#567: Werewolf by the Five Man Electrical Band
The Five Man Electrical Band was a Canadian mainstream rock band from Ottawa. They had an international hit in 1970 called “Signs.” Their other hits did well in Canada, including “Absolutely Right” and “I’m A Stranger Here.” In 1970 the band released an album called Good-byes and Butterflies. The cover of the album prominently displayed a marijuana plant. The ensuing controversy led to the album being withdrawn and given a different cover with a butterfly composed of neon lights. “Signs” was initially the b-side of “Hello Melinda, Goodbye.” But by accident, the sides were reversed, making “Signs” the A-side, which radio listeners started began calling DJ’s for requests to hear it again.
Les Emmerson was born in 1944. In 1963 he formed the Staccatos. The Ottawa group included lead singer and local disc jockey Dean Hagopian. After some local hits they got the attention of Capitol Records. One of their 1965 singles imitated the surfing sound with “Moved To California.” In 1966 their Top 40 hit on the Canadian RPM singles chart, “Let’s Run Away,” won the group the two Juno awards that year for Best Produced Single and Vocal Instrumental Group Of The Year. Then they released “Half Past Midnight.” The song peaked on the Canadian RPM singles chart at #8 in May 1967. It won them a JUNO award for Best Produced Single and got them gigs in the trendy music scene in the downtown Toronto neighborhood of Yorkville. Coca-Cola lined them up for some jingles and they shared one of two sides of an album in 1968 with The Guess Who called A Wild Pair.
After failing to chart in the USA the group changed their sound and their name to the The Five Man Electrical Band in 1969. They released a single called “It Never Rains On Maple Lane” which had regional success in Olympia, Washington, (#12), Kirkland Lake, Ontario, (#11) and Top 30 in San Francisco and Toronto. A second single, “Lovin’ Look” made it into the Top 100 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, with the band sounding similar to the Grass Roots. But it was their third single release that began to show signs of an emerging sound the Five Man Electrical Band became known for. The refrain, “the sun is up and I’m still down” in the last minute of “Sunrise to Sunset” got the band more attention. With that more mainstream rock sound their third single peaked at #13 in Ottawa, #12 in Victoria and #12 on CKLG in Vancouver.
Several more singles followed and in 1971 the band got a Top Ten hit in Canada and the USA called “Signs” which peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and in Vancouver. This was followed by “Absolutely Right” which peaked at #4 in Vancouver and reached the Top 20 in the USA.
Several more singles were released including their 1973 single “I’m A Stranger Here,” an anthem to environmental awareness. When the single was recorded, the band was made up of Les Emmerson (vocals, guitar), Rick Bell (vocals, drums), Ted Gerow (keyboards), Mike Bell (vocals, drums) and Brian Rading (bass guitar). At the end of the albums production, Mike Bell and Brian Rading left the band, actually making the remaining members a “Three Man Electrical Band.”
The band had one more notable hit called “Werewolf” in 1974.
“Werewolf” is a song about a boy named Billy. His mother suspects that he is a werewolf. She’s seen him screaming at the moon when it rises. She notices he was out all night and didn’t sleep in his bed. And a farmer down the road told her he lost some sheep during the night. Papa, at first, thinks Billy is just sewing his wild oats. But, after hearing Mama raise her concerns he decides to get his gun and take his silver dinner bell to the blacksmith. He rouses the blacksmith from his sleep and instructs him to melt down the dinner bell into one silver bullet. Before sunrise a shot rings out and Billy’s brother thinks Papa shot Billy. But then they hear a scream and Mama smiles and says she thinks Billy killed her husband. (At this point the listener of the song can wonder if Mama is torn between love for her son, Billy, and her husband. Or, if there were marital difficulties that can explain her “smile” when she thinks her son Billy, the werewolf, finished off her husband). Moments later, Papa arrives at the doorstep and Billy is never seen again.
Stories of werewolves date back to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. He wrote The Histories in 440 B.C. In Book IV of his series Herodotus describes the Neuri, a tribe northeast of Sythia (in present day Central Russia and northern Kazakhstan) in an area extending across the Kazakh Steppe. The Neuri, according to Herodotus, were all transformed into wolves once every year for several days, and then changed back to their human shape. Indeed the Neuri peoples wore wolf skins to keep them warm during the winter. They also snuck up on wolves while wearing wolf skins to enhance the chance of clubbing a wolf for dinner instead of ending up being the wolves dinner. Matt Simon writing for WIRED writes that once the men returned from the hunt, “the wolf-man would participate in ceremonies, dancing and crying and further assuming the demeanor of the wolf.” In North America, “The Pawnee were called “wolves” by neighboring tribes for their spies’ habit of wearing” a wolf hide and approaching other tribes in a time of battle, or hunting prey, like a wolf.
L. Illis, wrote an article in 1963 suggesting that the rare disease of porphyria may have been a catalyst for stories about werewolves. A person afflicted with porphyria developed red teeth, their urine turned red, their skin turned pale and yellowish, they wandered at night, and their face, ears and nose began to rot away. Persons with porphyria also became manic-depressive, hysterical and delirious. They also have to avoid sunlight. When individuals were afflicted with this rare disease it would have frightened village folk in Ancient times and the Middle Ages.
Over time there emerged Roman, Greek, German and British tales of werewolves. Meanwhile, in Africa there were stories of men turning into leopards. And in South America there were stories of men turning into jaguars.
In 1978 Warren Zevon had a #4 hit in Vancouver titled “Werewolves of London”. The song stalled at #21 on the Billboard Hot 100. The pop charts also offered up some songs about wolves, notably “Lil’ Red Riding Hood”, a #2 hit for Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs in 1966.
Werewolves also featured in film. British filmmakers released Werewolves of London (1935), The Face at the Window (1939) and The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In Hollywood a werewolf was key to the plot in numerous films. Among these were The Wolf Man starring Lon Cheney (1941), The Mad Monster and The Undying Monster (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), Cry of the Werewolf and House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), The Werewolf (1956), I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957), Orgy of the Dead (1965), Werewolves On Wheels (1971) and The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973).
The Five Man Electrical Band split up in 1975. Les Emmerson based himself in California from the mid-70s until 1981. During this time he launched Perfect Records with the engineer for Bachman-Turner-Overdrive and Pure Prairie League, Mark Smith. When he moved back to Ottawa in 1981 he became associated with The Cooper Brothers, an Ottawa band with a southern rock sound. Emmerson also established a recording studio in the nation’s capitol.
1986 was the year the Five Man Electrical Band got together to perform a benefit concert. However, the benefit concert led to yearly tours of Eastern Canada into the 2010’s. In 2000, at the age of 56, Les Emmerson suffered a heart attack. Thankfully, a stent procedure was successful. In 2008, The Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted Les Emmerson, primarily for his composition of “Signs,” a song he was first inspired to write while driving down Route 66.
In 2015 Emmerson gave a concert as a fundraiser for the Ottawa Aphasia Center and Manotick United Church’s community outreach activities. Terry McGovern, organizer of the concert said of Les Emmerson: “He’s backed up Chuck Berry and he’s played around the pool at Linda Ronstadt’s house. The guy lived in Los Angeles for 10 years and he and his band were top musicians, so he’s seen everything twice. He has a genuine story to tell and a love of storytelling and is very great at telling stories.”
On June 8, 2016, the Five Man Electrical Band lost bass player, Brian Rading, who died weeks short of his 70th birthday.
March 1, 2017
Emmerson Settles Suit, Billboard, November 11, 1972
The Staccatos, “Moved To California,”1965
The Staccatos, “Let’s Run Away,” 1966
The Staccatos, “Half Past Midnight,” 1967
Les Emmerson inductee: “Signs,” Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, 2008.
Five Man Electrical Band: Rock Band Formed in Ottawa as The Staccatos, The Canadian Encyclopedia.ca, December 16, 2013.
Proudly Canadian: The Five Man Electrical Band, Cashbox Canada, July 31, 2014.
Megan DeLaire, Les Emmerson Returns to Manotick, The Hamilton Spectator, November 5, 2015.
Kelly Egan, Egan: Five Man Electrical Loses Original Bass Player, Local Rock Pillar, Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa, ON, June 16, 2016.
Tanika Koosman, “The Ancient Origins of Werewolves,” The Conversation.com, October 28, 2018.
Matt Simon, “Fantastically Wrong: The Strange Real-Life Origins of the Fiendish Werewolf,” WIRED.com, July 23, 2014.
L. Illis, “On Porphyria and the Aetiology of Werwolves,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, October 2, 1963.
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