You probably know the song 25 or 6 to 4, which features that iconic five-chord progression at the start of the song. It is one of the best-known songs off Chicago’s second album, and 44 years later you’ll still hear it on the radio and in bars and in movies.
It’s a really awesome chord progression, but it’s far from the only song that features it. I remember when I first started listening to Led Zeppelin in high school, and I heard those same chords in Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. It’s interesting because that song was released in 1969, one year before 25 or 6 to 4. You can hear the progression at the 2:23 mark.
And here is 25 or 6 to 4, released in 1970.
And then I noticed the progression popping up in other songs, like Green Day’s Brain Stew.
In 2002, The White Stripes wrote a song called Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, and it’s pretty much the same thing.
And, finally, there is The Pillows’ Walkin’ on the Spiral, from 2004.
Of course, Led Zeppelin didn’t start this trend. In fact, they didn’t even write Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. It’s a Joan Baez cover from 1962. And Baez’s version is a cover of Anne Bredon’s version from the 1950’s. Bredon was influenced by folk singers from the 1940’s. You can stretch this back forever until you get to the Gregorian chant.
This isn’t to accuse anyone of plagiarism. In fact, I think it’s pretty cool that this chord progression has appeared in so many songs over the years. Of course, it pales in comparison to the traditional four chords that are featured in every pop song, ever.
A few years ago I watched Kirby Ferguson’s excellent documentary, Everything is a Remix. If you haven’t watched the four-part series, you should check it out. The point is that in any creative field, we first have to copy, and that’s ok, if it’s done legally. To an extent, it’s necessary. I think back to the famous Isaac Newton quote: If I have seen it further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. We learn by copying.
And I think that’s what these songs show. They have the same chords, yes, but they are all unique too. These bands have carved out their own niches. So, I would say that creativity also involves a component of transformation – taking what’s been done before you and making it your own. Because there is nothing more exhilarating than creating a thing that is uniquely yours.
Even if it’s just a silly blog.