Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Rocking out in a high school gymnasium

“Hey, man there’s a party at the lake Saturday night.”

In the days before cell phones and the internet - no texting, instant messaging, Facebook or Instagram - word-of-mouth was the only medium available on the teenage information highway to alert us to the next blowout at Wappapello Lake, a state park nestled in the foothills of the Missouri Ozarks near my hometown.

Hundreds of kids would converge at the park for these impromptu events. If we were lucky a local garage band would set up in one of the park pavilions for a jam session and music would complement the beer and pot. For many of us live music meant local cover bands. The big names in rock played in St. Louis or Memphis, both hours away from where I lived. You needed a car and permissive parents to travel to these musical meccas.

So I was blown away when I heard an advertisement on my car radio that the Five Man Electrical Band was slated to perform at the local high school gymnasium (I vividly recall that I was sitting in my car outside a bakery store where my mom was shopping when the announcement aired). The Canadian rockers had hit No. 3 on the U.S. Hot 100 with 1971’s “Signs,” followed by “Absolutely Right,” which peaked at No. 23. The band’s star was on the wane in the U.S. when they showed up in my hometown a couple of years after their charting singles but this was still a big deal to me: my first real rock concert and it was occurring in my high school gymnasium.

Two memories of the concert are indelibly etched into my brain. The stage was a set of individual platforms with folding legs that were a couple feet tall. One of the sections collapsed during the show but no one was injured. An underground newspaper from Arkansas, Southern Comfort, interviewed the band in the gymnasium locker room (The No. 3 song in the nation and you wind up in a high school locker room reeking of smelly jockstraps; oh, how the mighty do fall). I can still picture the newspaper spread with photographs of the musicians sitting on benches with lockers in the background.

I still have copies of Goodbyes and Butterflies, which contains “Signs,” and the followup album, Coming Of Age, with their only other significant U.S. hit, “Absolutely Right.” The band had three other singles make the Top 100 but they peaked at 64, 72 and 76.

The albums are decent and listenable but nothing besides “Signs” really stands out. “Signs” is immediately recognizable and is one of those songs that if it pops up on radio you immediately turn up the volume and sign along. If you are only remembered for one thing in your life, and it is creating a song that went international and is still remembered nearly 50 years later, you did well.

But it is not “Signs” for which I remember the Five Man Electrical Band; they will always have a personal memory lock with me because they were my first real concert. And it all went down in a place where I routinely stumbled while dribbling a basketball down court.

Early success as The Staccatos: The band found initial success in their native Canada starting in the mid 1960s. They changed their name to Five Man Electrical Band in 1969. Their second album under that name, Goodbyes And Butterflies, was originally released with a marijuana leaf on the cover; it was pulled and replaced with a more benign cover.

An international hit
: The band had their first international success in 1971 with the release of “Signs.” The song reached No. 4 in Canada, No. 3 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and went to No. 1 in Australia for nearly two months. It sold over 1 million copies, and was certified gold by the R.I.A.A. in August 1971.

A revival by Tesla:
“Signs” saw a revival in 1990 when it was included on Tesla’s Five Man Acoustical Jam album, a live disc which the hard rock band recorded playing only acoustic instruments. Tesla’s version made it to No. 12 on the U.S. Billboard charts. Hear Tesla's version here:

Partnering with the Guess Who: In 1968, still known as The Staccatos, the group issued a joint album with fellow Canadians The Guess Who, each band taking up one side of the LP. Titled A Wild Pair, the album was an advertising project for Coca-Cola and was available for purchase only through mail-order for the price of 10 Coca-Cola bottle cap liners and $1 (to cover shipping expenses).

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