“25 or 6 to 4” — Chicago

Chicago were one of the biggest bands on the planet in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The plaintive “If You Leave Me Now” topped the UK and US charts in 1976 and won Chicago a Grammy.

But, much as I like “If You Leave Me Now”, my favourite Chicago track was recorded a few years before that commercial and popular high point.

“25 or 6 to 4” was a US Top 5 and UK Top 10 hit in 1970. I was too young to even be aware of it back then, but I did catch up with “25 or 6 to 4” a few years later, in the aftermath of their success with “If You Leave Me Now”.

A late night DJ I used to listen to back home played it often. So my first exposure to “25 or 6 to 4” was hearing it on a transistor radio stuck under my pillow long after everyone else in my house had gone to sleep.

These were not ideal listening conditions, to be fair. But Bluetooth-enabled stereo wireless earbuds hadn’t been invented yet, so music-mad teenagers like me had to find another way to muffle the sound of their radios to prevent their parents shouting at them to switch off the music and go to sleep.

The “transistor radio under the pillow” technique was very popular at the time…

My parent’s bedroom was upstairs on one side of the house and my bedroom was downstairs on the opposite side. So, if I was careful, I could play my transistor radio just about loud enough under the pillow for me to hear it, but not so loud that my parents would start wondering where the music was coming from.

Even though it was muffled considerably by the few inches of pillow-stuffing between the radio speaker and my left ear, one night I heard the distinctive horn refrain of “25 or 6 to 4” for the first time.

Chicago styled themselves as “a rock band with horns”. But despite the prominent and much-loved horn section on this track, “25 or 6 to 4” was written by the band’s keyboard player, Robert Lamm.

At the time, I had absolutely no idea what the song was about. I just enjoyed listening to it.

I imagined it might be about some illegal substances or a coded reference to some illicit, although not necessarily criminal, behaviour. But I was only guessing…and in those pre-Google days had no easy way of finding out.

The waters were further muddied because different publications all had their own way of printing the song’s title. I saw it written as both “25 or 6 to 4” and as “Twenty-five or Six to Four”…both of which had at least a logical consistency to them, even if the same logic clearly hadn’t been used in both cases…

Once I even saw it printed as “25 or Six to Four”…I guess the publication must have been particularly short of space that week or something.

Even the range of ways the title was printed seemed mystical. Maybe, I thought in my teenage naivety, sophisticated people used one style and the uninitiated used another, like some sort of musical Masonic handshake.

Of course, as a teenager, the last thing I wanted to do was look uninitiated…although in truth I was uninitiated in just about everything that you couldn’t get via a transistor radio.

In the days before the internet, we never knew. We just had to speculate.

Many years later, I discovered the much more prosaic truth behind the title of “25 or 6 to 4”.

The story goes that Robert Lamm was writing music late into the night in his LA apartment. He was exhausted but had decided to keep going in the hope that a song would somehow come together…a feeling well-known to all musicians and lyric writers…

Outside his apartment a neon sign was flashing against the night sky. He could look across the LA rooftops from his window and see the lights twinkling before him.

Then it all came together…that feeling songwriters all strive for…and in no time at all, he was done. The song was ready to take to the studio. It just needed the chorus finishing…

Lamm glanced down at his watch. It was about 3.35 or 3.34am.

Or, put another way, it was about 25 or 26 minutes to four o’clock in the morning. Bam…chorus written…!

There aren’t many songs written about that time of day. Of course, midnight, dawn and dusk are no strangers to the lyric-writer’s toolkit as they are much more evocative times of day.

But specific times, especially obscure ones at times when most people are asleep, like 3.34 or 3.35am, don’t get nearly as many mentions in song lyrics.

With that back-story in mind, the lyrics now make a lot more sense…

Waiting for the break of day
Searching for something to say
Flashing lights against the sky
Giving up I close my eyes

Not living that rock star lifestyle myself, if I’m up just after 3.30am it’s because I can’t sleep, not because I’ve been up all night partying and writing songs…

But at least now I can imagine how events unfolded. If it’s the wee small hours and you’ve been working right through the night, trying to write a song but inspiration has deserted you, then you might feel like this too…

Staring blindly into space
Getting up to splash my face
Wanting just to stay awake
Wondering how much I can take
Should I try to do some more
25 or 6 to 4

For a song that’s much better known for its impressive horn section than its lyrics, Robert Lamm does a great job on the words for “25 or 6 to 4”. Not complicated, or overly showy, perhaps, but that alone doesn’t always make for a good song.

Robert Lamm says what he needs to say and says it well. He captures a feeling that we can all imagine in our minds, which is what all good lyrics do.

But most people who like “25 or 6 to 4” aren’t attracted to it by the lyrics, I’m sorry to say.

Like me, generations of music lovers have been attracted to one of Chicago’s finest tunes by the blistering horn section… and this record boasts one of the finest horn sections in popular music.

It’s also famous for the late Terry Kath’s frenetic guitar solo. Guitar Player magazine included his solo for “25 or 6 to 4” in their all-time Top 10 list of guitar solos using a wah-wah pedal…and when you consider he was cheek-by-jowl with Jimi Hendrix, Slash, Eric Clapton and George Harrison on that list, you get some idea of the esteem in which guitar players hold Terry Kath’s solo.

“25 or 6 to 4” was written at the start of Chicago’s career, back when they were seen as an innovative jazz/rock fusion band. When they became better known and more commercial in the late 70s and early 80s, they lost a bit of that edge.

They wrote and performed some really good songs (“If You Leave Me Now” among them). But it wasn’t the same sound. The energy, intensity and creativity was dialled back a little to make a smoother, more radio-friendly…and, admittedly, very commercially successful…sound.

Although it wasn’t their biggest hit, I don’t think there’s a better Chicago song than “25 or 6 to 4”…in fact there are not many songs written by anyone that I’d put ahead of it in my personal all-time ranking of great songs.

So you can fully appreciate the mastery at work in “25 or 6 to 4” I’ve linked to a live performance video below. Just sit through what looks like a lot of unnecessary fiddling with the drum kit at the beginning. It’s actually Terry Kath’s slow build into the intro you’re watching. (He’s the guy in the blue shirt with his back to the camera at the start of the video.)

You can see Terry Kath ripping up the strings on his guitar solo, the horn section at work and Peter Cetera on lead vocals with his more usual bass guitar, rather than the 12-string acoustic you might be more used to seeing him holding in the video for “If You Leave Me Now”.

All-in-all, this is an exceptional performance. It’s a great song, played with lots of energy…and one of the greatest mysteries of my teenage years (“what on earth is this song about”?) has now been solved.

Here’s Chicago with “25 or 6 to 4”…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/7GqIDx2QVGOpd4r1fZaUUW

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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