Record Rewind: 54-40’s The Green Album

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.

54-40 circa 1985. Courtesy of Miles Constable.

Chatting with Osborne and Merritt, along with producer Dave “Rave” Ogilvie (Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson), paints a picture of fun, delirious, carefree nights when 54-40 were unencumbered by outsiders dictating — or subtlety suggesting — how to make a record. Instead, they used all the available tools at Vancouver’s Mushroom Studios (Heart, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Loverboy, Sarah McLachlan) to create a sonic journey.

Flash back to the previous year. That’s when these 12 songs were born before the major label signing occurred. 54-40 were transitioning from “dark and alternative” to writing more pop-oriented songs, yet still experimenting and adding unexpected nuances into their ever evolving sound. The band gathered at Merritt’s place –– an old house situated on the site of the aluminum recycling plant his parents owned. “I was kind of like the night watchman there,” he says. “It provided a great rent-free practice space for the band. Rave (Dave Ogilvie) came over and did some pre-production. He had worked on Set the Fire as our engineer … we decided to give him a promotion. We had a bond and mutual trust that remains today.”

After more pre-preproduction and a few extra efforts, the band was ready to make a demo to shop around. 54-40 took the last of its money and headed to Mushroom Studios to track these songs with Ogilvie during the midnight to 6 a.m. slot, when the hourly rate matched their budget. Osborne recalls these crazy days. “By 6 a.m. we would have to shut it down as they started to track radio jingles. We would go to Denny’s for breakfast, go to bed briefly, get up and go to work at our day jobs, and then head back into the studio at midnight to do it all over again.”

AFTER MIDNIGHT: FUN-FILLED DELIRIUM WITH DAVE RAVE OGILVIE

Born in Montreal, Ogilvie moved to Vancouver to follow British/Canadian record producer Lindsay Kidd, with whom he was working at the time as an assistant engineer. Kidd and Ogilvie worked together on 54-40’s Set the Fire album, but Brad and Kidd didn’t see eye to eye, so Osborne asked Rave to work on the band’s next batch of songs. “Sometimes, you had to make horrible judgements when you were delirious in the middle of the night and move on, but even after all these years I know those songs off by heart,” Ogilvie says, describing The Green Album. “It was such a fun record. During the day I was assisting artists like Loverboy and Strange Advance; then, at night, I switched gears to work with 54-40. The late night recording lent itself to a lot of delirious moments.”

FUN FACT: To save money, some of the demos were recorded on an old discarded Bachman-Turner Overdrive outtake reel the studio had kept. “We were sitting there saying, ‘I hope this isn’t a bit of history we are going over,’ but it was $50 instead of $200 so damn right we were going to use it,” says Ogilvie.

What made working on this record so enjoyable for the producer was the fact that Osborne gave him the freedom to be creative and try new techniques, sounds, and effects. “At the time, I was working and playing with Skinny Puppy doing these crazy electronic records with all these effects,” Ogilvie explains. “I’m a guitar player at heart, so I was allowed to take the craziness of all of the electronic stuff I was doing with Skinny Puppy and combine that with my guitar world, adding vocals and trumpets, etc. to create these big sounds using the technology at Mushroom studios like the echo chambers and other cool tools. There was this EMT Reverb Plate that was 10-feet long and four feet deep,” Ogilvie adds. “You would send stuff into that and you would get big reverb, but I discovered that if you hit it really hard you got these explosive sounds … you hear that effect on songs like ‘Me Island.’”

“Me Island” is a sonic adventure and an experimental song ahead of its time. Ogilvie often wondered whether it would be too much for listeners. “It’s not your typical song,” he says. “We weren’t trying to follow the simple–and often horrible–pop arrangement formula. We were willing to do the opposite. With something like ‘Me Island’ we were following an idea that goes from a beginning to an end, but in between there is a brilliant voyage.” No surprise, “Me Island” is also one of Osborne’s favourites. “That song is the sound of my first Telecaster that got stolen in the 1990s played through a Music Man amp. I also had two MXR pedals: an analog delay and an analog chorus: one green and one orange; that was my sound for Set the Fire and a lot of The Green Record … all those swashy, heavy chords you hear in songs like ‘Me Island’ and ‘Baby Ran.’”

“Baby Ran,” was the first single off The Green Album and became a staple on college radio. The subsequent video received major rotation on MuchMusic.   

HOOTIE COVER “I GO BLIND”

From the start, anyone who heard “I Go Blind” knew it was a catchy single. After its release, Merritt heard the Skydiggers cover the song many times and it became a staple in the Canadian roots-rockers’ set. Later, he recalls a time when they had just finished a U.S. tour with the Bodeans and had a free evening before hitting the road again with Bob Mould. They went to a club in Richmond, Virginia, where they were booked to play the following night, and the cover band started its second set with “I Go Blind.” “I always felt that song was special,” Merritt adds. 

Ogilvie remembers working on the song’s bass line ad nauseam — rearranging the bass notes at a studio in New Westminster, B.C. “I still laugh today thinking about all of those hours we spent thinking about which bass notes should go up and which ones should go down … in the end, it was well worth the extra effort.”

What Ogilvie references is how Hootie & The Blowfish discovered this song a decade later and put it as the B-side for “Hold My Hand.” In 1996, the cover became a radio hit, peaking at No. 2 on Billboard’s Adult Top 40 chart and No. 22 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Later, it was added to the Friends soundtrack. Nearly 40 years on, while the writing of this song is a bit blurry for Osborne, he recalls jamming on it at Brad’s rehearsal space and taping it on a Pioneer 4-track reel-to-reel cassette. For the band’s 25th anniversary of The Green Album in 2010, they went on a cross-Canada tour and played the album in its entirety.

“It’s a great record,” Osborne concludes. “I’m still proud of it … every single song and the way it is put together. That is a neat feeling after 35 years. I’ve listened to some of our other records recently and think, ‘That comes from a strange place.’ There is catharsis, various influences, and a tension between edgy political stuff and normal irreverence. When I look back at the naïve space we were in during the making of The Green Record, I get nostalgic. It was such a great time and place.”

THE GREEN ALBUM FAST FACTS

ARTIST:                      54-40 (Neil Osborne, Brad Merritt, Matt Johnson, Phil Comparelli)
ALBUM:                     54-40 (The Green Album)
RELEASED:               July 1986
LABEL:                       Warner/Reprise Records
STUDIO:                     Mushroom Studios, Vancouver, BC.
PRODUCER:              54-40 and Dave “Rave” Ogilvie
MIXED BY:                 Dave Jerden (Los Angeles)

Track Listing:

  1. “Baby Ran” 
  2. “I Wanna Know” 
  3. “I Go Blind” 
  4. “Being Fooled” 
  5. “Take My Hand” 
  6. “Grace and Beauty” 
  7. “Me Island”
  8. “Holy Cow” 
  9. “Alcohol Heart” (Reprise)
  10. “54-40”