Chicago has been eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ever since their debut album, The Chicago Transit Authority, celebrated its 25th birthday in 1994. But they never even got onto the ballot until this year, a situation that enraged their passionate fan base to no end. To Chicago co-founder/keyboardist Robert Lamm, however, it was never that big of a deal. “If you’re nominated for a Grammy and you don’t get it, you don’t have a heart attack,” he says by phone just a few hours after learning he’d gotten in. “You just move on and keep working. That’s really what my attitude always was.”
We spoke with Lamm about the big news, sharing the stage with N.W.A, dealing with brutal rock critics and the possibility of reuniting with former Chicago frontman Peter Cetera for the first time since Cetera left the band in 1985.
Congrats on the big news. Who told you?
I got a call from Peter Schivarelli, Chicago’s manager, about this and some other issues. We’re about to ramp up and play a New Year’s Eve show for NBC in Chicago and then go on to Asia, so we have some production things we’re talking about. The good news came in, and it’s quite gratifying.
Are you surprised?
I can’t say I’m 100 percent surprised since we did get word that we’d been nominated. Heaven knows we’ve been eligible for a long time, so that it was always something that was possible. Frankly, I was very surprised that we’d been nominated.
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It’s been so long that we’ve been eligible. I think that the body of work, even just considering the work we did on the first album and beyond, certainly changed the face of pop music and is considered influential. As a composer, I can tell you that a number of songs that Chicago recorded have been sampled a number of times by contemporary artists, so that’s an indication that the music seems timeless.
How often did you hear from fans that were upset you weren’t in?
For years now, whenever the inductees were announced there was always a number of DJs or entertainment reporters who would make the point of, “What’s going on here? Why aren’t these guys in the Hall of Fame?” That was endorsed by our fans to the degree that we know what our fans are thinking.
Did it personally bother you that you didn’t get in all those years?
Thankfully, we’ve never stopped touring and for at least the first 40 years, we recorded pretty steadily when we weren’t touring, so we were always busy looking ahead to what was next.
There seems to be a theme from your whole career that you’ve always been a fan’s band. The fans love you, but the rock-critical elite has never embraced you. Do you understand why that happened?
It goes in and out. When you have a long career and you’ve weathered the storms of different trends in music and the changing of the guard as far as tastemakers are concerned, you project a large target to be criticized or ignored, or sometimes actually praised. We’ve had a taste of all of that.
And through all of it, you guys simply plowed ahead.
At some point, I’m guessing it was maybe 10 or 15 years ago, we all sort of looked at each other and had this conversation of, “Well, I guess music is what we’re going to be doing for the rest of our lives.”
Do you think part of it was you simply had too many hits in a short time period and that turned the critics off?
I do. The specialness and avant-garde-ness of the first album was fully embraced by critics all over the world. Frankly, we built a career on that one album. We did subsequent albums and kept doing albums regardless of what critics said. We performed all over the world and accumulated a following. By the fifth album, the music became more mainstream. By the mid- or late 1970s, pop music itself had become more mainstream until punk emerged. Then it really took a left turn in terms of what critics liked. Critics are listening for what’s new or different or fresh. I completely get it. By the 1980s, it was power-ballad land for us since that is what enabled us to maintain a career. But critics couldn’t pigeonhole us and I think that frustrated them.
Did they tell you the names of your fellow inductees?
No. Can you tell me?
Sure. One is Cheap Trick. Are you fans of them?
Sure. At least their one big album, the live one, is terrific.
Deep Purple, Steve Miller Band, N.W.A.
Wow. That’s great company. I loved Straight Outta Compton, the movie. That was really a long time coming and beautifully done, a historic document, well-directed, well-acted. It really kind of puts that music in the forefront. It takes it out of a genre and places it firmly in pop music. It’s great. I’m very happy with that one.
Did you ever imagine you’d be playing on the same bill as them?
[Laughs] We’ve played with an amazing variety of artists. It would not have surprised me, and here we are.
I’m sure Steve Miller is someone you’ve met over the years.
Actually, very early on, he played some dates as our opening act when we were virtually at the level of an opening act ourselves. In the beginning of our career, we opened for Jimi Hendrix and had Steve Miller open for us. Bruce Springsteen opened for us. We’ve been privileged to hear all these sorts of artists.
Have you ever been to an induction ceremony?
No, I haven’t. I’m hearing a rumor. … Do the artists that get inducted wear tuxedos?
Many do. Others just dress how they’re comfortable.
How would you dress if you were inducted?
I’ve never thought about it. Probably a tux, but maybe not a traditional one.
Maybe just rock finery. I get it.
The inductees usually perform. Are you guys going to do that?
I honestly don’t know. We love to play and we’re ready and willing to play if that’s what is required or desired.
“By the 1980s, it was power-ballad land for us since that is what enabled us to maintain a career.”
Bands usually play with ex-members. Do you think that might happen?
You’re open to playing with Peter Cetera?
Absolutely. I talk to Peter from time to time. I know he hasn’t played bass in many, many years, as fine a bass player as he was. He’d certainly sing, at least I imagine.
Has he played with you guys even a single time since 1985?
[Softly] No. Not one. Not one.
The fans will be thrilled if that happens.
There were opportunities and discussions over the years about doing some things together, but it never happened. I guess if it was ever going to happen, this would be a prime opportunity. And personally, I’d find it very moving.
That’s one of the best parts about these nights, seeing people come together after so many years apart.
Sure. Sure. Where does the ceremony take place?
They rotate it, but this year they’re doing it in New York.
Wow, that’s great! That’s my hometown.
There’s usually a big all-star jam at the end of the night. Is there one Chicago song you think would work for that?
Well, especially for guitarists, I think “25 or 6 to 4” would be the perfect jam tune.
Do you think any of your songs could work with N.W.A?
I wonder what they would play? I’ve had “26 or 6 to 4” used by a couple of rap artists who rap over the tune. Young Buck, I think, did one. I can’t recall the others. If we’re talking about an N.W.A tune, I’d have to put on the album and check it out.
That should do it. I’ll see you in April on the big night.
I’m very excited. I can’t wait.