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The band Chicago has become one of the most long-lived American bands after starting in 1967, and still going strong almost 50 years later. Over the course of its history, the band has sold more than 100 million records, with 21 Top 10 singles, 11 number one singles, and 25 platinum albums. In fact, Chicago is the first American band to chart Top 40 albums in five decades. While the first album was a staple of underground, the second album broke the band into the mainstream with three Top 10 singles, the highest charting being “25 Or 6 To 4” at number four. While some believe the song is a reference to drug use, composer Robert Lamm has factually stated that it’s a song about writing a song at 25 minutes to 4 in the morning. Here’s a production analysis of the song.
“25 Or 6 To 4” is built around a single simple descending chord pattern that serves as intro, verse and solo, and an 8 bar bridge. The energy of the band’s performance and the signature horn lines and guitar soloing of Terry Kath turn that simplicity into gold.
The melody is memorable because of the ascending counterpoint to the main chordal changes of the song, which are descending. The chorus is much different from the verse, but the addition of the harmony vocals (always a strong point of the band) changes the section’s sound significantly.
The lyrics tell the story about trying to write a song in the early morning and reflects on the real-life experience that composer Lamm was having at the moment. The lyrics rhyme well and don’t seem forced, although they sing better than they read. The song’s form looks like this:
intro | verse | chorus | interlude (2x) | verse | chorus | solo (12x) | intro | verse | chorus | outro (2x) | tag
Chicago is a seven piece band which includes a three piece horn section, and with the exception of an overdubbed lead guitar, that’s exactly what you hear on the recording with very little sweetening.
The song begins with the dual rhythm guitars playing the signature descending 4 bar chord change, which is joined the second time through by the drums. The band joins on the third time through as the horn section plays its opening line. On the first verse, the intensity lowers a bit as the vocal enters and the band is stripped down to rhythm guitar, bass, drums and electric piano (a Hohner Pianet) and the holes between the vocal phrases are filled with different horn lines.
On the chorus the two harmony vocals enter and a lead guitar line fills the hole in between the two phrases. The song then begins a short interlude (twice through the chord pattern) with a horn line played against a short lead guitar solo.
The second verse is musically identical to the first with the exception of lead guitar fills in the holes between vocal phrases along with the horns. The second chorus is identical to the first except for the lyrics.
The guitar solo lasts for 12 times through the chord pattern, with the chord pattern changing to straight 8th notes on the 5th time and guitarist Terry Kath changing to a wah wah sound on the ninth time through as the intensity heightens. During the solo, the supporting instruments play off each other and the lead guitar as they would during a jam, which makes this section particularly exciting because of the interplay. The song then repeats the intro to the song, which is the same except the drums continue to play time and the lead guitar continues the solo.
The third verse is identical to the second, as the guitar continues to solo in between the vocal phrases. The last chorus is also identical to the others with the exception of a slight change in the guitar fill. The outro consists of twice through the instrumental patter, but it’s played much closer to the intro in spareness. The song ends with a ruboto (gradually slowing tempo) horn tag with different chord pattern for the first time in the song.
The Foundation: bass and drums
The Rhythm: keyboard, rhythm guitar
The Pad: none
The Lead: vocals, lead guitar, horns
The Fills: lead guitar, horns
Even though “25 Or 6 To 4” is based just around the seven pieces of Chicago, there are some interesting aspects to the recording. For one, the rhythm guitar that’s played throughout the song is doubled and slightly panned left and right. The horns are also doubled and panned hard left and right, but the arrangement of these parts is not identical, with the trombone sometimes hard to the left and sometimes the trumpet hard to the right.
What’s most interesting is that the drums are doubled, with the primary kit mostly up the middle and the secondary one slightly to the right.
There’s only one effect used on the song and that’s a nice long reverb that blends in so well that you can hardly hear it, yet it supplies the polish expected from a studio recording of the time.
Chicago II is much more experimental than the previous album in terms of taking more advantage of the multitrack format. Doubles on the drums, horns, and rhythm guitars make the sound larger without it sounding sweetened, yet provide some ear candy if the listener happens to be using headphones.
The drum track really propels “25 Or 6 To 4” along, although it doesn’t stick out of the mix. The fact that the song is based around a slight snare fill at the end of each bar almost goes unnoticed, yet it’s an integral part to the feel of the song, as is the constant 8th note kick drum that never wavers throughout the song.
The band’s performance really brings the song home, both through a commanding Peter Cetera vocal, Terry Kath’s guitar hero soloing, and the excellent interplay of the band, especially during the last half of the solo. All hit songs are exciting and “25 Or 6 To 4” maintains that excitement even after 40+ years of repeated listenings.
You can read more from The Deconstructed Hits series and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.