54-40 are one of Canada’s greatest, longest running rock’n’roll bands, but they are pretty much unknown south of the border. The band take their name from James R. Polk’s 1844 election campaign slogan of ’54-40 or Fight!’; as a means of distracting from the issue of slavery, Polk pressed an expansionist campaign and slogan. The band formed in Vancouver in 1981, their first gig was opening for legendary Vancouver hardcore band, DOA, at the equally legendary Smiling Buddha Cafe on the downtown Eastside of the city. They followed that up with a few tracks on a Vancouver indie compilation album, Things Are Still Coming Ashore, before releasing their own first ep in 1982. Their first album came out in 1984, Set the Fire. By this point, 54-40’s lineup settled around what is essentially their classic one: Neil Osborne on vocals and guitar, Phil Comparelli on guitars, vocals, and trumpet, Brad Merritt on bass and Matt Johnson on drums.
Growing up in Vancouver in the mid-80s, it was kind of impossible not to notice 54-40. They got a lot of play on MuchMusic, the Canadian MTV. The University of British Columbia’s CiTR radio station had them in constant rotation and they even got a fair amount of play on the city’s commercial radio station.
My introduction to them came from Much, the video for ‘Baby Ran,’ perhaps one of the greatest songs of all-time. The video opens in the dark, as the band are on a stage with the lights off, for the most part. Comparelli, Merritt, and Johnson are in blue light as the first slashing guitar riff starts the song and the pounding bass and drums kick in. As Comparelli continues the slashed riff, the lights come up enough for us to make out their faces and Osborne, his long shaggy black hair, dressed all in white, guitar hanging, shambles up to the microphone. And then he opens his mouth, his low, deep voice taking over. The video is a study in mid-80s music video tropes, from the dark lighting, to the close ups of Johnson pounding the drums in deep concentration. And then Comparelli rips off a wicked solo to end the track.
I know I had a cassette copy of 54-40 in 1986, but I have no recollection of buying it. The copy I still have is vinyl, I bought it at the late, lamented Track Records on Seymour St. in downtown Vancouver in 1987 or 1988. Seymour St. was once record row in Vancouver, as a series of record shops were on the east side of the street between Pender and Dunsmuir streets. There was a Sam the Record Man, A&B Sound, A&M Records, Track and another indie store. Over the years, I hesitate to think about how much money I spent at Sam, A&B and Track.
I remember the day I found this album on vinyl there. Me and my buddy were actually digging for post-punk albums, I wanted Public Image Ltd’s Second Edition on vinyl. I found it that day. But I also found this on vinyl. It was a cloudy day in Vancouver, the rain was holding off though. We had already gone to Sam’s and A&B, so Track was going to be our last stop before getting back in the bus to suburbia. I remember being more excited about this find than the PiL. By now, 54-40 were bona fide rock stars in Canada, on the back of their third album, Show Me (1987) with its hit singles ‘One Gun’ and ‘One Day in Your Life.’ But the eponymous album, also known as The Green Album, was the one I wanted.
The best-known song on 54-40 might be ‘I Go Blind,’ which Hootie & The Blowfish covered in the 90s, making a metric shit tonne of money for 54-40. Somehow, Hootie took a killer track and made it saccharine shite, so it is essential to understand the original version of this song, which also became a staple on Much in the mid-80s. The 54-40 video has always fascinated me for the intersplicing of footage from Chile with Comparelli and Osborne walking through the dense Pacific Northwest forest with their guitars, in their Cowichan sweaters, which were more or less required clothing for British Columbians in the 80s (I still wear mine today)
54-40 were always hard to pin down in terms of their influences, because they always seems to do their own thing, taking their influences from rock, punk, and post-punk. That’s what makes ‘Grace and Beauty’ so interesting because it sounds like REM, down to the jangly guitars. Of course, Obsorne’s vocals are entirely unlike Michael Stipe’s unconventional, obscurantist style of singing in the 80s.
The following track, ‘Me Island’ is, after ‘Baby Ran’, my favourite. I remember the first time I heard it, on the cassette version of the album. I was a little too young to understand the lyrics, wherein Osborne sings ‘Don’t wait to die young/Don’t wait too long.’ But the driving bass and the guitars of the track, moody and brooding made it. And Osborne’s delivery is muted here. Towards the end of the track, Osborne begins to mumble before borrowing from Nancy Sintra: ‘These boots were made for walking/downtown/These boots/These black boots were made for walking downtown/Downtown, downtown, downtown/These boots were made for walking/That’s just what they’ll do/These boots were made for walking/All over you.’ I found this bit riveting in 1986, I still find it so in 2019. It was a few years later when I finally understood the track. But by then it didn’t matter. It was still a killer track.
Over the years, I must’ve seen 54-40 close to 20 times across Canada. I saw them in Vancouver a bunch of times. But I also saw them in Toronto and Ottawa and Montréal. I saw them in night clubs, in gymnasia, in hockey arenas, and outdoor festivals. From 1986 to 1994, they were, next to The Tragically Hip, the Great Canadian Band. They provided the soundtrack to much of my teenaged years and young adulthood. And whilst 54-40 is their classic album, one could probably say the same thing about any of their albums in that period: Show Me (1987); Fight for Love (1989); Dear Dear (1992), and Smiling Buddha Cabaret (1994). Both Dear Dear and Smiling Buddha went platinum in Canada.
54-40 are still out there fighting the good fight, their last album, Keep on Waking, came out last year. If there’s one thing I love about these veteran bands is that, essentially, their Give a Shit Factor is low. They’ve made their money, they’ve made their fame. Their fans will still come out to see them, they will still buy their albums. 54-40 get to do what they want, they’ve earned the right. Comparelli left the band in 2003, due to mounting personal issues, and was replaced by Matthew Good’s guitarist, Dave Genn. Something was lost then, as Comparelli’s guitar work was unique, but he also contributed the trumpet to a bunch of track as well.
and released their first album, Set the Fire in 1984