Thursday, January 26, 2023

New Places

In 1966 The Chicago Loop dragged the heartbreak song to a strange joint
"What you have to say—though ultimately all-important—in most cases will not be news. How you say it just might be." This wise observation comes from Charles Wright, who was thinking about form, as he often did. He was considering poetry, yet I've always found that his argument's applicable nearly everywhere where form meets content—which is, well, everywhere. Take heartbreak songs, for example. In the mid 1960s, conventional pop music forms were under direct assault—just glance at the Top 40 chart in any Billboard of the era and you'll see (and hear) songs rolling back the horizons, demanding to know what the pop song can do, not what it can't do. By the mid-60s songs about broken hearts had been composed in nearly every form and style, and in certainly every genre, yet they were still being challenged, reshaped by new, onrushing approaches to songwriting.

I picked up a 45 by The Chicago Loop last month. I confess I knew very little about the band. Helpfully, back in 2010 ace Chicago music archeologist Plastic Crimewave, aka Steven Krakow, filled in some of the blanks. The a-side "(When She Wants Good Lovin') My Baby Comes to Me" was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for the Coasters, who released it as a single in 1957. A tumultuous decade later, the Chicago Loop recorded a version for their debut single on DynoVoice, featuring in the studio guitarist extraordinaire Mike Bloomfield, keyboardist Barry Goldberg and three members of the rhythm section that backed Mitch Ryder on tour after he split the Detroit Wheels. The record was produced by Bob Crewe, the man behind the Four Seasons. 

Billboard was certainly enthusiastic. In a note in the October 8, 1966 "Pop Spotlights" column, riches and a Top 20 landing were forecast for the single:
In the event, the single made the Top 40, peaking at number 37. I dig the tune—it's an upbeat, excitable performance, the band swings and Bloomfield's licks are dynamite, but it's a little straight for my taste. I eagerly headed over to the b-side, where the freaks are usually hanging out. 

"This Must Be The Place" was co-written by Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha, a songwriting duo who'd been banging around the industry for a while with some success. By the middle of the decade they'd became interested in composing songs for movie soundtracks, and would strike gold the next decade landing hits on the soundtracks to the mega-smash disaster epics The Poseidon Adventure ("The Morning After") and The Towering Inferno ("We May Never Love Like This Again.") (Talk about of the era!) For "This Must Be The Place," Crew stepped aside, allowing Kasha to arrange and produce a nutty soundscape. Blending exotic horn and keyboard arrangements, an hallucinatory, feverish lyric, and some outlandish sonic details, they create nothing short of a demented carnival inside of a dreamlike interior.

The story itself is as old as dirt: the singer's got a broken heart. In his misery he staggers from home to find some relief and enters...a bar? Its unclear. The crazed Klezmer-like horns and loopy sound effects create a careening yet inviting atmosphere; it feels like the joint's upside down and you can see without seeing mad smiles on faces in the shadowy corners, but a place this insane might be just what he needs to erase his pain. "I thought of you with someone new" he confesses, "and then the pain began to hit. I needed somewhere I could hide and I knew that this was it." 

He's come for the promised cure, but his shudder's made clear in the song's opening bars. Swiftly the place devolves into mania: 
Saw a man all dressed in black and I fell back with surprise
I saw a girl reading old love letters and I saw tears in her eyes
The window shades were drawn to keep away a ray of sun
And a little man closed the door behind me in case I tried to run
He steels himself, but look: everyone here is "high in space, ‘cause they each had a different scene," and the music gets more and more bonkers as his head spins. When he muttered “Hello” at the door he didn't realize that he "broke an old routine"—a killer line evoking the convention-smashing headiness of the era. 

By the third verse he's openly weeping, and he cries all night, and into the next day. His tears bring some relief, though he's trapped inside the place for a week—and who knows what goes on in the verses that weren't written. On the seventh day he's allowed, or anyway he manages, to crawl out "from this burden." But succor is tough to find:
I fell on my cloud of memories and I headed for the door
To face the world of strangers and get knocked around once more
Great stuff. And a weird, weird song, equal parts amusing and scary—childlike, in the way that the innocent world can turn sinister without warning. (The lyrics are vivid enough that even an acoustic solo reading of the song would raise hair.) Lead singer Bob Slawson hits the perfect balance between drama and melodrama in his vocals, and I can virtually see the storyboard that Hirschhorn and Kasha presented the band in the studio, where their swirling, carnivalesque freakout blazed in glory. 


As for The Chicago Loop, they would release three more singles ("Can't Find The Words" and "Richard Corey" in 1967, and "Technicolor Thursday" in '68) before vanishing. In a 1968 Billboard piece, Fred Kirby reported on the "new" Chicago Loop—they'd lost and gained musicians, and Slawson was the only original member—and though he was knocked out by their act at a two-week engagement at Arthur's discotheque and at Cafe Au Go Go in Manhattan, stage dynamism wasn't enough to keep the band firing. They left behind a small marvel with "This Must Be The Place," an ancient story told in a startling way—the very stuff of a pop era where surface artifice and radically explored interior spaces created new and vanguard art. Broken hearts were never the same.

The Chicago Loop

Photo by The Chicago Loop via Discogs

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