By Keith Sharp
It would be easy to sense more than a hint of irony when 54:40 lead vocalist Neil Osbourne claims he’s honoured that his band is being inducted into Canadian Music Week’s Music Industry Hall of Fame. The presentation to be made during the annual conference’s awards night to be staged Thursday April 20th at Toronto’s Sheraton Hotel.
After all, the band has amassed quite a creditable resume during an impressive recording and performance career that goes back to 1981, when Osborne, bassist Brad Merritt and original drummer Ian Franey launched the group in their native Vancouver.
From that point on, 54:40 have released 13 albums (including three platinum and one gold release) and a number of hit singles including “Baby Ran”, “I Go Blind”, “Nice To Luv You” “She-La” and “Ocean Pearl”, have recorded for two major U.S record labels (Warner/Reprise and Columbia) yet have never received even one Juno Award to acknowledge their Canadian sales efforts. Ironically, the only major distinction the band has achieved was when U.S band Hootie And The Blowfish enjoyed a major hit, covering Osborne’s “I Go Blind”.
“A lot of people have been phoning or sending me emails, congratulating me and the band for our induction and you kind of sense that they are saying “you finally deserved something like this” when they are probably thinking, “about time!” laughed Osborne prior to the band’s CMW appearance Wednesday April 19th at Toronto’s Phoenix Theatre.
“It’s hard for me to comment on why we haven’t received previous recognition from within the industry, it’s like asking why that girl wouldn’t dance with me, mused Osbourne. “Maybe we are not located in the centre of the Canadian music universe, out of sight, out of mind. But we are still out there performing and recording and that’s what really matters.”
With a whole slate of key festival appearances scheduled this year including The Haverock Revival near Peterborough On. July 7th, Medicine Hat Exhibition and Stampede, July 26th and the Penticton Peach Festival August 9, 54:40 are back on the road, strong as ever with a foursome that now features guitarist Dave Glenn and drummer Matt Johnson along with stalwarts Osborne and Merritt.
They have just completed recording a new album of original songs and are still promoting `La Difference: A History Unplugged”, a live acoustic recording of their biggest hits, released last year which they supported with a uniquely intimate series of concert performances.
“It was the new guy, Dave who came up with the idea of drastically re-arranging some of our songs so I said to him, why not do a whole album that way,” Osborne explained. “When you have a history and a back catalogue like we have, you think,` hey why not’ so we did a series of shows to sit-down crowds in intimate theatres where we dressed up, performed our re-arranged hits, talked about the songs, and told reflective anecdotes. It was a different experience and the kind of thing a band with a bit of a heritage can do.”
Osborne admits that 54:40 had a fair shot at the U.S market when both Reprise and Sony were pushing album releases like `Dear Dear’ (1992), `Smilin Buddah Cabaret’ (1994) and `Trusted By Million’ (1996) to platinum status. “We were at Columbia during the Celine Dion years when money was flying everywhere, but for whatever reason, we never quite built a momentum . But this band never broke up, we had some highs and some lows but we’ve always stayed together as a unit.
Osborne agrees that many classic rock bands probably needed time to analyze what was going on in the industry and the record companies themselves needed time to digest the changes. “But at some point, they said “Wow, what happened!”, made certain course corrections and now I think the business is enjoying a bit of an upturn”.
A revival in vinyl has created a boom in record sales with both new and old collectors either refreshing old colections with new releases or young fans, tired of simply downloading and streaming their music and discovering the thrill of physically owning records being aware of things like record artwork and linear notes, enjoying even the distinctive smell of a vinyl record sliding out of its sleeve.
“I know my daughter collects nothing but vinyl albums, she is forever rediscovering records like U2’s “Joshua Tree”,” informed Osborne, “And they are not inexpensive.”
As for the band’s future, Osborne likens 54:40 to those gunslinger’s who Clint Eastwood was always trying to kill in those Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns. “We are a bit grizzled but you can’t get a lot by us anymore. We are not as starry-eyed naive as we used to be. We can still put on a pretty good show and we never take our audience for granted.”