There are some songs that survive due to great lyrics and there are other songs that transcend even great lyrics to take on a meaning that continues to evolve with time. Five Man Electrical Band’s Signs is one such song.
Written by lead vocalist Les Emmerson who noticed a plethora of signs during a band trip along the now legendary Route 66 in the late 60’s, that song has survived the test of time, it’s lyrical meaning changing with the times, evoking political change at one point, and more recently, ecological change.
An entertainment agent, Lawrence Sherman was an agent for Five Man Electrical Band. He knew Karen Cartier (Ottawa-based Friends Of The Earth Canada) socially and in a discussion with her he suggested that they contact Five Man Electrical Band because she kept making references to the idea that if people in the world could only see the obvious `signs’ of environmental damage and do something positive to change things, it would be fabulous.
Cartier contacted drummer and business rep Hollingworth and asked him if we would consider re-writing and re-recording the original `Signs’ song with new lyrics which reflected a timely ecological message and let FOE use the new music as a campaign theme song.
Easier said than done when you’ve been singing the same song for 40 years,” laughed Emmerson on the phone from Ottawa where the band is preparing to premiere of a special video version of “Signs 4 Change”, recorded by legendary producer Eddie Kramer that will be unveiled on Friday March 14th during a rare concert performance at Toronto’s Sound Academy.
“It took almost three years to complete the project,” noted Emmerson. “The only thing I hate about the music business is the business!”
Emmerson worked feverishly to the last minute in re-writing the lyrics the night before his band was due to enter Phase One recording studio where executive producer Hollingworth and FOE’s Cartier recruited an all-star cast to perform the re-cut song for the video.
“We had guys from Downchild, ( Donnie Walsh, Chuck Jackson) The Stampeders’ Rich Dodson, Peter Fredette (Kim Mitchell) Rebecca Noel, Suzi McNiel and Lawrence Gowan (Styx) in the video,” enthused Emmerson. “Lawrence said he could only stay long enough to sing his bit but then he hung around and asked if he could add a Hammond B3 keyboard flourish at the end, such a great guy.”
“The key was to keep the song’s arrangement similar to the original but with entirely new lyrics except for where I kept the chorus to say “Signs, signs, you’ve got to read the signs, the planet that we’re living on is yours and mine. And if we want to keep it alive, we have to read the signs,” explained Emmerson.
Strangely enough, a song which is now in the SOCAN Hall Of Fame and was influential in Emmerson being inducted into The Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame, was almost rejected by the Five Man Electrical Band’s MGM Record Company in 1970 when it was released on their second album, `Goodbyes And Butterflies”
Five Man Electrical Band had started life in Ottawa in the mid-Sixties as The Staccatos and made an initial breakthrough with a single called `Half Past Midnight’ which went to #8 on the domestic charts. “At that time, there were no Canadian content regulations so with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones dominating the charts, you had to be careful when you released your songs,” Emmerson explained. “Western Canadian radio wouldn’t play anything by Eastern bands and vice versa, it was the Guess Who who first broke that barrier and we were right behind them.”
Changing their name to Five Man Electrical Band, they suffered a major setback when their Capitol Records’ debut release was not a commercial success and when they presented “Signs” to new label MGM as a single for their second release “Goodbyes And Butterflies” MGM was skeptical to say the least.
“That song broke every radio rule going,” noted Emmerson. “The record label said that the song was too long and it took too long to get to the chorus. Yet record producer Dallas Smith believed in the song and fought for it. That was the only reason it got released.”
But even then, `Signs’ was released as the b-side to `Hello Melinda’ and only took off when U.S deejays started to flip the single. Yet once that single built up steam, it became a major hit both sides of the border and with `Moonshine’ also connecting at radio, Five Man Electrical Band members, Emmerson, lead vocals, lead guitar, Ted Gerow, keyboards, Brian Rading, bass, Rick Belanger, lead vocals and percussion and brother Mike Belanger lead vocals and drums soon found themselves, relocated in Los Angeles where they endured almost threee years of constant touring before deciding to take a break.
Their third album, “Coming Of Age” in 1971 produced one big single with “Absolutely Right” but failed to maintain the sales registered by their previous record and when their fourth album “Sweet Paradise” slipped further in sales, the proverbial writing was on the wall.”
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As members started to leave, Emmerson himself decided to take a break to re-assess the band’s future. “We were constantly on the road and it’s a brutal way to live,” he explained. “We had been doing this for three years constantly and it seemed like we were banging our heads against a brick wall, trying to come up with new tunes, trying to keep our record company happy and at the same time trying to stay healthy. Finally I decided I needed a break, so everyone scattered, and then I came up with some new songs that would have worked for us, but by that time it was too late.”
In reflecting back on the band’s career, you could surmise that it their success was focused on a brief period of time during the release of their last three studio albums between 1970-1973, yet even during that brief spell, Emmerson and Company wrote some creative compositions. Yes there were pop hits like `Absolutely Right’ and `Money Back Guarantee’ but they also wrote a mini pop opera with the Country Girl trilogy, and the stinging ecological message contained in `I’m A Stranger Here’ which tells of aliens visiting Earth and not being too impressed with what they find.
“It’s funny but all of those songs only took a short while to write,” mused Emmerson. “I think it was Elton John who said `it’s the greatest songs that take the shortest time to write’. “I got the idea for Signs driving down Route 66 and just noticing all the signs and placards along the highway. The whole song was right in front of me, I just had to stop and write the song down.
“With ‘I’m A Stranger Here’, I was at a party and the conversation was about some reported UFO sightings and we were joking about why aliens would bother visiting us, and this light bulb just went off in my head,” Emmerson continued. “And with `Country Girl Suite’ it was just a matter of having a couple of lyrical ideas and slotting them together into one song, it’s a concert highlight when we do it live.”
Although the band was in hiatus during much of the Eighties and Nineties, the song `Signs’ breathed new life when Sacramento California band Tesla included the track on their chart-busting “Five Man Acoustical Jam release. “We were playing at a Winterlude Festival gig and I noticed this guy with long hair standing by the soundboard,” related Emmerson. “Then he came over to me and in a thick Southern accent, asked if I was Les. When I said yes!, he identified himself as Jeff Keith, lead vocalist for Tesla. I said, a hug isn’t good enough, I need to buy you a beer.”
“He then told me that growing up, his parents had divorced and as he drove from place to place with his grandparents, he used to play `Signs’ continuously. He told them that one day he was going to record that song, and of course he did.”
Now with just Emmerson and Ted Gerow as survivors of the original band but now re-inforced by drummer/road manger Steve Hollingworth, (since 1998) percussionist Wes Reed (2007) bassist Rick Smithers (2004) and guitarist Brian Sim (2007) plus new member Jeff Rogers, second keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist who debuts at the Sound Academy on Saturday Five Man Electrical Band (or is that Seven Man Electrical Band!!!_are preparing to launch their Friends Of The Earth campaign and play an increasingly number of dates. “Yes we still enjoy playing the golden oldies but we also play other classics like The Beatles’ `Golden Slumbers’ and Buffalo Springfield’s `For What It’s Worth’. The band is playing better than ever and it’s great to get out there and play for the fans.”
Yes, Emmerson would like to record one more record and he claims he does have enough songs for one more studio visit.. Yet he’s fully aware that it would be next to impossible for Five Man Electical Band to generate any new airplay.
Emmerson and Co are hoping that activity around their Friends Of The Earth activities will spark a full scale revival.
Emmerson even gets the odd surprise when he receives his royalty cheques from SOCAN. “I don’t get cheques in the mail anymore, I get paid online but one of the last cheques I did receive by mail came in this big brown envelope,” explained Emmerson. “The amount of the Royalty cheque was much bigger than I had received in the last few years and then I noticed the payment was for a tune`Don’t Let The Man Get You Down’. That wasn’t my tune so I called SOCAN to tell them they had made a mistake.” “No, there’s no mistake,” explained the rep from SOCAN. “Fat Boy Slim sampled `Signs’ on his “Palookaville” record so you got co-credit on his song which was a big hit”.
Now I had no idea who Fat Boy Slim was, I imagined him to be some big hip hop guy with a hat on backwards. Imagine my surprise to find out he was a skinny little Brit. Suffice to say I am now a big Fat Boy Slim fan!”
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