The term ‘soft rock’ is one that makes me squirm. It’s not my favourite genre – I like my rock to, well, rock (*devil horns emoji*) – and soft rock can feel like rock ‘n’ roll with all the fun stripped away. But, as the late seventies loom, it is a genre we may have to get used at the top of the charts.
If You Leave Me Now, by Chicago (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 7th – 28th November 1976
Anyway, I say that soft rock is ‘often’ no fun – dull, earnest and very vanilla – but not ‘always’. For sometimes there are soft rock hits like this one. ‘If You Leave Me Now’ is a record that makes you feel as if you are being dipped in a vat of warm, melted chocolate. It is a big hug of a song, possibly the ultimate last-dance-of-the-night disc.
If you leave me now, You’ll take away the biggest part of me… the singer croons, but not in a Bing Crosby way. A creamier, more modern style of crooning. Then, prepare your falsettos: Ooh-ooh-ooh no, Baby please don’t go… There are soft horns, and strings, and a guitar being gently plucked.
The singer is pleading with his lover, not to be rash, or hasty. Not to do what they’ll regret in the morning. A love like ours is love that’s hard to find… How could we let it slip away…? He’s trying to lull his partner into staying, by stupefying her with this impossibly gentle, lush music. It’s a lullaby, really, for want of a better description.
Which means I shouldn’t be enjoying this song, not really. I should find it slow, and dull. But, while it hasn’t made me a fully converted soft-rock, MOR fan; you can’t deny a record this well-made and performed. What makes it even more impressive, is that with this type of music it is so easy to overdo the schmaltz (think Engelbert doing his worst on ‘Release Me’, or even Pussycat laying the cheese on a bit thick in the previous #1). Chicago pitch it just right, and create a classic of the genre.
I’m sure I recall an advert from ten/fifteen years back, in which an animated cherry lip-synced to this song. Or I may have dreamt it, and urgently need said dream analysed by a professional. If the advert does exist, then it’s a sign of how ‘If You Leave Me Now’ has softly slipped ‘tween the sheets of our shared consciousness. I’d bet most people could sing along to the chorus on this one, and I’d also wager it’s still on heavy-rotation on Magic and Smooth FM. It’s been covered by our friends Brotherhood of Man, the Isley Brothers, and Boyz II Men, twice.
Chicago were – are – from Chicago, Illinois. I love the confidence of that: screw it, we’ll just name ourselves after our hometown, which just happens to be the 3rd biggest city in the country. I know very little about them, other than that their albums are almost all titled as numbers (this was off ‘Chicago X’, their tenth album). As of 2018, they are a ten-piece with three original members still hanging on in there, on album XXXVII.
To finish, I’d like to note the fun coincidence of having a song named after a US state knocked off top spot by a band named after a US city. How cool’s that? That’s the sort of analysis you won’t be getting anywhere else. Onwards…
14 thoughts on “396. ‘If You Leave Me Now’, by Chicago”
As an American and as someone who’s been exposed to a lot of Chicago I can provide more of a context. They had started in the late ’60s playing Chicago clubs before getting signed as Chicago Transit Authority releasing their debut album under that name in 1969 before shortening it to just Chicago for their second album in 1970 which broke them through with hits like “25 or 6 to 4” and “Make Me Smile” among others. Early on, they were playing a lot of jazz-inflected hard rock and pop the kind that makes for nice background music at fancy gatherings and people were eating it up during the ’70s where before “If You Leave Me Now” became their first #1 on both sides they already had 10 Top-10 hits and already released a greatest-hits album that sold well. Honestly, a lot of that early music is pretty good especially the crazy guitar solo on “25 or 6 to 4” played by guitarist Terry Kath who Jimi Hendrix had heralded early on. They were a consistent hit machine with their double albums despite their anonymous image and lack of a frontman with everybody singing and writing their songs. Unfortunately, “If You Leave Me Now” is where things start to go wrong for Chicago. As Tom Breihan said in his review, the song is memorable but not in a good way. It’s a snoozefest of a ballad with Peter Cetera’s falsetto getting more annoying with each listen that distracts from the breakup nature of the song, “Cetera sells the wounded sadness of the song’s sentiment, but he never finds room for urgency or need. The song is soft and gooey enough that it never even sounds like a possible breakup song. Instead, it comes off as a simple love song, a prom slow-dance kind of thing.” Ultimately, the #1 success of “If You Leave Me Now” led Chicago’s label to demand more ballads and after a decline at the turn of the ’80s they reinvented themselves as corporate pop balladeers under the head of new producer David Foster who basically wanted Chicago to stop sounding like Chicago removing the horns, replacing the members of Chicago on record with the members of Toto, and making Peter Cetera the focal point. Ultimately, it worked landing a bunch more hits including two more American #1s with 1982’s “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” and 1988’s “Look Away,” Billboard’s #1 song for 1989 despite peaking for two weeks in December ’88. Between those #1s, Cetera left the band for a solo career and got off to a good start with his first two singles hitting #1 in 1986 even if they both sucked with the Karate Kid II cut “Glory of Love” and the Amy Grant duet “The Next Time I Fall.” As you can imagine, the members of Chicago weren’t happy with all these changes, and watching their Behind The Music episode, various music documentaries, and interviews, they are still unhappy with their ’80s output and how they became very commercial after what they had started playing together. With “If You Leave Me Now,” guitarist Terry Kath would leave the stage when they would play the song before his tragic accidental shooting death shortly after. My dad remembered seeing Chicago play at Central Park soon after and despite “If You Leave Me Now” being their first #1 no one was excited when they played it. Just recently on the new Name That Tune show, they played “If You Leave Me Now” and the two players didn’t ring in despite one player saying he was a big Chicago fan in high school. That ultimately shows the true legacy of “If You Leave Me Now,” a song that may have been Chicago’s first #1 but ultimately not a memorable one and one that the band would have been fine without.
Thanks for the Chicago bio! I think you’re being a bit harsh on this record, though. For a slice of glossy, soft-rock – not my type of music at all – I think it works well. And the ‘ooh ooh baby’ hook is memorable. If you want to see just how bland mid to late seventies soft rock could get, then stay tuned to the next few chart toppers in this countdown. Two words: David. Soul.
Ultimately aside from not being my thing, I don’t like this song for what it represents going forward for Chicago. And Cetera’s voice gets more annoying going into the ’80s where Briehan hilariously points that he sounds like a weasel that can sing on key. Chicago are a good comparison to what Maroon 5 are today; a band that started out good before slipping commercially and coming back by selling out hard removing a lot of their personality and becoming a vehicle for their frontman. And like Maroon 5, Chicago managed to have hits for way longer than they should having their last Top 10 American hit in 1990 where Maroon 5 managed to have a #2 hit last year and have another Top 40 hit right now despite barely being a band now and constantly making the same forgettable radio filler for about a decade now.
Hmmm… As bland as Chicago may have become, what I’ve heard from their early 70s stuff – thanks for the recommendations btw – rocks a lot more than Maroon 5 ever did. I tuned them out as background noise a long time ago, but even back when they first appeared I was on to them, and wrote a piece in my student newspaper called something like ‘The Problem With Maroon 5’ (this would have been 2004-5). A truly abysmal band, though luckily they have only ever had 1 UK #1, and so I won’t have to linger on them in my blog for very long at all.
Yeah, early Chicago is easily better than all of Maroon 5 though if you thought they were a problem in the mid-2000s then that’s nothing to what they have become since especially after “Moves Like Jagger” brought them back and set the template for their blander output. At least in America, we got their first #1 with “Makes Me Wonder” in 2007 which showcases what they were able to do at their best early on before turning into the Adam Levine Show.
I think the ‘Makes Me Wonder’ era was their best, including an actual good single ‘Won’t Go Home Without You’. ‘Moves Like Jagger’ was fun, but it was the next single ‘Payphone’ – the UK #1 – that started the slide into ‘Adam Levine’s whining + any rapper for hire’. And yet I maintain that their first album is the most heinous of all… ‘She Will Be Loved’, and ‘This Love’ still make my teeth grind nearly 20 years on.
Even though I’ve known Chicago a lot from my family they’ve mainly listened to their songs before “If You Leave Me Now” which tells you about the dividing line in their music.
They did what they did very well. Really well constructed pop song. I’ve always liked Chicago…especially when they had Terry Kath…they were more rock and roll then.
I agree with everybody, really. 25 or 6 to 4 rocks, I kind of liked their horns-rock era, but I also loved this record, dreamy and romantic. I don’t love it quite as much these days, but I still prefer it to the overblown 80’s ballad-production-factory stuff, some of which was really terrible. Funny Toto were mentioned as they also went from great rockin’ (Hold The Line) to one great ballad (Africa) to generally MOR (everything else) though not generally terrible as such. I also didn’t like Peter Cetera solo stuff, it was identikit Chicago ballad really. I quite like Hard To Say I’m Sorry and Hard Habit To Break at a pinch, but they ain’t no If You Leave Me Now.
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