I might have felt that way.
From my perspective, I see it as a realistic vision … a realization that the republic had weathered any number of storms, and it would weather Vietnam and other Seventies downers as well, and that a core of something worth celebrating lingered under all the generational hassles.
– Speaking of political comment, it’s telling in retrospect to listen to the second side of Chicago V. The side opens with “While The City Sleeps,” a paranoid, vaguely heavy rocker about unseen forces (The Man?) plotting “new ways to kill us” and “tell us dirty lies.”
Then it moves into “Saturday In The Park,” as sturdy and charming as a deep-rooted oak on a New England town green.
Then it moves to “State of the Union,” a Lamm-written, Cetera-sung rocker whose fictional narrator gets arrested for his profane, public calls to tear the system down.
And then it moves to “Goodbye,” a song about failed interpersonal relationships set atop the background of a busy rock star (“the last three whole years have flashed by.”)
Seen in retrospect, it’s almost like you can watch Chicago’s young-revolutionary side doing battle with its mature L.A.-rock-star side for control of the band’s direction.
(Side II does not end with a clear victory for either faction. Rather, it ends with Terry Kath’s “Alma Mater,” a song that calls on the band members to hold it together now that they’re stars. A fitting close to a schizophrenic, if highly enjoyable, piece of work. Fans would have to wait for future albums to find out for sure which side won.)
– Kath, speaking of, is almost totally absent from this single. You have to listen closely to hear his guitar chanks on beats 2 and 4, and his voice is not noticeably present in the harmonies.
“Saturday In The Park” marks something of a turning point for Chicago’s self-taught guitarist, singer, songwriter and rock n’ roll force.
Of the band’s 11 singles released prior to “Saturday,” four featured partial or full lead vocals by Kath. Two were Top Ten hits — among the band’s best-known songs at the time — while a third dented the Top 20. (All chart info in this graf and the following is taken from this Wiki page.)
Of the 14 singles released by the band after “Saturday” and before Kath’s death in January 1978, he took full or partial lead on only four. Two of those singles missed the Top 40 entirely. A third, while a major hit, featured a Kath vocal appearance so subdued as to be virtually unrecognizable (“Wishing You Were Here”), and overshadowed in any event by the presence of several Beach Boys on support vocals.
Only “Dialogue,” the immediate follow-up single to “Saturday,” would find major chart success with Kath’s gravelly voice front and center.
It feels too dramatic to suggest that Kath’s downward spiral started here — that the evolution of Chicago starting around this time would lead up to the day when the guitarist would put a gun to his head, even in jest, and pull the trigger.
Still, Kath’s transformation from prominent lead voice to something more approaching a sideman seems to have begun around this time.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Cetera had the hot hand vocally, while Lamm, Cetera and James Pankow were shining as songwriters. But for those who enjoyed the early Chicago, it does mark a shift in the sound and dynamics of the group.
– The uplifting vocal chorus of “Listen, children, all is not lost / All is not lost / Oh, no, no” apparently fires up Lamm so much that he breaks into a momentary flourish of bluesy boogie-woogie piano.
(It’s audible at about 2:45 of the above clip … though, really, anyone still reading this has heard the song 15,000 times and knows exactly what I’m talking about.)
I love that because it supports the lyrical theme of doing your own thing. A bronze man still can tell stories his own way; and slow-motion riders can fly the colors of the day; and a brainy, somewhat disaffected young rock star can burst out with a clumsy bit of boogie, even if no one would normally confuse him with Johnnie Johnson.
(It could also be seen as a quick moment of Lamm putting his own stamp on his song. Most of “Saturday In The Park” is a vocal and/or instrumental duet between Lamm and Cetera — check out the latter’s McCartneyish bass link that starts the section about the slow-motion riders. But for one second in an otherwise smooth pop ensemble performance, Lamm pounds a little louder and throws in a little blues flavor. Why not?)
– Check out the way drummer Danny Seraphine turns the beat around in the last 10 seconds or so of the song, under Cetera’s vocal vamping … and how Cetera’s chronically underrated bass playing bounces imperturbably off it before meeting again at the finish. They didn’t just put the music on cruise control to the end.
– And dig the closing piano chord, which rings from sea to shining sea with an engaging sort of solidity. Chicago’s “A Day In The Life,” only with ennui replaced by optimism? Yeah, you could probably make an argument in that direction.
– In my limited 40-year-old suburban-dad knowledge, there are not that many killer hip-hop songs that sample Chicago. Robert Lamm and company just don’t bespeak bad-ass groove to producers, I guess.
But any discussion of “Saturday In The Park” ought to include De La Soul’s audacious “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’,” which includes a ghostly sample of Lamm and the Chicago horn section alongside several clips from the theme from “Grease.”
I’ve always loved the song — it’s like somebody took a bunch of Seventies signifiers, threw them into a blender and set a funky beat underneath.