Here’s one from the archives — one of my first major interviews, conducted with erstwhile Chicago frontman Peter Cetera while he was out promoting his fourth solo album, World Falling Down. This is kind of like looking at a dorky old photograph for me, but it was a thrill at the time, and I think Cetera said some interesting things…
Having been there “in the beginning,” do you think that rock has become more style than substance?
I think if you were to look only at videos, you would definitely
think so. But I think it’s probably always been that way. I think
there are things that are tremendous hits where you go, “What’s
that?” and then there are things that aren’t hits where you
say, “Well now, I wonder why that wasn’t a hit. It’s a lovely song.”
I think it’s all the same. I just think it’s probably more of all the
Tracing your career, your emergence as a star was pretty gradual.
You slowly assumed more and more of the vocal responsibilities in
Chicago, and became the voice of their first two Number One hits, and
yet your first solo album was not a commercial success. Did that
discourage you at all from attempting a solo career?
No, it didn’t discourage me because I knew the politics behind it. The record company didn’t want it to become a hit, because they didn’t want me to leave Chicago, so they made sure that it wasn’t a hit. Even though I had a Top Ten — which was bizarre for Chicago at the time — AOR hit called “Livin’ In The Limelight” off that album, they just let it die, because they didn’t want me to have a hit.
The personal problems that went into the making of World Falling Down have been getting a lot of press. After so many years of
relative anonymity, does this bother you?
No, I don’t think so. I think it’s kind of refreshing, after all of the years with Chicago, not being able to voice my opinion about anything. You couldn’t talk about the group–you couldn’t really talk about anything that was happening with the group, because you’d get “Hey, what’d you say that about me for?” [Laughs] So, now that I’m solo, I can talk about whatever I want to talk about, and this happened to be the album where I wasn’t happy talking about anything else, so I decided to get it out of my system.
Did having your daughter around help you through that period?
Oh, yeah. Without her…[Laughs] It wouldn’t have been a nice thing at all. She’s just the greatest.
Now, how do you balance taking care of your career and taking care of your daughter? And given the nature of much of today’s music, do you find that you have to set guidelines as to what’s musically acceptable?
Yeah. I mean, she’s nine years old, I want her to be nine years old. I don’t condone watching any kind of video TV, I don’t allow that–I don’t allow her to watch a lot of TV. I don’t think it’s really cute for a nine-year-old to be dressing up like Madonna. They get old when they get old. So yeah, in a way I censor it, but she’s a wise enough person that she’s into the normal things
that nine-year-olds should be into.
Did having a child make you more aware of what you yourself write?
Uh…no, no. I was never the kind of person who would ever write anything particularly…devilish [laughs]. It made me probably look inside myself a lot more.
For a long time, your group got nothing but bad press or ignored by the press. How has this affected you career-wise now that you’re solo?
Well, I think that people — especially the press — tend to not change. Chicago got ignored…first of all, we got great press, and then we started making it, and we got bad press for selling out, and then we got ignored, and rightly so. Some of the things we did weren’t to the top of our capabilities, but a lot of people have that problem.
I don’t think we were controversial, and that’s sort of what happens when you have a group full of guys who all think they have an opinion. Everybody kind of counteracts everyone else, and nothing ever gets out. Being a solo artist, I just have to leave it up to the people. I’m definitely not going to get reviewed in Rolling Stone and People Magazine.
So it doesn’t frustrate you to run into the same problem as a solo artist?
Well, it frustrates me, but I also realize that I can’t do anything about it. So I stop thinking about it.
Do you feel any pressure to cater to MTV?
I would love to, but they’re just not gonna play it. They just have a set thing in they’re head of what they’re gonna play, and they’re definitely not going to play Peter Cetera. So I stay on VH1, and that’s fine with me, because our best critics have always been the fans, and as far as myself, I love what I’m doing, so that makes me happy.
What was the initial impetus behind your decision to go solo? I think you were recording for something like 13 years before your first solo LP.
I had always wanted to the solo thing, and then after the first album, Chicago kinda promised me that I could do the solo thing, and then they sort of reneged on it, and never gave me the opportunity to do it. They wanted to go one way, and I wanted to go another way, so we decided on a mutual parting. I did not, in fact, quit the group. If anything, I was fired for not going along with what they wanted to do.
I’ve heard many accounts of the band being jealous of all the attention you were getting.
Yeah, they were getting jealous, and I said, “Well, come on, if you’re jealous, then start doing something about it,” but they weren’t in the frame of mind to write songs, and I was the one that was in the studio most of the time,
and…I don’t listen to the new stuff. I’ve heard it a couple of times, but it’s certainly not what I want to listen to.
Let’s talk about each of your four solo albums, beginning with the first one. How did Peter Cetera end up getting released before Chicago 16?
Actually, we were out of a record contract at that point, and we were going along with the new record company, Warner Bros., and they sort of threw it out there while waiting for Chicago 16 to be released. It was nothing more than cannon fodder as far as they were concerned.
Did the fact that Solitude/Solitaire was released so close to Chicago 18 cause you to feel any pressure at all?
I didn’t really feel the pressure. I was so sure that “Glory Of Love” was going to be a hit, and “The Next Time I Fall” was going to be a hit. Really, the only pressure I felt then, and that I always felt, is to have hits with things other than ballads. I fight the record company every time they want to release another ballad off the album. That was really my only concern at the time. It was like, “Okay, do I take the hit or do I go with something fast?” [laughs]
Yeah, I noticed that earlier in your career, you were more apt to record songs like “Skin Tight” and “You Get It Up”…in your solo career, you haven’t done a whole lot of that.
[Deep breath] Well…you happened to mention two songs…
…That you didn’t write.
…That I didn’t write, and that I didn’t think were very good songs. [Laughter] Especially “Skin Tight,” I didn’t think that was a good song. Kind of a D-rated song. I just…thought it was a piece of garbage, but as the lead singer, I had to sing a lot of stuff I didn’t like to sing.
Also on Solitude/Solitaire, you did a duet with Amy Grant that predated her pop crossover success by about five years. Who set that up?
Actually, it was the record company. I was looking for a duet partner, and they called me up and said, “Amy Grant.” I had thought she only did religious music, but they told me that she really wanted to cross over, and she thought it was perfect, so I said “Sure.” The record company gets credit for that one.
On One More Story, you took a much more organic approach than you did on the previous album, and many of the songs are depressing — “Heaven Help This Lonely Man,” “You Never Listen To Me.” Is that when
you started writing about the problems in your marriage?
Yeah, I would say. Definitely. Some of it was reflected in the album, it was just starting to creep out.
The thing about One More Story that would have helped the album considerably was that I had been hired to write the theme song for the movie Big, and so I wrote “One Good Woman.” That was going to be the title song for Big, so if you listen to that song you’ll hear things about the fortune teller and all that. Right towards the end, when it was supposed to be in the movie, we got into some contractual difficulties, and I just kind of pulled the song. Had that song been in the movie, which was a smash hit, it would have helped the album considerably.
There were some really great songs on that album that were never released as singles, like “Peace Of Mind”…
Yeah. I agree, too.
…Which they passed over in favor of “Best Of Times,” which I never really understood…
I don’t have any idea what the record company…you know, you get kind of frustrated.
And that brings us to World Falling Down, which is almost a song cycle. In the beginning, the singer is saying “Don’t leave me,” and then she’s left, and there is depression, and then towards the end of the album it lifts back up again, and the singer is in love.
Well, “Have You Ever Been In Love”…that doesn’t mean I’m in love. It’s a universal thing, and I think it kind of wraps up the whole album. But yeah, I did plan that, yeah.
Your creative output was greatly reduced on this album. After years of writing seven or eight songs on an album, on this one you only wrote four.
Well, I just wasn’t capable of writing more than four or five songs on this album. It wasn’t a time in my life when I felt comfortable writing.
Did you find that what you were writing came out the same each time?
Yeah, that basically had a lot to do with it. After four or five songs, I said, “Okay, enough’s enough.” But I had found a lot of other good songs, so I thought it was time to do it. Just about the only thing I didn’t do was put in an old hit or an old standard.
You started out as a singer, not a songwriter; and in fact, I remember you saying at one point that the world was divided into singers and songwriters, and that you were a singer. How do you feel now?
Well, that was at the beginning. I don’t think you ever realize that you can write a song until you do, and then you’re constantly worried about ever writing another one. I really enjoy the songwriting thing, and I enjoy the singing thing. I’ll keep ’em both.
What made you decide on Andy Hill as a producer, and what made you decide to record in England?
Well, first of all, Andy and I co-produced, which makes a big difference. I just didn’t feel that anyone could produce me, and I was always giving away credit to people where I was doing as much decision-making as they were, so from now on it’s going to be co-productions. I had known Andy through songwriting, and discovered that we got along melodically and over the phone and stuff, and so I decided to go there and write with him, and when I got there and saw a studio in his house, I decided that maybe it would be nice if we could co-produce some things.
On Solitude/Solitaire, there was no bass at all; just sequencing and synthesizers. On One More Story, you had other people play the bass. But on this album, you picked it up again for a few songs.
Yeah, this was a kind of…I had Pino Palladino play, and Jimmy Johnson, and I got in on a couple of songs. I figured it was time to get a bass back on there, and I personally hadn’t played in such a long time that I just kind of wet my beak, so to speak, on a couple of these songs.
You’ve been unhappy with the way that some of your earlier work was recorded, especially “Song For You.”
Yeah, and actually, that’s one song that I’d love to re-record. I’d like to get with somebody and kind of rework that.
Most people wouldn’t even know it was a reworking. It was a pretty minor hit.
Yeah, I don’t think it was even hardly out. That was a turning point for me. I figured I either had to get out or bring the group back to the top. We were just not functioning. It was one or two cylinders or something.
Are you proud of your older work? Do you still listen to any of it?
No, I don’t listen to any of it. It’s so painful to me to listen to anything before Chicago 16, when David Foster came into the picture and he and I kind of put that album together. Anything before that, I just never felt all that secure about, because there were always too many opinions. Too many people didn’t butt out. Some of the stuff is great. I think some of the earlier stuff is probably better, because…you know, “Saturday In The Park,” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” and “Beginnings”… stuff that Bobby did when he was doing most of the writing and most of the decision-making. Once everybody started feeling that it was equal opportunity, things started heading downhill. I’m proud of the old stuff, but I certainly don’t sit around listening to it.
Do you miss the interplay of being part of a band?
Yeah, I do. I’ll probably put together a band to go on the road here shortly. That’s kind of the one thing I miss about Chicago, is we had loads of yuks.
So you do plan to tour to support the album?
Well, yeah, we’ll see what happens. If the record company supports me, I’ll help support the album.
What do you hope to accomplish as an artist in the next few years?
You always hope you have some kind of effect on people. When somebody comes up to me and says, “We’re getting married to your song,” or “God, that’s a great song”…that’s what makes it all worthwile. If I can keep doing that, then that’s what it’s all about.
Do you plan to keep taking more time off between albums?
It’s hard to tell. This one happened because of the circumstances. I just couldn’t do it. But, no, I’m starting to get ready to plan the next one.
I’ve been trying to find this out for about a year now. I was wondering if you could tell me why Danny Seraphine left Chicago.
Danny Seraphine got fired. The group decided that he no longer fit in the stage presentation, so they fired him.
[Incredulously] In the stage presentation?
Well, they have been spending more time on stage than in the studio during the past couple of years. Do you plan on working with him at all?
No. Not really. When it’s over, it’s over.
I just wrapped up a profile on the group, and it’s my feeling that they’ve been heading downhill. Buying songs from outside writers, and using more Scheff and Champlin material than anything from the original members…
I would agree with you on that, but the only thing I could say in defense of that is that if the original members aren’t writing stuff that’s worth putting on an album, then you gotta go with other things. Believe me, I haven’t heard anything that the original members have been writing, but if it’s not on the album, then it leads me to believe that it’s either not happening or there’s some personality conflict.
I really don’t know what’s going on, but I think your observation is correct.
Does that sadden you at all?
Well, that’s what’s been happening all along. There was a stage in Bobby Lamm’s life where he was one of the greatest songwriters in America. I don’t know what happened. James Pankow, even though I never really enjoyed his type of music, certainly a lot of people did, I mean, he had “Color My World” and “Make Me Smile,” and things that I didn’t personally like, but they were big hits for us and people loved them, but I don’t think he’s come close to writing anything like that in years.
So, yeah, I think it’s been going downhill. I don’t know if it’s complacency or what, but…
That about wraps up my questions for you.
Well, listen man, it’s been great talking to you. You did a great
job. I’d like to do a longer one someday.