Five Man Electrical Band – Signs

I remember this song when I was a young fellow. The Five Man Electrical Band was a rock band from Ottawa, Ontario. They started out as The Staccatos in 1963 and had success in the Canadian Charts between 1965-1975. In 1969 is when they changed their name to The Five Man Electrical Band. They had 8 top twenty hits and 4 top ten hits in Canada. 

In America though they were known mostly  for Signs but they did have a top 40 song called Absolutely Right. Signs was the B-Side to Absolutely Right.

This was written by the lead singer Les Emmerson. Emmerson wrote the song after taking a road trip on Route 66 in California, where he noticed many billboards that obscured the beautiful scenery. This posed a question: Who is allowed to put up signs that interfere with nature? This led to another query: Who gets to make the rules that appear on so many signs?

“Signs” was included on their second album in 1970, but not considered single-worthy by their record label, as it didn’t fit a standard pop format.

In 1970, it was issued as the B-side to the single “Hello Melinda Goodbye,” which peaked at #55 on the Canadian chart. Disk jockeys preferred the flip side, however, and started playing “Signs,” which was then released as an A-side in 1971.

It peaked at #3 in the Billboard 100 and #4 in Canada in 1971.

The follow-up, “Absolutely Right,” also did well in America, peaking at #26 in the Billboard 100 and #3 in Canada. 

From Songfacts

The song gave voice to those without power or property rights, which in many cases were young people.

This song starts with a line that became one of the most memorable in rock: “And the sign said, ‘Long-haired freaky people need not apply.'”

By starting with the word “And,” we feel that we are picking up a story, and it’s clear that the singer has put a lot of thought into this. The first verse is a classic tale of how looks can be deceiving, as the difference between an “upstanding man” and a hippie can be something as superficial as hair.

The next verse finds the singer looking at a “no trespassing” sign and questioning its authority. This resonates with anyone who has seen beautiful beaches, vistas, and other points of nature marked as private property, often with nobody there to enjoy it.

We then enter a private club with a strict dress code, and we hear the line most willful wanderers have been confronted with: “You ain’t supposed to be here.”

Finally, we end up in church, which brings God into our story. If ever there is something that is open to all, it it God, but even in church, a donation is called for. At this point, our hero turns the tables and makes his own sign, thanking God for the wonder of life.

Tesla revived this song in 1990 when they recorded a live, acoustic version for their album Five Man Acoustical Jam, which was recorded at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia on July 2, 1990.

The band was on tour with Mötley Crüe, opening for the rockers on the Dr. Feelgood tour. July 2 was an off-day, so Tesla booked the acoustic show and had each band member pick a cover song to perform. Lead singer Jeff Keith picked “Signs,” a song he grew up listening to in Oklahoma. His bandmates, however, didn’t know the song, so Jeff had to round up a copy so they could learn it.

The song was the highlight of the performance, and the set was so well-received that it was released as an album, which they titled Five Man Acoustical Jam as an allusion to the original artist. Released as a single ahead of the album, the song made #2 on the Mainstream Rock chart, but didn’t crack the Hot 100. When the album started selling and MTV began airing the video, the song was re-released, making #8 on the Hot 100 in April 1991.

Tesla’s version was one of the first acoustic hit songs of the ’90s and helped launch the “Unplugged” trend. MTV ramped up their series of Unplugged concerts shortly after Tesla’s cover became a hit.

The line, “If God was here he’d tell you to your face, Man, you’re some kinda sinner” has a double-meaning, as “Man” could be just a throwaway expression, but could also be about man as a species.

In Tesla’s unedited version they replace the phrase “Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind” with “F–kin’ up the scenery, breakin’ my mind.”


And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply”
So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why
He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do”
So I took off my hat, I said “Imagine that. Huh! Me workin’ for you!”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

And the sign said anybody caught trespassin’ would be shot on sight
So I jumped on the fence and-a yelled at the house, “Hey! What gives you
“To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in”
“If God was here he’d tell you to your face, Man, you’re some kinda sinner”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Now, hey you, mister, can’t you read?
You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat
You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat
You ain’t supposed to be here
The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray”
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn’t have a
penny to pay
So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign
I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine.”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Sign, sign

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

25 thoughts on “Five Man Electrical Band – Signs”

      1. Thanks Dave! It will take me a little longer to get to 3000…with work as it is…one a day may start extending to weekends. For once in my blogging life…I’m 2 weeks ahead.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. I’ve always liked this song. It was the right message for the right time, imo. I was happy that Tesla introduced it to a new generation. I’m partial to the original, but the Tesla remake is a close second for me.

    Liked by 2 people

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