This week, The Gap renounced its plans for rolling out a new logo, mainly due to a massive social media uprising in opposition to the change. And I thought, really? There are that many people that personally invested in a clothing manufacturer’s corporate identity that they would so passionately oppose a logo change? Corporate identities change all the time. Who cares, right? But I turned it around on myself. Wasn’t there a part of me that thought the cover art of Chicago’s 1991 album Chicago 21 delegitimized the record? You may recall (but you probably don’t unless you are a serious Chicago fanatic, of which I believe there are painfully few) that Chicago 21 (or Twenty 1, as it were) marked the first time where the band’s logo didn’t appear on the cover. Okay, so you saw the upper left corner of the logo in the blue background, but the only place the word “Chicago” appeared was in generic block lettering across the top. Fail.

Chicago 21

The album was a commercial fail as well, effectively ending the band’s decade-long second heyday. But listening to it 20 years later, the record’s no worse, and it is in many ways better than a few of the hit records that preceded it, being one of the most band-written records they’d put out since the 70s and reclaiming the social consciousness they’d suppressed in favor of Peter Cetera power balladry. All this time, I thought I’d hated the record, but I actually like a lot of it. Could I be so shallow that the mere non-appearance of the band’s logo on the cover art would influence my reaction to and memory of the record so thoroughly? Or was my devotion to Chicago – my very ardent devotion (as evidenced by untold numbers of graffitied high school notebooks) – really less about their music and more about brand loyalty?

Chicago VIII (1975)

The question disturbs me a little. Because I think that I really love Chicago’s music. Not just the early Chicago that a few charitable rock critics might point out as being not-unbearable and semi-respectable – the Chicago of “25 or 6 to 4” and “Beginnings” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” – but also the 80s power-ballad Chicago that no rock critic (except Jody Rosen, perhaps, and that is why I love him) would be caught dead defending. But as much as I love the band, I have to admit I love the brand as well. The logo. The numbered albums. The defiant decentralization of their sound and image that, for years, led them, against all the prevailing wisdom regarding the marketing of pop music, to make sure none of their lead singers ever landed consecutive single A-sides.

Chicago 13 (1979)

Until David Foster’s anointment of Peter Cetera as their primary lead singer on Chicago 16 in 1982, the closest thing the group had ever had to a frontman had been its horn section of Walt Parazaider, Lee Loughnane and James Pankow; and though throughout the 80s, that horn section had been increasingly marginalized on record, that trio of players – along with singer-keyboardist Robert Lamm, the only remaining original members of the group still performing today – remained the stars of the band’s live show. [Disclosure: the first three concerts I ever saw were Chicago, in 1987 (at Summerfest), 1988 (a very wet Wisconsin State Fair), and 1989 (co-headlining with the Beach Boys).] Is it any surprise that the group’s most recognizable face and voice – Peter Cetera – would find it impossible to stay in the band?

Chicago III (1971)

The band rarely shows up in their cover art. I count only three albums (and a box set) in their 40 year recording career where the band members are depicted on the front cover. Despite their success in the 80s, and to their own eventual detriment in that image-centric decade, Chicago’s most recognizable face remained the guitar shaped script of their logo; and just as Madonna morphs from wily street urchin to boob-tasseled exotic dancer to mystic mother-figure to disco Che Guevara, the Chicago logo morphs from album to album to album. Part of the joy of any new Chicago album – quite apart from whatever they might be doing musically – is seeing what they’ll do next with that logo of theirs.

Chicago X (1976)

Sometimes the treatment was political, like the battered flag of Chicago III in 1971. Sometimes it was just timely – the Chicago 13 skyscraper is pure disco (and so was that 1979 record’s lead single “Street Player”), while the logo was seen, partially through a magnifying glass, imprinted on a computer chip for 1982’s Chicago 16. They went through an artsy-craftsy phase in the early 70s – Chicago V was a wood carving, Chicago VII was leatherwork, and Chicago VIII was, inexplicably, embroidered over a cardinal. (That album came with a t-shirt iron-on of the album cover.)

Chicago 19 (1988)

For Chicago IX, the band’s first greatest hits record, the logo was featured on both the front and back covers – on the front, the guys are working on painting the logo onto a wall; the back cover shows the finished product. Chicago 19 (one of my personal favorites) was a computer-generated mash-up of the band’s logo with shapes from their namesake city’s skyline. Chicago XI is a map. Chicago XIV is a thumbprint. Chicago X is a chocolate bar. (They won a Grammy for packaging that year!)

Chicago certainly didn’t invent the notion of a band logo, and theirs may not even be the best. The prog-rockers and hair metal bands of the 70s and 80s may be most responsible for turning the band logo into an art unto itself. It’s hard to hear the words Def Leppard or Metallica without picturing the band’s logo. Moreover, current bands like Cake and Weezer, whose members probably graffitied the hell out of their own high school notebooks with KISS logos, have taken the perpetuation of their own band logos very seriously.

Also, even though we often think of metal bands when we think about band logos, it’s generally true that logos know no genre. Like the logos of Chicago and Kansas, ABBA’s mirror-imaged block lettering is a registered trademark. Air Supply’s, though less consistently used, is a flamboyantly calligraphic woosh that pretty precisely represents the band’s musical mission. Similarly mission-oriented (however musically opposite) is the confrontational stencil lettering and crosshairs graphic of Public Enemy.

Still, there may be no other band that has gotten as much mileage out of a single band logo as Chicago has. You sorta have to admire the logo’s tenacity. And if the Chicago 21 experience proves anything, it’s that there are some brands you just don’t mess with. Learn from it, Gap.