By: David McPherson
Forty years since forming in Vancouver’s suburbs, 54-40 remains one of Canada’s most beloved rock bands. Their collective body of songs resonate with new generations and offer nostalgia for those who have followed them on their journey. Maybe none more than the 12 tracks that comprise their self-titled U.S. label debut. Known to fans as The Green Album because the album artwork consists mostly of green fill, this seminal record was released 35 years ago. After releasing a pair of records (the six-song EP Selection and Set the Fire) independently on Mo-Da-Mu, a leftist indie label started by Allen Moy of punk rock band Popular Front, the “music industry” finally took notice after seeing their frenetic live show and hearing demos for what became The Green Album. Major labels competed to sign 54-40, wining and dining the band.
“I remember saying I want someone else to release our record now,” says bassist Brad Merritt. “At that point, we had been doing it independently for nearly five years.”
Fellow 54-40 founder and high-school chum Neil Osborne recalls getting validation from a few stateside amigos first. This felt like a harbinger of the big break to come. “We had these friends –– Brad, Toni, and Rachel from San Francisco –– who came to visit us and we played them the demos,” recalls the band’s lead singer and guitarist. “Toni said, ‘This is really good!’ We were feeling like, maybe, if someone from San Francisco thinks this is good, it is! We had just started to play those tracks live and were getting a lot of gigs on the West Coast of the U.S.A. I remember having a meeting with Brad in my parents’ living room. We didn’t have any money left. We needed to find money or borrow some to make our next record … we were at the end of our tether, again, and then, badabing badaboom.”
In the fall of 1985, 54-40, who, during this period, besides Osborne and Merritt included: Phil Comparelli on guitars, vocals, and trumpet and drummer Matt Johnson, did a showcase at Club Lingerie — a popular spot in Hollywood, California on the Sunset Boulevard strip. All the record companies’ A&R reps were there (except Warner/Reprise because they couldn’t get in; ironically, they were the ones that ended up signing the band). Other U.S. showcase shows followed in Portland and Seattle. “We lived for a while on record company dinners,” laughs Merritt. In March 1986, Warner/Reprise Records signed the band to a multi-album deal. Neil flew to L.A. where Dave Jerden (Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, Jane’s addiction) remixed the record and that July, 54-40’s self-titled major label debut was released throughout North America.