Chicago returns with a record that’s been sitting on the shelves for 15 years

Chicago, ready to kick some brass.
Chicago, ready to kick some brass.

If you had asked Lee Loughnane, in the summer of 1993, what he thought people would be talking to him about in 2008, it's a pretty safe bet he wouldn't have said the album he just made with his band Chicago. A decade and a half after it was recorded, rejected, and consigned to great-lost-album status, Stone of Sisyphus has finally seen the light of day. And Loughnane is talking about it.

The record was supposed to be the veteran band's big comeback, a return to the jazz-rock fire that was dampened by a string of million-selling power ballads in the '80s. Instead, Sisyphus was shelved. And no one is sure why. "We knew that there was quality material on there," says trumpeter Loughnane, a founding member of the group. "Hopefully, it'll make some noise."

But how much noise can a 15-year-old album by an oldies act make? According to recent set lists, Chicago is performing only two songs from Sisyphus on its current tour: the syrupy "Here With Me (A Candle for the Dark)" and the brass-powered title track, which is based on the Greek myth about a man condemned to roll a stone uphill for eternity. Spot the metaphor?

But there's a practical reason for the group's mostly Sisyphus-free sets: Fans want to hear four decades of Chicago classics like "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and "If You Leave Me Now." Anyone who knows what time it is realizes that there's not a lot of room in the hits-stuffed show for unfamiliar new material.

Still, listening to Loughnane talk about the record's recent and somewhat surprising release suggests a certain ambivalence of his that's mirrored in the album's sometimes-confusing history. "I don't think there was ever an official line about [discussing] the album," he says. "It just wasn't the first thing on our list of things to talk about." Now that it is, there are still a couple of things that are unclear about the rock that rolled over Chicago 15 years ago.

Stone of Sisyphus includes familiar-sounding balladry like "Here With Me" and "Let's Take a Lifetime." But there are also punchy, horn-heavy rockers like "The Pull," indictments of corporate music sellouts in "Plaid" and "The Show Must Go On," and even a rap in "Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed." All of this was done without Warner Bros. Records breathing down the band's necks. The company was barred from the recording sessions — a move Loughnane was against at the time and still believes was a mistake. "If there was an underlying reason [for the album not coming out], that was the perfect excuse," he says.

Still, producer Peter Wolf says that when he delivered the album to label exec Michael Ostin, the suit "jumped up and down" in excitement. Then the record was unexpectedly rejected, and Chicago's managers reportedly sided with Warner. "We may never know what any of the underlying reasons were," says Loughnane. "I'm assuming it didn't have a hell of a lot to do with the music."

Almost everyone involved in the making of the album agrees. Wolf's theory: Chicago's contract was up for renewal, and if Sisyphus became a hit, it would cost the company more money to re-sign the band. Others believe that the album was simply a pawn in negotiations over the group's lucrative back catalog. When talks stalled, Warner refused to release Sisyphus.

One thing's for sure — when the guys in Chicago left the label after all this, they took Sisyphus with them. The recently released version on Rhino plays pretty much like the one the group handed over to Warner Bros. 15 years ago. But it doesn't include the album's most controversial track, "Get on This."

Its 11th-hour removal has re-sparked a long-standing feud between former guitarist Dawayne Bailey (who co-wrote the song) and the rest of the band. The song incorporates lines of poetry written by Bailey's former girlfriend, who also happened to be saxophone player Walt Parazaider's daughter. After their relationship fizzled, Bailey's connection with the band also crumbled. Bailey says Chicago pulled the song from the album; Loughnane says he doesn't know why it's not on there.

Either way, had the album come out in 1993, it could very well have given the group a fresh start with some tougher-sounding new material. Loughnane is just glad that Sisyphus is no longer one of those long-lost classic albums collecting dust on some record-company shelf. "You talk about rolling that stone up that hill," he says. "I think we finally made it."