Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Chicago Cover Gallery
In its forty-year journey from trailblazing Blood, Sweat and Tears-style horn-led jazz-rock to corn-fed MOR gravy and then on into... well, into perpetuation for its own sake, Chicago have kept alive a remarkably strong brand identity. While their sound has changed a lot, their design aesthetic has remained constant. Both their most defining feature and their curse of anonymity, their lengthy series of albums with numbered titles (like editions of a magazine) and variations on the band logo on the cover are iconic as hell, but kind of make their albums all seem the same ("I think XIV was much better than XII. Almost a throwback to the glory days of VII.") Chicago seems, over the years, to have struggled with this, swerving from embracing the iconic design to deviating from it. On a retrospective like this, though, it's the iconic ones that catch the eye.
The first album is attributed to "Chicago Transit Authority", and as such doesn't follow the 'format'. But after that, this initial series of multi-album sets ('trailblazing' means 'longwinded') is among the most famous. Especially if you scour second-hand record bins. There's the sheet metal, the... er, flag or scarf or something, the one-in-white, and the wooden one. Maybe that's what Chicago fans refer to them as.
The purity of the design is falling apart a bit now. I don't know what the busy #6 is meant to be, and after the back-to-form leather one, you get 'logo plus bird', which is no design at all: perhaps this was an eraly attempt on Chicago's part to overcome the curse ("Hey, did you like the bird album?") The Greatest Hits is a lame idea, but the chocolate album pretty much perfects the concept. I don't know if even a minute of the music is worth hearing, but that is one awesome album. It deserves to be on the wall of some university kid's dorm room.
After a pretty lame 'map of Illinois' cover, Chicago decides they've had enough: for the first time, they give an album a title, "Hot Streets", and a cover so lame it defies description. Shocked back to their senses, they go back to high rise and fingerprint (which is pretty cool) before adopting a non-design of, presumably, signage in Chicago for thier second Greatest Hits album.
The microchip cover balances the main conceit with an attempt to give the album an individual identity, but I guess it bombed. Peter Cetera was in full force for the schlock-fest '17', with its not-bad packaging-packaging. It all goes downhill from here, though. I'm not sure I get what the next one is - stained glass? After that, the Microsoft Paint doodle is an embarrassment. And then a sadly generic Greatest Hits cover.
The album called 'Twenty 1' is about as stupid as it gets: keep the silly numerical title but ditch the cover design. Whose idea was that? Horribly misguided, but the band was in real freefall by now, to the pointt that they gave thier next album a name, "Night and Day", and a messy, boring, faux-retro cover. It's compilation-mania from now on. The next two look the same and evoke nothing. A Christmas album (for God's sake) follows, with a wreath.
A blandly generic live album with a blandly generic cover comes next. The compilation that follows is a bit contrived, but it's a decent attempt to carry on the tradition, with the logo as roadside flower-art. The boxed set that came next has a decent 'old school' pin-impression-toy cover. The 'Love Songs' cash-in has rose petals. Lame. Shockingly, the next one is a proper album. Number thirty, as it turns out, and they avoid the temptation to theme the cover around hard liquor or porn. I don't get the cover, though. Is he shovelling snow?
No surprise - a compilation. The wax seal is kind of a 'how didn't they think of that before?' but it's quite pretty. Then the most recent one, XXXII, is actually about 15 years old or so. Only their third album with a 'name', and it's a pretty cheesy Yes-ish name, "Stone of Sisyphus". It's a big stone on the cover. And Mr. Sisyphus holding it, I guess. Hope he's not too cold.