By Jeb Wright
When Lee Loughnane became one of the founding members of the rock group Chicago, back in 1967, he had no inkling that his band would go on to sell over one hundred million albums, have 21 Top 10 singles, five consecutive number one albums and 47 Gold and Platinum awards. While the band has never been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Chicago’s lifetime achievements include a Grammy Award, multiple American Music Awards, election as Founding Artists to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Chicago street dedicated in their honor, and Keys to and Proclamations from an impressive list of US cities.
The band has now released a new DVD titled Chicago World Tour 2011 that is a behind the scenes treasure trove for fans of the group. This documentary sees the band open up and let the cameras roll. In addition to the stellar onstage footage, the band lets the fans peek into rehearsals and gives in-depth, candid interviews.
The documentary is only available on Chicago’s website, http://www.chicagotheband.com, where they also have many other exciting products for sale.
Classic Rock Revisited caught up with founding member and horn blower Lee Loughnane to discuss this exciting new release. Lee tells how he has taken over as the Chicago’s IT department, learning how the online works. He also talks about the making of the documentary and takes time to discuss a few of the surreal moments of the band’s colorful past, including drugs, booze, woman and how they banded together and survived the death of their one time leader Terry Kath.
Jeb: You have a new documentary and DVD titled CHICAGO WORLD TOUR 2011. This is unique as most DVDs are one concert and this one is shown from all over the world. You also let the cameras into the rehearsals.
Lee: We brought Peter Pardini, Lou’s nephew, who is a videographer, with us. We originally asked Peter to shoot the behind the scenes of our Christmas album. Once he did that, then we asked him to come shoot more shows. It developed and we asked him to come to Europe. He was able to film each night, on each show, which meant that he could film more aspects on stage. As he edited it together, he made it look like we had a lot more cameras. You may notice that clothing changes during a song. We don’t go through entire songs on the documentary because it is meant to be more of a band’s eye view of what we do for a living. That is the way it turned out and we are quite happy with it.
Jeb: I think you succeeded in doing this from your own perspective.
Lee: That’s why we decided to put it up for sale on the website, and we are also selling it at the merch table at all of our shows. We really invite everyone to come to the website and check it out and pick it up.
Jeb: I love how you allow the camera to go behind the scenes where most fans are never allowed to see.
Lee: That is one of the points that we wanted to get across to everybody; this really is from our perspective. When we walk on the stage, then you are right there with us. There were a few times where some of the guys went, “Get that camera out of my face” but for the most part, everybody knew what it was that we were looking for and everyone was very receptive. We knew in advance how this was going to be accomplished—or at least Peter or I knew.
Jeb: Why did you hold this release so close to the vest? Why not put it out on a label?
Lee: We put it out in theaters about a year ago. Some people came out to see it but, as is the case, it all comes down to marketing. You can spend five million dollars on marketing, but that is never a guarantee of how many people are going to come out to see it. We are using the new method of spending no money on marketing and letting it gain its own momentum. The interviews help it out.
Jeb: You understand all of the different changes the industry has gone through. You are embracing the new world where most from your era are not and are content to just complain.
Lee: It is a whole new world and nobody really knows what to do. This is more like being a garage band again. This is a lot like starting a brand new business. A lot of these new techniques are being invented as we speak. We are doing the same thing with our recording. We are working with ProTools 9 on our laptops. We can record anywhere, at any time we want in the world and get world class sound.
Jeb: Compare that to the first album Chicago recorded back in the 1960’s.
Lee: Our first album was done on an 8-track. It was still at the point to where if you wanted to use more tracks then you would fill six tracks and commit to a mix, and then bounce those six tracks down to two tracks, so you could have more tracks to put more stuff on. You had to really think ahead as to how you wanted the record to sound.
We spliced tape and once you made a decision, then you had to live with it. Now, it is all at the push of a button.
You can over-do things, though. We pretty much came to the conclusion that if it doesn’t add to the song, then we get rid of it. We don’t want any fluff. We’ve got a lot of cooks in this band. Somebody may like the part that they did, but with all of us working together we can really tell if it adds to the song, or if we should try something else. We are always trying to move forward.
Jeb: You are going to release new music.
Lee: Definitely, we are working on it right now. We are recording live shows, as well. We can put those together as soundboard mixes, which we have a lot of those available on the website through Premium Access. We did another DVD, Chicago in Chicago, which is a Blu-ray that we did in partnership with Image Entertainment that is available on the website.
Jeb: Will the new music come out as individual downloads, or as entire albums?
Lee: We have not decided yet. I would think that you would find out in two, or three months; at least that is my goal.
Jeb: In 2011, you did a world tour and made the documentary. You still get in front of all of these people who are from different cultures and speak different languages and they love your music. What is that like?
Lee: It’s the ultimate. It is really amazing. The only thing that could make it any better would be if we could make it so we could go home after the shows every night. We have to be away from the family in order to present the music to the world. It would be great to have Scottie beam us home. I would love to be able to play the show and then be beamed home where I could take my son to school and then beam back out to do the next gig. I can’t wait until they invent The Apple Transporter!
Jeb: Music really is the universal language.
Lee: When you hear someone who speaks a different language singing the words to songs that we wrote forty years ago, or twenty years ago, and you’re performing in front of them and they are singing the lyrics with you, whether they understand it, or not, they phonetically sound it out. The intent of the music comes across to them. They feel something within themselves that everyone in the world apparently has felt; the emotion gets across to them. It is powerful.
Jeb: You have really taken on a leadership role in Chicago.
Lee: In some ways—it really became available to me when we built the website. I am getting more and more versed in the digital world. I have learned this stuff from the ground up. I’ve never considered myself and engineer type of person, but in order to do this you have to learn the ropes and really just get in there and do it. It is very exciting.
Jeb: You have been involved with Rhino Records and the music they are putting out.
Lee: They bought the stuff back in 1992; they allowed me to come in and work with them, as they actually own the masters now for the legacy stuff. I went through, with Jeff Magid, all of our tapes. We figured out which tapes were viable and what period they came from.
When we opened up the tapes, they were not marked. We didn’t know when a song would start, so we had to listen to each tape. We didn’t know which ones we could use. We had to find the full versions of the songs. As it turns out, most of the stuff that we recorded, especially in the old days, we used. We didn’t have a lot of backups back then; we used everything that we recorded. On the later stuff, we found some stuff that we could use as bonus tracks.
Jeb: What was it like cracking that musical vault open?
Lee: It was pretty interesting because we found out how well our tapes held up. Some bands had important pieces of their music stored outside with a tarp over them. Some of them were virtually destroyed and you can’t play them anymore. A lot of our tapes, because of the oxide coming off the tapes, had to be baked. You put them in a convection oven and it literally bakes the oxide back onto the tape, so you can play it again. It is a pretty intricate process and it pretty much gives you one try to make it work. You might get a couple of tries, but you start seeing the oxide come off and, once it comes off, then that’s it for the song.
Jeb: How long did this all take?
Lee: They did one album at a time and then Rhino put together some new packaging. It took a few years to put it all together. We went through Chicago 18 from the beginning. It was fun. It took me back. In many ways, Chicago has been our own worst critics—I know for sure I have. I was never satisfied that the records were done. By going back and listening to them, it hit me that this was a lot better than I gave it credit for being at the time. I am a lot more accepting of the little idiosyncrasies.
Jeb: Maybe I am being philosophical here, but Chicago has never broken up. What keeps you going for all of this time?
Lee: The music itself and the pleasure that we get for playing it for other people is the reason we have been able to do this. We still get along with each other. There are four original members of the band. There were six of us before [Peter] Cetera joined and we played together for six or eight months. By the time Cetera joined and did the first record we had seven guys. That is quite the track record. It amazes us and we have to pinch ourselves that we’ve lasted this long. It is really a testament to the music that came through everybody through the late ‘60s,’ 70’s and ‘80’s. The power ballads were another huge wave of success for us that no one figured that we would have. We are actually poised for another wave of success, but I am not sure how old we will be when it hits. We are going to keep going for it and putting out new music and trying to expand the legacy.
Jeb: Chicago evolved their music into other areas but very few have been able to do it without a huge backlash from the original fans.
Lee: They remember us for what it is. When their children listen to the same records that they listened to, then they latch on to the emotional aspects of the material as well. We were not able to look into a crystal ball and see that was going to happen. When you’re writing a song then you hope somebody will listen to it, but you have no idea that it will last for decades.
Jeb: Chicago has rock stuff, soul stuff, soft stuff, funky stuff and the ballads.
Lee: We have never liked to play just one style of music. We’ve always been a multi-style band.
Jeb: Before you were the Chicago Transit Authority, you were the Big Thing. Was that genius of wanting to be a mulit-style band there from the beginning?
Lee: We had no idea; we just did it. We were young and stupid and we were just going for it. We jumped right off the cliff without any cares. We were indestructible.
Jeb: How did you join the band?
Lee: I met Jimmy [Pankow] and Walt [Parazaider] at DePaul University. Terry, Jimmy and Walt were in a band called The Missing Links and I used to go sit in with them. Walt and Jimmy went to DePaul and when The Missing Links broke up they wanted to start a show band with horns. That is where we came from. We thought we were going to go to Vegas and be a show band. We had the suits and started doing steps and slicked back our hair. That lasted about five months. Terry [Kath] walked onstage at Barnaby’s [a club in Chicago] with his suit coat on backwards one day and ripped it right off of his back. That was the last time we played with suits, from then on it was jeans and t-shirts.
Jeb: When did you know you had something special?
Lee: It was a few years into our career. We just kept working and we kept our nose to the grindstone. We just kept making that next. Now, we have off time where we can have reflection and go, “Oh my God, this is 46 years later. How are we doing this?” It is really phenomenal to us that we’ve been able to do this. We thank our fans for enjoying us all of these years because we’ve never had to get a job.
Jeb: Did the media make a bigger deal out of the rivalry between Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears that it really was?
Lee: Oh yeah, that really seemed like it was a big deal then. If it was now, could you imagine? Someone would have a couple of bad nights and it would be the end. We dodged a bullet in that regard. The media with all of the stuff that is on YouTube would be really all over that.
Jeb: Chicago is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You have never even been nominated for induction. Does that bother you?
Lee: We’ve been eligible for over twenty years. I think 1992 was the first year we were eligible to be nominated. After all of this time, it really doesn’t matter that much. There are a lot of people who are in it that are not working anymore and many others are not even with us anymore. So, I love working and I like what I’m doing. The perception to the majority of people is that we are already in the Hall of Fame. When they find out we are not then they wonder why not. We are not the Lone Rangers; look at the Moody Blues. There are a number of bands that should be in that are not, and then you look at some of the bands that are in, and you go, “Really?” It is what it is.
Jeb: Do you have a favorite era of Chicago music?
Lee: I like the old days, but I really like what we are doing now too. When we did the power ballads there were people who said that we had gotten soft, but that was just not true. I know that and people who come to see us live know that as well and that is all that matters to me. We love playing and the songs hold up. Some of the ‘80’s songs may be ballads, but they are not fluff songs. They have never gotten covered a whole lot because they change keys a couple of times before you get to the first verse. A lot of bands are not able to do that. I think that is really why a lot of our songs have not been covered; they really are intricate.
Jeb: Chicago may have been a pop band, but there were a lot of drugs and booze.
Lee: We did everything. I am amazed that I’m alive. If I had not stopped doing the things that I was doing then we would not be talking now. To be truthful, I stopped doing what I was doing because it was no longer working for me and that scared me more than anything else. I had to go get sober.
Jeb: Was there a time when Chicago thought about calling it quits?
Lee: That was when Terry died; that was only 11 years into our career. When he died, it was such a shock to us. He was the musical leader of the band. We considered not doing it anymore. It was devastating for us. It didn’t take very long for us to realize that he would have wanted us to continue. We wanted to continue as well. The hardest thing was to be able to replace him. He had so many intangibles. You don’t know how to get those back.
Somehow we managed to see that we had a deep bench. We’ve always had somebody, no matter what was going on, whether it was a woman, alcohol, drugs, no matter what it was, that was able to stand up and take up the slack and put it on their shoulders for however long they needed to.
Back then, to think of the age that I am now, I thought was ancient. I am still pretty young. I never thought I would be doing this when I was 60 and it is great and 60 is still young.
Jeb: Last one: When I was a kid the story was that the song “25 to 6 to 4” was a chemical recipe to make LSD. What is the truth?
Lee: I have heard that one. I have heard it is about horse races as well. In reality, he wrote the song about writing a song. He is bleary eyes and sitting cross-legged on the floor and he’s wondering if he should keep going. The clock is on the other side of the room and he is wondering if he should keep writing. He has to squint at the clock across the room and he sees that it is either 25, or 26 minutes to 4:00AM. He has been writing that song all day and night. I don’t know if he finished writing it that night or not [laughter].
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