@2008 for Rhino Records
In The Greatest Music Never Sold, author Dan Leroy calls Chicago’s Stone of Sisyphus “an authentic return to form,” and bemoans the fact that one of America’s most exciting and creative bands had been forced, for purely commercial reasons, to shelve such a daring, expressive set of songs.
In the 15 years since it was recorded, Sisyphus has attained legendary status among rock critics, Chicago fans, those who’ve heard parts of it and those who have only read about it.
“Save for the songs that have seen official release on compilations,” wrote Leroy, “the disc remains merely grist for the rumor mill.”
The mill stops here.
It all began promisingly, in the latter days of 1992. After hearing the first three completed tracks from the band’s work-in-progress, Warner Bros. Records’ head of A&R excitedly told producer Peter Wolf exactly what he wanted to hear: “Chicago’s back, and in a big way!”
Sisyphus was, by design, the group’s farewell to musical ennui, to the self–perpetuated rut of big, radio-friendly ballads provided by outside writers. Although it kept them on the charts, they’d come to despise the formula.
The sessions found the musicians on fire with a rekindled enthusiasm that had been all but lost as Chicago’s identity was progressively eroded away by the frustration and guilt that comes with creative soul-selling.
“We wrote songs that were more experimental, songs that were more daring in terms of musical direction and chord construction, more than anything,” remembers James Pankow, whose innovative horn charts had been an integral part of Chicago’s distinctive sound from the start. “We got into really feeling our oats in terms of being the voice of Chicago again. It had been a long time since we had made a record like that.”
Indeed, Chicago’s horn section – trombonist Pankow, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and sax/flute player Walter Parazaider – was virtually reborn on Stone of Sysyphus, giving the music the bite, power and swing that had all but evaporated during the ballad period. So diminished had their roles become in the studio, the horn players had begun to feel like sidemen at their own sessions.
“In those days,” singer/keyboardist and songwriter Robert Lamm says, “it had been all about survival, about staying on the radio.”
Lamm, in particular, was thrilled by producer Wolf’s pronouncement that the band needed to return to what had made it great in the first place – collaborative songwriting, jamming and workshopping the songs, experimentation. Camaraderie.
“There’d been talk of ‘Well, once you guys get a really successful album, you can do whatever you want on the next album,'” says Lamm. “And it always seemed to be the next one, the next one. So we really felt like this was the album we’d been waiting to do, where we really can say who we are, right now.”
The members of Chicago gathered in Wolf’s Simi Valley studio, each bringing fresh new ideas that would be tossed around like hot potatoes until they positively cooked.
“Peter,” Lamm recalls, “pulled me aside and said ‘You know, your lyric writing is really crucial to this. You really gotta go deep, and you really gotta step up.’ And I felt like I did.
“We really got excited about it. It became a crusade, if you will, for Peter and for the guys in the band.”
Wolf, the brilliant keyboard player, writer and producer who worked with Frank Zappa for years, says he had just one goal in mind. “I’m from the days where I tried to make every song into the best possible thing it could be,” he explains. “I didn’t do one or two songs for the record, and those are my hits, and the rest I could care less about.”
Wolf had never forgotten the illuminative musical rush of the band’s early, horn–driven albums.
Says Pankow: “This was a bit of a brass orgasm for me. I hadn’t really been allowed to stretch my wings, other than a few spots here and there. Peter had the courage to trust me, and it was really a great feeling to go uncensored.”
Wolf and Chicago spent the early months of 1993 crafting Stone of Sysyphus.
“I’m the reed player,” says Parazaider, “and Peter said to me ‘Bring all your flutes, bring all your saxes, bring the bass clarinet.’ We’re going to use everything, like you used in the old days.’ Now, when somebody says that to a player, you get the U-Haul out and put everything in it.
“I’d go out, point the car in the direction of Simi Valley every day, and could hardly wait to get there. Just to see what was up with the rhythm section laying down a tune, or somebody singing a vocal, or the horns wood-shedding something out. ”
Warner executives were not invited to the sessions; the cocooned band wanted to create Sisyphus with zero input (read: meddling) from the powers that be.
When the album was finished, Chicago’s manager proudly drove the master over to the label.
What happened next still has heads shaking, all these years later.
“Suddenly there’d been a big shakeup in the hierarchy, ” says singer and multi–instrumentalist Bill Champlin, who’d delivered some of his most impassioned vocals on Sisyphus. “There were lawyers sitting in the chairs.
“And they went ‘This is the worst Chicago album yet. We can put it out, but we’re not going to do anything with it, promotion-wise.’ ”
Wolf and the band members were told that the executives – the new guys – hated their baby.
“Sure, it had things that were not the expected pop mainstream thing, but that’s what was good about it, ” says Pankow. “It had the element of surprise and exploration. ”
Lamm was stunned. “We were completely dumbfounded, ” he recalls. “A couple of the songs, ‘Here With Me’ or ‘Bigger Than Elvis,’ although they’re bigger songs than some of the power ballads we’d been having success with, they still fall in that genre. So I don’t know what the big whoop was. We were solidly together in saying ‘No, this IS the album.'”
Sisyphus proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the band’s relationship with Warner Bros.
Neither side blinked. Chicago left the label, taking Sisyphus with them.
The musicians look back on the experience now with a mixture of regret (they all wish they’d put it out sooner) and intense pride (they’d defied conventional music business wisdom, emerging with integrity intact).
“I think they wanted another album of rock ballads,” Pankow says. “And they said ‘You guys went way outside.’ We said ‘We’re not going to be somebody we aren’t any more.’ ”
THE SONGS OF SISYPHUS
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was cursed to roll a huge stone up a hill, only to have it roll back down just before the pinnacle was reached. In many ways, the story parallels Chicago’s career trajectory in the early 1990s. Stone of Sisyphus was going to be a triumphant return to the top; instead of ascending, it rolled back down and knocked them flat.
“You try to be as objective as you can about music, ” Walt Parazaider says, “but it’s a pretty personal thing when you’ve just finished something that you’ve loved doing and get that kind of reaction. I don’t think anybody that’s creative digs that kind of rejection, unless you’re a musical masochist. ”
As it turned out, the defeat was only temporary. The band forged ahead with Night and Day, an album of Big Band songs. Chicago entered its third decade wise, willing and eager to scale new creative peaks.
And over the years, the legend of Sisyphus grew.
STONE OF SISYPHUS
Dawayne brought in a couple of ideas. What is the chorus now was his verse. I listened to it a few times, we sat together, and I said ‘I think this is your chorus. We should change this around.’ I was responsible for helping him put the song together, and arranged the song.
It was the next step forward, creatively. Maybe we should never have un-invited the suits to the sessions. I think if we’d used our business sense a little better, we would’ve had a successful project.
There’s less synthesizer on the other version. I think it breathes a little better. I always thought maybe Peter had put a few too many keyboards on the track.
BIGGER THAN ELVIS
I’d told Peter and Ina Wolf about seeing Aloha From Hawaii on TV when I was a kid; Everybody was watching Elvis Presley, but I didn’t even notice him. I was just looking for my dad, who was the bass player. We brought him in to play on the song, but didn’t tell him what it was about. We muted the vocals. And that Christmas, he was over at my house and I played him the finished song. He had headphones on, and I’ll never forget it. He sobbed when he heard it.
ALL THE YEARS
It started out being about the band, and my frustration about being stuck in a corner. Then it kind of morphed into a bigger subject, the political landscape of the early ’90s. That in spite of all the revolution of the late ’60s, early ’70s, there didn’t really seem to be much progress in terms of humanity in the politics of this country, much less the world.
Me and my buddy Aaron Zigmund, and his friend Brock Walsh, we got together and said “Let’s come up with something funky.” We came up with this real cool funk groove, nothing like what ended up on Stone of Sisyphus. We brought Champlin in to sing on the demo, and that shows where it came from. Brock came up with the phrase mah-jong and painted that real pretty, smoky picture – the story of a guy who’s falling for this girl who works in a mah-jong parlor.
SLEEPING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BED
When John McCurry and I were cutting the demo, I had the lyrics written, we had the track, and I never really sang a melody. I was just kind of riffing. The rhythm of the words was there, but the melody wasn’t. I went out into the studio to do a rough vocal, and McCurry pushed the talkback button and said ‘Why don’t you rap it?’ And we both started laughing: OK, let’s try that.
I think the record company heard that and went “Wait a minute – white guys don’t do this.” Simple as that. I told Robert I thought it was an awesome piece, but you’re running up against racial lines here. I think that’s the first time Robert’s crossed any of those lines in a good long while.
Robert was just exploring another genre, which we’d been doing since Day One. I think the only things we haven’t covered are Dixieland and polkas, and give us long enough, we’ll probably do that too.
LET’S TAKE A LIFETIME
Peter spent a lot of time with Lamm, Champlin and Pankow. I remember thinking towards the end of the album that we didn’t really spend too much time working on stuff that I brought in. I always felt a little strange about saying ‘What about me?’ I hate that squeaky wheel thing. But Peter said “Oh, that’s a great song – let’s get to work.”
A highly personal song about what I was going through in my private life at the time, just trying to be in two places at the same time. As much as we might desire it and need it, it’s not possible. Peter Wolf asked me to write extraordinary lyrics for that song, and I feel like I delivered. I’m really proud of that song.
There was such a great vibe. We were all supporting each other during each other’s tracks. A lot of laughs, a lot of fun.
HERE WITH ME (A CANDLE FOR THE DARK)
A guy by the name of Greg O’ Connor and myself wrote the song initially. We were trying to get to the hook, which is “Here With Me.” And Robert jumped on board and fashioned the verse lyric, which kind of brings you to the hook, which is about a relationship that had ended but is still carried in the hearts of the people involved. Robert treated it very romantically, more so than I could have. And I think that song is a smash.
Jimmy wrote the music, and we argued about the title of the song. I thought “Here With Me” was just banal and pedestrian, so I pushed to have it called “A Candle For the Dark.”
Peter said “Let’s go after corporate rock.” And I thought whoa, that’s an easy target. That’s pretty much a big, giant bulls–eye waiting there to get hit. It’s not really about Chicago, more about the whole corporate posture. I think it was right on the money.
CRY FOR THE LOST
At the same time we had this anti-corporate thing, we had this thought of “Let’s make the commercial songs even more commercial.” So they had me do a re–write on “Proud of Our Blindness,” that turned into “Cry for the Lost.”‘ I personally like the songwriting on “Proud of Our Blindness” better. But hey, this is what the producer wanted. I didn’t become an MVP singer/songwriter over the years by telling producers “Nah, I don’t want to do that. ” I’ve learned how to work in an assignment situation.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Bruce Gaitsch and I wrote it. That’s pretty much pointing the finger at management types. Do you think the suits at the label are going to get behind a record that calls them assholes? I think what Peter wanted was a record that talks about what’s going on now, rather than love song, love song, love song, love song, love song.