Written by Five Man Electrical Band lead singer Les Emmerson, this song is a prescient look at class divisions and property rights. Emmerson wrote the song after taking a road trip on Route 66 in California, where he noticed a plethora of 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?
The song gave voice to those without power or property rights, which in many cases were young people.
Five Man Electrical Band are a Canadian group, Formed in the '60s as The Staccatos. "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 made #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 made #4 in Canada but took off in America, reaching #3 in August. The follow-up, "Absolutely Right," also did well in America, reaching #26.
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.
In 1991, this was a #12 US hit for Tesla. They released it on their third album, which was named Five Man Acoustical Jam as an allusion to the original artist. 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." (thanks, Clayton - Blount County, AL)
Tesla's version was one of the first acoustic hit songs of the '90s and helped launch the "Unplugged" trend. MTV started their series of Unplugged concerts shortly after their cover came out.
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.