Emerging from the punk movement, 54-40 has defied easy categorization, churning out diverse albums that incorporate grunge, alternative rock, and pop sounds. A perennial favorite in Canada, the band gained their greatest recognition in the United States when Hootie & the Blowfish recorded their song “I Go Blind,” which was also featured on the television show Friends. In 1992, band member Neil Osborne had a widely publicized debate with Canadian rock star Bryan Adams, championing regulations that require radio to favor Canadian recordings.
Schoolmates Osborne and Brad Merritt met in the 1970s while attending high school in British Columbia, Canada. After graduating, Osborne left for the Berklee College of Music in Boston, only to be convinced by Merritt to quit school and steep himself in the growing underground punk music scene in Vancouver. Osborne formed a band with his brother David and other local musicians, calling themselves the Loud Rangers. The band soon became discouraged, however, at the lack of performance opportunities. One notable exception was an impromptu concert at the Osborne family’s aluminum recycling plant; unfortunately, all 12 people in attendance were either family or friends.
Giving up on the Loud Rangers, Neil and Brad traveled to England, where they were able to see some of their idols—bands such as Gang of Four and Joy Division—perform. Reinvigorated, they returned to Vancouver and hooked up with Ian Franey to form a punk trio they named 54-40. Merritt was a history buff and borrowed the name from American President James Folk’s 1844 campaign slogan, “54-40 or Fight!” It referred to Folk’s desire to move the Canadian-American border up to the 54th parallel, 40th minute (today the southern border of Alaska), which would have made all of presentday British Columbia part of the United States. The name reflected the group’s aggressive idealism—political but ironic.
Their 1980 debut performance could hardly have been better orchestrated. 54-40 won a New Year’s Eve gig at the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, where punk rock had started in Vancouver. No other band wanted the slot, because it meant going head-to-head with the legendary punk band D.O.A., which had a sold-out performance elsewhere in town. With Brad Merritt on bass, Darryl Neudorf on drums, and Neil Osborne on vocals and guitar, 54-40 played to 100 people and were thrilled with their $100 earnings.
Their performance and aggressive stage act attracted the attention of other local musicians, as did Osborne’s confrontational manner and unique guitar style. They also caught the eye of Allen Moy, a vocalist from the Vancouver band Popular Front, who had formed a nonprofit record label and musician’s collective called Mo=Da=Mu. In 1982, 54-40 recorded Selection, a six-song EP on the label, followed in 1983 with Set the Fire, a full-length album produced by Moy. At this point the group had two new band members: guitarist and trumpet player Phil Comparelli and Darryl Neudorf, who replaced Franey on drums. Their credo, quoted on the Divine Industries website, was “making music of integrity and spirit.”
Winning fans on their tours along the West Coast of the United States, Set the Fire began topping college radio charts in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, stirring radio interest. With Matt Johnson replacing Darryl Neudorf on drums, the band began to turn their stage improvisations into new songs, recording them at Mushroom Studios in Vancouver. This demo tape sparked interest at Warner Bros. A&R, although, ironically, representatives from the label were denied access to a sold-out show at Club Lingerie in Los Angeles, forcing them to catch the band in Vancouver before signing 54-40 in 1986. The demo songs were remixed and released as their first album, 54-40 (also known as the green album).
Their first single, “Baby Ran,” became a college radio favorite, as did “I Go Blind.” With the album’s success, the group began to tour Canada, wowing the Toronto press at their debut in June of 1986. In 1987 they followed up with Show Me, produced in Los Angeles by Dave Jerden. It was a departure from their previous work, described by the Rough Guide as “[s]onically polished, flavoured with synthesizers … a sign of the way the band would go on to reinvent its sound with each new album.” The album produced two hit Canadian singles, “One Day in Your Life” and “One Gun.”
Members include Phil Comparelli, guitar; Ian Franey (group member, 1980-83), drums; Matt Johnson (joined group, 1986), drums; Brad Merritt, bass, vocals; Darryl Neudorff (group member, 1983-84), drums, trumpet; David Osborne (joined group, 1988), keyboards; Neil Osborne, guitar, vocals.
Group formed in Vancouver, Canada, 1980; recorded debut EP Selection on independent label Mo=Da=Mu, 1982; followed with Set the Fire, 1984; signed with Reprise, released 54-40, 1986; released Show Me on Warner Bros., 1987; released Fight for Love, 1989; signed with Sony Music Canada, released Dear Dear, 1992; Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, 1994; Trusted by Millions, 1996; Since When, 1998; and Casual Viewing 2000; released Casual Viewin’ U.S.A. on Nettwerk, 2001.
Addresses: Management —Divine Industries, Box 191, #101-1001, W. Broadway, Vancouver, BC, V6H 4E4, Canada, website: http://www.divineindustries.com. Website —54-40 Official Website: http://www.5440.com.
While the band’s popularity grew in Canada, 54-40 never caught on in the United States, despite tours with Bob Mould and the BoDeans.
The band returned to Vancouver to record their next Warner Bros, album, Fight for Love, with Dave Ogilvie. This effort is described on the Divine Industries website as “a more homespun, acoustic album, exactly the opposite of what people might have expected next from the group … [listeners] got a very personal, simple album, with long, meandering guitar passages and comparatively little lyrical bravado.” Whatever its sound, sales were not large enough for Warner Bros, to re-sign the band. But when 54-40 went hunting, they found a new deal at Sony Canada, where they released the critically acclaimed Dear Dear in May of 1992. The album went platinum in Canada and had the odd distinction of being exactly 54 minutes and 40 seconds long. Commenting on the album, Maclean’s Nicholas Jennings said “[t]here is a new confidence in Osborne’s singing, and the band has rarely sounded so spontaneous, particularly on the tough-rocking ‘Nice to Luv You’ and the sexually ambiguous ‘She La,’ with its edgy guitar and driving rhythm.”
Around this time, Osborne began a public quarrel with Canadian rock star Bryan Adams over Canadian content regulations in the national media. While Adams contended that the government mandate was breeding musical mediocrity, Osborne wrote an open letter to the Canadian media supporting it. 54-40 had no doubt benefited from the “CanCon” quotas designed to build Canada’s domestic recording industry. Despite a number of attacks on Osborne by Adams’ Manager Bruce Allen, 54-40 were declared Canadian cultural champions on the cover of a national magazine.
The band paid homage to their debut venue when they named their 1994 release Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret. “A dark and sometimes humorous album,” according to the Rough Guides, as quoted on Amazon.com, “fuzz and distortion appear only to give way to more acoustic sensibilities….” The band toured Canada relentlessly through 1993 and 1994 to support the album, their first released in the United States since 1989’s Fight for Love.
After Hootie & the Blowfish recorded 54-40’s “I Go Blind” in 1995, 54-40 gained a whole new audience. The song was released on the B-side of Hootie’s debut American single and later included on a soundtrack to the hit television show Friends. 54-40 continued to release albums that kept their listeners interested: Trusted by Millions appeared in 1996, followed by Since When in 1998, and Heavy Mellow In 1999. Once credited with spearheading the grunge movement, the band was ready and willing to make changes as their careers continued. After the release of Since When in 1998, Osborne told FFWD Weektys Mary-Lynn McEwen, “I’m tired of eating Nirvana’s leftovers. It was okay for a while, everybody did it because they had so much impact that it was the thing that had to be done. We had a piece of it with Trusted By Millions, which was power pop and very aggressive. Everyone had a piece of it, but I don’t want to chew on those bones anymore.” McEwen described the album as “[d]renched in strings and sweat, [with] a dozen tracks [that] journey from rock to pop to a rootsy, folky feel, and prove that maturity need not abridge passion in rock music.”
It took a long time, but by 1998 54-40 was finally playing concert hall venues. “It was a big secret,” Osborne told McEwen, “but all of us had two jobs right up until Smilin’Buddha Cabaret came out (in the early ‘90s). I worked at a print shop, Brad (Merritt, bassist) was the foreman of a recycling plant, Matt (Johnson, percussionist) worked at the A&B Sound Warehouse and Phil (Comparelli—guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist) was doing drywall. Now we can make a living at this.”
By the time 54-40 released their self-produced Casual Viewin’ in 2001, they were exploring new territory with their music. In comments included on their official website they called it their “feel-good groove record” and noted that it drew from “’60s soul and hip-hop grooves”. Osborne also noted, “The four of us have been together since 1985. This is our ninth full-length original feature. The chemistry is still there. Our shared experiences continue to provide the juice for new material.”
54-40, Reprise, 1986.
Show Me, Warner Bros., 1987.
Fight for Love, Reprise, 1989.
Dear Dear, Columbia, 1992.
Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, Sony, 1994.
Trusted by Millions, Sony, 1996.
Since When, Sony, 1998.
Casual Viewin’, Sony Canada, 2000.
Casual Viewin’U.S.A., Nettwerk, 2001.
FFWD Weekly (Canada), October 8, 1998; August 31, 2000.
Maclean’s, July 13, 1992, p. 46.
“54-40,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 1, 2002).
“54-40,” Jam Music Pop Encyclopedia, http://www.canoe.ca (March 1, 2002).
“54-40: Biography from Rough Guides,” Amazon, http://www.amazon.com (February 16, 2002).
“Online History of 54-40,” Divine Industries, http://www.divineindustries.com/5440.html (February 16, 2002).
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