Considered by many to be the Godfathers of Canadian grunge, Neil Osbourne and Brad Merrit’s musial beginnings in the late 70s started out in the typical manner – a couple of high school friends getting together to play music, sometimes with each other, and hopefully attracting girls.
Although Osborne had enrolled in Boston’s Berklee School of Music after graduating, it wasn’t long before he was back in BC and the two were looking for a drummer. With Osbourne handling guitars and vocals and Merrit on bass, Ian Franey filled the drums void. Taking their name from the James K. Polk presidential campaign slogan “54 40 or Fight,” which sought to expand the U.S. border northward (the 54th parallel and 40 minutes), and they played their first gig as 54.40 in a small Vancouver club on New Year’s Eve in 1981.
Only a few months later, their politically charged music and live stage show attracted Allen Moy, who was involved in Mo-Da-Mu Records. This was a non-profit group whose sole intent was to promote underground musicians. That fall, after several mini-tours in the American North West, four of their songs showed up on the label’s latest compilation, THINGS ARE STILL COMING ASHORE.
In early ’83, they hooked up with Mark Smith, a Seattle musician and producer who took them to his home studio, where they recorded a six song EP called SELECTION, released that summer on Mo-Da Music. All originals, songs like “Yank,” “Vows, Sobs, Tears & Kisses,” and “(Jamming With) Lawrence” further proved the band’s intent on mixing politically charged lyrics with aggressive back beats and screaming guitars, and they continued touring the western seaboard on both sides of the border.
On Moy’s suggestion, they put out an ad for a second guitarist to round out their sound, which was answered by Phil Comparelli. Darryl Neudorf had also replaced Franey on drums by this time. The label had always suffered varying degrees of financial hardships, and since 54.40 was the label’s only act that was close to profitable, Moy and partner Keith Porteous talked the band into letting them be their managers. The band’s first full length album came in ’84 in SET THE FIRE. Two singles were released, “What To Do Now” and “Sound of Truth,” both charged with energy and something different on the airwaves. In time for the holidays that year, they followed up with “Christmas Time.”
The band’s originality was getting the attention of several major labels, even though that wasn’t the direction they were intentionally leaning towards. Furthering their reputation as a band insisting on doing things their way, even label reps were turned away from sold out shows, despite being on the guest lists. But a band with that much potential can’t stay indie forever, and they signed a deal with Warner before the end of 1985. With new drummer Matt Johnson, they went to Mushroom Studios in Vancouver with producer Dave Ogilvie, and their self-titled album hit the stores the next spring. The first single, “Baby Ran” which was a huge hit on the campus radio circuit also broke ground on the American airwaves. If there was any doubt the band could be groomed into a commercially viable act, “I Go Blind” soon followed on the charts and put those questions to rest. Short, snappy songs with just enough angst to keep your attention was held together with tight production, and the band found themsleves on the road for the next year.
Once the tour buses ground to a halt, label execs shipped them off to LA with producer Dave Jerden, who’d done the remixes on the previous album, and released SHOW ME in ’87. Jerden smoothed out some of the rough edges in the band’s sound, and supplemented it with keyboards and slick production. The end result was an album that produced two more singles, “One Day In Your Life” and “One Gun,” and “Walk In Line” – and the comparisons to the likes of REM or Midnight Oil, who they’d both toured with, were inevitable, transcending musical boundaries and gaining reputations for cranking out one hit album after another. Another cross continent tour ensued, but the band was less than ehthusiastic with what they perceived as a poor push from their label.
They returned to the friendly confines of Ogilvie producing the Vancouver sessions for their next project, FIGHT FOR LOVE in the fall of 1989. Boasting five singles – “Walk In Line,” “2,000 Years of Love,” the title track, “Baby Have Some Faith” and “Miss You,” only the latter one cracked the top 10. They embarked on an arduous schedule that saw them throughout North America, with several European dates and a stop in Moscow for the next year and a half. Still, album sales weren’t living up to expectations and Warner began giving the band less attention in America.
Mutually frustrated, the band and Warner parted ways in 1990, but within a year the label released the best of package SWEETER THINGS. They found a more amicable deal in terms of creativity and vision with Columbia in ’91 with a Sony distribution deal and released what would become their biggest seller at that point DEAR DEAR the following spring. On the backs of four top 20 singles, “She La,” “Nice To Luv You,” “Music Man” and “You Don’t Get Away,” the album was certified double platinum, pushing the mix of socially conscious pop with harder edged anthems. The record was rounded out by Osbourne’s penchant for writing sometimes unsettling, but deep rooted lyrics. Songs like “Book,” with its almost mystical, latin tinged side and the southern feel to “Lovers and Losers” showcasing the band’s lack of fear in experimentation.
Never ones to back away from controversy, the band was one of the more vocal oppositions to some remarks Bryan Adams was making at the time in regards to copyright issues and the Canadian music industry in general. Yet during all the controversy, they managed to tour North America, open for Midnight Oil on a six-week cross-Europe tour, and squeek in some time now and again in the studios. Named after the local club that housed their very first gig 13 years earlier and was now facing demolition, SMILIN’ BUDDHA CABARET hit the shelves in the spring of ’94. Raved by critics and fans alike, and led by “Bame Your Parents” as the first of five straight singles, the album went on to double platinum success. Other singles to further embed 54-40 as one of the premier exports for the next two years of touring included “Assoholic,” “Train of Dreams,” “We Are, We Pretend,” and “Ocean Pearl.” Other tracks included the near metal “Radio Luv Song” and “Friends End,” an interspective look at life and boasting some of Osbourne’s most personal lyrics in years. The band managed to get their fingers on the big neon sign that sat outside the Vancouver nightclub for over two decades, incorporating it into their stage props for the Canadian leg of their tours.
In 1995 the band got an added boost when Hootie & the Blowfish covered “I Go Blind” from the SWEETER THINGS album. Always having been fans, Hootie’s version wound up as the b-side to a single, and was featured on the TV show Friends, which in turn landed on the show’s soundtrack CD. Royalties from the cover later enabled Osbourne to build his own recording studio in Vancouver.
54-40 meanwhile were putting the finishing touches on their next album, TRUSTED BY MILLIONS. Produced by Steven Drake of Odds, the bulk of the songs were initially written while on tour in Europe, then recorded at Vancouver’s Mushroom Studios with new producer Steven Drake. The record was certified double gold on the backs of the singles, “Lies To Me,” “Crossing a Canyon” and “Love You All.” If there was any doubt the band was softening and growing less socially angst, those rumours were put to rest with “This Is My Haircut.” “I Love Candy” and “Cheer Up Peru” on the other hand showed the band hadn’t lost a step when it came to simple, well crafted pop songs, and another set of tours around the globe kept them on the road for another year anda half.
Their first two indie releases, SELECTION and SET THE FIRE had the dust brushed off them and Sony repackaged them as SOUND OF TRUTH – THE INDEPENDENT COLLECTION in ’97. Feeling a fresh set of ears was needed for the next project again, the band enlisted the services of Garth Richardson (son of legendary producer Jack Richardson) for SINCE WHEN, released in ’98. Featuring the title track as the only single, the record had a much more laid back, less progressive sound to it, right from the acoustic intro to the lead off “In Your Image.” Osbourne’s vocals drifted into a lazy croon in “I Could Give You More” and piano charged “My Greatest Mistake.” Along with the complete strings accompaniment in “Playground” and the all out rocker “You Should Come Over,” the record was heralded as the band’s most experimental and widest reaching in terms of styles. But as usually is the case, a great record sometimes fails on the charts, and SINCE WHEN failed to crack the Billboard top 40.
HEAVY MELLOW, a double live album featuring the band at its raucous best on one disc, and an unplugged set on the second disc followed a year later, which featured two versions of both “She La” and “Ocean Pearl.” CASUAL VIEWIN’ was next up, released in August 2000. The American version, complete with a different jacket came out the following spring, minus the song “Castles.” Drawing on a combination of 60s psychadelia and the band’s trademark grunge twinged pop, two singles were released, “Unbend” and “Blue Skies,” but the album failed to generate much interest or even go gold.
Sony released the ‘best of’ compilation, RADIO LOVE SONGS – THE SINGLES COLLECTION in the spring of 2002, which also featured two new tracks, “Love Rush” the only single, and “Plenty Emotion.” The band was taking that time off to restructure their organization and rethink their game plan. They came back on their own label Divine Records for 2003’s GOODBYE FLATLAND. With the smash “Animal In Pain” leading the way, the record continued the tradition of seeing the band reinvent itself. Other noteable tracks included the lead off “Ride,” “Not Enough to Make You Happy” and “Giants.”
Following the world tour, longtime guitarist Phil Comparelli stepped back from the band, and was replaced in ’04 with Dave Genn, a journeyman player whose resume included the likes of Matthew Good and Bif Naked. With their deal with Columbia and Sony now expired, they inked a new agreement with True North Records, but not before their former label released a 12-song compilation in their “Essential” series that spanned their Columbia days. They immediately returned to the studio for the next project, YES TO EVERYTHING, released in the spring of ’05. Largely ignored by the critics, it still contained some of the tighest writing and best-loved tracks in years by the fans, including “Can’t Get Enough,” the tender “Another Kiss” and “Beautiful Self.” A scaled back tour schedule still saw the band make stops in the majority of North America, along with a jaunt overseas.
Parts of the shows made it to THIS IS HERE THIS IS NOW later that year. Along with concert footage, the two disc DVD also featured rare and personal footage of the band backstage and on the road. After a much needed and deserved break from the biz, they returned with 2008’s NORTHERN SOUL. The highly anticipated project delivered on the critics’ and fans’ expectations – a more mature, revitalized band who hadn’t lost a step in terms of searing guitar work held together with a pounding backbeat and featuring tight hooks and powerful lyrics. With the lead off “The Chant,” the album also featured “Shade Grows,” “Where Did The Money Go,” the title track and “To Face Your Eyes.” Heralding their return, they packed their bags and took to the road for a series of dates that took up the next year.