The band 54-40 has been churning out great rock records for 43 years, crafting reflective and socially conscious songs that address personal struggles, love, and political issues. Formed by core members Neil Osborne (vocals, guitar) and Brad Merritt (bass), the band has become a Canadian music icon. For their new album “West Coast Band”, they turned their songwriting focus on themselves, documenting their colourful journey from their club-playing days in Tsawwassen B.C. to the present day of playing sell-out festivals and stadiums. The autobiographical disc includes songs dedicated to each member of the band, and their unique mannerisms or hidden talents. The disc kicks off with the title track, which talks about some of the band’s early trials and tribulations such as bad gigs and record label rejection letters, but also serves as an homage to their fans who kept them going through the adversity.
“The record wasn’t originally meant for public consumption,” explains Brad, who is calling from California where he is vacationing with his family. “It was Covid-inspired early on when we couldn’t get together. We started telling stories about the band on Zoom calls and Neil (vocalist/guitarist Neil Osborne), got it in his head that we could make a record out of this. We all have these stories about being fired or gigs not being what they were supposed to be, and “West Coast Band” is about that time. I think every band goes through that. The last verse says the fans made it possible, irrespective of what happened career-wise. Without the fans, we’re not here, so the song is a thank you to them.”
One of the most suspenseful songs on the album is “Meet You At the End”, which describes a show the band was playing in Grand Bend Ontario that was interrupted by a menacing thunderstorm. The rain blew out the PA system but vowing that the show must go on, the boys had the brilliant idea of turning around the band monitors, which were still working, to face the crowd so that they could hear the music. Still, there’s only so much you can do when there’s something in the air. (“Yeah, we’d only played about eight songs when the lightning started up again and the whole thing was shut down.”) On the bright side, however, the band had more time to sip on a concoction invented by guitarist Dave Genn, described in detail in the song “Vodka Surprise”.
“That’s more of a ritual that’s there if you want it,” explains Brad. “It consists of vodka and ice, a little bit of cranberry juice, a little bit of club soda and then Red Bull, which says on the can that it shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol. You can imbibe in as much or as little as you like. It takes a long time to drink it and there are enough variables in a gig without having to consider whether to finish a Vodka Surprise. It’s a little bit of a pick-me-up, take-the-edge-off kind of thing and people can participate to whatever degree they want to in order to give them the best chance of having a good show.”
54-40’s bass player gets name-dropped and takes center stage in the song “Hey Brad”. The affable musician is described as a “One-of-a-kind guy”, who is the band’s “Secret Weapon”.
“I just try and ignore that,” Brad laughs. “The phrase came from Steven Drake, who produced one of our records, “Trusted By Millions”, and also produced and mixed some Tragically Hip records. He said I was the band’s secret weapon and I guess it was because I play these identifiable, hummable, simple bass lines that create kind of a hook or foundation for a song to be built on top of.”
“Hey Brad” also suggests that he “must have seen the blues’ and the bass player lays down some serious walking blues licks on another of the new album’s tracks, “Chicago”. Perhaps on the next record we’ll see Brad playing an upright bass a la Willie Dixon, and transforming himself into the Canadian version of the “Hoochie Koochie Man”.
“No, I’m not a student of the blues,” he chuckles. “I understand how the blues work and the fact that it’s one of the pillars of rock music. You listen to the Rolling Stones songs and you can hear the ones that are blues-based. Then you get into R&B which is really a more upbeat danceable version of that. I think that in our heart of hearts we’re sort of half punk rock and half classic R&B. That’s kind of what our band does. We’re kind of the white suburban version of James Brown’s showband. It’s a weird thing what we’re doing, trying to make pop music, and it’s worked in a strange way.”
In the early 1990’s, the band achieved great success with albums like “Dear Dear” (1992), and “Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret” (1994). The latter featured the hit single “Ocean Pearl,” which became one of their most recognizable and beloved songs. That song and a few of their other nuggets are included on “Live At The El Mocambo”, recorded at Toronto’s venerable club and released earlier this year. (“That’s a great record,” Brad enthuses. “I think it captures the feel and energy of the band and, sonically it’s great. It has a nice collection of hit songs.”)
The final track on “West Coast Band” and perhaps its strongest, is “Options”, a song about coming to grips with the fact that music is your only career option. The title of the song revolves around a line spoken by Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor when he met up with the band after a show.
“Neil was talking to Greg about being in a band and he said, “When I think about it, I believe this is all I can do.” Greg responded, “It’s nice to know that your options are behind you.” It’s something that Neil made a mental note of, and you sort of have to make your peace with that. Personally, I was very active in my family’s business which was a foundry in Surrey. I liked it and I could have ended up there for a big chunk of time. I was always going to land on my feet because I had options. With Neil, on the other hand, I said to him early on that he has the most to gain if this is successful and the most to lose if it isn’t. I wanted this but he needs this and fortunately, we got it.”
54-40 has been “getting it” for over 40 years and if the new record is any indication, they’re just getting stronger. Brad believes that their longevity is due to the approach they adopted early on…slow and steady wins the race.
“When we first started the band the biggest thing we could think of doing was opening up for one of our favourite bands at the Commodore Ballroom, making $150 and playing in front of 1,000 people. We did that in 1982 and then we thought, now what? You just sort of take it one day at a time, wondering whether you were going to be a band the next day. We dealt with that and said let’s just agree right now that we’re going to make 10 albums and after that we’ll see where we’re at. We never got ahead of ourselves and the reward was just being able to do it. We just enjoyed the process”.
54-40 are planning a full slate of shows beginning in late May, and you can check their tour website (www.5440.com/live) for more details as shows are announced.