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.
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."
Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn April 15th 1972, the Five Man Electrical Band performed "Signs" on the ABC-TV program 'American Bandstand'... Eleven months earlier on May 23rd, 1971 it entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 at position #96; and on August 22nd it peaked at #3 (for 1 week) and spent 18 weeks on the Top 100... The week it was at #3 on the Top 100; "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart" by the Bee Gees was the #1 record and "Take Me Home, Country Road" by John Denver with Fat City was at #2.
Cyberpope from Richmond, CanadaI like how he seeks a world without being under control of arbitrary authorities.
Gary from Clementon, NjActually, Five Man Electrical Band is not a one-hit-wonder in the US. Three months after 'Signs' they hit #26 with 'Absolutely Right'.
Hugh Mcphee from Wick, United KingdomActually they do use the phrase long haired freaky people. No disrespect towards those folks who keep chattering about Tesla's cover but that is bluddy annoying. We are not talking about the various covers nor are we talking about edited/unedited versions. Aside from all of that the song is still good. Too bad it and a bucket load of others are never played on what passes for oldies stations these days.
Jim from West Palm Beach, FlI like the hippie free society image. But even the Beats had to buy their property. It ain't free.
Jim from West Palm Beach, FlYes, esskayess. Paul McCartney could probably buy out Donald Trump. Yet he is considered a 'man of the people'.
Esskayess from Dallas, TxJay: Bands (and actors) who scream the 'no possessions...money and corporations are evil' schlock reach the depths of hypocrisy.
Esskayess from Dallas, TxMike: At least a collection plate gives you the option. The government variety doesn't.
Matt from Vancouver, BcIf the bum got a haircut and took that job at the beginning, he'd have money for the collection plate!!!!
Rick from Belfast, MeThank-you Jim from Ontario
Jim from Thunder Bay, OnWhere I come from Five Man Electrical Band was not a one-hit wonder. They had 4 or 5 good radio hits back in the early 70's. The song 'Juliana' (check the tube) is a good one. Also 'Money Back Guarantee'
Rick from Belfast, MeEven though this was a "one-hit wonder", it shows why the 70's music is still around! One of the best from the 70's..........
Oc from Humid, FlIsn't the original lyric, "So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my only sign"? If not, I've been singing it wrong for nearly 40 years. LOL No matter. It's still my all time favorite.
Mike from Matawan, NjNo....but he DOES have a collection plate.
Bryan from Fort Washington, MdThis is a great song. Everywhere else he is rejected or restricted, but welcomed in the Christian Church. Jesus doesn't have signs!
Jennifer Harris from Grand Blanc, MiMSD did this,too. I also love Tesla's version's too.
James from Philadelphia, PaIn the lyrics, The Five Man Electrical Band says "upstanding young man" not "outstanding" as used in the Tesla version. Being an origional hippy from the 70's I enjoyed both. Jim Mac Clay Phila. Pa.
Norlyn from Geneva, IlPolitics aside (though I tend to side with the song), this is just great rock 'n' roll! One of my favorite hippie era songs.
Dan from Baltimore, Mdthe thing about it being about communism is bolshevick(bs) i think its about how signs are restictive and annoying.
James from Gettysburg, PaThis song is about communism, pure and simple. He's against private property.
Robin from Orangevale, CaEspecially when Tesla plays at their beloved small club type of venue, this song is always one of the most enjoyable live-music experiences ever!
Derek from Logan, UtIn the edited version, the lyrics are "So I got me a pen and a paper and made up my own little sign" while the unedited version says "So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own f*ckin' sign". The edit is evident in the way "little" sounds slightly "off". The word actually escaped radio censors for a long time, even in conservative Utah, actually.
Jay from Atlanta, GaIt's a contradiction. I'm sure both bands had signs outside of their concerts stating "Must have a ticket to enter". To quote the song "What gives you the right?". And I'm sure with the royalties these bands have made they have invested in real estate (and posted "No Trespassing" signs).
Rich from Westons Mills, NyThis song shows how an individual must decide whether individuality of expression or conformity to societal standards is the preferred way to live. The singer's choices are with the former, and he, then, must put up with the partiality of others as a consequence of that choice.