ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, OCT. 12, 2000
When it came to choosing a title for their latest album, Casual Viewin’, local guitar-rockers 54•40 didn’t follow previous procedures and look to their ideals (Fight For Love) or early gigging days (Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret). For their ninth studio album, they simply culled a lyric from Genesis’s 1974 concept album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, although it’s not as if vocalist Neil Osborne has had the line—“Marshall McLuhan casual viewin’ head buried in the sand”—on his mind for a quarter-century.
“Uh, I didn’t get the album till ’76,” he says with a laugh, lounging on a couch in the offices of his band’s management, Divine Industries, “but it was my favourite album for ages. I loved that album, and so did Brad [Merritt, 54•40’s bassist]—that and Selling England by the Pound. We were complete Genesis freaks for a long time after high school, and we tried to play it for the other two guys in the band, but they were going, ‘I can’t handle it.’ If you listen to it now, it is a little hard to take, but then they’re playin’ Alice Cooper, and beyond a couple of the hits, I’m like ‘What is this?’ So it was kinda funny, two elements of the band: Alice Cooper and Genesis.”
The cover of Casual Viewin’ is a photograph of the band—Osborne, Merritt, drummer Matt Johnson, and guitarist Phil Comparelli—sitting on the roof of the Hôtel de Paris in Casablanca. The four of them felt that, instead of spending a lot of cash on “some ‘hot’ video director’s freaked-out fantasy”, as Osborne puts it, they should see a bit of the world and shoot some footage of their own. So—along with photographer Jeremy Benning, director Marc Lostracco, and producer Bruno Louza—they headed out to Thailand, Morocco, and Kenya, where they garnered enough footage to make half a dozen music videos.
“What we wanted to do was tour to get a slice of the world,” explains Osborne. “We wanted to go to India too, and that was the primary target, but it was too hot, and it was the rainy season, so they advised against it. So Morocco took India’s place.”
Morocco turned out to be quite the adventure. After customs officers confiscated their expensive digital cameras, they were shadowed by Moroccan undercover cops. “I was really freaked out,” admits Osborne, “and Matt called the embassy to see what was goin’ on. They were just, I guess, keepin’ an eye on us, but it was a bit weird, because you start having visions of Midnight Express or whatever, where somebody’s planted something on you and all of a sudden you’re thrown in jail.”
Although the members of 54•40 are wary of the risk involved in travelling to exotic locales, they’ve never shunned the opportunity to take their music far and wide. Sometimes they even go the extra mile, as when they embarked on a two-week tour of the USSR in 1989. They haven’t been back since. “I certainly wouldn’t want to go back there with all the stories about the Mafia and the violence,” notes Osborne, “but it was pretty freaky [even] when we were there. Things were starting to get pretty loose, and you couldn’t make any phone calls once you’re in there. And I remember some guys from Azerbaijan or one of those places offered us diamonds to get on the train and go there and play for three weeks.
“It was like, ‘They’ll be there when you get there,’” he adds with a laugh. “Sure they will. So it was kinda the thing where we wondered if we’d ever get to leave the country, whereas on this trip there was always an Internet café or something to make you feel a little more rooted.”
Although 54•40 doesn’t flinch at the idea of jetting off to distant countries to play concerts or make videos, it’s never had big plans to conquer the lucrative market that begins just 35 kilometres south of here. The band, which consistently sells out three- and four-night runs at the Commodore Ballroom, is extremely popular in Vancouver and has always sold well throughout Canada, with five platinum albums to its credit. But like that other Canuck guitar-rock band that’s been famously shunned by the U.S., these guys have had a hard time making inroads over the border.
“On a much smaller scale, it’s similar to the Tragically Hip’s situation,” says Osborne. “I mean, we were originally signed in the States, did three albums for Warner Bros., and then they dropped us. Without any muscle or support, it’s very costly to go down there, and we don’t have deep-enough pockets to stay there for a long time. So we go down to the border towns, and play New York and Los Angeles, just so they know we exist.”
It’s a shame that there’s no American distributor for Casual Viewin’ at this point, because the Yanks would surely get a kick out of the engaging pop-rock featured on what Osborne calls “the band’s feel-good groove record”. He produced it along with Johnson, and previously coproduced 1989’s Fight For Love with Dave Ogilvie.
“Every record we do, we’re pretty much involved in the production,” he stresses. “The definition of ‘producer’ is very [vague]… It can be whatever it wants to be, or what the producer wants. Some producers, like Don Smith, just say ‘Play, and I’ll record it.’ And somehow it works great.”
Smith helped make things work well on the popular 54•40 discs Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret and Dear Dear, which spawned such cool ’90s tracks as “She La”, “Assoholic”, and “Nice to Luv You”. But the band’s had a pretty firm hold on Vancouver’s rock ’n’ roll heart ever since its self-titled CD of 1985, which included the perennial faves “Baby Ran” and “I Go Blind”. And manager Allen Moy has been with the band from day one. Osborne believes that such undying loyalty has been essential to his group’s continued success.
“I mean, [Tragically Hip manager] Jake Gold’s company is called Management Trust, and I think that’s the key word: trust. Brad and I used to watch [Moy’s first band] Female Hands, before he was in the Popular Front—which was actually on the cover of the Georgia Straight once. He grew up with us, and so to have that much shared experience, he’s like the fifth member of the band.”