A Vancouver band with a folk-pop take on alternative rock, 54-40 formed in 1981 as a trio consisting of bassist Brad Merritt, drummer Darryl Neudorf, and vocalist Neil Osborne. (The band took their name from James K. Polk’s presidential campaign slogan, “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight,” which sought to expand the U.S. border northward.)
Initially, 54-40 toured the Western Canadian club circuit, without gaining much attention. In 1984, Phil Comparelli was added on guitar and vocals; Neudorf left shortly thereafter and was replaced by Matt Johnson (not the The‘s frontman). By the time of the band’s self-titled album in 1986, their folk/roots approach had earned them favorable comparisons to R.E.M. Subsequent albums found the band moving into harder-edged territory. A lack of U.S. interest led to 1992’s exclusively Canadian release Dear Dear, but by 1994, continued success in their homeland helped to make a U.S. release possible for 1995’s Smilin’ Buddah Cabaret. 1996’s dark and cynical Trusted by Millions went platinum, while 1998’s Since When, which signaled a return to the folk-inflected sound that dominated the band’s early days, went gold.