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- Posted on Jul 2nd 2010 12:00PM by David Chiu
This summer marks the 40th anniversary of when '25 or 6 to 4,' which originally appeared on Chicago's self-titled second album, became a Top 10 hit. Aside from the signature three-piece horn section, a gritty vocal by bassist Peter Cetera and a dazzling guitar solo by the late Terry Kath, its uniqueness lies with its enigmatic lyrics and title. As David Wild wrote in the reissue liner notes of 'Chicago,' "'25 or 6 To 4' has been interpreted by many as an existential riddle."
But the song is not a mystery to its composer, singer and keyboardist Robert Lamm. As he tells Spinner, the track was written around the time the band was playing at the Whiskey a Go Go in West Hollywood. "I would come home at night after the gig," he recalls. "I lived on the hill just off the Strip and I would just start writing the next batch of songs. I was trying to describe what it would be like to write that particular song."
"So I had this idea of a guitar riff," he continues. "I was really just trying to describe to sit up on the Hollywood Hills and look out across the city and see 'flashing lights against the sky' --again, just describing the experience of writing that song. I had no idea of what I was doing, still very much in the naive mode of being a songwriter. The result was a song that all young guitarists learn how to play."
Released as a single, '25 or 6 to 4' (the title refers to the time, as in 3:35 or 3:36AM) originally peaked on the Billboard pop charts at No. 4 on Sept. 12, 1970. Sixteen years later, a remake of the song appeared on the 'Chicago 18' album with Cetera's successor Jason Scheff on vocals. However, lightning didn't strike twice for the band as the David Foster-produced version stalled at No. 48 on the charts.
"That falls into category of 'I wonder what would happen if we did this?'" explains Lamm about revisiting the song. "We got flak for fooling around with a classic song. It's like if Led Zeppelin went in and did 'Stairway to Heaven' in a completely different style. They would alienate millions of people, so we definitely had a similar reaction."
Regardless, the original song's popularity hasn't diminished as it has been covered by Motley Crue's Vince Neil, Local H, jazz clarinetist/saxophonist Woody Herman and the Jam's Bruce Foxton. But perhaps its legacy is the many school marching bands who have performed '25 or 6 to 4.'
"It's the energy of the song, totally," says Kenneth Dye, director of bands at the University of Notre Dame, which has made '25 or 6 to 4' part of his marching band's repertoire. "It starts out with that bass line, and it's the catchiness of that rhythm and the energy and drive of the song that make it perfect for marching bands."
Albert Bussey, director of the Ware County High School jazz band in Waycross, Ga., says that his school's marching and jazz bands have played '25 or 6 to 4' in the last several years "It comes together quick," Bussey explains. "Kids love it and it has an amazing crowd appeal."
For Lamm, the endurance of '25 or 6 to 4,' like all the success that Chicago has reaped, still remains a mystery to him. "I'm very proud at the fact that the songs continue to have resonance for music fans. I don't understand it. But I'm really gratified by it."