Dear Straight Dope:
I have searched several music sources and asked numerous individuals for the answer to the following question. Obviously you are my best bet as your book series now occupies the shelves previously held by my Britannica. What the heck does 25 or 6 to 4 mean in the song by Chicago (previously Chicago Transit Authority — everything seems shorter these days)? Any help is appreciated, oh wise Cecil and/or research staff.
SDStaff Songbird replies:
It’s always wise to leave such big things in our hands, Dennis.
Big Thing, incidentally, was the band name used by Robert Lamm, James Pankow, Walter Parazaider, Lee Loughnane, Terry Kath and Danny Seraphine when they first got together. After some mild success, they opened for a band called The Exceptions for two weeks. When The Exceptions’ bassist (a guy named Peter Cetera) heard the Big Thing’s new sound, he took exception to his own band and joined Big Thing.
When the group’s sound really began to come together, they changed their name to Chicago Transit Authority and cut an album. Then the real CTA objected to the name, so they shortened it for their second album to the now familiar Chicago.
The song “25 or 6 to 4” appeared on “Chicago II” and was written by organist/vocalist Robert Lamm. The title and lyrics have puzzled many since it appeared in 1970. Some say it’s a drug reference, suggesting a unit of measurement involving the quantity of joints that can be rolled from a what-used-to-be dime bag. Some feel it’s about looking for spiritual revelation, undergoing a mysterious soul-searching journey.
Perhaps you’re too young to recall that in the late ’60s and ’70s it was a popular parlour game — if not quite an intellectual pursuit — to read hidden messages and double meanings into song lyrics. Many people thought “Hey Jude” was about shooting heroin. Just about everything Bob Dylan wrote went through hours of scrutiny by his fans. Did you ever check into the “Hotel California” by the Eagles? Many of the Rolling Stones songs were supposedly about drugs, though it’s hard to ignore the more explicit meanings (“You make a dead man come.”) What about “I Am the Walrus,” which was supposedly written on an acid trip about Paul McCartney’s greatly exaggerated and rumored demise? Goo goo g’joob, baby.
Lamm says it’s simpler than that. “The song is about writing a song. It’s not mystical,” he says. Take a look at some of the lyrics:
Waiting for the break of day — He’s been up all night and now it’s getting close to sunrise.
Searching for something to say — Trying to think of song lyrics.
Flashing lights against the sky — Perhaps stars or the traditional flashing neon hotel sign.
Giving up I close my eyes — He’s exhausted and his eyes hurt from being open too long, so he closes them.
Staring blindly into space — This expression can be seen often on the faces of writers and reporters. Trust me.
Getting up to splash my face — Something you do when you’re trying to stay awake, though a good cup of Starbuck’s does wonders for Cecil and me.
Wanting just to stay awake, wondering how much I can take — How far can he push himself to get the song done?
Should I try to do some more? — This is the line that makes many think it’s a drug song. But it is just as easily construed as a frustrated writer wondering if he should try to do some more lyrics/songwriting.
As for the curious title, Lamm says, “It’s just a reference to the time of day” — as in “waiting for the break of day” at 25 or (2)6 minutes to 4 a.m. (3:35 or 3:34 a.m.)
I think we can take Lamm’s word for the whole thing. Because, when it’s that early in the morning, does anybody really know what time it is?
SDSTAFF Euty comments:
Does anybody really care?
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STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.