Back in 1970 a small record label started in Los Angeles called Lionel Records, founded by Jimmy Webb and Dallas Smith. Both had much previous success in the music business, and had secured distribution for the label through MGM, however the struggling tiny new label produced few hit records to pay the bills. Beyond a few singles that mostly didn’t chart, only two albums by the Canadian group, Five Man Electrical Band, were ever produced by the label before it folded in 1971 and Universal now owns all the master recordings from the label.
The one rare hit single this small label had was “Signs”. But, it was a hit by accident. Originally, at over four minutes “Signs” seemed too long and not commercial enough to have the needed hooks to be a commercial success, and was actually the “B” side of “Hello Melinda Goodbye” by the Five Man Electrical Band. But, fortunately the small label sent out promotional singles to radio stations with both A and B sides, marked as promo singles for radio play. Programming DJs weren’t as excited about “Hello Melinda Goodbye” as they were by the longer “B” side song, “Signs”. Gradually, “Signs” gained airplay and soon caught fire as a hot song with many listener requests. Lionel requested fresh supplies of the single, now rebranding “Signs” as the “A” side and editing the song from the longer 4:05 album and early 45rpm version, down to a more concise 3:20 single version with more top 40 appeal. The song made it all the way up to #3 on the charts.
As good of an act as the Five Man Electrical Band were, they just never managed the success of other Canadian groups like the Guess Who or later the related Bachman Turner Overdrive. The leader of the Five Man Electrical Band, Les Emmerson wrote other great songs like “Absolutely Right”, which was a real gem, but charted no higher than just #26 on the charts, along with other notable misses like “Werewolf”. Eventually, the Five Man Electrical Band broke up and Les Emmerson pursued a mostly fruitless solo career. But, “Signs” remains the group’s signature classic song and has been covered by other acts over the years including the hard rock band Tesla.
The Five Man Electrical Band were an excellent quality act, but outside of “Signs” and Canada, the band just didn’t have all the success they really deserved. Part of that failure might have been because their best years were pinned to the small and struggling Lionel label when they really needed a stronger label to give them more support. The song also was one of the last of the big protest song hits in 1971 as most of the protest songs were from the 1960’s. A great bit of music, and a great bit of music history.