Signs – Five Man Electrical Band

Few Canadian bands have experienced such intoxicating career highs and deeply frustrating lows as Five Man Electrical Band. Their career was complicated by the complex nature of the North American music business (with as tangled web of entrepeneurs, promoters and ever-changing ownership), the rigours of life on the road and their own merging attitudes. Five Man Electrical Band never experienced the high level of fame their musical abilities likely warranted.

Originally formed in Ottawa, Ontario in 1964 as the Staccatos (Rick Belanger, Peter Fallis, Brian Rading & Vern Craig). Les Emmerson joined the band after Peter Fallis left to finish his schooling. The band developed into one of Canada’s best-known groups, with a solid and dedicated fan base, a contract with Capitol Records of Canada, promotional opportunities and, most of all, live work. While signed to Capitol, they recorded a string of singles, including “Half Past Midnight”, which sold over 25, 000 copies in Canada, as well as an album for Capitol U.S. For five years they kept a gruelling schedule of club, high school and arena appearances that moulded their skills, their reputation and their confidence.

In late 1969, feeling restless and limited by the Canadian market, they attempted an invasion of America, siezing an opportunity to perform in Southern California. Their stay was short, however. Without necessary work visas, they were under constant threat of extradition. Unable to attract any significant attention in America (Capitol eventually released them from their contract) and with their money running out, the Staccatos were forced back to Ottawa without a record deal and with a very cloudy future.

After a brief period of time spent taking stock of their situation, they turned to Los Angeles, taking with them a new name, Five Man Electrical Band. They soon met up with Dallas Smith, a former Liberty Records staffer and producer, who had been responsible for Canned Heat’s “On The Road Again” and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s first charting single, “Buy For Me The Rain” – two very significant and unique records. When Smith saw the band for the first time, he recognized their talent immediately, believing he had found in them the perfect pop product. The voices in the band, Smith remembers, “rang like the angels in heaven”.

Smith’s enterprise, Renaissance Productions, was in partnership with Canopy, a production company owned by the young, ultra-successful composer Jimmy Webb and Webb’s father, bob. Canopy expressed interest in financing a project with the band and Smith produced three tracks, though none of the Canopy masters saw the light of day immediately. In November 1969, Canopy signed with MGM Records, Inc., whose related company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, quickly positioned one of the tracks, “Moonshine (Friend Of Mine)”, in one of its films, “The Moonshine War“, starring Alan Alda. Positive movement, but neither the song nor the movie hit. The band and Smith recorded further material in August 1970 – the sessions that eventually provided the bulk of the Goodbye and Butterflies album.

Two of the later tracks were “Hello Melinda, Goodbye” and “Signs”. Les Emmerson had written “Signs” after driving to California along Route 66, where he had noticed the many billboards obscuring his view of the U.S.A., and had seen them as a perfect metaphor for the frustrations of the band and the times they were living in. The two songs were released together as a single, with “Melinda” as the A-side. However, the MGM single failed, the label quickly lost interest, and Five Man Electrical Band once again retreated to Ottawa, there to lick their wounds and debate their future. It wasn’t looking good.

But Smith Would not be proven wrong. With his belief in the band still very strong, and with no apparent interest from MGM, Smith met with Clive Fox, a young music publisher who wanted to form his own label. Fox had a connection to Lionel, manufacturers of model railroad equipment, whose expansion plans included a record label. In February, 1971, MGM Record Corp. assigned all rights to Five Man Electrical Band, its masters as well as its production agreement with Renaissance (including the Canopy masters) to the Lionel Entertainment Corporation. With Fox in the office and Smith in the studio, the new Lionel label needed a promotion man, whom it soon found in the person of Abe Glazer – an old pro, by this time in his seventies – whose energy, undiminished by his age, was to become crucial in the immediate future of the group.

In May, 1971, Lionel released the album Goodbye And Butterflies and its first single, “Signs”, which at Smith’s urging now became the A-side. Glazer, Smith and the band’s manager, Abe Hoche started working the phones, trying to break the record on U.S. radio. At one point, Glazer was overheard shouting on the phone, “It doesn’t matter what I think of the record! It’s a hit!”.

Meanwhile, discouraged, disillusioned and broke, the band was very close to disintegration. Still in Ottawa and only barely known beyond the borders of Canada, their seven years of very hard work had resulted in little but deep disappointment. In June, 1971 they finally decided to wind it down. Brian Rading, the band’s bass player, remembers carrying a case of beer back to the band in order to begin the “grieving process”, and to help them gather enough courage to call to Hoche to tell him the sorry news. Hoche suggested strongly that the band reconsider – “Signs” was breaking out of the southern U.S., especially Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. To clinch matters, radio station CKLW in Windsor, Ontario – the powerhouse ratings leader in the middle U.S. due to its immediate proximaty to Detroit – was all over the record.

After quick consultation with the American braintrust, they rushed back south to perform some hastily-arranged dates. First to Detroit, then to West Virginia, then straight across the U.S. to Seatle for a series of shows. By the time they reached the Pacific Northwest, “Signs” was a smash,, eventually reaching #3 on BillBoard and going on to sell over a million and a half copies.

The huge success of the single finally enabled the group to work constantly and without restriction in the United States. Based in Los Angeles, they toured extensively for the next two years, billed with some of the major acts of the era such as The Allman Brothers, Sly & The Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, BTO and many others. As word of their success spread through the musical community,they developed a significant reputation, Les Emmerson’s songs – sometimes swampy and fantastical, sometimes whimsical and nostalgic – were bright, imaginative and melodic, yet deeply rooted in the rich earth of American rock’n roll. With the relentless Belanger/Rading rhythm section in the unit, they were capable of a wide range of repetoire, from swinging melodic rock to the straightest boogie. Over the foundation was the fuzzy texture of Emmerson’s guitar playing off Gerow’s rhythmic keyboard technique and, of course, the rich vocal blend. Brian Rading says, “The band was very tough. We had been a bar band – a five-nights-a-week band. That’s where we came from. We had no choice but to be strong. We lived hard and we played hard”. Having developed their music on small stages, they tended to cluster together – a tight and formidable, no-nonsense unit. By the time they reached larger venues, they still paid scant attention to the appearance of the band, an attitude typical of the early ’70s – a time when the authenticity of the players and their creativity was more important than stagecraft. Though their vocals were their calling card, their instrumental skills soon caught up, improving to such an extent that other musicians now respectfully shared ideas with them. Brian Rading remembers Rick Danko of The Band being very generous with his time, and credits Danko as a major influence on the driving and melodic bass line in “Absolutely Right”. Dalllas Smith recalls that the band’s version of the Dave Dudley classic, “Six Days On The Road” (a holdover, no doubt, from the formative days at the Chaudière Hotel in Ottawa), would blow most other bands off the stage. They were considered such a tough act to follow that many less confident groups refused to share the stage with them altogether.

The album Coming Of Age was released in January 1972. It contained the band’s second hit single, the great “Absolutely Right”. But relative to the success of “Signs”, the song was a disappointment, selling 750, 000 copies and reaching only #26 on BillBoard. It was enough, though, to renew MGM Records’ interest in the Five Man Electrical Band. In May 1972, the band’s contract and the rights to its recorded material were acquired by Lionel, and MGM signed an agreement with Renaissance Productions for future recordings. MGM assigned the band to the newly-created Lion label (an interesting name, perhaps chosen as much to minimize confusion in the market due to the ownership change as to trade on the parent company’s very identifiable and historic trademark). In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that a song and performance as strong as “Absolutely Right” could fall so short of its goal, but the reality was likely that the larger company was unable to savage the single at radio after the ownership shuffle, due to the loss opportunities, time and the attention of dedicated staff. It was another instance of the band’s seemingly never-ending struggle with inertia.



And the sign said,
“Long-haired freaky people
Need not apply.”
So I tucked my hair up under my hat
And I went in to ask him why.
He said, “You look like a fine upstandin’ young man.
I think you’ll do.”
So I took off my hat and said, “Imagine that.
huh , me workin’ for you.”

Whoa, sign, sign.
Everywhere a sign.
Blockin’ out the scen’ry.
Breakin’ my mind.
Do this. Don’t do that.
Can’t you read the sign?

And the sign said,
“Anybody caught trespassin’
Will be shot on sight.”
So I jumped on the fence and I yelled at the house,
“Hey! What gives you the right
To put up a fence to keep me out,
But to keep Mother Nature in?
If God was here, he’d tell you to your face,
‘Man, you’re some kind of sinner.'”

Sign, sign.
Everywhere a sign.
Blockin’ out the scenery.
Breakin’ my mind.
Do this. Don’t do that.
Can’t you read the sign?

Now, hey you, Mister, can’t you read?
You got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat.
You can’t even watch. No, you can’t eat.
You ain’t supposed to be here.
The sign said, “You’ve got to have a membership card
To get inside.” Uh.

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome.
Come in. Kneel down and pray.”
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all,
I didn’t have a penny to pay
So I got me a pen and a paper
And I made up my own little sign.
I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me.
I’m alive and doin’ fine.”

Whoo! Sign, sign.
Everywhere a sign.
Blockin’ out the scenery.
Breakin’ my mind.
Do this. Don’t do that.
Can’t you read the sign?

Sign, sign.
Everywhere a sign.
Sign, sign.

  • Audio from the 1971 album, Good-byes and Butterflies:


About DJ Allyn

DJ Allyn is a burned out radio guy who went on to become a burned out sound engineer for a few Seattle area grunge bands in the 1980s and 1990s. Left the madness of worldwide tours with bands, cleaned up my act and went into the relative sanity of sound engineering for television series. Currently working as the Director of Sound for a television series being filmed in North Vancouver, British Columbia. I am always on the lookout for interesting videos, old music, and fun.

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