Music

54-40’s surreal journey takes them from Vancouver’s gritty punk scene to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame

Keep your eyes on the prize. It’s advice commonly given to people in addictions treatment or to folks striving towards a goal that’s golden, not gilded. It’s a cliché, but it seems to help a lot of eyes sneak up on a lot of prizes.

It’s good advice. It works. It’s kept alcoholics out of bars and shopaholics away from Walmart for years. But for 54-40, who were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame last year, the prize didn’t exist. They never set out to keep their eyes on any prize because they didn’t have any big picture of what success would look like in their career. For them, nothing existed beyond the music.

“When we started out, we never wanted to be at the toppermost of the poppermost,” says bassist Brad Merritt — who along with singer/guitarist Neil Osborne is one of the two remaining original members from the band’s birth in 1981 — in reference to The Beatles pre-fame motto. “We never wanted to be the biggest band in the world or the most popular. All the bands we liked usually didn’t crack the Top 40, so the fact that we achieved as much as we did commercially was a good thing but was unexpected.”

Merritt is speaking from his Vancouver Island home where he’s about to go golfing a few minutes away and has plans to bike home afterwards. Sounds like he’s enjoying a pretty healthy lifestyle. “I try to. You don’t stay around as long as we have without some consideration for that,” he says.

The aforementioned bands that influenced 54-40 include Joy Division, Gang of Four, Echo and the Bunnymen, Public Image Ltd. and XTC. Merritt and Osborne got into these swath-cutters after first leaving their Tsawwassen roots and heading out to Vancouver’s storied punk scene around 1979. Merritt likens it to being in Vienna during the mid-19th century, Memphis in the late 1950s or in Las Vegas in the early 1960s.

“I’ve given this a lot of thought lately, and first of all, the quality was there. You’ve got DOA, The Subhumans, The Young Canadians, Pointed Sticks, and those are top-level bands. Then you’ve got a smattering of bands underneath them, another 15 or 20, and I loved those bands too. You’ve got The Dishrags, Private School, Wasted Lives, and others.

“You felt part of a community and it was a very communal kind of thing. The people who put on these shows generally (were) the bands themselves. They came up with the graphics for the posters, they made the posters, they put up the posters, (and) they rented the hall. They built the stage, they rented the lights.”

In fact, so enamoured was Merritt with that music that he says that on the back of the first Subhumans album, he is in four of the photos in the montage of different gigs.

This seems an unlikely precedent for a band who would go on to record one gold and three platinum albums and scatter hit songs like Baby Ran, Ocean Pearl, One Day in Your Life and I Go Blind across the airwaves before being inducted into said Hall of Fame. And Vancouver’s gritty, down-and-dirty punk scene especially seems a long way away from the saccharine American TV series, Friends, but that’s just where one of 54-40’s songs ended up.

“I think we found more vindication when Hootie (and the Blowfish) recorded I Go Blind (than in being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame). That was more directed towards Americans where we had our little shot in the United States and we do what we did, but it wasn’t enough to launch something which was lasting down there.

“And then Hootie and the Blowfish, who used to come to all our gigs down in Washington, DC, covered all our songs: they used to do the whole Green Record. They do I Go Blind, and somehow it finds a release through Atlantic on the Friends soundtrack LP. It wasn’t released as a single, but still finds itself at No. 3 on the Top 100 the hot AC.

“(So) I’m going, ‘I knew we were good, I knew we could do it.’ And I listen to the versions of the song and you can’t even tell them apart until Darius Rucker or Neil sings.”

The song is full of the kind of hooks that populate much of 54-40’s work, including the tracks on this year’s crowd-sourced Keep on Walking, which features trademark bright, riffy passages, some soundtrack-worthy reverb-kissed tunes, and unburied vocals —  because they always have something to say. While the band’s sound remains true to their origins, it seems to take more miles to get from A to B these days.

“It’s quite a process. It used to come naturally and easily to us. We had to kind of create some kind of a focus. We had all these kind of manifestos, a band identity and an identity for our songs. One of them was very simple, that a song had to move you three ways. It had to move you intellectually: there had to be some kind of turn of phrase had to make you kind of tilt your head slightly. It had to move you emotionally, to touch something within you, and it had to move you physically, which was my responsibility, to move your hips a little.”

Being crowd-funded is a bit of a relief to the band, for Merritt says they have already fulfilled their commitment to the people who put money into the music, so there is no pressure. “We’re not concerned with taking over the world, not that we ever were. We know that we don’t depend on this record going platinum for our careers, like we might have for previous records back in the day.”

With the wisdom of age, Merritt is also aware of the fact that the music won’t likely take off like it used to. “It’s a very natural thing, and a lot of this comes down to acceptance. Accepting the fact you’re living in a pop culture world that eats its young, accepting the fact that a lot of people of our vintage have kind of moved on.

“There’s this point in your life where music is so important, about 14 to 24, we’ll say, but it could start later and last longer. But when you get to be 50, you’ve got a lot of other problems and interests, and you look at the music around you and you say, ‘I can’t relate to that.’

“But there’s an acceptance there, the upside is this: We appreciate it more now, we had angst on top of our angst before, which is not a bad thing. (When you’re young) you need that for fuel.

“That’s the upside of all this, and I start to look at life with a sense of gratitude, and be thankful for what it is we have achieved, what we have, the relationships we have, what we’ve created and the ability to still create.”

In light of this, the Hall of Fame, such a long way away from grainy Vancouver punk gigs, was dreamlike, although Merritt said he loved staying at the Sheraton in downtown Toronto for five days and catching up with musical companions he hadn’t seen in years. “It really was surreal. But we’re big Salvador Dali fans, so were OK with surreal. It was good.

“Now something like the Hall of Fame is icing on the cake. It’s just a very simple kind of acknowledgement.”

(Photo courtesy Mark Maryanovich.)

54-40 play The Big Four Roadhouse at the Calgary Stampede on Thursday, July 12. For more information, go to https://www.calgarystampede.com/54-40.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who has been writing about music, horses, books and life for over 25 years in FFWD Weekly, The Calgary Herald, Swerve, Western Horseman and other publications.

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