If you have been following my blogs for quite a while (chances are you haven’t), you would know that I’m a big fan of the band Chicago. Yes, that Chicago that used to be rock with horns badasses then turned into a middle-of-the-road rock champion, and then an AOR ballad band, and then a band too persistent to quit (still touring after all these years). Out of all the former and current members of Chicago, only Peter Cetera and Robert Lamm maintain solo careers (and also Bill Champlin, if we consider that The Sons of Champlin is his band, and not actually a collective of musicians who reunited after Champlin left Chicago) that can be considered rather existing yet hardly consistent. Lamm, however, is still in Chicago and his outputs over the years were rather sparse since he is busy touring. Cetera, on the other hand, left Chicago in 1985 largely because he was too busy touring with Chicago and didn’t have time to spend with his family and solo material.
Peter Cetera (1981)
When Chicago was on hiatus after the catastrophic failure of their XIV album (1980), Cetera (I’ll call him PC too in this review) had already been working on his eponymous solo album. As the band was moving to a new label, Full Moon/Warner Bros., Cetera had to buy the rights for his own album from Chicago’s old label (Columbia) to continue working and later release it under Chicago’s new label. He eventually completed the album with the help of session musicians. No original Chicago members were involved in making the album. The only involvement from Chicago’s side was Chris Pinnick’s, who played guitar on most of the tracks in the album; Pinnick was Chicago’s guitar player at that time, but was never considered an official member. Another notable contribution is from Carl Wilson, the Beach Boys’ guitarist, who co-wrote and played guitar on one song.
The album was released in 1981 with almost no fanfare. Warner Bros. refused to promote the album. Up to that point, Cetera’s prominence in the band had become evident in terms of songwriting and musical direction, and his expertise in writing ballads certainly sat in well with the label and producer David Foster (yes, that David Foster, the hit man), who radically changed the sound of the band and certainly called for another smashing hit in the form of a Cetera ballad, which he did previously with “If You Leave Me Now”, “Baby, What a Big Surprise”, and to a certain extent “No Tell Lover”. Warner was afraid that Cetera would get very successful on his own, thus jeopardizing the fate of the Chicago album in the works. As a result, the album did not sell well due to lack of promotion and it remained a somewhat obscure release. Outside of the US, particularly in Indonesia, the album is even more unknown. I only found out about the album in the early 2000s, in the form of an imported cassette tape which I didn’t buy because it was ridiculously expensive and marked rare.
The album itself is actually musically very good and is often an underrated output in Cetera’s catalog. Although still a product of its time, the album’s sound holds up very well. It is overall more well thought of than the half-baked Chicago XIV and despite strands of similarities, it is still quite refreshingly different from Chicago 16 that comes after it. To my surprise (and perhaps to the surprise of everyone familiar with Cetera’s work in Chicago and after), this is not an album of saccharine ballads. The first song and the lone single from the album, “Livin’ in the Limelight”, is a straightforward hard-hitting guitar-distortion-and-synth rock anthem, with sarcastic lyrics on fame and excesses. The awesome pyrotechnical guitar solo was contributed by none other than Steve Lukather of Toto, who was also in the studio to record some of his guitar work for the upcoming Chicago 16. The song happened because Pete wanted to rock sometimes, and this is a logical and more fully realized continuation of his half-baked (did I use this adjective earlier for the XIV album?) “Hold On” in XIV. The song peaked at number six on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, and for that one moment in his life, Peter Cetera was a mainstream rockstar! Nevertheless, the lack of promotion for the album meant that was it and no further singles were released from the album.
The subsequent songs are not as hard-hitting as the first, but they are very competently written and recorded. The rock ballad co-written by Carl Wilson, “I Can Feel It” is certainly not the most exciting song in the album, but it certainly is very slick and is a great change of pace from “Livin’ in the Limelight”. The album also shows that Cetera could work well in a rather original way without Chicago and the elements that he experimented with in Chicago do work better in a solo career setting. “Livin’ in the Limelight” is one example, while his P.C. Moblee voice is another. As strange as it sounds, P.C. Moblee was a persona that Peter Cetera created when he sang songs in the lower register of his voice, mainly for Chicago XIII. This “experiment” resulted in perhaps the cringiest moments in the nearly cringe-worthy Latin-discoish album, with Moblee’s voice sounding either very inadequately restrained or very wrongly sexually charged like cheap cool jazz music accompanying adult movies. However, this album shows that Moblee could work! Use it on a New Wave/white reggae-ish song (“How Many Times”), and it’s done! Use it rather sparingly in a song that’s bombastic and unabashedly sensual, and you got “Holy Moly”!” Both songs are well done, and they show that PC could make good use of his whole vocal range with the right melody and arrangements.
My personal favorite of this album is the fifth track, “Mona Mona”, whose more organic and fluid movement seem to contrast the contemporary (early 80’s) electronic sounding previous four tracks. It is a fun and short, no-nonsense upbeat pop gem. It sounds like something that Chicago could’ve done back in the day, but it could also have been a song that Chicago rejected for sounding too fun. The horn arrangements here are minimal but effective, and the sax solo is nothing short of amazingly fitting; the song shows that PC could do horns too, and it’s a shame that this fun song never made it into Chicago’s repertoire. Chicago did perform “Livin’ in the Limelight” during their 1982 tour for Chicago 16 for good measure, but that was it.
The sixth track, “On the Line” sounds really familiar to me when I first listened to it; it was released as the B-side to “Glory of Love” later in 1986 (more on this later), so it might have had some radio airplay back in the day when I was still a toddler. Both “On the Line” and the following track “Not Afraid To Cry” show that PC still loved country music, as these two were thinly veiled attempts at creating country-ish songs. PC’s love for country music was most evident in his early songs with Chicago, such as “Where Do We Go From Here”, “What Else Can I Say”, and “In Terms of Two”. “On the Line” was more refreshing in terms of musical exploration; it closes with a guitar solo that erupts somewhat surprisingly into a speedy synthesizer run. The prog-ish side of PC continues with the “Evil Eye”/”Practical Man”. I put a slash between the two songs because they are actually a two-part suite. It starts out as a Cetera rocker (“Evil Eye”) with an excellent Cetera bridge that segues into a short Cetera acapella choir (excellent vocal arrangement), which then breaks down into a slow drawn-out intro of “Practical Man” which is a staple proggy move. The break down parts interchange with the faster singing parts. The suite doesn’t take itself very seriously (which is a good thing), and it ends with an interplay between festive horns (in the fashion of “Mona Mona”) and fat synthesizer solo. It is a great short suite that showcases the gamut of PC’s musical exploration. The album ends with “Ivy Covered Walls”, a relaxing ballad that really does not do much, but it is excellent in its minimalism. It is a great cooling down move after the busy pace that starts with the outro of “On the Line”.
Peter Cetera’s first album is an excellent album, one that I would perhaps call one of his best solo albums. The songwriting and arrangements, mostly done by PC himself, are excellent. The album itself seems to be divided into two parts; if you want big 80s AOR (adult-oriented rock) sound, go with the first four tracks, but if you want more organic, band-oriented and fluid sound, go with the rest of the album. I myself prefer the second part, but the first part is well done and was, at the time, the more commercial draw of the album. Too bad the album wasn’t promoted enough by the record label, presumably in fear of PC hitting it big by himself, and it was almost totally eclipsed by PC’s sophomore effort five year later.
If you are a self-confessed lover of Peter Cetera’s music but you missed this album for whatever reason, you should listen to this album; you might end up not liking the album too much for its too early-80s sound (particularly the first four tracks) or the lack of uplifting ballads PC was later known for, but you will surely acknowledge that he was a very inventive songwriter and a damn fine rock singer. If you do not like Peter Cetera’s music in general for its saccharine and AORish content, this album might not change your mind, but it might refresh you with some interesting things that Cetera did at the very beginning of his solo career. Speaking of AORish, the second part of this review will deal with Cetera’s second, and more successful, solo album, Solitude/Solitaire. See you then!