A Wisconsin earworm of sorts

A Facebook Friend passed this on from Robert Stacy “The Other” McCain:

For the past several weeks, for some reason, I’ve become obsessed with old Chicago songs. Not their later easy-listening pop, but their early stuff from 1969-1972, when they were still avant-garde. And I couldn’t figure out why this happened until I realized that “25 or 6 to 4” had been remastered as a U.S. Army recruiting advertisement:

Fifty years after its original release, Chicago’s signature song, “25 or 6 to 4,” has been reimagined as a hip-hop anthem about finding your inner warrior with fiery new vocals by indie rapper realnamejames. An abbreviated version of the remix first appeared in November 2019 as a part of the launch of the U.S. Army’s “What’s Your Warrior?” marketing campaign, which was developed to showcase the breadth and depth of opportunities for today’s youth to achieve their goals in America’s largest military branch. The track sparked conversation and excitement online, and a full-length version of The “25 or 6 to 4 (GoArmy Remix)” is now available for download . . .

Wow, I feel old. I haven’t felt this old since Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” was the soundtrack of a Cadillac ad. Back in the day, those early Chicago albums were real stoner music. Every hippie was certain that “25 or 6 to 4” was a reference to acid (LSD-25), but in fact the title and lyrics are about keyboardist Robert Lamm’s struggle to finish writing a song in the wee hours of the morning. He looked up at the clock and it was either 3:35 or 3:34 in the morning — 25 or 26 until 4 a.m.

As I say, Chicago was considered quite avant-garde in their early career. Their first three albums were all double albums, and their fourth album was a quadruple live album. They did a lot of long-form instrumental tracks, and one of my favorite Chicago songs, “Beginnings,” was nearly eight minutes long on their first album. It was not until Columbia Records president Clive Davis personally insisted on editing it down to under three minutes that “Beginnings” became a hit single. Similarly, the album version of “25 or 6 to 4” was nearly five minutes (4:50), which Davis chopped down to 2:52. Of course, the guys in the band resented the hell out of this commercial butchery of their art, but it made them rich. Selling singles (45 rpm) to teenagers required getting airplay on Top 40 radio, and back in the day, there was no way you were gonna get a five-minute song on the radio, let alone eight minutes. So these brutal chop jobs were a necessary part of the business. Chicago could indulge their artistic impulses all they wanted on their albums, but in order to sell those albums, they needed radio airplay, which meant hit singles and — chop! chop! chop! — there went half the song.

Nobody understands this stuff nowadays, in the digital age, where everything is Adobe Audition and kids just download music from Spotify, but once upon a time, a recording was an actual performance, recorded analog on tape, which had to be physically cut and spliced to make edits. And there were actual radio stations run by human beings (or soulless monsters, depending on your point view) called “program directors,” so that turning a record into a hit was a transactional sort of enterprise. Even after Congress outlawed “payola,” there was still a lot of shady stuff involved in promoting records to radio. Of course, in the long run, the music was either good or it wasn’t. Most of the mediocre crap that got played on the radio has been forgotten, but the real classics are timeless.

So I’ve been walking around with this song stuck in my head:

What the heck is that final chord? “25 or 6 to 4” is in the key of A-minor, but that final chord is definitely not A-minor. So I actually researched it and discovered that Lamm ended the song this way:

Dm 6/9 …. F9 … B6(add D) … G/A# … B/A

That’s just insane. In case you don’t know, B/A is an inverted B7 chord, with the 7th (A) played as the bass note. It is completely incongruous with an A-minor scale, which is why that final chord leaves the listener with such a weird feeling. Instinctively, you want the song to resolve to the tonic (I) chord, but instead you have this weird progression of complex chords culminating in something that’s just . . . wrong.

You could spend a lot of time pondering the significance of stuff like that, but that would require a supply of psychedelic drugs, consumed in a basement room with blacklight posters, which was how hippies used to listen to music (according to sources, the professional journalist said).

And so now a hiphop remix of “25 or 6 to 4” is being used for Army recruiting ads. Dude, I never expected to be so old . . .

McCain forgot, or perhaps chose not to include, the ’80s version, with Bill Champlain singing lead vocals instead of Peter Cetera …

… which started the first Chicago concert I ever saw, in Madison in 1987. The correct version started the second half.

What is the Wisconsin connection (besides the fact that all four Chicago concerts I’ve seen were in Wisconsin, that is), you ask? The Facebook Terry Kath Fan Group reveals …

… Chicago guitar legend Terry Kath and his father, Raymond, who owned Kath’s Lake Placid Lodge in Hayward. Terry Kath’s daughter, Michelle, who was 2 when her father died, described the lodge as her father’s “special place.”

Well, it beats having Chicago mobsters using northern Wisconsin as their “special place,” and as you know there was a lot of that.

 

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