A seminal group in Canada's alt-rock history, Vancouver quartet 54-40 rose from 1980s college rock heroes to national acclaim and chart success with landmark albums like 1987's Show Me and 1994's Smilin' Buddha Cabaret, which produced hit singles like "Nice to Luv You" and "Ocean Pearl." While their early mix of jangling folk-rock and post-punk earned comparisons to R.E.M., later records featured a harder, electric-driven sound that resulted in a series of consecutive platinum releases. Led by singer, guitarist, and chief songwriter, Neil Osborne, 54-40's reputation for quality and consistency carried into the new millennium with albums like 2005's Yes to Everything and 2011's Lost in the City, while collections like 2016's all-acoustic La Difference: A History Unplugged saw them continuing to experiment with parts of their back catalog.
54-40 formed in Tsawwassen, British Columbia in 1981, taking their name from a slogan, "54-40 or fight!," used by American president James K. Polk in regards to a failed expansionist agenda based around the mid-19th century Oregon boundary dispute. Initially a trio consisting of Osborne, bassist Brad Merritt, and drummer Ian Franey, this lineup was responsible for a handful of tracks on the 1981 indie compilation Things Are Still Coming Ashore, and a 1982 EP called Selection. A new member, Phil Comparelli, joined a year later on guitar, trumpet, and vocals while Franey was replaced on drums by Darryl Neudorf, whose tenure lasted just long enough to be included on the band's full-length indie debut, 1984's Set the Fire, released by the small Vancouver label Mo-Da-Mu. By the time they released their eponymous major-label debut on Reprise in 1986, Neudorf had himself been replaced by drummer Matt Johnson, cementing the quartet that would remain in place for the next two decades. Recorded in Los Angeles and released in 1987, 54-40's third album, Show Me, proved their breakthrough release, yielding a pair of charting singles in "One Day in Your Life" and "One Gun," and effectively breaking the band in Canada. They moved into harder sonic territory with 1989's Fight for Love, which also performed well on college radio. In spite of their growing success at home, U.S. sales were slow to come and 1992's career highlight, Dear Dear, received only a Canadian release. Ironically, it became their biggest national success to that point, producing hits like "Nice to Luv You" and "She La" and going platinum. A new U.S. deal was put in place in time for 1994's Smilin' Buddha Cabaret, named for a legendary Vancouver punk venue and beloved local hangout which had closed its doors a year earlier. It was another platinum success for 54-40 and contained what has become one of their signature songs, "Ocean Pearl." The dark and cynical Trusted by Millions arrived the following year, marking an impressive run of three consecutive platinum records for the band. Also in 1996, American band Hootie & the Blowfish notched a hit with their cover of 54-40's 1986 track, "I Go Blind" for the popular Friends soundtrack. Royalties earned from the Blowfish cover would eventually help pay for 54-40's own Vancouver recording studio. 1998's Since When saw a return to the more folk-rock-oriented sound of their earlier albums and became the highest-charting release of their career, landing at number 19.
54-40 began the new millennium with 2000's Casual Viewin', an album they claim was influenced in part by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. The following year, their American distributor released the similarly titled Casual Viewin' USA, which featured tracks culled from several of their previous albums. In 2002, two decades into their career, 54-40 issued their first greatest-hits compilation, Radio Love Songs: The Singles Collection, which also featured a pair of new songs in "Love Rush" and "Plenty Emotion." 2003's Goodbye Flatland would prove to be the final outing for longtime guitarist, Phil Comparelli, who was replaced two years later by Dave Genn from the Matthew Good Band. Genn's first recorded appearance with 54-40 came on 2005's invigorated Yes to Everything album. Northern Soul followed in 2008 following a similar, punchy radio-ready rock vibe.
Celebrating their 30th anniversary, they released their 13th studio album, 2011's Lost in the City, launching a new website that featured hundreds of archival photos, videos, and unreleased tracks from throughout their career. 2016's La Difference: A History Unplugged, saw 54-40 reimagining songs from their catalog acoustically. In 2018, they returned with Keep on Walking, their first record of new material in seven years. ~ Timothy Monger