MARTHA AND THE MUFFINS

In October 1979, around the same time as Duggie Campbell: DinDisc released its fourth single: the debut by Martha and the Muffins, “Insect Love” b/w “Cheesies and Gum.” The Muffins are especially important in the DinDisc story for three reasons. First, they were to be DinDisc’s first signing, with Wilson putting the wheels in motion months before OMD were snapped up. Second, they gave the label its first chart hit with “Echo Beach,” which peaked at #10 in the UK singles chart on March 29, 1980, and bestowed both DinDisc and producer Mike Howlett new credibility in the British music industry. Third, DinDisc scouted the band at the beginning of their career, before any other labels expressed interest; unlike OMD, with Martha and the Muffins there was no indie label comparable to Factory Records through which DinDisc might farm the band. That the Muffins came from Canada only underscores DinDisc’s considerable investment in this group, which went on record five more albums after DinDisc folded. The case of Martha and Muffins offers a window into DinDisc’s A&R operation from soup to nuts and further illuminates the artistic and economic dilemmas that came with signing onto Carol Wilson’s label.

I’ve written elsewhere about Martha and the Muffins, Canada’s most significant new wave export (click here for a career overview). I go deep on their 1978-82 era in this section, drawing liberally from my original interviews with the band’s principals and producer Mike Howlett; all quotes without specific citations come from these primary sources.

 

For the DinDisc story, the relevant facts begin with the 1977 formation of the band, which grew to a six-piece composed of three art students from the Ontario College of Art (guitarist Mark Gane, keyboard player/vocalist Martha Ladly, saxophone player Andy Haas), two figures from the musically fertile suburb of Thornhill (vocalist/keyboard player Martha Johnson, bassist Carl Finkle), and a younger brother (Tim Gane) enlisted on drums. With their intelligent and danceable mix of high art, feminist performance — the band was fronted by two women named Martha — and new wave irony, the Muffins stood apart from the punk aggression and populist rock that pervaded the city’s clubs. By 1978 they’d been become a favorite to the thriving downtown art scene based in Toronto’s Queen Street West neighborhood.  After a year of local gigging and persistent disinterest by Canada’s record interest, on a lark the band sent their demo to Glenn O’Brien, the New York-based editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and host of “TV Party,” a public access variety show featuring NYC’s demimonde. To their great surprise, O’Brien replied with enthusiasm and landed the band a gig at Hurrah in NYC — their first performance ever outside of Toronto.

See fifth line from bottom of last column, under “Predictions for 1979”: “Martha and the Muffins will play New York.” Remembers Martha Ladly “When [O’Brien] picked [our demo] up and we got a review in that, in Interview magazine, we thought, ‘Whoa, this could lead to something!’”

O’Brien passed the demo onto Robert Fripp, the prog-rock guitar hero who was then in between incarnations of King Crimson, and Virgin A&R man Dave Fudger. All three showed up at the March 2, 1979 show in New York. It’s unclear why Dave Fudger was in New York, and how far along Wilson’s plans for DinDisc Records were at the time. Most likely Wilson had begun enlisting Fudger into her scheme, since (according to the members I’ve interviewed) after the Hurrah performance he conveyed news of Wilson’s keen interest in the band. The band solicited Fripp for his opinion of their options. In separate interviews with me, Mark Gane and Martha Ladly give different emphases to the response they recall.

Mark Gane: I remember we asked him at that show what he thought about Virgin, and he said, somewhat prophetically, I think, “I don’t think Virgin would be necessarily the right label for you.” He didn’t say who, but that was kind of his opinion.”

Martha Ladly: He just said, “You know what? You’re good, you’re clearly enjoying what you’re doing — go for it. You know, it’s a fun way to make a living. Go for it. And what do I think about Virgin? think they’re going to be big. I think they’re going to be important. You know, they’re all robbers, but they’re as good as anybody. So, why not? You should do it.”

Ten days later, Wilson flew from London to attend Martha and the Muffins’ showcase at Toronto new wave club the Edge. Her instincts confirmed, she set the ball rolling. Having heard almost two albums’ worth of potential material, Wilson quickly identified the song she thought could break the band out in the British charts.

The “Echo Beach” demo was always there, and the key reason for signing them… The band looked interesting and original too. I liked their attitude.

By the end of March, two months before she began actively scouting OMD, she enticed the Muffins to sign over their publishing to DinSong Music for an unspecified advance and consider an eight-album deal with Dindisc Records — a time-consuming process for a self-managed band that required a majority vote for members to sign off on any decision. In May, she sent Mike Howlett, still a commercially untested producer at that point, out to Toronto to record “Echo Beach” “on a speculative basis — no contract had been signed, but negotiations were well under way” (Howlett 2009: 37). Straight away he observed a flaw in the band’s performance (a weak kick on Tim Gane’s bass drum) but completed the recording. (He also assigned Tim an exercise he learned from Gong’s drummer: placing his foot on a brick and raising it by pressing down on the heel.) When the band signed the DinDisc recording contract, Wilson scrapped that version of “Echo Beach” and quickly sent Howlett back to Toronto for formal pre-production of their debut album. There, one of new wave’s great singles took its definitive shape when Howlett urged the band to repeat the song’s guitar riff, which originally Mark Gane played in the intro only, again after the first section. Recently, Gane and Martha Johnson remembered his initial resistance to the producer’s idea.

Martha Johnson: I remember when Michael Howlett wanted to put the hook line, the “Echo Beach” hook line in the middle of the song, [Mark] said, “No, I won’t do that.”

Mark Gane: I know, it was a really good idea.

Martha Johnson: It was a really good idea.

Mark Gane: I mean, I was a stupid kid for a lot of this. And thankfully he did do that, because that really makes it… But when he came over to work, do pre-production, we were doing it at Carl’s house in Thornhill, and I remember distinctly going out into his backyard, which is basically blank lawn, and lying on the lawn at night looking up at the skyline going —

Martha Johnson: “You’re going to ruin my song.”

Mark Gane: “Fucking Howlett is wrecking all my songs.” Because “Revenge (Against the World),” you know, there’s a long intro, but I wanted that intro to be twice as long.

Martha Johnson: It was pretty long.

Mark Gane: You know, dnnh-dnnh-dnnh [hums the intro melody] forever, and then it would come in. And he convinced me to cut it at least it in half. But I thought, “No, no, you’ve got to ride that thing for a long time.” And, you know, I guess there’s always that battle between, Is this guy crazy, or are we all going to think it was great ten years later? I don’t know, I didn’t think about it that way, but, I think there’s a battle between the purity of vision and what the world makes of it, or how the world is going to deal with it — how the producer is going to deal with it, how the record company is going to go, “Mark, you know, we can’t have an intro that long.” And you go, “I believe in the listeners.” Look, if Captain Beefheart can have an audience, why can’t people hear 25 bars of this? You know, why not?

In August, Martha and the Muffins, Howlett, and engineer Richard Manwaring gathered in Virgin’s celebrated countryside studio the Manor to record an album. By October, DinDisc released their Muffins’ first single (and only the label’s fourth release): “Insect Love” b/w “Cheesies and Gum.” A non-album track, the A-side shows the influence of Roxy Music, particularly the chromatic lurch of “Do The Strand,” and seemed maybe an odd choice for the band’s debut. With hindsight, the band recognizes the wisdom of Carol Wilson’s marketing decision.

Mark Gane: The interesting thing about Dindisc/Virgin’s approach was, “We’re going to put out this first single, ‘Insect Love.’” They did it quite deliberately because what that meant was everybody went, “Wot, it’s a bunch of Canadians from the colonies!” And the colonies bullshit came up a lot… They deliberately did that because they knew the single was gonna go nowhere. But it got everybody talking about this weird Canadian band. And then they put out “Echo Beach”. [snaps fingers] Right? And that was the strategy: “Here’s the real song.”

Carol Wilson: There is a very great deal more to having a hit than making a good record. “Insect Love” was released as an EP, to build a groundswell of interest among the UK music press and the ‘cool’ radio shows. It was ideal for that, and did the job. It was never imagined to be a chart hit. Call it a “loss-leader.”

The new year brought validation of DinDisc’s marketing strategy. On January 25, 1980, Martha and the Muffins’ second single “Echo Beach” b/w “Teddy the Dink” was released, followed in February by their debut album, and DinDisc’s first full-length record, Metro Music. Influential DJ John Peel played album cuts on his BBC Radio One show eight times by March, at which point the single began ten weeks on UK singles chart, and the album six weeks on the albums chart. DinDisc brought Martha and the Muffins back across the Atlantic for extensive touring: 20 dates over two legs, between February and May, across the UK and western Europe. Then there were the press junkets and label parties, which became a source of contention as band members recently explained.

Martha Ladly: It was mainly having to do stuff like press and publicity and these parties and stuff that we knew that was costing us money because we were ultimately paying for it, and it just seemed somewhat superfluous. It’s just like, “Here’s our music, here’s our record, here’s our performance. What more do you want?” That was kind of the attitude of, I think, some members of the the band. For me, it was slightly different because, being a bit more of a social animal than some other people in the band, I actually enjoyed it. I was just like, “Yeah, do you want to talk to me? I’m happy to talk to you. [chuckles] I’ll talk the whole night if that’s what you want me to do.” So for me it wasn’t such a hardship. I think other people just found it hard, you know. Fair enough… But I was kind of caught up in the glamor of it and also the crazy culture of it. It was just like, “Yeah, this is how British pop music works. It’s pretty cool.” I just wanted to soak it all up.

Martha Johnson: It was an interesting time for us. We were touring and making albums. We made two albums in the same year. Richard Branson was around doing his practical jokes. He had a party for us and the success of “Echo Beach” on his barge, which he repeatedly banged into the sides of the canal.

Mark Gane: Everyone was down below, and Richard is up there steering, going “Hee hee hee,” and then going “bang.” Nobody really knew what was going on.

Martha Johnson: There were drinks flying in the air.

Mark Gane: As it would happen, one of the radio pluggers, the guys that were hired to promote songs with BBC and Capitol Radio, he was a great guy, but as I recall he was suffering from some major brain tumour. So he’s on the upper deck half drunk reeling around, and just as Richard hit the wall again, I remember turning around just to see him go head first through the hatch of the barge. And everybody knew he had this thing. And you know how you see things half way so it’s hallucinogenic? You don’t see him coming down; he’s halfway through the hatch. Hits his head on the deck below, and he gets up and goes, “Woah,” and everybody thought that was going to kill him. But he got up and continued on for the duration of the evening. [Source for MJ/MG: Equalizing Distort 2010]

Carol Wilson: We had a crack team at DinDisc, including top class radio plugger, Donna Thompson, and we also hired in Mike Willis, one of the UK’s top independent pluggers. That’s how we got onto the Radio I playlist, which was make or break for a record at that time. Sadly Mike died of a brain tumour a couple of years later.

Moving quickly to capitalize on the band’s momentum, that spring Wilson put the band in Virgin’s Townhouse studio in London with Mike Howlett to record a new single “About Insomnia,” and then into the Manor to record a second album. DinDisc had yet to enjoy any other chart successes (OMD’s “Enola Gay” was two months away), and through occasional visits to the studio, Wilson made her expectations for another pop hit along the lines of “Echo Beach” clearly known to the band.

Carol Wilson: That was a big concern, and no doubt I would have expressed it. They could only tour the UK at great expense, so without hits, there was no way of promoting them.

Mark Gane: By the time the second album had come along, the relationship between Carol and us was really pretty low. I can’t remember what the big fight was, but I stormed out of the office, down the stairs — because the office was on an upper floor — and I heard her little sing-song voice, going, “Mark, if you don’t come back right now, there shan’t be a lyric insert on the album.” You know, like still threatening, always threatening.

 

At this point, it’s worth extricating the strains of the band’s internal divisions and conflict with their label, as these would fracture the Muffins before the autumn release of their second album, Trance and Dance. Founding member and chief songwriter Mark Gane was the most vocal in his resentments, although others shared them at different times, and several of them highlight the profit imperatives and exploitative designs that have long shadowed Branson’s Virgin group and many other bastions of the punk and new wave music industry.

To begin with, there was Carol Wilson’s management style. “Carol was a real non-delegator,” remembers Gane. “She had her hand in everything.” What seemed an imperious approach in human relations to Gane was viewed differently by other band members, in particular Ladly.

I have to say I really liked her. Smart, professional woman. Had the trust of Richard Branson, basically. She could do whatever she wanted. He created a label for her to run. That’s quite a compliment. It’s like, “Here Carol, have a label. Run it.” […] She was tough. She knew what she wanted. She knew how to get it. She was demanding. She absolutely had her own ideas on how we should be presented. She was definitely interested in us being more commercial than we were interested in being. But it was like, “You signed a record contract, you know. What do you expect?” So I sometimes felt that people in the band were whining unnecessarily about stuff that we’d signed up to do. We just had to bloody do it, you know? And make the best of it, and try and keep our heads high, and have as much influence on it as we possibly could without just saying no all the time. Because you can’t go to the Manor recording studio, really spend a lavish amount of money on a record, and then not promote it properly, or not do everything that you get the opportunity to do.

Aside from her personal style, there was the substance of Wilson’s directives, which by the summer of 1980 emphasized commercial success. Producer Mike Howlett described Gane’s reaction to me:

Mark Gane, when we did the second album, he says to me, “If I’d known that ‘Echo Beach’ would become such a big pop hit, I would never have written it. And I shall never write another song like that.” I swear he said that to me.

To outsiders, it may seem comical or even dumbfounding that Gane might regret composing the one song that most new wave fans will forever associate with Martha and the Muffins. But in contrast to, say, Martha Ladly, who had previous background in the UK (e.g., beginning her art school career at the Blackpool and the Fylde College of Art and Design), Gane was unaccustomed to the British pop machine and easily ruffled by the vulgar demands of its music industry and press. In holding the flag for a purist ideal of artistic integrity, it should be noted that he had a comrade in sax player Andy Haas. Haas declined my request for an interview, but an anecdote from Howlett’s dissertation about the 1979 recording of “Echo Beach” is worth recalling.

The first speculative recording in Toronto, though unsatisfactory, had produced a fine evocative and flowing sax solo that lifted the track and carried it to a fitting climax. When the time came to re-record the solo on Echo Beach the saxophonist was set up in the studio, the track rolled, but at the point where the solo was to take place the sax player emitted a cacophony of atonal squawks and bleeps in the style of free jazz musician Albert Ayler. At first I thought he was making a joke and using this first pass as a warm up. I rolled the tape again and again he played a similar discordant solo. I called him into the control room and asked why he was playing in this way and not along the lines of the earlier recording. To my surprise he informed me that, having had time to reflect on the earlier recording, he had decided that the earlier solo was “too sweet”, and that what he was now playing he felt to be more appropriate. A discussion then ensued on the relative merits of conventional harmony and the perception of melody. His point being that the atonal approach was equally valid and no less appropriate for this song than his earlier melodious solo. My view was that the atmosphere of the song, the style of the band and especially the commercial potential of this track was being seriously compromised. At this point we agreed to differ and rather than try to force the situation, I decided to leave the solo and come back to it another day. Every day, over the next ten days or so, I asked him to have another try at the solo. We would roll the tape, the solo would come up and out would come the Ayler-esque screeches. This would be followed by a long philosophical discussion on the nature of melody, popular conventions and the boundaries of conventional taste. We would then move on to another overdub— keyboards, guitar or vocals. After a week of this he surprised me one day by playing the original solo note-for-note. This might have been the end of the matter, but my judgement was that, although identical in the sequence and notation, this solo was lacking in emotion—he was deliberately playing the notes to make the point that simply being melodically correct did not make it good music 29. I explained that what I was after was not necessarily that particular sequence of notes, but the emotion, the musical spark that moves the heart and is ultimately the best validation for any music. Another day or two and he finally produced the result that is on the record—an exhausting process testing my patience to the limit, but eventually worth it! (Howlett 2009: 45-46)

The divide over art versus commerce resurfaced when the Muffins were given the opportunity to wrap UK concert dates to promote Trance and Dance around a leg of Roxy Music’s Flesh + Blood tour. Notwithstanding the Canadians’ unanimous adoration of the iconic group, not everyone in the band thought a supporting slot for a mostly uninterested audience was the proper setting for the band’s music. Haas was likely was the most opposed, Ladly the most enthusiastic. The band went ahead with five dates on the Roxy Music tour (other scheduled dates were cancelled when Bryan Ferry developed kidney stones), but the damage was done. Less than a week later on the plane back to Canada, Gane demanded that Ladly be kicked out of Martha and the Muffins. Wilson flew over to Toronto to ask him to change his mind, but he refused. By the end of 1980, bassist Carl Finkle was out, followed by Tim Gane the next summer and Haas by the end of 1981.

Today, with years of hindsight, Mark Gane is willing to chalk up some of his issues — notably his resistance to the changes Howlett made to his songs, most of which he now acknowledges enhanced the recordings — to his youthful stridency. (Or, in his own words, “I was just a stubborn little dick.”) But one reason for the strife that befell Martha and the Muffins in the year of their biggest success was their self-management, which originally reflected an art-school egalitarianism reinforced by punk’s DIY ethos. Without a manager, the Muffins had no one to make executive decisions that required DinDisc’s follow-up, to buffer them from Wilson’s directives, or to pull aside and calmly talk down a frustrated band member.

A second reason behind Gane’s continuing animus against DinDisc is the contracts they signed. Gane and Johnson discussed with me the exploitative nature of their recording and publishing contracts that they describe in this excerpt from a 2010 Equalizing Distort interview.

Mark Gane: You touched on the contractual arrangements back then. Basically it was pretty exploitative. When we signed our contract with Virgin we were very young and in our twenties. We didn’t have a very experienced lawyer. He was based here in Toronto and we should have got a UK lawyer.

Martha Johnson: We had no manager either.

Mark Gane: We signed a typical contract where the record company goes, “We are going to do this, this and this for you, and in return we are going to take about 92% of the profits. And we are going to give you 8%, but you are never going to get the 8% until you pay off all your recording costs, your touring costs, and your video costs with that 8%.” They are getting their 92% and they are going to get your 8% until you pay off your debt, which is never, because you are constantly making records, and you are constantly going on tour and making videos. For a lot of bands and ones that you perceive to be very successful, a lot of them have never paid off their debts at all so they never make any money. We didn’t realize the consequences of that until we started getting our royalty cheques. All this money came in, but it has wings.

Martha Johnson: That was the cross-collateralization.

Mark Gane: That is where they took your publishing royalties, which by law you are supposed to get, but they had this clause that said, “If you are signed to the same company as a publisher, we will take those publishing royalties as well and apply them to your debts.” It is now considered thoroughly and morally unethical. Nobody in their right mind would sign a cross-collateralization deal now, but it wasn’t that unusual back then.

Martha Johnson: Or give away their copyright on songs forever. Virgin or EMI now own the copyright to “Echo Beach” now — and all the other songs, but “Echo Beach” is the one that makes them money. We did eventually pay off the debt, and we do get royalties now.

Mark Gane: Richard Branson made his millions off the backs off those sorts of contracts. If you talk to anyone who signed to Virgin during that era, they will all say the same thing.

Martha Johnson: XTC, Simple Minds, OMD.

Mark Gane: There is not a lot of love there.

[I should note that I’ve read the original contracts for myself and would point out that the 92%/8% recording royalty split that Gane and Johnson (herself a major songwriter in the band) cite above are for the world outside of the UK (where the figures are 90%/10%) and North America (91%/9%). Furthermore, royalty increments increase 0.5% for sales that surpass particular thresholds (e.g., 100,000/150,000/200,000 in the UK and Canada). Still, the thrust of the agreements that Gane describes as exploitative are clear enough.]

Perhaps understandably, all untested recording artists enter contract negotiations under asymmetrical power relations. They need a record label more than a label needs them, and without an up-front concession (i.e., the recoupment of industry costs at the artist’s expense), their options for hitting the big time get quite limited. But if Johnson and Gane are correct, then what distinguished DinDisc and Virgin from other labels — whether major or independent, punk-inspired or otherwise — was their cross-collateralization of the recording and publishing contracts that they signed its new artists to. Typically, publishing gives songwriters an independent source of income sheltered from debts incurred through their recording contract. (Of course, this creates an economic basis for internal division within bands that don’t assign composition credits to the whole collective.) But not here, at least in the UK, claim Johnson and Gane (who, it should be noted, did receive all their songwriter royalties in Canada).

Here, then, is the legal backside to Branson, Draper, and Wilson’s prescient focus on intellectual property described earlier. Under the terms DinDisc/Virgin artists often agreed to at the onset, to stop digging themselves into the hole further with each new release would require not only increasing and extended chart success, but also a shift toward thriftiness on the recording and publicity side. (Good luck with that at Virgin Records; as Richard Branson [2004: 88] confesses, “I have always enjoyed parties, and I love throwing the Virgin staff together.”) And still that might not be enough. Consider the case of XTC, who recorded their first ten albums with Virgin and stayed long enough to outlast Richard Branson; despite their loyalty and steadily increasing commercial success, they had to undertake a five-year recording strike to get Virgin to renegotiate their contract under more favorable terms.

The Muffins’ divorce from DinDisc involved, first, the band finally securing a manager, Gerry Young, with experience in the music industry and, it seems, a voice loud enough to counter Wilson’s. Second, they co-produced their third album with an adventurous producer far more protective of the recording artist: one Daniel Lanois, the brother of new bassist Jocelyne. Time has vindicated the Muffins’ choice of Lanois (who, it should be noted, was simultaneously collaborating with Brian Eno on what became 1983’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks). But he was a relative unknown in 1981, and Wilson conceded the band’s demand for him over a more commercially minded producer only after significantly cutting the album advance.

Mark Gane: Carol Wilson flew in from England.

Martha Johnson: And we were eating — Gerry didn’t like to eat, he was the skinniest guy I know, and he was eating his eggs. And she said, “Well, we’re going to have to cut the budget because you’re using a producer that we don’t want to use.” And he goes [makes spitting gesture]. He spit his eggs all over the table. It was so funny. He was just like, “What?!”

This is the Ice Age, the Muffins’ third album, was released on October 21, 1981 and brought about a creative renaissance for Martha and the Muffins. The album yielded a Canadian hit in “Women Around the World at Work” and led to two more albums co-produced by Lanois. It also saw Martha and the Muffins become a decidedly North American concern. After their albums with DinDisc, the band would only play six more dates in the UK and never have another British chart hit.

Around some point in 1989, Martha and the Muffins went into the black with their three albums for DinDisc, paying off their cross-collateralized debt and finally recouping their remaining royalties. Martha Johnson and Mark Gane contend the only reason this happened was because Martha and the Muffins left DinDisc/Virgin three albums into their eight-album deal. (Virgin retained the band’s publishing through their fourth album.) Not surprisingly, Carol Wilson views their financial emancipation a bit differently.

The Muffins were very lucky that Dindisc were prepared to sign them and take the risk of investing large amounts of money to give them a hit record which launched their careers. Recording costs and touring costs (all approved by the artiste) were traditionally advanced by the record company and recouped from royalties. If the artiste didn’t sell enough records, those costs were not recouped, the companies could not afford to take up the next option, so would lose the artistes, and all the money they had invested.

I imagine that the Muffins were able to start making a profit because their record sales were low, so Virgin dropped the option, and the band did not have to repay the investment. In short, the Muffins got famous, which cost a lot of Virgin/Dindisc money, and then the band were able to cash in on that with a clean slate. Mark Gane is no longer a naïve student; he must be a 60 year old man now and surely has gained some understanding of how the world works. Record and publishing companies are not charitable foundations, they have to make a profit.

DIN 4: Martha and the Muffins – “Insect Love” b/w “Cheesies and Gum”
DIN 9: Martha and the Muffins – “Echo Beach” b/w “Teddy The Dink”
DIN 17: Martha and the Muffins – “Saigon” b/w “Copacabana”
DIN 19: Martha and the Muffins – “About Insomnia” b/w “146”
DIN 21: Martha and the Muffins – “Suburban Dream”b/w “Girl Fat”
DIN 27: Martha and the Muffins – “Was Ezo” b/w “Trance and Dance”
DIN 34: Martha and the Muffins – “Women Around the World at Work” b/w “Twenty-Two in Cincinnati”
DID 1: Martha and the Muffins – Metro Music
DID 5: Martha and the Muffins – Trance and Dance
DID 10: Martha and the Muffins – This is the Ice Age
DEP 2: Martha and the Muffins – “Tour” EP

 

MARTHA LADLY

If Martha and the Muffins effectively walked away from their British career, Martha Ladly dove head first into a new British life. DinDisc provided the context for Ladly’s ventures. Carol Wilson encouraged her to pursue a solo music career. Wilson’s assistant Bean Edgley let Ladly stay at her flat until she could find something on her own. All the while, Ladly looked forward to returning to her fine art, which she had put on hold for the Muffins. Most significant in this regard was the professional and personal relationship she formed with DinDisc’s art director, Peter Saville.

Just months before, Ladly had contributed to the Trance and Dance LP cover the centerpiece painting (taken from her spring 1980 graduating show at the Ontario College of Art) that photographer Trevor Key photographed and Saville framed and typeset for the final design. These collaborations continued after Ladly left the band, as she described to me in an interview.

I started working with [Peter Saville], and that turned into a, you know, a romantic relationship. But we just really spent a lot of time talking about stuff, honestly. Because his background is design, he did a degree, graphic design, at Manchester University. I had done my diploma at the Ontario College of Art, and I had actually done a lot more art history and fine art than he had. And we were able to bring things to each other, and I brought things to his practice that he didn’t know about frankly, and that he was intrigued with, and that seemed relevant at the time — are relevant…

I’m quite an organized person. I knew a bit about production because we’d done quite a lot of production stuff when were in the band and taught ourselves that. There were things I learned at the art school: I knew how to paint, I knew how to do composition, I knew how to do printmaking. I knew how to do a lot of that stuff. What Peter really taught me was typography, because I didn’t know a lot about typography, and he was, he is an excellent, amazing typographer…

Also, it was really fun, through him, to get to know the guys in OMD, to get to know the guys in New Order, and to have that professional relationship. To know that if I wasn’t working, if I wasn’t making a lot of money… that I could work in the studio. And I basically ran that studio for a number of years.

The studio Ladly refers to is Peter Saville Associates, which became a formal concern after DinDisc folded in 1982. Her role at PSA is generally undernoted. The large art book Designed by Peter Saville (King 2003), for instance, gives Ladly just one artwork credit and no mention in the text, beyond perhaps the passing reference to Saville “living with one or other prominent musical girl… throughout the eighties and nineties” (pg. 124). More generously, Ladly is featured prominently in the book’s title page overleaf, which reproduces the Brett Wickens image shown above. Historian James Nice (2010: 212) describes PSA’s influential visual contributions to post-punk music outside of Factory Records:

As for Saville, the dissolution of DinDisc forced the establishment of his own studio, Peter Saville Associates, based on Kensal Road in west London, where his expanding client base included Brian Eno and David Byrne, King Crimson, Duran Duran, Visage, Funkapolitan, China Crisis and a solo Howard Devoto. Working practices at PSA were notoriously irregular, working days seldom commencing before noon, and often extending into the small hours of the morning…

But before then, in June 1981 Ladly released her first solo recording for DinDisc: “Finlandia” b/w “Tasmania” under the moniker of Martha Ladly/Scenery Club. Mike Howlett produced, while Peter Hook and Stephen Morris made uncredited appearances on the tracks. The New Order musicians’ participation may be a favor returned for Ladly contributing the illustration at the center of the Saville Associates cover for New Order’s “1981-82” EP, released in December 1981. “That was like, let’s do something that looks like Russian futurism,” she recalls. “I was painting at the time, and it was work that I was working on at the time, actually.” The illustration yielded Ladly her own D&AD jury citation for individual album sleeve in 1982. (With Peter Saville, she also has jury citations as co-designer on Joy Division’s Still and co-illustrator on New Order’s “Temptation.”)

Martha Ladly “had all the ingredients,” Wilson told me, “but sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.” Others have written about Ladly’s post-DinDisc musical undertakings: her role in the recording and promotion of the Associates’ 1982 album Sulk, her brief foray singing background vocals with Roxy Music for Avalon’s final promotional stretch, her second solo single in 1983, her worldwide travels as background singer on Robert Palmer’s Riptide 1986 tour. All the while, Ladly continued on at Peter Saville Associates, through which she met Peter Gabriel in 1986 for the design of the So album cover (Trevor Key took the photo, Saville typeset and designed the cover). This connection would prove fruitful in 1992, when Ladly had moved on from Saville and PSA, was living in southern England with husband and two children, and received an unexpected call from Peter Hook, who invited her to visit the Real World Studios where New Order was recording its sixth studio album Republic.

And I said, “Great, where is that?” And he said, “Well, it’s like…,” and then he explained to me where it was. And I thought, “Hang on, that is five minutes away from where I live!” And I literally moved to this village not realizing that Peter Gabriel had Real World Studios there.

As Ladly and Gabriel reacquainted themselves, he asked her to join his Real World Studios team, where she served as visual designer and editor of his fan magazine The Box until 2001 — “the longest time I’d ever done anything.” Ladly eventually returned to Canada, earned a Ph.D in the Philosophy of Technology, and is now a professor at the Ontario College of Art, where her musical career first began.

DIN 32: Martha Ladly/Scenery Club – “Finlandia” b/w “Tasmania”

 

NASH THE SLASH

Perhaps DinDisc’s most bizarre recording artist was a Toronto musician who performed for audiences behind aviator shades with face wrapped in full bandage: Nash the Slash. Born Jeff Plewman, Nash the Slash came of musical age in Canada’s pre-punk climate and made his recorded debut in 1978 with the prog-rock band FM. In his prolific solo career, he indulged his taste for classically inflected krautrock with a series of albums that were generally limited to Canadian release but for one. 1980’s Children of the Night, Nash the Slash’s third album, was recorded at Britannia Row Studios in London and produced by Steve Hillage. (Like his old Gong bandmate, Mike Howlett, Hillage represented the elder generation at Virgin Records and was another go-to producer for Branson and Draper; his next production work would be on Simple Minds’ Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call.) Children of the Night offers a faithful representation of Nash the Slash’s range, including some zany covers that DinDisc thought worth releasing as singles. It seems on the whole the British market didn’t respond.

Sharing the same city of origin as Martha and the Muffins (whose own prog-rock influences are buried within their sound), it seems likely the band had some role in getting Nash the Slash signed. However, so far the historical record doesn’t support that thesis, despite the two artists knowing each other from back in Toronto. Mark Gane did tell me that the last time he spoke with Nash the Slash (who died in 2014), the latter “had very little good things to say about Carol Wilson as well.” But this quote (from a 2013 documentary about Toronto punk, The Last Pogo Rides Again), suggests one reason why Nash probably leaped at the chance to record for DinDisc.

The old adage still stands true: play your music from the heart. The trouble with the Canadian music industry is it’s nothing more than a puppet of the American music industry. And so there’s very few — there’s no agents or managers in Toronto that I know of that can develop a band from the ground up. Everybody wants to be a pop star. Everybody wants to formulate what they’re doing around whatever the industry is already doing. And Toronto is notoriously bad at developing artists. One of the key things for Toronto artists: get the hell out of town. Go to New York, go to London, go to Berlin, but don’t stay in Toronto. So play from the heart, be good at it, and get the hell out of town.

DIN 28: Nash the Slash – “Dead Man’s Curve” b/w “Swing Shift (Soixante-Neuf)”
DIN 29: Nash the Slash – “19th Nervous Breakdown” b/w “Danger Zone”
DID 9: Nash the Slash – Children of the Night

 

Next: the Monochrome Set, Dedringer, Modern Eon, Hot Gossip.

 

DINDISC OFFICE DIRECTORY:

1. in the beginning: Virgin Music and Carol Wilson
2. “Wilson’s dowry”: Sting and Strontium 90
3. organising DinDisc
4. DIN 1, DIN 2, DIN 3: the Revillos, OMD, Peter Saville, Duggie Campbell
5. “a bunch of Canadians from the colonies”: Martha and the Muffins, Martha Ladly, Nash the Slash
6. the Monochrome Set, Dedringer, Modern Eon, Hot Gossip
7. the end of DinDisc