Signs by the Five Man Electrical Band is one of those songs that seemingly everyone knows, at least partly due to a popular cover by Tesla in the early 1990s. The original version was first released in 1970 as a B-side before getting a second chance and becoming a million-seller the following year. Despite their seemingly overnight success, the group had been around for years, first under the name The Staccatos and with a string of mid-level pop chart hits in their native Canada beginning in mid-1965. Prior to the breakout success of Signs, the group had been making periodic attempts to break through in America, but had seen quite a few releases disappear without a trace in the U.S. under both names.
When the group started hitting the Canadian pop charts in the '60s, it was somewhat rare for a homegrown group to have much sales success without first scoring a hit in the U.S. The reader won't see many Canadian artists when taking a quick scan of the archived RPM magazine charts, essentially the north-of-the-border answer to Billboard. (One notable exception from 1965 was The Guess Who's first hit single, "Shakin' All Over," which was a huge hit in Canada before crossing the border to hit in the States.) That would begin to change right around the same time that Five Man Electrical Band finally broke through with Signs, though, as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission instituted local content rules for broadcast in 1971.
But all that's a bit ahead of the story. Information about the early days of The Staccatos is hazy, with some sources stating the band got together as early as 1963. The current online history for the Five Man Electrical Band marks the year as 1964, and lead singer/songwriter Les Emmerson's bio states that he was invited to join the band for their first Allied label single in 1965. There's also apparently a 45 from around the same time, released on the Trans-Canada label and listing a Staccatos backing pop singer Dean Hagopian, but it's not mentioned on the band's website, so that may be a different group. Emmerson was already writing with fellow band member Vern Craig by the time of their first Capitol hit single, "Small Town Girl."
Released just as 1965 turned into 1966, The Staccatos debut album Initially collects both sides of the group's previous pair of Canadian hits and their third Capitol single, along with three more Emmerson-Craig originals and three covers. The album overall is very British Invasion-influenced, but the original songs are top-notch beat material and the group brings something new to the covers, including a folk-rockish take on Buddy Holly. Outliers include the Beach Boys pastiche "Move to California" and excellent, garage-leaning "You Only Die Once."
While Initially has never been released in the U.S., the group's singles would begin appearing here by the end of 1966. They changed their name to the Five Man Electrical Band in 1969, and according to their bio, were on the verge of dissolving when "Signs" finally changed their fortunes. Follow-up single "Absolutely Right" was also a huge Canadian hit but stalled out on the American charts, despite possibly being their best individual track. The group would gradually drift apart over the next few years and collapsed altogether by the middle of the '70s. However, there have been at least a few Five Man Electrical Band shows nearly every year since a reunion show in 1986. (Capitol of Canada, 1966)