In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king cursed for all eternity to roll a stone to the top of a hill, then after all his hard work, watch it roll down to the bottom. Repeat ad nauseam for all eternity. This, however, isn’t a story about mythological Greek kings afflicted with eternal curses. It is a story about a lot of what went wrong with the music industry, and a legendary missing album that took 15 years to see the laser light of our CD players.
As I type this column, I’m listening for the first time to Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus. The story of this album is in many ways as rewarding as the task given to Sisyphus, except for the fact that the album was finally released. Among Chicago fans, this album’s reputation had grown to mythological proportions, fueled in part by band members themselves. In interviews throughout the years, many Chicago members referred to Stone of Sisyphus as the best album they recorded in recent years, and that the group might not have survived had they not recorded Sisyphus.
Flash back to the early 1990s. Chicago had released a number of albums (starting with Chicago 16 in 1981) that featured the group on a string of power ballads—many of which were written by songwriters outside the group—that gave Chicago a lot of radio hits. But the group had moved away from its original mission, one of being a cooking rock band with great writers and a killer horn section. There’s no denying the vast difference between “Hard Habit to Break” and “25 or 6 to 4.”
Chicago stayed with the formula through the less-than-successful album Twenty-1 before deciding that a new formula might be necessary. Sisyphus’ producer, Peter Wolf, knew that the musicians and writers in the band should be creating their own music, and that Chicago’s horn section had been all but forgotten during the ten previous years of ballad hits. It was time for Chicago to again become Chicago.
The band began recording Sisyphus in 1992, and got a great reception from their then-record company, Warner Bros., when the first three tracks were played before a select group of executives. That positive encouragement gave Chicago and Wolf all they needed to go and finish the album. The collaborative nature of the recording process fostered a camaraderie that hadn’t existed in a Chicago recording session since the 1970s. The band spent early 1993 finishing Sisyphus. Then, the unthinkable happened.
Since the record label’s first positive feedback, there had been a shakeup at Warner Bros. Chicago’s manager drove the master of Sisyphus over to play for label executives, and for the first time in 22 efforts, the label rejected a Chicago album. According to vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Bill Champlin, “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.’”
Convinced that they had in fact recorded a great album (and that musicians knew more about music than lawyers), Chicago held their ground. They ended up leaving Warner Bros., taking Sisyphus with them. Throughout the ensuing years, the album became a rallying point among fans: “When will Sisyphus be released?” Bootleg versions surfaced. A couple of Sisyphus songs showed up on Chicago compilations. And members of the immediate Chicago family kept stoking the fire by saying that Sisyphus was the best Chicago album since (insert your favorite here).
The happy ending is that some 15 years after Chicago XXII: Stone of Sisyphus originally had been scheduled for a Warner release, Rhino Records released Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus to an appreciative audience last June. While it still contains a few ballads, Sisyphus rocks out with the best, and the Chicago horns never sounded better. According to the album’s liner notes, the group regrets not having released it sooner, but regards Sisyphus with “intense pride.” It’s good to finally hear what has been described as the turning point for Chicago. As trombonist James Pankow put it, “We’re not going to be somebody we aren’t anymore.”
Any lesson to be learned is already lost on a music industry that keeps hovering just above the “epic fail” threshold. When lawyers started making all the creative decisions, and when the execs totally underestimated and then mishandled the demand for digital downloads, they charted the course that left the music industry ship broken on the rocks.
More Britney Spears, anyone?