Rock and roll's best and worst Chicago songs


July 30, 2003



There have been plenty of songs written about Chicago through the years--the public library has an impressive list of them available online, and it goes back as far as the mid-1800s. But until the last decade or so, surprisingly few great rock tunes have paid homage to the best city in America.

As the local music scene erupted during the alternative music explosion of the '90s, this finally started to change, and my favorite Chicago rock songs all date from this era. Each of them honors a different aspect of life in Chicago, and all of them rock with the energy and vitality of the city itself.

As for what came before, well, that list is a sad and sorry one. Chicago deserves much better.

The Smashing Pumpkins, "Tonight, Tonight"

Unquestionably the strongest tune on the Smashing Pumpkins' epic double album "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," this exquisitely beautiful but relentlessly hard-rocking tune captures some of the Windy City's strongest attributes: its enduring optimism and the sense that anything is possible here. "And the embers never fade in the city by the lake," sings bandleader Billy Corgan (who was born in Elk Grove Village and reared in Glendale Heights). "The place where you were born/Believe, believe in me, believe, believe/In the resolute urgency of now." Mayor Daley has never even been this big of a booster.

Screeching Weasel, "Chicago"

Written by Fred Fisher and immortalized by Frank Sinatra, this homage to State Street, our "toddlin' town," baseball player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday and a man who danced with his wife is probably the best-known song ever written about this city, but it never rocked until underground heroes Ben Weasel and company (the local pop-punk band that set the mold for Green Day, Blink-182 and Sum 41) covered it for "Chairman of the Board," a Sinatra tribute disc issued by Grass Records in 1993.

Common, "Full Moon"

The best rapper Chicago ever produced recorded this indelible party jam with New York DJ Armand Van Helden on the latter's "Killing Puritans" album, which was released in 2000. It captures another aspect of Our Town: its penchant for partying heartily ("Freak freak y'all/And you don't, don't stop"). While Common name-checks a number of other cities, we know where this artist (now a New Yorker) learned to let it all hang out, and "Chicago rock the house" gets the first, loudest and most enthusiastic shout-out.

Handsome Family, "The Woman Downstairs"

Of course, Chicago does have its downside: the eight months known as "winter." The weather prompted that cheeky husband-and-wife duo the Handsome Family to move West, but not before they recorded 1998's "Through the Trees," which included this haunting and touching story of a woman who dies alone in her apartment. The chorus is the musical equivalent of Nelson Algren's prose: "And when the wind screamed up Ashland Avenue/The corner bars were full by noon/And the old stewbums sliding down their stools/Ate boiled eggs and fed beer to the dogs."

Urge Overkill, "Goodbye to Guyville"

The kitschy trio recorded this sprawling, bluesy, vaguely sinister rumination about the incestuous dating scene in the hipster haven of Wicker Park for the "Stull" EP in 1992. You can almost taste the beer and smell the cigarette smoke at the Rainbo, it nails the vibe so perfectly. The tune prompted a feminist response the following year with Liz Phair's debut effort, "Exile in Guyville."





1. Various artists, "Sweet Home Chicago"

There was probably a time when the rollicking ditty credited to Woody Payne wasn't the hoariest of crowd-pleasing cliches--Robert Johnson, the godfather of the blues, recorded a classic version of it--but ever since the Blues Brothers laid claim and camped it up in 1980, it's been impossible to take it seriously. The City Council really ought to pass an ordinance prohibiting any bar band from playing the tune within the city limits. And Bruce Willis and Jim Belushi should be barred from covering it under penalty of torture.


2. Aliotta, Haynes & Jeremiah, "Lake Shore Drive"

One of the most scenic and romantic roads anywhere in America really deserves better than this twee, shufflin' jazz-rock ditty from the '70s "supergroup" of John Jeremiah, Mitch Aliotta and Skip Haynes. At the very least, a highway with the initials "L.S.D." deserves a little bit of fuzz, feedback and Jimi Hendrix-style psycho guitar.


3. Dr. West's Medicine Show & Junk Band, "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago"

On the other hand, maybe acid-rock isn't the way to go. Written by Norman Greenbaum (who also penned "Spirit in the Sky") and released in 1967, the song has an absurd title outdone only by the utter vapidity of the music (the tune boasts a kazoo solo) and the lyrics ("He came from outer space, lookin' for somethin' to eat/He landed in Chicago. He thought Chicago was a treat/It was sweet, it was just like sugar/You'd better watch out for the eggplant that ate Chicago/For he may eat your city soon, wacka-do, wacka-do, wacka-do").


4. Paper Lace, "The Night Chicago Died"

The English quartet scored a No. 1 hit in summer 1974 with this melodramatic faux-'20s tune about a Capone-era gun battle, helping to perpetuate the (mostly) mythical notion of Chicago as America's most violent city. Plus, it gets the geography wrong: "And the sound of the battle rang/Through the streets of the old East Side." Um, listen, chaps: The East Side of Chicago would be called ... Lake Michigan.


5. Jim Croce, "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown"

The mustachioed singer-songwriter had a better grasp of the local terrain--"Well, the South Side of Chicago/Is the baddest part of town," he croons--but that doesn't mean this No. 1 hit from 1973 isn't a silly, cliche-ridden and endlessly annoying tune. You'd think that someone who's "Badder than old King Kong/And meaner than a junkyard dog" would warrant music a little gutsier than an acoustic camp-fire singalong.