25 or 6 to 4 Meaning: Time of Day or Drugs?

Chicago 25 or 6 to 4Song: 25 or 6 to 4 (1970)

Artist: Chicago

Album: Chicago II (Columbia)

The Tommy Tutone song Jenny (867-5309) spawned quite a myth, or maybe not a myth, about thousands of people calling the number from the song and overloading the circuit boards, thus causing the number to always be “out of service,” or something like that. But that’s nothing compared to the debates about the meaning of the  Chicago song with the number in its title, 25 or 6 to 4 (or Twenty-Five or Six to Four).

There are a lot of things I like about Chicago, at least before they became a ballad mill in the Solid Gold hosted by Andy Gibb days (although those songs are pretty and all). One is that they are Chicago. Two, they are second only to the Doobie Brothers for number of members, and just as confusing when it comes to knowing who’s in the band at any one time. Three, despite the incorporation of Jazz and/or Classical into the music, it was a feat to put all those horns in a rock band and be successful.  Nobody ever said, “give me more horns!” And finally, the album names: With the exception of the first album in 1969, which was actually called Chicago Transit Authority, each album has simply been named by number, using a Roman numeral, the cover having a slight variation of the band’s logo. Love that. Keep it simple. Keeping up with all those horns was probably confusing enough.

Meaning of 25 or 6 to 4

The song in question, 25 or 6 to 4, appeared on the album Chicago II. It went to number 4 on the U.S. charts, and number 7 on the British charts. But, few people know what the numbers mean. At least we know Tommy Tutone’s big hit was a phone number. What in the world is 25 or 6 to 4 supposed to mean? Was it just random? Well, I think it was random in a way, but there are two theories as to its real meaning. One comes from the actual songwriter, so it’s not really a theory at all, but that doesn’t stop other people from theorizing.

Although the song was sung by Peter Cetera, it was written by keyboardist and songwriter (and also vocalist) Robert Lamm, who is perfectly capable of singing it himself and often has, by the way (Peter Cetera left for a solo career).

Song Writer’s Explanation

According to Lamm, and if you listen to the song carefully you will get it, the song is about an all-night songwriting session. The “narrator” is telling about the struggle to come up with an idea, any idea, for lyrics, while he is losing it from lack of sleep. Should he stick it out and hope something comes, or should he just give up and go to bed. If you are a creative type, you’ve been there, and you can relate to what the song is saying, and understand why it’s saying it. But what of the numbers?

Well, its a reference to the time of day, so Lamm maintains. The groggy half-delirious guy is asked what time it is and he replies that it is 25 or 6 to 4, meaning 25 or 26 minutes to 4 a.m. That seems like an odd bit of syntax, but, the guy is not all there. He’s about to pass out.

The LSD Theory

But, maybe he’s not all there because he’s like not all there if you catch my drift. Maybe he’s on a trip. Maybe its an acid trip. The 25, according to the acid theorists, could be referring to LSD-25 (lysergic acid diethylamide 25), a strain of acid used on the streets (don’t ask me). The 6 to 4, well that is a bit tougher. But, it must refer to another strain of LSD, the mysterious, LSD-624. You get it, six-TWO-four. So, the guy doesn’t know exactly which number LSD he has, maybe.

Many people vehemently believe the acid story. They cite references to the existence of LSD-25 as “proof.” However, there is not really a question as to whether this particular version of the drug existed. However, 624, which, if the batches of LSD were numbered sequentially, would be a bit high (get it?) has not been shown definitively to ever have existed. One commenter on a song site brought up a movie with Gregory Peck called Captain Newman, saying that Peck injects another character with a drug and a close-up of the bottle reveals that it is labeled “25 or 6 to 4.”

You couldn’t be in a rock band in the ’70s without being blitzed out of your mind on drugs. It couldn’t possibly be about what the writer says it is about. Every rock song is about drugs. The problem is that although LSD-25 was definitely a thing, there is some doubt as to whether this LSD-624 ever existed. Apparently, LSD goes much higher than 11. The debate will probably never end, although I don’t know why. One point that I think should put an end to the speculation is that Lamm has never been evasive about his and the band’s history with drugs. If the song had been about LSD, it simply does not make sense that he would lie about it.

Even the time explanation is a question and some claim that it was a reference to the time that the band could get into the studio.

Oddly, I heard Robert Lamm telling the story of writing the song, and he said that he was racking his brain trying to come up with a lyric. I can imagine him sitting on the floor surrounded by his stuff, and he saw a matchbook sitting there with a phone number on it. How do I know he’s sitting on the floor? Its in the song:

Sitting cross-legged on the floor,
25 or 6 to 4

So, he’s searching for something to say (hey-ey), and he sees the matchbook there with the number printed on it, and it prompts him to say, hey, what the hey.

That doesn’t completely jibe with the time reference, but it does jibe with the number perhaps prompting him to think of numbers, and so think of the time, and so think of the fact that it’s way past the witching hour and does anybody really know what time it is? You get it. But, then again, “should I try to do some more, 25 or 624?” really does sound like its about acid, and this guy has like, two kinds.

Regardless if it is about the time or about acid, it is an awesome song. If you don’t sing along you must be on a trip. I’ll bet you even hum the horn parts. I know I do. If it’s good enough for the high-school marching band…(insert drug reference hoping to sound clever).

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