25 or 6 to 4 (as made famous by Chicago)

“25 or 6 to 4” is a song written by the American musician Robert Lamm, one of the founding members of the band Chicago. It was recorded in 1969 for their second album, Chicago, with Peter Cetera on lead vocals.[1] The album was released in January 1970 and the song was edited and released as a single in June of that same year, climbing to #4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart[2][3] and #7 on the UK Singles Chart.[4] It was the band’s first song to reach the top five in the U.S.[2] In concurrence with the title, the song moved from #6 to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 the week of September 12, 1970. It has been included in numerous Chicago compilation albums.

An updated version of “25 or 6 to 4” was recorded for the 1986 album Chicago 18 with James Pankow listed as co-writer.[5] With the new band member Jason Scheff on lead vocals, the single reached #48 on the U.S. chart.[6] This version was also used as the B-side for the band’s next single in 1986, “Will You Still Love Me?”[7]

Through the 2010s, “25 or 6 to 4” continued to be a staple in Chicago’s live concert set list,[8][9][10] and in Peter Cetera’s solo concert set list.[11][12][13] In 2016, former drummer, Danny Seraphine, reunited on stage with Chicago to perform “25 or 6 to 4” and two other songs at their induction ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.[14]

According to composer Robert Lamm, the song is about trying to write a song in the middle of the night. The song’s title is the time at which the song is set: 25 or 26 minutes before 4 AM.[15][16] Because of the unique phrasing of the song’s title, “25 or 6 to 4” has been interpreted to mean everything from a quantity of illicit drugs to the name of a famous person in code.[17] The 1986 music video for the song references the correct meaning at its beginning. The song was banned in Singapore in 1970 and again in 1986 because of its “alleged allusions to drugs.”[18] In 1993, the ban on this song was lifted, along with long-time bans on songs by other artists such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival.[19]

The original recording features an electric guitar solo using a wah-wah pedal by Chicago guitarist Terry Kath, and a lead vocal line in Aeolian mode.[20]

The song’s opening guitar riff has been compared to chord progressions and riffs in other songs. In the opinion of writer Melissa Locker:

…the opening guitar riff from Green Day’s ‘Brain Stew’ bears a striking similarity to the opening stanza of Chicago’s ’25 or 6 to 4.'[21]

LA Weekly’s music editor, Andy Hermann, names it “The Riff” and describes it as follows:

It’s a descending five-chord pattern, typically played as power chords over four bars, with the last two chords sharing the last bar. The most common variant of it goes from A minor to G to F sharp to F to E, although it can also be played as Am-G-D-F-E or even Am-G-D9-F#-F-E…[22]

Hermann details the riff’s similarity to the chord progression in Led Zeppelin’s song, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, which came out a year before “25 or 6 to 4”, and the similarity of that chord progression to one in George Harrison’s song, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, which came out even earlier. He labels “Brain Stew”, released in 1996, as “derivative” by comparison to “25 or 6 to 4”.[22]

Peter Cetera – lead vocals, bass
Terry Kath – guitar, backing vocals
Robert Lamm – piano, backing vocals
Danny Seraphine – drums
Jimmy Pankow – trombone
Lee Loughnane – trumpet
Walt Parazaider – tenor saxophone