Congratulations Chicago on Their 50th Anniversary!by Best Classic Bands Staff
By the time Chicago had their first #1 single in 1976, “If You Leave Me Now,” they had become a rather tame band, often crossing over into outright blandness. Although their hits from that period onward were, by any measure, well-crafted pop songs—middle of the road, as the phrase went in those days—Chicago had long ago left behind the horn-powered, soul-infused innovation of their earliest days.
Related: The story of “If You Leave Me Now”
And they were very far removed from the music heard on “25 or 6 to 4,” recorded live at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, on July 21, 1970. Watch our Classic Video and you will witness one of the hardest rocking bands of its time. It’s actually difficult to imagine that this is the same band that cut those later hits.
In fairness, they weren’t quite the same. As you watch this seven-minute performance of “25 or 6 to 4,” take note of what happens just before the three-minute mark. Terry Kath, the group’s guitarist, tears into a two-and-a-half-minute solo that has to rank among the most insane of the era. He’s so numbingly good that Jimi Hendrix reportedly stated that Kath was a better player than he was.
To understand how Chicago became what it did, it’s informative to know where they came from. They formed in 1967 as Chicago Transit Authority, with guitarist/singer Kath, keyboardist/singer Robert Lamm, bassist/singer Peter Cetera, saxophonist Walter Parazaider, trumpeter Lee Loughnane, trombonist James Pankow and drummer Danny Seraphine. Signed to Columbia Records in 1968, they released their self-titled debut album the following spring. The group, which happened to come around at a time when rock bands were beginning to incorporate horn sections—Blood, Sweat and Tears and the Electric Flag were two others—took off quickly. The album reached #17.
Two singles culled from the James William Guercio-produced album, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?” and “Beginnings,” reached the top 10 in 1970 and ’71, respectively, but by that time the group had shortened its name to Chicago and released its second LP, another double, this one simply titled Chicago. (From that point onward, most of their albums, for the rest of their career, would be titled with consecutive Roman numerals—at last count they were up to Chicago XXXVI in 2014.)
Like its predecessor, Chicago struck a balance between soul, hard rock, ballads and what might be called nascent jazz fusion, although its centerpiece was the 13-minute suite “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon.” From that, the undeniably catchy “Make Me Smile,” written by Pankow and sung by Kath, became Chicago’s first top 10 hit in 1970, but it was the followup, “25 or 6 to 4,” written by Lamm and sung by Cetera, that showed their ability to rock as hard as anyone else on the scene. It reached #4 in the summer of ’70, the period seen on our Classic Video.
So what exactly was “25 or 6 to 4” about? Who knows?! In its time, there was speculation that the “25” part of the title was a reference to LSD, whose full pharmaceutical name was LSD-25. The “6 to 4” was said to be a ratio involved in the manufacture of the drug. Lamm laughed off those suggestions, stating that it was simply inspired by a time of day: 25 or perhaps 26 minutes before 4 o’clock.
Still, with lyrics such as these, one can understand where some listeners might have come up with the idea that it was about an acid trip:
“Should have tried to do some more
Twenty five or six to four, oh yeah
Feeling like I ought to sleep
Spinning room is sinking deep
Searching for something to say
Waiting for the break of day, ohh”
As early as Chicago III—the first of the numbered albums—the band began losing its original driving focus but its increasingly mainstream sound benefited Chicago commercially. “Saturday in the Park,” in 1972, was the last gasp from the original Chicago before they morphed entirely into a more disciplined pop outfit.
They continued to release an album per year and had recently put out Chicago XI when tragedy struck. On January 23, 1978, Kath, who had undergone drug and alcohol issues, was in California at a party when he began playing around with guns. Although he was an experienced gun user, he did not know that the pistol in his hand had one round in its chamber. Kath pointed the gun at his head, pulled the trigger and died instantly. He left behind a wife and young daughter.
Chicago briefly considered quitting, but they soldiered on, replacing Kath on the dance music-oriented Hot Streets (before returning to numbers on their next album) with guitarist Donnie Dacus. Chicago is still an ongoing outfit today, with four original members still on board: Lamm, Loughnane, Pankow and Parazaider. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016.
If they ever had a more incendiary moment than this one from 1970 though, we haven’t seen it.
Our Classic Video…
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