There is a case to be made 54-40 kickstarted the Canada’s indie scene. Seems right so, that the band, emerging from Vancouver in the early 80s with a sound akin to The Smiths or Echo and the Bunnymen, have been inducted into the Indies Hall of Fame Wednesday Apr 19 2017, at the Phoenix Concert Hall in Toronto. Or it could be just me.
My journey into the Canadian indie music scene began when the first record I bought upon arrival as an immigrant in 1984 was the Green Album from 54-40. I had no idea who they were. I was interested in hearing tunes from my adopted country. I went to the slim section of Canadian Music at Star Records and bought it.
I only had the one record so I played it a lot. I still do. It is still a brilliant album, so brilliant it encouraged me to concentrate on Canadian musicians ever since. So y’all can blame Neil Osborne and Brad Merritt for my continuous annoyance of your ears with suggestions about acts, local and national.
But it wasn’t called Indie back then. It was alternative or post-punk. 54-40 lead man Neil Osborne says they called it “underground music.” They drew from their Vancouver scene kin, the likes of DOA and Art Bergman but the Rockies created a barrier that saw Vancity pair up with Washington state bands more so than their eastern Canadian peers. The border was irrelevant to music but fairly important to the band itself; 54-40 refers to a historic border dispute between the two North American nations.
“Brad came up with the name,” says Osborne, “We met in Grade 11. I had just moved from Edmonton and he had lived all though the States. His dad got transferred everywhere. My dad got transferred, he was Federal Government. I lived coast to coast, I was in a different school almost every year. We started up a friendship and we were in Tsawwassen - if you go south of Vancouver to where you take the ferry over to Vancouver Island, it’s a little peninsula but because of the 49th Parallel, which slices right across, there’s a little tip you would think is in Canada but it’s actually the States. Its called Point Roberts, and it is surrounded by water and Canada. The pilots call it Point Bob. Thats where we met and we were writing songs and we lived right there on the border and we were history guys and he came up with that name. I was like, I don’t know’ but we stuck with it.”
54-40 have stuck with it for over three decades, 13 albums, several comps and ZERO JUNOS! Being overlooked by the Canadian Music Industry, well, you can’t get anymore indie that I think. Throughout it all the Osborne and Merritt remain steadfast with an easy gauge to measure success.
“We always had this thing that if we had a gig and we can tell people where our next gig was we were in good shape. So far still after 36 years we can do that. We can tell people where we are playing next,” says Osborne.
After their initial gigs in Vancouver on the cusp of the 80’s the next gigs came from further afield and further south.
“We made a record 'Set The Fire', and we started to branch out. There was a scene that expanded down from Vancouver to Seattle. It was easier for us to go to Seattle at that time than to Calgary or Edmonton or anywhere else in Canada for that matter. Then from Seattle we got friends in Portland and San Francisco and Los Angeles. We got gigs and we had the album out and we were playing around, got down to LA, sleeping on floors mostly, opening for bands who came up opening for us in halls, and then they'd say come down to Portland and open for us," says Osborne.
"We got to know these bands and gravitated towards a more melodic sound. . . such as the Fastbacks out of Seattle. We learned how to write music better. I think that's how the Green record moved away from the harder edge. We were all set to release that record on our own and we started getting attention from labels in the States, it was kinda overwhelming to be honest. Ultimately Warners signed us and wanted it remixed. You have to remember at that time a band like ours would not be played on the radio, could not play in nightclubs, it just wasn’t done. Even though we weren’t punk rock. We were in no man’s land. . .”
54-40, straddling the no man’s land between Canada and the States, straddling the border between indie and industry, a neither/nor group, singular in their sound, who as their new single sings, “Keep On Walking” will keep going at least until the next gig.