Wednesday, October 29, 2008

It's Five O'Clock - Time For Echo Beach!

In 1980 I wasn’t an office clerk and I didn’t live anywhere near a beach, but one of the biggest hits of that year ‘Echo Beach’ continued to echo in my mind ten years later when indeed I had become that office clerk, and coincidentally lived only a few minutes away from a beach. The lure of that mythical place in song helped me traverse the gauntlet between 4.30 and 5.00 in the afternoon on more than one occasion, as I imagine it has countless other worker drones.

Martha & The Muffins were the group behind the song ‘Echo Beach’ which during 1980 reached #3 here in Australia, #5 in Canada, and #10 in Britain. They hailed from Toronto, Canada (a nation that has produced more than its share of class pop/rock acts) and featured not one, but two Martha’s in their line-up. The kernel of the band began during 1977 with two college students David Millar (guitar) and Mark Gane (guitar), who had an idea to start a punk/new wave band. Martha Johnson had played in a couple of bands previous, The Doncasters and Oh Those Pants! She became the first Martha on board as vocalist/keyboardist. Next aboard was bassist Carl Finkler followed in turn by drummer Tim Gane (Mark’s brother) - now all they needed was a name. The Martha part was an obvious choice, but legend has it the band came up with the remainder of their moniker whilst eating cheeseburgers at a Harvey’s restaurant (I guess Martha & The Burgers just didn’t have the same ring to it). It was actually intended as a temporary measure but ended up sticking. In February ‘78 saxophonist Andy Haas began playing with the group, and soon after Martha Ladly became the other Martha in the mix. Ladly replaced David Millar in the line-up, but played keyboards and sang backing vocals. The band started performing regularly at the high profile ‘new wave’ club The Edge, and quickly established a strong fan base. They independently released the single ‘Insect Love’, and after submitting a demo tape to a New York music critic, Martha & The Muffins were eventually signed up to Dindisc/Virgin Records in early 1979.

Martha & The Muffins recorded their debut album ‘Metro Music’ (OZ#46/UK#34) in late ‘79. Produced by Mike Howlett, when it was released in early 1980 the album left no doubt as to the origin of the band, when it featured a map of a stretch of the Canadian coast on the cover (well I guess for the geographically challenged it may have still proved to be an issue). ‘Echo Beach’ put Martha & The Muffins on the music map as one of the most promising new wave pop/rock acts on the scene. Written by guitarist Mark Gane, it was a quality mix of guitar/synth pop-rock with an irresistible chorus hook and a kick ass saxophone solo (the 80s was the decade of the saxophone after all). A hectic touring schedule ensued (which resulted in a live EP later in 1980) which included opening for Roxy Music on a U.K. tour. Martha & The Muffins then set to work on their sophomore album ‘Trance And Dance’ in mid 1980, but by August the first casualty of the band’s internal frictions occurred when Martha Ladly left the group, with bassist Carl Finkle departing a few months later. The album ‘Trance Dance’ was a relative disappointment, and the singles ‘Suburban Dream’ and ‘Was Ezo’ couldn’t replicate the hit status of ‘Echo Beach’, making the second half of 1980 a forgettable period in the history of Martha & The Muffins.

The creative core of the group, Martha Johnson and Mark Gane, decided to carry on with Andy Haas and Tim Gane still devoted to the cause. They recruited a new bassist in Jocelyne Lanois in early 1981. Lanois’ brother Daniel ran a recording studio not far from the band’s Toronto base, and at the band’s behest he co-produced Martha & The Muffins third album ‘This Is The Ice Age’, released in late 1981. Having established a degree of autonomy from the suits at Virgin, the band used the album as a vehicle to express a new level of creative/stylistic freedom. The result was a less commercial but, as far as the band was concerned, more satisfying album. Unfortunately most major labels aren’t interested in the personal creative growth of their artist, and when the sales figures didn’t match previous efforts, Virgin dropped Martha & The Muffins from their roster.

The band signed with Canadian indie label Current Records and re-entered the recording studio during 1982 to record their second album under the production guidance of Daniel Lanois (Lanois would later work with the likes of U2 and Peter Gabriel). Drummer Tim Gane left the fray during this period, replaced by Nick Kent. The 1983 album ‘Danseparc’ (US#184) featured the band’s first extensive use of sampling, incorporating everything from bagpipes to Gregorian chants into the mix. It would be the last Martha & The Muffins album to feature direct creative input beyond the core team of Martha Johnson and Mark Gane.

Johnson and Gane decided to continue on as a duo, with a focus on studio recording. They dispensed with the old band name and took on a new moniker as M+M. One aspect that didn’t change was the presence of Daniel Lanois at the production controls. Johnson and Gane released their first album as M+M with 1984’s ‘Mystery Walk’ (US#163). For the first time in four years they had a stand out single to entice MTV and radio networks to get behind. ‘Black Stations/White Stations’ was a dance/funk classic, and featured a memorable bass line from session player Tinker Barfield, complimented by the horn section of Michael and Randy Brecker. The song reached #63 on the U.S. Hot 100 and was only prevented from hitting #1 on the Dance charts by Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’. It was followed up by the equalling engaging ‘Cooling The Medium’ (US#34 Hot Dance chart). With the change in name to M+M and a marked evolution of sound, to many beyond their core fan base, this was an entirely unrecognisable entity by comparison to the Muffins.
Lanois was otherwise occupied, so M+M enlisted the production services of David Lord (engineer/producer for Peter Gabriel, XTC) to collaborate with on their next album. The rhythm tracks were recorded in Canada in the first half of ‘85, and the duo then shifted base to England to complete the album with Lord. The album title ‘The World Is A Ball’ seemed an appropriate one, given the globetrotting nature of its assembly. By all reports the album was an eclectic affair, featuring a myriad of styles and tones. Lack of label support again acted to hinder M+M’s access to a wider commercial market. Johnson and Gane cut ties with their label and in fact Canada, for a time relocating long term to England. After a four year period, featuring relentless curves and hazards in the creative road, Johnson and Gane eventually arrived at the destination of another completed album in 1992. They once again adopted the tag Martha & The Muffins (though there was officially only one muffin) to release the album ‘Modern Lullaby’. Sadly, the timing of the album couldn’t have been worse, when the indie label backing it went belly up, leaving the band without any promotional or distribution support. Only one single ‘Get Ta Know You Betta’ (US#92 Hot R&B) received any kind of attention.

Disillusioned by the events surrounding ‘Modern Lullaby’, Johnson and Gane concentrated on life as a couple and as new parents. Their involvement in music during the remainder of the 90s was focussed largely on film and television soundtrack work. Martha Johnson recorded an album of children’s songs titled ‘Songs From The Tree House’, released in 1995. A retrospective collection of Martha & The Muffins was released via EMI Canada in 1998. Much of the band’s back catalogue has subsequently been repackaged and reissued in the years since. According to the band’s official website a new album titled ‘Delicate’ is in the works and has a tentative release scheduled for late 2008.Thanks to YouTube user gnowangerup for uploading the 'Echo Beach' video

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