You wait ages for a new Martha, and then suddenly two come along at once. Martha and the Muffins are one of those bands that seem to fall into that grey nether region which was left in the wake of Punk. As part of the post punk/pop explosion, they should have fitted right in. Yet, they were seen by some as being predictable and not new wave enough, while others hearing a promising chart friendly pop group criticised them for being a little too left field and weird. Like The Waitresses, or the B-52s, Martha and the Muffins and their very modern boy girl line-up, managed to combine a sometimes dystopian view of the future, alongside a familiar, some might say nostalgic, nod to the past.
Coming together in Toronto, Canada in 1977, art school friends David Millar and Mark Gane recruited Martha Johnson to play keyboards in their newly formed art college band. Choosing the temporary band name “Martha and the Muffins” the line up played their first gig at an Ontario College of Art Hallowe’en party in October 1977.
“I always hated the name Martha and The Muffins. We came up with that name because we had formed, had a gig, and posters needed to be made. It was a reaction to the then current punk scene, but I always hated it.” – Mark Gane
“I wasn’t going to be the singer at first, I was just going to play my AceTone organ which I had recently purchased and didn’t really know how to play. It was very new wave – people playing who had little or no experience. We’d all grown up in the suburbs of Toronto, although the saxophone player Andy Haas was from Detroit. (Bass player) Carl (Finkle) was studying business and I had been studying theatre. But it made the music interesting, because we had different influences in music – some liked Motown and some liked Cecil Taylor”. – Martha Johnson
Co-founder David Millar moved over to sound duties so high school friend, and Martha number two, Martha Ladly was drafted in on keyboards. The band followed the emerging punk/new wave format and released their first independent single “Insect Love” in 1978, which in turn landed them a deal with Dindisc, an offshoot of Virgin Records.
“It had a black-and-white cover of myself and Mark on it. We did it in a small studio and I think we recorded four songs and pressed it as a 45. The two songs on it were “Suburban Dream” and “Insect Love.” We had recorded (and early version of) “Echo Beach,” but we didn’t put it on there – it didn’t turn out as well as we’d hoped. I think we were also holding onto that song, for not wanting to give it away too early. DinDisc said the same thing – that they wanted to introduce us as a band first. Then the second single would be the one that they were hoping to have a hit with – which is what happened. So “Insect Love” came out as the first single. It got minimal notice, but it introduced us to the English music scene”.
In 1979, the band travelled to England to record their first album Metro Music (1980) produced by Mike Howlett (Gang of Four, Comsat Angels, OMD) which they recorded at The Manor Studios in Oxfordshire.
“We also weren’t seasoned songwriters or seasoned players and because of that, the energy that we had fuelled it rather than our expertise or our abilities. We didn’t have any rules to follow because nobody really knew what the rules were, so we just broke them all without knowing”. – Martha Johnson
It was this album which gave Martha and the Muffins their major international hit single, “Echo Beach”.
“We just sat at home in Canada and got phone calls every week saying “It’s at number 22!” “It’s at number 18!” It made the top ten. It didn’t actually make number one, but it was very popular and sold like 500,000 copies of the single. It was quite a whirlwind. But there was no followup (hit)”.
The “no follow up” situation dragged them ever further into the grey area, were they now just one hit wonders? Or were they just too clever for the business of pop?
“We stormed out of one interview because the producer was just feeding the interviewer all of these ridiculous things to ask us, like “Why do you sound like Blondie,” and (they were) criticizing our appearance rather than our music – the way we sat, the way we spoke.”
On the face of it, Martha and the Muffins had a lot in common with their post punk musical contemporaries. However, after one ginormo hit, they found themselves pushed by the record company into becoming a chart friendly hit machine, but the band with their art college sensibilities were not equipped with the same ambition.
“Mark and I were both kind of misfits in our youth. We were not your typical cheerleader or frat boy types. We both were dreamers and stared out the window during school, and had to be told to concentrate. We always felt alienated as children and as teenagers – like not fitting in and not really wanting to” – Martha Johnson
Their third album “This is the Ice Age” (1981) garnered critical acclaim, but again it didn’t translate into sales.
Fast forward into the thankfully less dystopian future that we were all dreading, in 1995, Martha Johnson recorded a children’s album which won a Juno Award for Best Children’s Album. It was produced by Mark Gane and Martha Johnson.
Echo Beach remains a 1980 pop classic. Not strictly Pop, not completely New Wave, but it still stands head and shoulders above many of it’s contemporaries. Written and performed with that art school energy and thrift store threads, a song like Echo Beach couldn’t have really been performed by anyone else.
I mean…imagine if someone like Toyah had done it….
2 thoughts on “Martha Johnson”
I’m a big fan of Martha + The Muffins and that description of “Echo Beach,” “art school energy and thrift store threads” just nails it! Following the “This Is The Ice Age” album, the band changed their name in 1984 to M+M [for two more albums – I guess Mark Gane got his wish] instead and had a superfunky left field dance funk hit with the still wonderful “Black Stations/White Stations.” The band released several more albums in the last few decades that saw them popping up with an album or two when least expected.
There was a spate of weird off-kilter American bands that I grooved to from the time.
Devo from Akron Ohio, the Rubber capital of the US. Their version of Can’t Get No (Satisfaction) is era-defining. Their debut LP was a gem and they were awesome and eccentric live with a jaw-dropping stage show. Wow just wow.
B-52s who were too Deep South to crack the East Coast but were played at every hip party that I attended.
I met and worked with Cindy one time. A real honour. And she sounded great up close and personal.
I liked many bands on the Sire Records sampler xc The Ramones who bored me with their Status Quo-esque numbers.
The American New Wave 77-81 was more tuneful than Brit stuff in the main apart from Ska but had the intensity of Punk.
But they didn’t catch on to the influence of Parliament/Funkadelic until my esoteric group of teenage girlfriends started jamming Bootsy riffs hard and playing our Punk version of psychedelic Soul that we loved from the late 60s. The American Big Names that tracked our studio sessions were fascinated.
And I preferred Sly Stone to Stevie Wonder. Stax to Motown. Michael Jackson was magical still. A Wunderkind.
I also thought East Coast No Wave of the time was a cut above UK fare with its free jazz foundations and 70s funk polyrhythms. I loved James —- (?)& The Contortions and that introduced me to Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Alice Coltrane. I liked Blue-eyed Funk, Funksters playing Rock.
And I liked leftfield Pop too, that defied instant categories and easy consumption.
The rise of British Electronica in the early 80s pushed guitar -based bands to the sidelines and paved the way for the Second British Invasion of the American charts.