54-40’s staying power remains rooted in its impressive catalogue of hit music

Vancouver-bred rock-alt rock quartet returns to Del Crary Park on July 31 as Peterborough Musicfest season continues

Iconic Canadian alt-rockers 54-40 (Dave Genn, Neil Osborne, Brad Merritt, Matt Johnson) are performing from their extensive catalogue of songs from the past 38 years at Peterborough Musicfest at Del Crary Park in downtown Peterborough on July 31, 2019. (Publicity photo)
Iconic Canadian alt-rockers 54-40 (Dave Genn, Neil Osborne, Brad Merritt, Matt Johnson) are performing from their extensive catalogue of songs from the past 38 years at Peterborough Musicfest at Del Crary Park in downtown Peterborough on July 31, 2019. (Publicity photo)

With eight Juno Award nominations listed on its resumé, including two for Group of the Year, but no wins, it would be easy to label Canadian alt-rock band 54-40 a bridesmaid and never a bride.

But 38 years and 14 studio albums after its first gig in Vancouver, other more telling benchmarks have served to remind us that 54-40 has been, and remains, a tour de force on the Canadian music scene.

Take, for example, 54-40’s three consecutive platinum-certified albums in the 1990s or any one of its Top Ten singles and it becomes abundantly clear that while bestowed honours are sweet, they’re not definitive validation of a band’s success.

The people have something to say about that and countless 54-40 followers have spoken loud and clear for close to four decades now.

On Wednesday, July 31st at Del Crary Park, 54-40 returns once again to the Fred Anderson Stage, headlining Peterborough Musicfest. Admission to the 8 p.m. concert is, as always, free.

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While selling records and getting radio airplay was the name of the game in the early 1980s when 54-40 was finding its way, founding member and bassist Brad Merritt, in an October 2018 interview with the Prince Albert The Daily Herald, nots “artistic integrity” is now the name of the game for him and band mates Neil Osborne, Dave Genn, and Matt Johnson.

“It’s all about creating this piece of work, or body of work, which reflects your state, just like any artist would — doing a painting, choreography or creating a symphony that pleases us as creators,” he explains. “Then it’s about making a connection with the thousands of people who still care about what it is that we do.”

54-40 certainly has the body of work part of that equation well covered.

VIDEO: “Baby Ran” – 54-40

VIDEO: “I Go Blind” – 54-40

High school friends Merritt and Osborne formed 54-40 in 1981, with their first gig an opening spin for D.O.A. at a Vancouver club. Three years later, the band released its debut album Set The Fire and then followed that up in 1986 with a self-titled release that featured the songs “Baby Ran” and “I Go Blind”. While neither charted, those two songs resonated with music fans and today are popular staples of their live performances.

Show Me, released in 1987, produced the single “One Day In Your Life” that cracked the Canadian singles chart, a commercial breakthrough for the band that was fully realized in 1992 with Dear Dear. That album was certified platinum — a success repeated in 1994 and again in 1996 by the albums Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret and Trusted By Millions.

During that period, high-charting singles “Nice To Luv You”, “She La”, “Ocean Pearl”, “Love You All”, and “Lies To Me” cemented 54-40’s position as a first-rate Canadian music act.

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Since 1998’s gold-certified Since When and its hit title track, 54-40 has recorded six albums, the latest being 2018’s Keep On Walking.

“There’s continuity when you look at our records,” Merritt says.

“We’ve quite often put something out and then the next thing we do is turn 180 degrees and say ‘This is a rock record. We’re going to do something a little more personal singer-songwriter style. This one we’re going to heavy jams and build it up that way and the next is going to be an eclectic thing just to see where the music takes us.”

VIDEO: “One Day In Your Life” – 54-40

VIDEO: “Nice to Luv You” – 54-40

While 54-40 has taken different approaches on its albums, performing live isn’t something the quartet has messed around with.

“We figure there are about 10 or 11 songs we have to play no matter what,” says Merritt.

“Generally we’re doing at least 50 per cent more than that, if not twice as many songs. We certainly pull songs from various records that reflect the way we’re thinking, the way we represent ourselves, and what we want to do.”

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“Rock has become a sub-genre … a sub-culture,” Merritt adds. “It’s not the music of the day. It’s not pop culture music anymore. Because of that, there are young people who appreciate rock or rock and roll or classic rock or punk or post-punk — whatever it is — and they like what 54-40 does. They don’t care that we’ve around 30-odd years. They think that’s really cool.”

In an April 2018 interview with The Cascade, Genn notes 54-40’s staying power is rooted in extensive catalogue of music.

“We had a meeting in Toronto years back where we were looking for different ways to market and brand the band,” he recalls. “We met with a branding expert who worked outside of the music industry. He was talking about how important it is to have a short, concise statement about your brand. So he said we have to come up with a statement about 54-40 that sums up the essence of our brand.”

VIDEO: “She-La” – 54-40

VIDEO: “Ocean Pearl” – 54-40

VIDEO: “Lies To Me” – 54-40

“We thought about what people say when they come to our shows and the thing we hear the most is ‘I had no idea you guys played so many songs that I know.’ It’s kind of a blessing and a curse. It’s testament to the fact that we have this catalogue and so many songs that people are familiar with and that people love. On the other hand, they haven’t necessarily put a band name or a face to those songs.”

As for that elusive Juno Award, yes, 54-40 has been down the aisle eight times and come away empty-handed. But many recipients of that honour have come and gone while Genn et al continue to tour, record new music, and win new fans close to 40 years on.

One thing about being a bridesmaid — there’s no threat of a pending divorce.

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Peterborough Musicfest is presenting 16 free-admission, sponsor-supported concerts featuring a total of 21 acts during its 33rd season — each concert staged on Wednesday and Saturday nights at Del Crary Park.

Overseen by general manager Tracey Randall and staff, a board of directors, and numerous volunteers, Peterborough Musicfest’s stated mission is to “provide diverse, affordable live music to enrich cultural and economic prosperity in our community.”

For more information on this concert or the entire 2019 season, visit www.ptbomusicfest.ca or phone the Peterborough Musicfest office at 705-755-1111.

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Paul Rellinger
Paul Rellinger a.k.a Relly is an award-winning journalist and longtime former newspaper editor still searching for the perfect lead. When he's not putting pen to paper, Paul is on a sincere but woefully futile quest to own every postage stamp ever issued. A rabid reader of history, Paul claims to know who killed JFK but can't say out of fear for the safety of his oh so supportive wife Mary, his three wonderful kids and his three spirited grandchildren. Paul counts among his passions Peterborough's rich live music scene, the Toronto Maple Leafs, slopitch and retrieving golf balls from the woods. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @rellywrites.

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