by Yasmine Shemesh
For over 50 years, Variety – The Children’s Charity has been directly helping children with special needs across British Columbia. Its Show of Hearts telethon, which is the longest running telethon in Canada, has been warming the hearts of viewers since it first aired in 1966, entertaining audiences while encouraging them to donate so the charity can continue to provide funds for therapies, grants, specialized equipment, and more. The first telethon raised $60,000; last year, it raised nearly $6 million.
With its roots in show business (the original Variety Club was founded by businessmen involved in the entertainment industry), the Show of Hearts has featured performances from some of the world’s most renowned musical artists, from Ray Charles in 1998 to Elton John and Paul McCartney in 2015. This year’s musical lineup is as exciting as you’d imagine for a 23-hour-long telethon that’s getting ready to celebrate its golden anniversary. Helping Variety celebrate the milestone are blues musician Jim Byrnes, 1970s rock troubadours Chilliwack, country crooner Aaron Pritchett, and, of course, the headliners — Canadian rock and roll icons, 54-40.
“It’s an honour to be asked, for sure,” 54-40 lead singer and guitarist Neil Osborne says. “I mean, I even remember that [telethon] as a kid, so it’s neat to be able to go up there and do it. One of those types of things where it’s kind of a no brainer, somebody asking you to do something like that.”
Since their beginnings in Vancouver’s post-punk scene in the early 1980s, 54-40 has established themselves as one of Canada’s most important music groups. Songs like “Ocean Pearl,” I Go Blind,” “One Day In Your Life,” and “Nice To Luv You” are a mere handful of the massive hits that propelled the band from local dive bars to international stages with millions of records sold worldwide. And, like the Show of Hearts, 54-40 also celebrates a milestone this year — their 35th year together as a group. The band fittingly released a greatest hits album, La Difference: A History Unplugged, in January which re-imagines 10 tracks acoustically, with additions of violin, banjo, and mandolin by folk musician Daniel Lapp.
54-40 had played with various arrangements of their songs over the years (it’s a great feeling, Osborne enthuses, “when you can present a song in a different light and it still translates”), but the idea to create the record was initially sparked by the 1996 pop-rock hit “Crossing A Canyon.”
The track is about Osborne’s father, who sadly lost a terrible battle with cancer. “I had to drive him to the hospital one time and my mum and wife said, ‘you gotta have that talk, you know, just say what you have to say and tell him you love him’ and all that,” Osborne recalls. “I tried to do that and he was an old World War II vet and just wouldn’t have me go there. So I ended up writing that song and, of course, everything we were doing was kind of rock and pop hits and couched it in that vein, which I thought was kind of cool. But in this project, Dave [Genn, guitarist] went, ‘let’s do it more like it was intended.’ You know, sort of a piano ballad in a minor key. So that was sort of the start of it and then we looked at every song, maybe not so much with the lyric in mind, but to see what it would do to the lyrics… And then, yeah, one thing led to another and we got inspired and we said, ‘well, we could do a record like this,’ rather than just the sort of four guys getting up there in their plaid shirts and sittin’ on stools and banging out songs, just like they would because there’s no electric guitar. We wanted to do it a little different.”
La Difference: A History Unplugged (which takes its title from a lyric on “Ocean Pearl”) is a two-part project that will include a forthcoming album called A Future History. Osborne says the band is nearly done working on the new effort, which will likely be released at the end of the year or early 2017. “There’ll be acoustic influence for sure, but there’ll be a some more electric guitars, a couple of rockers, some synths,” he adds. “We had Gavin Brown do two songs and Garth Richardson do two songs, and the rest we’re doing ourselves. It’s a lot of fun.”
For a band that was deeply immersed in the MuchMusic music video era of the 1990s, 54-40’s success has remained steady through the ever-expanding digital world. For Osborne, it’s about focusing on what hasn’t changed. “And what hasn’t changed is playing live in front of people,” he says. “That’s still the best recipe to get your music out there, for a new band or for an old band.”
Indeed, the music industry has shifted dramatically over the last 35 years, a large part attributed to the manufacturing and distribution of the art (“I mean, sure, you can buy vinyl from us or a CD from us, but you can also download it or stream it,” Osborne adds) but, Osborne maintains, the pure core of it all — the music — is still very much in tact.
“People like it, they come see it, and they become a part of that environment in the room. I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said — certainly it’s a language unto itself. And it’s nice to still speak it,” he laughs.