I’ve been drawn instinctively toward the music, aesthetics and story of Martha and the Muffins since I heard their debut album some 30 years ago. In my teenage years I would have ranked their 1983 album Danseparc one of my desert island discs (I still might, come to think of it). My tastes evolved toward the harder stuff of the late 1980s and 90s, but I still found occasional time to play their music, gaze at their striking album covers and reflect on their appeal. The latter had something to do, it now seems to me, with the remarkable consistency in mood and aesthetic that characterizes MatM’s music. Writer Tony Sclafani gets close to conveying its essence when he highlights the theme of middle-class alienation that runs through their work.
The future sure looked better when we were in the past, didn’t it?
For many of us, the “future” we created for ourselves consists of a Dilbert-like pseudo-world in which we’re cubicled away from humankind and hemmed in by inhumane corporate rules that disallow the most forms of expression and creativity. We’ve seen the future of life and it’s the movie Office Space.
In this new business school-dictated reality, the freethinking ideals of the 1960′s seem less a sign of humankind’s progress than an aberration in a world in which oppression, not freedom, has always been the norm. It’s hard to buy sentiments like “Imagine” or “All You Need Is Love” when both imagination and love seem like remnants of a society that hadn’t yet been swallowed by the monopolistic conglomerates that have (let’s admit it) replaced families and relationships as people’s primary emotional centers. Back at the dawn of punk rock, artists like The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Gang of Four confronted these issues. But Canada’s Martha and the Muffins created an entire body of work that speaks of such alienation and displacement. In their sobering, idiosyncratic songs like “Echo Beach,” “This is the Ice Age,” “Swimming,” and “Women Around the World at Work,” people are emotionally vacant, snowed under by situations beyond their control, or chillingly estranged from fellow humans. Call it “uneasy listening.”
If you never heard their music, this description might suggest MatM were some dour post-punk unit. It doesn’t speak to the many moments of sublimity, beauty and transcendence found in their music, moments that for the listener are less “sobering” than transporting. I don’t use this last metaphor casually. In fact, MatM’s music is deeply informed by a geographical sensitivity. Their work characteristically demonstrates the pursuit of place in lyrical themes and musical technique, as well as in the band’s career arc. This pursuit of place isn’t unrelated to the alienation that Sclafani describes. Place and alienation comprise a dialectic at the heart of Martha and the Muffins, the yin and yang that has driven the group creatively and biographically toward a location in the horizon.
EVERYBODY HAS A PLACE
MARTHA JOHNSON: There are certain things that I think run through a lot of our music. One of them is describing situations. It’s a lot about situations — where you’re at not only physically but in your life.
For most listeners who remember them from the new wave era, Martha and the Muffins are perhaps best known for their rare female first-person take on aspirations, relationships, innocence and its inevitable loss (often in songs written by male guitarist Mark Gane). How do geography, space and place fit into this? Singer Martha Johnson’s remark, above, about the predilection for describing situations suggests one way. Not all their songs work like this, but many of their lyrics foreground the physical situations and visual viewpoints in the songs’ narrations of middle-class stages of life. (As you’ll see later, this aesthetic is visually embodied over most of MatM’s album covers.) Characters’ feelings and sentiments are often circumscribed within ‘objective’ descriptions of activity and setting that shift perspective and traverse space in the ways a film script might read. MatM’s biggest hit “Echo Beach” offers as apt an illustration of this lyrical mode as any other.
I know it’s out of fashion
And a trifle uncool
But I can’t help it
I’m a romantic fool
It’s a habit of mine
To watch the sun go down
On Echo Beach
I watch the sun go down
From nine to five I have to spend my time at work
My job is very boring — I’m an office clerk
The only think that helps me pass the time away
Is knowing that I’ll be back at Echo Beach some day
A silent summer evening
The sky’s alive with lights
A building in the distance, surrealistic sight
On Echo Beach waves make the only sound
On Echo Beach there’s not a soul around
In the band’s early years (1977-80), when there were two Marthas (Johnson and Ladly) singing, the band had a special way of creating a second situation — a conversation between two characters relating their viewpoints to one another — on top of the first situation narrated in lyrics. As I’ve written before, the effect was to allow the listener to imagine MatM as a collective forum for its members, who might even be playing in a circle, facing one another and musically acknowleding each other’s input. In the era of feminist consciousness-raising groups, the gender politics of this enacted emplacement and positioning aren’t hard to discern.
These are six rather serious, intense people who work as a team; the question of sex objects simply doesn’t arise.
– Betty Page, “Martha and the Muffins: The Marquee, London,” Sounds, March 1, 1980).
But Martha and the Muffins’ geographical visions aren’t limited to lyrics. Musically, the group has a repertoire of technical and aesthetic strategies that reveal other dimensions of spatiality. Probably few serious fans of the group can avoid using descriptors like “atmospheric,” “ambient,” “cinematic” and “soundtrack” at some point to describe the group’s music. This speaks to MatM’s capacity to evoke an explicit sense of place or landscape using sound and form. MatM’s 1981 album This is the Ice Age is especially cherished by fans as the breakthrough in their ability to acheive this effect.
Then there are the group’s unconventional compositional methods. For a band with an intuitive, unerring pop-music sense of what sounds good and what makes a hook, it’s remarkable how rarely the band has written songs organized by tried-and-true sequences of verse, chorus, bridge etc. Famously, “Echo Beach” has no real chorus, at least not one given its customary place and repetition. This song and MatM’s other, even less conventional songs do have structure — just structure informed by different traditions and guiding metaphors, such as architectural design, to create symmetries and resolutions with melody, harmony and form. Architectural detail can be heard, for instance, in the vocal round at the end of “Swimming,” in which three voices weave together and apart to reveal an underlying melodic lattice, or in the asymmetrical modular construction of “Several Styles of Blonde Girls Dancing.”
I don’t want to claim that Martha and the Muffins created these techniques out of scratch, or that they’re particularly the best examples of geographical music; that’s an untenable thesis in the present era of electronic music and dance music (which came to fruition shortly after MatM’s formation, Kraftwerk being a notable exception). However, I think the deep connection that fans like myself and many others of this unfortunately obscure band (outside of Canada, that is) comes from the pursuits of place evoked in the music and prefigured by by group’s biographical trajectory. It’s possible that Johnson and Gane, now probably approaching their 60s, have finally found the place they seem to have been looking for across the band’s career. But to conclude that requires we start from the beginning.
MARTHA JOHNSON: We’d all grown up in the suburbs of Toronto, although the saxophone player Andy Haas was from Detroit.
Perched along the northwest shore of Lake Ontario, metropolitan Toronto constitutes the circuits of city-suburb-rural and school-work-domestic-leisure in which Martha and the Muffins were forged. As illustrated in “Echo Beach,” the distances along these circuits could sometimes be felt to shrink until discrete spheres of everyday life would almost sit atop one another, confusing and enchanting the cultural codes that organized metropolitan structure.
MARK GANE: Most of the second verse was inspired by a summer’s evening spent at Sunnyside Beach on the shoreline of Lake Ontario in Toronto. While the lake and beach could have been in the middle of nowhere, the city behind became a ‘surrealistic sight’… While “Echo Beach” did not exist for me as an actual location, I used it as a symbol of the place everyone wants to escape to when they’re not where they want to be (liner notes to 2002′s Select Cuts from Echo Beach compilation).
If we follow the accounts of Johnson and Gane, their insights into the horizons of everyday life were hard-earned.
MARTHA JOHNSON: 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 when you discover that a lot came out of being solitary.
MARK GANE: Well, I’ve always felt [the alienation many people feel in modern society]. I’ve never felt like I was part of the modern world. I think I would have been quite happier living in the 19th century as a landscape architect or something. When I hit school and got the shit kicked out of me for the first time even on a subliminal level as a little child I was going “You know, I think I get the drift here that I’m not gonna fit in.” From then on, it started obviously informing everything I did.
Suburbia recurs in MatM’s lyrics as the emblem of alienation from modern life, starting with their 1978 debut single “Suburban Dream.” This shouldn’t surprise us; suburbia does the same thing in most punk and new wave music of this period. In Toronto alone, Mark Gane remembers, “Bands like The Dishes, The Cads, The Government as well as MatM were observational and often cynical in commenting on or parodying mainstream life.” What’s more, punk and new wave tended to regard city living as the antidote — a site for authentic self-discovery, bohemian communion, and the refusal of suburban conformity.
The future Muffins would set upon this well-trod path to the city, but not before another metropolitan setting would come to embody youthful innocence and creative recharge: southern Ontario’s exurban zones of farmland, lakeside beaches and summer cottages in the pines. As lyricists Johnson and Gane steered clear of romanticizing the rural “getaway country” as pristine, magical wilderness. This is a specifically social landscape, and its tragedy arises from its ultimate disappearance to encroaching development and commercial exchange. This story would be told most notably on “You Sold the Cottage,” a key track from 1981′s This Is The Ice Age. An anecdote shared in a 2011 upload to YouTube offers another view into this world closer to home.
MARK GANE: We made this little video to say goodbye to Martha’s mom’s house in Thornhill ON, just north of Toronto, as it has been sold to new owners after being in the Johnson family for 45 years. When it was bought as a new house in the 60s, it was still bordered by farmland — now long gone.
WORLD WITHOUT BORDERS
Toronto is not a beautiful city. Not beautiful in the sense of a Paris, Montreal, or Budapest. It’s a hodge podge of old and new, mostly twentieth century buildings, with wires and tracks running everywhere. The city is so divided that you get the sense it wants to be somewhere else. Communities like the Annex, Queen St West, The Danforth, and Kensington Market are filled with shops within old store fronts being repainted and ressurected every couple decades. It also happens to be the most multi-cultural city in the world.
It is the kind of place that you would expect a collection of new wave groups would emerge and flourish. It shares new wave’s sense of rebirth. It is ambiguous and multifaceted. It is a multi-purpose city as David Byrne might say. But the only real new wave band to present something at the time was Martha and The Muffins. And they are still the only band able to realize the city in music.
– jackecker, 2007
Around 1975, the original six members of Martha and the Muffins found themselves in inner-city Toronto’s Queen St. West neighborhood. This area wasn’t renown for music nightlife in these years, not like the Yorkville area a few miles north on the other side of the University of Toronto. Queen St. West’s draw was as a utilitarian bohemia — a “down-at-the-heels nabe where three-bedroom apartments rented for a hundred bucks and a quart of Black Label beer cost 95 cents.” Canadian music historian Nicolas Jennings elaborates:
Toronto’s Queen Street, the portion running west from stately University to cosmopolitan Spadina, was originally a jumble of greasy spoons, barbershops and clothing stores. Owners lived above their shops, while children played on sidewalks. There were even a couple of watering holes that supplied the mostly Irish, Jewish and Eastern European locals with cold, cheap draft beer. By the late 1970s, those bars had become part of a fertile breeding ground, a creative hothouse of forceful protest, stylish adventure and uninhibited experimentation that produced an explosion of musical talent.
This milieu incubated Toronto’s original punk and new wave scene, the foundation for the city’s full-blown alternative-music explosion in the late 1980s and 90s. Only in retrospect does the musical blossoming of Canada’s largest city seem an inevitable accomplishment of Queen St. West’s motley mix of amateurs, artists and extroverts. “There were no clubs, so they started them — the Rivoli, the revamped Beverley, the Cameron, for example,” recalls Steven Davey, guitarist from the Dishes. “There were no bands, so they formed them — Rough Trade, the Viletones, Martha and the Muffins, to name a few.”
A number of neighborhood institutions, now mostly extinct or unrecognizable, sustained this scene. 1976 saw the opening of the Beverley Tavern, “a hangout that helped pioneer alternative culture in a white-bread city,” writes Toronto reporter Craig Offman. Mark Gane remembers the Beverley as a venue “where weird bands like ours could have an audience without people calling us faggots and throwing beer bottles at us.”
“The Beverley should be turned into a museum or at least be given a plaque to commemorate its significance as a major music, art and culture site,” says Mark Gane, then and now Muffin partner. “Though (it was) a really small scene and completely below the radar of the Canadian music industry, the Bev paved the way for what would become mainstream 15 to 20 years later.”
Back in the day, the clubs along Yonge Street — Le Coq d’Or, the Gasworks, the Colonial and their ilk — were Toronto’s best gigs and only booked top 40 cover bands or local metal-heads like Rush. If you wrote your own songs, sported unusual hair and didn’t belong to the musicians’ union, you didn’t play. The Beverley changed all that. They didn’t even have to book bands; musicians just came and volunteered. And though there had been hipster haunts in the past — the Pilot in the 50s, Grossman’s in the 60s — the Bev was the first time Toronto’s music and art world collided.
“Anything to do with the birth of punk culture in Toronto and its consequent virulent spread across Canada started upstairs at the Beverley,” remembers former Diodes manager Ralph Alfonso, now art director for Nettwerk Records. “It’s where we drank and schemed, poring over copies of English music magazines while showing off our latest shirts bought at Goodwill. New York had Max’s Kansas City — we had the Beverley.”
Other local bars and venues that ushered in the city’s musical renaissance included the Horseshoe, the Rivoli and the Cameron Tavern, the latter becoming more important in the early 1980s. In the summer of 1977, Toronto punk heroes the Diodes opened up their own venue, the Crash ‘n’ Burn, to host punk groups increasingly banned from Yonge Street venues. “The club marked the peak of Toronto’s punk craze” before it was closed by summer’s end, asserted Sounds writer Jeremy Gluck (“The Four Viletones of the Apocalypse,” 21 January 1978).
Another key institution that germinated the Queen St. West scene was the Ontario College of Art (now Ontario College of Art & Design). “Drawn by the lure of affordable housing and restaurants serving inexpensive meals, students from the college began moving into the area, rubbing shoulders with the district’s working-class denizens,” Jennings explains. The OCA churned out curious art students by the hundreds to form bands or watch them play (as the closest bar to the college, the Beverley particularly benefited from this). It gave rise to informal art galleries, impromptu happenings, and innumerable house parties where art bands performed in front of fellow students and curious bystanders. OCA’s curriculum filled musicians’ heads with avant-garde notions, whle its programming directly exposed them to the intersections of the art and music worlds, as Johnson and Gane recall.
MARTHA JOHNSON: Much of the music scene in Toronto in the late 70′s centered around the Ontario College of Art. I saw Talking Heads there in January 1977 as a three piece band. I played my Acetone electric organ at a few OCA dances/concerts in a band called Oh Those Pants! that played cover songs from “Runaround Sue” to “The In Crowd”.
MARK GANE: The Ontario College of Art had an annual bus trip to New York City every year and that’s where I first heard of people like Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk or there would be a Joseph Beuys exhibition — it all fed into the music and art we were making.
[As this description suggests, the OCA played no small part in the present day gentrification of the Queen St. West neighborhood. Even the college’s own redevelopment parallels the neighborhood transition from scruffy bohemia to amenity district; “now a landmark building of great vivacity, [the OCA was] then a dour series of brick barracks” writes blogger Second Chameleon).
Martha and the Muffins were originally formed in the spring of 1977 by guitarists David Millar and Mark Gane, two OCA students. Neither were comfortable singing, so Millar invited Martha Johnson, a student northern Toronto’s York University whom he knew as the keyboardist in the Doncasters and Oh Those Pants!, to provide the vocals. In turn, she brought in fellow YU student Carl Finkle on bass, while Mark’s younger brother Tim filled in the drums. This line-up played their first gig at OCA’s Halloween party and, encouraged by the reception, gigged frequently at Queen St. West venues like the Beverley. They went through a series of frivolous namesredolent of the new wave aesthetic before settling on Martha and the Muffins.
MARK GANE: A Tentative List of Band Names: The Anemics, The Appliances, The Case Histories, The Confused Tourists, The Deadly Nightshades,The Furious Clones, The Gel Heads, The Kitchenettes (all girl band?), The Near Misses (all girl band?), Oui Ouis From Paris, The Turbojets, The Vistas, Xenolith (“A rock fragment foreign to the igneous mass in which it occurs.”)
We wanted an epithet that would distance ourselves from the cartoon-violent names of the copy-cat punk bands. Someone (various people claim this honour), suggested The Muffins as being diametrically opposite and Martha’s name was put in front. While no one was that enthusiastic about Martha and the Muffins, we decided to use it as a temporary name until we could all agree on something better.
In February 1978, Andy Haas, an OCA student with experience in the city’s jazz and blues scene, joined MatM on saxophone. Millar then left the group to work as the group’s live sound engineer. Auditions for a replacement guitarist brought in Martha Ladly, another OCA student whom Gane knew from high school. It was quickly decided that she worked better on keyboards and vocals, and thus the lineup heard associated with the early recordings was cemented.
MARK GANE: One of the best things about early MatM was its sense of adventure, musically and otherwise. Our six personalities seemed to collide in a good way — creating a richly disparate mix which made Martha and the Muffins sound different from anyone else.
MARTHA JOHNSON: Our creative strengths and public attraction came trom the diversity of our musical tastes, approaches to our instruments and appearances within the band. Carl the bass player wore three piece suits on stage while the two Marthas would sport a big white sweater with an M on it that they’d both squirm into and sing from. Mark and Andy would be trying to push the tonal limits of their guitar and sax respectively while my weedy sounding Acetone organ strained over the chaos to pump out the hook lines or simple chord structures of songs like “Halfway Through the Week”, “Sinking Land” and “Trance and Dance”. There were lots of fabulous, creative moments and bizarre fun on stage with that original line-up.
In June MatM recorded four or five songs at Integrated Sounds Studios in the Toronto suburb of Agincourt. By January of 1979, they released a double A-side single, “Insect Love” b/w “Suburban Dream,” on their own Muffin Music Records andsold it at gigs. The trademark sound of the original six-piece is evident on these recordings, albeit in understandably rougher form. Organ, guitar, sax, and two female vocals vie for the listener’s attention as a busy rhythm section fills whatever space is left. While the band was hardly a muscular punk unit, the Beefheart-influenced melodicism on “Insect Love” could make for uneasy listening to people who just wanted to dance; perhaps for this reason, a mid tempo and conventionally R&B sax arrangement made “Suburban Dream” a bigger hit with audiences.
In hindsight it’s a wonder that the six-piece MatM line-up cohered into anything at all listenable.
MARTHA JOHNSON: It was very new wave — people playing who had little or no experience… [Members’ different backgrounds and studies] made the music interesting, because we had different influences in music — some liked Motown and some liked Cecil Taylor… I was influenced by people like Roxy Music and Brian Eno and a little bit of Motown here and there, but I think it was unique because we brought all those elements together and the sound that it made was our own. We also weren’t seasoned songwriters or seasoned players and because of that, the energy that we had fueled 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.
ANDY HAAS: None of us are particularly seasoned musicians, and I think, as it began, before Martha Ladly and I were in the band our soundman, David Millar, began it, and part of the experimentalism was just the fact that it was unfamiliar (quoted in Sandy Robertson, “Martha and The Muffins: Greetings From Echo Beach,” Sounds, March 1, 1980).
Adding to the anarchy of musical influences was the band’s management ethos. In their first three years, MatM were completely self-managed, befitting their modest expectations but also their artistic principles. As Andy Haas remembered, the band prioritized “its music and its fairness and honesty in dealing with people (something quite unusual in the popular music industry).” His statement suggests that despite (or maybe because of) their ‘amateurism,’ the early Muffins line-up deliberated heavily upon how to reconcile their disparate influences and ambitions into a coherent sound. Quite likely, a geographical sensitivity provided a common foundation to their initial musical formulations, even if their abilities to express this sensitivity weren’t as fully developed as it would be in the coming years.
For evidence, consider the dispositions intrinsic to various members’ interests. A visual arts student, Mark Gane was recording “soundscapes” at OCA’s Sound Lab when he formed the band. (We’ve already encountered his admiration of landscape architecture.) A theater student, Martha Johnson’s familiarity with stage blocking could have yielded insights into the ways that movement across space can convey stories. Martha Ladly was a fine arts student who would show a special aptitude for geometrically inspired graphic design; her illustration on the cover of MatM’s second album cover Trance and Dance foreshadowed her later work under Peter Saville at Factory Records, where she created the illustration for New Order’s “1981-1982″ EPand suggested the title for Dindisc labelmates Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s third album, Architecture & Morality. Saxophonist Andy Haas’s continuing musical career suggests an affinity for the musical freedoms and spatial vocabularies offered by free jazz. Even Carl Finkle, a business administration student when he came to the band, would eventually get a degree in landscape architecture!
I don’t think it’s the case that developing an explicitly geographic orientation in their music, much less inserting any formal aesthetic, was a primary goal for the early Muffins. Explains Gane, “I started out as a painter and got into music by accident because that was the spirit of the times.” But it’s likely their different geographical sensitivities helped shape the collaborative dynamics that the band forged.
Things moved extremely quickly for MatM, far beyond their expectations or the heights reached by other bands from Queen St. West. Haas mailed the June 1978 demos to Glenn O’Brien, music critic at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and host of the New York City public access show “TV Party.” Sufficiently intrigued by what he heard, O’Brien landed them a gig at Hurrah’s (NYC’s favorite first stop for touring new wave groups) and passed the tapes onto Robert Fripp, who in turn gave them to Dave Fudger from Virgin Records. Gane recalls, “Shortly after playing Hurrah in March 1979, a recording contract was seemingly dropped into our laps and we signed with Dindisc/Virgin Records.” In August the band flew to Oxford, England, to record their debut album, and by 1980 they had a transatlantic hit with “Echo Beach” — their second single for Dindisc (the first being a re-recorded “Insect Love”), and only the third song Gane had ever written.
Given the chaos of the members’ musical backgrounds, the extensive deliberation that self-management entails, and the rapid acceleration of their career, it’s a minor miracle that MatM’s music developed into something very special on their 1980 debut album Metro Music. There’s been some retrospective nitpicking about what’s missing from Metro Music (e.g., Gane’s interest in sound collage, a sense of adventure or depth from Mike Howlett’s production), but these subtractions enhanced the sonic clarity needed by a fresh band balancing six instruments and at least as many artistic and musical influences.
“Echo Beach,” “Saigon,” “Terminal Twilight” and “Shining Land” are the main songs about place of MatM’s debut album. With the exception of the first song, they’re not necessarily local in inspiration — for that, look to the album cover — and of course there’s a lot more going on in Metro Music, most notably five other songs of female first-person perspective (many written by Mark Gane) that many listeners have responded to. But the ways these four songs evoke and envision place reveal much about the group’s early sound.
In the very first seconds of the album, the strobing keyboard that introduces “Echo Beach” signals that Johnson’s Acetone organ provides the dominant texture in MatM’s sound. Johnson would later say she was most proficient at playing one-handed melodic figures in the early years, which seems to diminish her contributions. Her technical ability is beside the point in many ways; in early MatM, keyboards don’t serve primarily as melodic accompaniment in the de rigeur new wave fashion of, say, Steve Nieve’s playing with Elvis Costello and the Attractions. The sustain and eerie vibrato of the Acetone create a hypnotic sound that conjures imaginary landscapes on a level with Richard Wright’s post-Barrett/pre-Dark Side work with Pink Floyd. This effect was something quite uncommon for new wave prior to the synth era.
The tracks “Saigon” (the second single off Metro Music) and “Shining Land” are excellent illustrations of the Acetone’s unique texture; not coincidentally, the songs are both lyrical travelogues. “Saigon,” an early Johnson-Millar composition, narrates a colonial flaneur’s wanderings across the capital of French Indochine, while “Shining Land,” written by Gane, suggests a self-willed exile out of a stagnating country (perhaps to a recording studio in Oxford?). Both songs register an impulse to be somewhere else, even as lyrics and mood convey a contrasting sense of ambivalence or unease. The latter is pronounced in “Terminal Twilight,” a Gane composition with lyrics by Ladly that provides the album’s tensest moments. Over an unsettling heartbeat of an instrumental vamp, Ladly’s spoken word intro conveys the experience of a panic attack in a once-familiar, suddenly threatening cityscape, before Johnson joins in the vocals to describe a more conventional form of romantic alienation.
TRANCE AND DANCE
The success of “Echo Beach” raised Virgin’s hopes for another big hit, and the label put the band to work throughout 1980. In addition to extensive touring and press in the UK and Europe, the band released two further singles from Metro Music (a rerecorded “Saigon” and “Paint by Number Heart”) and then set to work on their second album. Again produced by Mike Howlett at the Manor, Trance and Dancewas released within the same year as their debut album. As will happen with many second albums, it recycled a couple of older songs (“Suburban Dream,” “Teddy the Dink”); it also included a cover version (Chris Spedding’s “Motorbikin’”) that may have been thought to connect particularly with UK audiences, at this point MatM’s biggest fanbase. Three singles accompanied the album: “Suburban Dream,” “About Insomnia” and “Was Ezo”.
The band’s highly compressed schedule, along with the inter-group turmoil that members later testified to, have led many fans to dismiss Trance and Dance as a weak album — too underbaked, a casualty of the dreaded sophomore slump. After repeated listens, I’ve come to feel that’s an unfair assessment. What has happened is that, although the six-piece lineup gives the record some consistency with the debut album (MatM hadn’t really begun exploring the possiblities of the studio yet), Johnson’s keyboards has significantly receded from the mix, just enough to deprive the Acetone organ of the textural function it had earlier provided. In its place, the rhythm section has moved to the fore; drummer Tim Gane in particular plays like he’s got a firecracker under him. With the exception of “About Insomnia” and the title track, the beat on the album is insistently up-tempo. In contrast to Metro Music, this record presents a slightly brasher and more danceable sound created by a rock band in the by-now conventional “new wave” six-piece format. At least in the UK, where artists like Gary Numan, Ultravox and the Human League were in ascent, it’s easy to conclude that the sound had become a tad stale.
But Trance and Dance shows other steps forward for the band. Most notably, the two Marthas now sing quite fantastically together — here’s where an influence on 1990s group Stereolab is most evident — and Mark Gane has begun singing in the background and (on “Halfway Through The Week”) on lead. The vocal arrangements have evolved noticeably; the three vocalists’ harmonies on the outro of the opening track, “Luna Park,” are quite enchanting. Fans of Martha Ladly — and there are a few of us — are especially excited by “Was Ezo,” her first (and last) sole composition in MatM’s repertoire. Particularly in its slightly fizzier re-recording on the 7″ single, the song is pure pop pleasure, foreshadowing the kinds of heights contemporary bands like Veronica Falls would try to achieve; at the very least, its omission from the assorted MatM anthologies is really too bad.
“Was Ezo” also counts among the three songs about place on Trance and Dance, alongside the re-recorded “Suburban Dream” and “Luna Park.” None of these tracks affirms or idealizes a real place; perhaps at this time the lyricists could only say where they wanted to go by negating contemporary locations. While “Suburban Dream” caustically documents the conformity, banality and fear at the heart of suburban Toronto, “Luna Park” (written by Gane) evokes an antiquated vision of a modern utopia — which, in many ways, is what the early 20th-century theme parks that bore the name Luna Park promised. Yet closer inspection reveals a distinctly creepy utopia:
Animals are trained to do things
Naughty midgets do it for you.
Flying machines… Life in Venice simulated.
Being the moon it’s always changing.
Only “Was Ezo” offers a sense of idyll, but this too remains out of present-day reach, as it describes life in a pre-modern Japan. (Japan’s second largest island, Hokkaido, was known in the medieval era as Ezo; hence the song’s chorus, “Hokkaido / Was Ezo.”)
Overall, Trance and Dance seems muted in its geographical sensitivities compared to Metro Music and the band’s later albums. But then there’s the magical title track, saved for the last song on the album, which with its title alone announces an aesthetic program that the band would return to throughout the 1980s. The vibrato of the Acetone organ swells in the mix to its former prominence, establishing a hypnotic mood as a subdued Tim Gane plays alongside a simple drum-machine rhythm. Mark Gane achieves an arch tonality similar to then-contemporary King Crimson on his guitar (a new style that would become more common on future recordings), while the Marthas sweetly chant seductions to “just close your eyes and let your body sway” before warning “this trance and dance you must leave behind.” If there’s not much of a tune here, that’s beside the point; “Trance and Dance” establishes a visceral sense of atmosphere through texture and rhythm, pointing the way toward stylistic hallmarks of the band’s next albums. (Another recording in this vein, maybe more Wire-like in the sinister mood it achieves, is “Girl Fat,” the b-side to the “Suburban Dream” single.)
Notwithstanding these promising developments, Martha and the Muffin’s second album coincided with the original line-up’s disintegration. The diverse musical orientations of the members, originally a wellspring for their originality, became liabilities against the demands of their label and the music industry. In a 1996 interview, bassist Carl Finkle offered his viewpoint: “I originally came from a more pop music side whereas the others wanted to follow a more art school, avant-garde side, which was fine, but you need records that will sell to make the machinery work” (Martin Aston, “Where Are They Now? Martha and the Muffins,” Q Magazine, February 1996). Martha Ladly’s concerns seem to have been less aesthetic and more tactical, as she futilely urged the band to base themselves in England. Ultimately Finkle left the group, while Ladly relocated to England to record by herself and with the Associates. The remaining four members reassembled in Toronto, finally took on professional management, and made clear to their label they would now do things their own way.
THIS IS THE ICE AGE
In 1981 the remaining members found a new bass player, Jocelyne Lanois, a Québécoise who hailed from Hamilton, Ontario, just west of Toronto. Shortly thereafter, Jocelyne told the band that her brothers Daniel and Bob ran a recording studio in Hamilton and invited them to record demos there. The band took her up on the invitation.
Today Daniel Lanois is a world-famous record producer and solo artist, but in 1981 he was largely an unknown in the music industry. In the 1970s, he and Bob had a hand in recording an eclectic range of Canadian artists, from country and folk musicians to proto-punk groups like Hamilton’s Simply Saucer and Toronto’s Time Twins. Tapes of the latter found their way in 1980 to the ears of Brian Eno, who heard something special and sought out Daniel. “By 1980, Eno and I were working regularly together,” Daniel writes in his 2010 memoir Soul Mining, but it seems this affiliation had yet to yield him greater recognition when MatM met him. (For most fans of alternative music, the first significant appearance of Lanois’ name is co-credit he and Roger Eno received on Brian’s 1983 ambient album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, which showcases Lanois’ steel guitar prominently.)
MARTHA JOHNSON: Most people would think that we were hounding him, because he’s gone on to such fame and fortune working with all these name artists. But in fact, he was just sort of getting his chops together. He’d already worked with Brian Eno a little bit. That was what convinced us to work with him. We liked his style and his personality and the music that he’d done…. We wanted to get a little more serious with the music. Production was becoming much more of an interest. And we were much more in tune with Danny than we’d ever been with Mike Howlett. So it was very exciting to go and work in the studio with Dan and that particular band.
The collaboration between Martha and the Muffins and Daniel Lanois in his Grant Avenue Studio would span over three albums that arguably mark their creative zenith. Each of these albums reveals distinct sonic hallmarks, experimental methods, and a further ‘becoming’ of what MatM pretty much are to the present day. For the most part, the albums don’t sound like the recordings Lanois is generally known for today, by major rock and country artists (Bob Dylan, U2, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris) looking to summon the ethereal spirit of North American roots music. Curiously, Lanois doesn’t mention Martha and the Muffins even once in his memoir, but it seems fair to say the benefit of their collaboration was mutual, albeit timed at different points in their career arcs.
1981′s This is the Ice Age ushered in a major leap in sophistication that would have been completely unexpected by listeners expecting another “Echo Beach.” The band’s mood is serious, even pretentious at time, although the album’s achievements generally merit the pretense. The first track “Swimming” (a group composition) reveals the key new developments, starting with the jarring sounds of a car crash — Mark Gane’s tape-recording methods from his days at OCA’s Sound Lab have finally found their way into the band. As Johnson plays a minor-key melody, the bouncy new wave backbeat from the prior albums is gone, replaced by a syncopated afrorhythm that achieves a new (and far fresher, by today’s standards) level of funkiness. Mark takes the lead vocal — “where’s Martha?” many listeners would wonder on first listen — with a new sense of confidence, then rips out a complex guitar figure in his new, Adrian Belew-esque style. Several factors yield greater depth and spaciousness in the recording — Lanois’ production work; the diminished line-up (Haas sits out this track); Jocelyne’s less melodic, dub-influenced bass playing — creating nooks in which small sonic details reveal themselves only after many listens.
The second track (and the album’s biggest single) “Women Around the World at Work” might have given older listeners some relief by most resembling the sound of the older line-up, but quickly This is the Ice Age returns to uncharted territory.“Casualties of Glass” goes about halfway before Tim Gane’s drumkit enters, another hallmark of the album; two other tracks also have no drumming for half their lengths, while three tracks are completely beatless. This effect gives This is the Ice Age a distinctive sense of stillness that’s significant for two reasons. First, the strategy of musical subtraction means half the band aren’t playing their primary instrument, or playing at all, over much of the album. Central to the album’s impact, this method nonetheless would bruise egos and indicate how the collaborative ethos of old has given way to Martha and the Muffins becoming a vehicle for Mark Gane and Martha Johnson. Significantly, Gane and Johnson became romantically around this time, and to this day MatM remain a durable professional/romantic partnership.
Second, the frequent sections of rhythmlessness that characterize This is the Ice Age are highly conducive to non-linear, atmospheric musical passages that evoke place via their sonic ambiance and the listener’s meditation. Whereas lyrics and Johnson’s keyboard were the chief methods by which the Muffins of old created a sense of place, it seems the group now has many more methods at their disposal. The instrumental track “Jets Seem Slower in London’s Skies” is a good example, requiring only a suggestive title to train the listener’s imagination upon a cloudy skyline and the melancholy of rootlessness.
MatM’s new powers of musical evocation coincided with some of the most specific lyrical references to place yet in the band’s songbook. “One Day in Paris” is a pastoral, piano-based interlude in which Johnson, singing with her most delicate voice, describes a wistful memory of the City of Lights. In interviews Johnson has been unafraid to spell out what Paris means to her in this song:
MARTHA JOHNSON: For a while we were the toast of the town wherever we went. I think playing Paris at Les Bains Douche with the show going out to thousands of people in Europe over the radio will always represent a high point in my career. After the show we were taken to a restaurant called une deux trois where many people from the press were waiting to speak to us and hang out until the small hours of the morning. I wrote the song “One Day in Paris” at that time. It was a bittersweet time for me and I think the others in the band too. You could see the end of the early era in our band’s history looming.
The other key track on This is the Ice Age referring to specific places is “You Sold the Cottage.” The whole line-up is on this Gane composition, playing in a conventional, upbeat new wave style with maybe a couple of added quirks. (In the liner notes to the 1997 Then Again anthology, Mark recalls, “I asked the band to start by playing the lowest note on their instruments followed by their highest.”) The middle-class world that he grew up in, first viewed on “Suburban Dream,” now has a narrower frame of reference — the parents’ decision to give up the family’s lakeshore vacation home — and is given a more balanced assessment in the narrator’s retrospective perspective:
The golden memories flood back:
Bloodsuckers between the toes on the lake bottom.
Falling out of the tree fort.
Being bitten by the chipmumk that lived underneath the boathouse.
Over most of the track, the narrator’s ambivalent reverie expresses a sentiment that’s universal enough to be recognized by listeners from many backgrounds. Then, over the final minute’s extended instrumental vamp, Johnson recites in a bemused spoken voice a list of Ontario getaways. These could be possible inspirations for the song, although any listener can enjoy this offbeat poetry:
Lake Of Bays
Flowerpot Island Loon Lodge
Go Home Lake
This is the Ice Age, Mark Gane writes, “was a musical breakthrough for us and remains my favourite album overall.” Despite the critical attention it received (earning MatM the CFNY U-Know award for group of the year), Dindisc nickel-and-dimed the band’s recording budget (because they picked a “no-name” producer!) and promoted the album with lackluster. The group ended their relationship with Virgin/Dindisc, making the album hard to find for many years. I only secured a copy some 10-15 years ago (before the era of filesharing made it a click away to listeners), and it only became available on CD in 2005.
Martha and the Muffins moved definitively away from the original six-piece line-up with the next departures by Tim Gane and Andy Haas. Tim explained his reasons in 1996:
TIM GANE: I had tour fatigue. I was homesick and we weren’t getting much support from our label. I was tired of drumming too. It was only a hobby but I got thrown into a successful band that performed every night, which took its toll.
Andy Haas made public his reasons for quitting (and hinted at similar motives for Carl Finkle’s earlier exit) in a vitriolic 1982 letter published in Toronto’s NOW weekly . He tore into the “the remaining members and management [as] more concerned with their careers and success than anything else.” The music industry’s renumeration structure seems to have been the larger context; Haas would never see performer royalties so long as the album’s sales didn’t clear Virgin’s advances to the band, while airplay royalties accrued directly to Mark and Martha as the composers.
MARK GANE: We left under very bad terms with him, and he wouldn’t talk to us for ages. He was into the avant-garde side more than anyone and probably didn’t like it when people left and Martha and I were the dominant force, as the writers tend to become what the band’s persona is.
The remaining three members filled in the drum position with Canadian drummer Nick Kent (not the louche British music journalist, regardless of what erroneous websites say) and signed with Canadian independent label Current, an entity associated with their manager Gerry Young. In the spring of 1982, MatM rejoined Daniel Lanois in his Hamilton studio where, supplemented by guest musicians (including Mark and Tim’s young brother Nick), they recorded their fourth album, 1983′s Danseparc.
Fortified by layers of percussion, Kent’s forceful drumming, and the band’s surprising new command of funk, Danseparc is undoubtedly the hardest-hitting Martha and the Muffins album. Whereas the sexuality of Johnson’s voice was always implicit, here it surfaces as she teases, leers, even curses on various songs. Yet while it ratchets up the heat and volume, the album never quite loses the detachment and chill that pervaded their earlier recordings. Another distinctive feature is the insertion of recordings — what we’d today call samples, although in extended, uninterrupted form — of various kinds of social communications (e.g., television dialogue, rain forest pygmy song, Gregorian chants [before Dead Can Dance and Enigma made this cliché]) on several tracks. Their conceptual significance is sometimes obvious, but the found recordings add an appealing thickness to the tracks. Overall,Danseparc is a highly engaging work of sonic texture, and Lanois masterfully keeps the sound from descending into murk.
Danseparc amplifies the theme of interpersonal alienation heard earlier on “Swimming” but otherwise jettisons the solipsism and biographic detail found on the prior album. As if taking its cue from Georg Simmel’s “Metropolis and Mental Life,” it observes the chaos of urban life, the inhumanity of human organizations, and the anonymity and superficiality of casual relationships. The thumping opening track “Obedience” (written by Johnson, and one of the best Talking Heads song they never wrote) shocks listeners accustomed to a milder Muffins, as midway through Johnson explodes in rage against bureaucracy, while Gane lets loose a ferocious blast of guitar distortion. “Boys in the Bushes” and “Walking Into Walls” (“Just another urban drama”) document the sublimation of lust into ornamental property and idle chit-chat, respectively.
Perhaps such polemics were stylistically orthodox within new wave music by 1983. The more idiosyncratic qualities of Danseparc dwell on the urban dialectic between discovery and loss of place. On “Several Styles of Blonde Girls Dancing,” Gane describes being led by hedonism and lust, only to inexplicably find himself in some uncanny arcadian setting:
I calculate, the buildings change and there I go again
Emerging from the underground not knowing where I am
A verdant park of small proportions underneath the sky
The turtles’ eggs, the dancing suns, the things I can’t explain
Mating monkeys filled the trees thus breaking all the rules
The music that we danced to wasn’t anything like this.
The title track (also the album’s single and occasion for MatM’s first promotional video) could almost be a revisitation of “Echo Beach,” describing a fragile place for human connection. Suddenly the track returns to the minor-key swells that faded the song in, and Johnson intones sotto voce, “This is a place I visited, and now it fades away.” The album ends with the a spellbinding instrumental, “Whatever Happened to Radio Valve Road?” (the sole composition on Danseparc attributed to the four members). Does or does not this title refer to a real place, from present-day geography or childhood memory? (I tried to find out, but Google sheds no light on this mystery.)
Danseparc marked Gane and Johnson’s coming of age as bandleaders, having successfully directed new members after the original six-piece lineup’s disintegration. The album cover hinted ambiguously at the group’s next direction: “MARTHA AND THE MUFFINS • M+M”. After touring on both sides of the Atlantic, Gane and Johnson dissolved the band once and for all and adopted M+M as their new moniker. Gane chalked the latter up to his irritation with what was originally a temporary band name: “Inevitably, Martha was Martha and I was a Muffin, which I hated.” But the new initials symbolized how Gane and Johnson would reconstitute MatM into a more personal, studio-based vehicle for their music.
In the autumn of 1983, Johnson and Gane reconvened with Daniel Lanois at Grant Avenue Studio. He soon proposed a change of scenery for the recording of their fifth album (their first solely under the M+M name), and the trio set up base in New York City’s famous Power Station studios. The group could very well have been taken with the music blasting from NYC’s radios, clubs and boomboxes—this was the season of Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues, Prince’s 1999, the continuing run of hits from Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Run-DMC’s first single “It’s Like That,” Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody,” Bowie’s Let’s Dance, “Shannon’s “Let The Music Play” and Midnight Star’s “Freak-A-Zoid,” to name just a few touchstones. (Canadian synth-poppers Men Without Hats were also charting at the time with “Safety Dance,” no doubt an encouraging sign.) Supported by a coterie of black and white studio musicians (the African-American rhythm section of Yogi Horton and Tinker Barfield, Caribbean-Canadian percussionists Dick Smith, Quammie, and Anglo Queen St. West regulars like David Piltch, Julie Masi [Parachute Club], and Henry Declemente [the Suspects]), Johnson and Gane infused the early-80s R&B spirit into their sound.
The result, 1984′s Mystery Walk, is deep in extroverted, radio-friendly cuts. “Come Out and Dance” is the rule of the day, with its fetching, rumpshaking Carribean rhythm echoing the hi-tech lilt heard on Grace Jones’ Island recordings. The hit single “Black Stations/White Stations” foregrounds Barfield’s popping bassline and achieves a muscular rhythm that would have eluded the prior Muffins line-up . The second single “Cooling the Medium” is a highly pleasing cocktail of R&B groove and the cooler moods of earlier MatM albums. Other tracks mine the same territory with maybe less impact, presaging the generic studio gloss that MTV viewers from this period will recognize (think of Eurythmics’ Be Yourself Tonight, or even Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie”).
Around the middle of the album, Mystery Walk hits its stride on a handful of tracks that play to two of the band’s strengths, geographical narrative and musical atmosphere. In particular, three downtempo tracks speak to the allure of otheredplaces. On “Big Trees,” Gane encounters an alien urban landscape that could be NYC’s Central Park.
Kid with a ghetto blaster
Roars among the trees
Yelling in Italian
Sound swallowed whole
Sound swallowed whole
This is a magic place
This is a magic
This is a
Fading in on cloudlike swells of keyboards, “Garden in the Sky” relates the enchantment that French Polynesia exerted on painter Paul Gaugin. With “Nation of Followers,” Gane offers a pointed critique of his fellow Canadians for “looking south for inspiration/stolen thoughts and frozen language.” This track returns to suburban polemic first found on “Suburban Dream,” albeit with a more terse lyric short on the landscape observations; the emphasis is here is on the broader cultural/geographic contexts for MatM’s venerable motif of alienation. This triad of songs adds a nuanced counterpoint to the theme of cultural fusion that otherwise characterizes Mystery Walk, highlighting the fetish of primitivism espoused by white North Americans. (Perhaps MatM could be a little more self-aware in making this critique; I still can’t decide whether the “Cooling the Medium” video is guilty as charged.)
Commercially, Mystery Walk gave M+M the success on their own terms that Johnson and Gane had sought in the wake of “Echo Beach.” Astonishingly, “Black Stations/White Stations” reached #2 on Billboard’s dance charts, just behind Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” The album seemed to vindicate Johnson and Gane’s desire to experiment with new musicians.
MARK GANE: Brian Eno had recommended a drummer who had played on “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts” album, Yogi Horton, who in turn brought in bass player Tinker Barfield. This powerhouse rhythm section brought a whole new sound to many of the songs in ways that we could have never planned or predicted. When Dan brought the Brecker Brothers in to play on “Black Stations/White Stations”, they adapted Tinker’s bass line for the riveting horn intro.
Yet here and there the album offers evidence that the technical powers of the studio musicians may have been too much for Johnson and Gane to harness. An instructive contrast is to Danseparc, where the line-up of DIY new wave musicians were all on the same page in terms of ability and inspiration when they pushed themselves to achieve the album’s signature rhythms and texture. On Mystery Walk, Johnson and Gane at times seem dazzled by the possibilities raised by the new studio setting and their accompanists’ skills, losing sight of the musical moods and technical instincts that made them an original proposition. Generally, Daniel Lanois does a commendable job of steering Johnson and Gane through early-80s pop R&B, an uncharted waters that had pulled under too many musicians of M+M’s generation with the elusive promise of ‘making music for the mind and body.’ Still, it’s hard to avoid the nagging assessment that with their fifth album, MatM began to succumb to the slick audio morass that listeners today associate with the 80s — “the decade that music forgot,” as Elvis Costello pithily called it.
THE WORLD IS A BALL
Flush with the commercial success of Mystery Walk, Johnson and Gane began building a recording studio in their Toronto basement that they christened The Web. The timing was fortuitous, because Lanois was too busy collaborating with Peter Gabriel to produce the next MatM record. The duo turned to David Lord, a producer based in Bath, England and another Gabriel alumnus whose work with XTC they admired (specifically the track “Wake Up” from their overlooked 1984 album The Big Express).
For 18 months beginning in November of 1984, Johnson and Gane assembled tracks in various settings, beginning with The Web and Lanois’ studios. In Le Studio north of Montreal, they recorded various rhythm sections: Yogi Horton and Tinker Barfield, David Piltch and new addition Mike Sloski (the latter two serving as MatM’s go-to Toronto musicians in the coming years). For overdubbing and mixing, the group set up in Lord’s massive Crescent Studio in Bath, a sojourn that would prove especially influential on Johnson and Gane. By 1986, MatM they had their sixth album, M+M’s The World is a Ball, released on Current/RCA.
Okay, confession time: I’ve only listened to this record twice, having just secured a vinyl copy last week from a seller in Germany. I remember when The World is a Ballfirst came out in 1986, which was my first year working in college radio. I was too excited by the harder, more underground music I had just discovered (Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Janes Addiction, the Pixies, fIREHOSE, etc.) to pay much attention to a new M+M record, no matter how how much Johnson and Gane’s music had meant to me in the prior three years. Certainly its album cover didn’t help, a portrait of Johnson and Gane wearing the stiff, nervous expressions that were by that point new wave cliché.
Now that the bloom is off late 80s college radio, it’s easier to pay attention to what’s going on in The World is a Ball. By their prior standards, it’s not a particularly exciting or innovative record for MatM, although the pleasure that Johnson and Gane had working with seasoned, enthusiastic musicians and highly capable recording technicians is audible. As the singles “Only You” and “Song in my Head” illustrate, the album is heavy with the dated sounds of 80s studio recordings: massive echo, big gated drums, bright keyboards. (Lord was a pioneer of the Fairlight keyboards, a quintessential instrument of big-studio 80s music, and with Gabriel he contributed substantially to its original sample library.) A passing reference to musicians based in and around Bath at the time of the album’s recording is telling:
MARTHA JOHNSON: We were able to draw upon several wonderful musicians working in Bath at the time, including Tony Levin, Ruby Turner and Stuart Gordon. Other artists and producers were living and working in the area including Tears for Fears, The Stranglers, Van Morrison and of course Peter Gabriel who happened to be working with Dan Lanois at the time on his So album.
This is no doubt a distinguished list of artists, but with the exception of Gabriel’s Soit’s hard to consider any of their recordings in those years as really essential. (Arguably, So is essential in large part because it best showcases the studio hallmarks we associate today with “80s music.”) Having grown too old for the nightclub scene, giving up touring for studio work, and shuttling between multiple studios seems to have removed Johnson and Gane from the pace and mindset associated with younger musicians on rock’s cutting edges. The remove may very well have been conducive to pursuing an artistic vision — my limited listenings don’t indicate that The World is a Ball suffers from inconsistency or lapses in creative integrity — but the insularity did little to contravert the wisdom of the (literal!) 80s echo chamber they found themselves.
Maybe another reason I’m not particularly struck by The World is a Ball is its absence of geographical narrative. On this album, the lyrics work in the conventional mode of social commentary, sounding alarm at the directions the world is moving in: poverty, aggression, indifference to injustice, and so on. An occasional “surrealistic sight” pops in now and then, but few settings are made explicit in spatial terms or place characteristics. My favorite track might be “By the Waters of Babylon,” in which Gane describes an apocalyptic vision and briefly invokes the skyward gaze found throughout the MatM songbook:
Rising moon dips blue to black
Now the trees begin to weep
Broken gods upon their knees
By the waters of Babylon
Set to a trancelike, faintly tribal backing track, the song is of a piece with the middle triptych on Mystery Walk. It’s a comfortable groove for MatM, always welcome to my ears, but hardly a move forward at this point in the band’s evolution.
With Current/RCA having exhausted interest in promoting M+M, Johnson and Gane set to work, unsigned, on material for a seventh album. Upon its completion in 1992, they contracted with Intrepid Records, a small Canadian independent label. However, Intrepid declared bankrupcy almost immediately after the album’s release, which makes Modern Lullaby the great ‘lost’ album in the MatM oeuvre. “Few people heard about the album, even in Canada,” Johnson explained, “and after five years of working on the project, it was quickly a dead issue.” The tragedy is compounded by the fact that Modern Lullaby marked a return to form for Martha and the Muffins (who by now had returned to their original band name). Not coincidentally, this period saw Johnson and Gane reach a new stage in realizing their geographical visions.
In 1987, having decided to produce themselves, the duo packed up their home studio equipment and shipped it off to Bath, the city in the southeast of England where they recorded the prior album. Interestingly, in the same year Bath was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO to acknowledge and preserve its history of architecture and landscape design. Temples and spas were laid out by the Romans; in the medieval period, the Bath Abbey was transformed into the landmark Gothic church it is today. However, Bath is perhaps best known for its many examples of 18th century Palladian and Georgian architecture, most of which are built in the gold-colored bath stone from local quarries. The city achieves a landscape design “based on vistas, clean lines and an urban representation of scientific and mathematical concepts,” explains architectural critic Owen Hatherley (The New Ruins of Great Britain, pg. 50). The UNESCO World Heritage Centrestates:
The individual Georgian buildings reflect the profound influence of Palladio, and their collective scale, style, and the organisation of the spaces between buildings epitomises the success of architects such as the John Woods, Robert Adam, Thomas Baldwin, and John Palmer in transposing Palladio’s ideas to the scale of a complete city, situated in a hollow in the hills and built to a Picturesque landscape aestheticism creating a strong garden city feel, more akin to the 19th century garden cities than the 17th century Renaissance cities.
“It was often hard to confine ourselves to a small home studio when that beautiful city and its surrounding landscape lay waiting for us to explore just outside our door,” Johnson recalls from the recording of Modern Lullaby. No doubt it was, considering Johnson and Gane’s venerable affinity for cartographical representations, skyline perspectives, odes to beaches and water, and the nostalgia for innocence associated witht the pastoral. Bath’s influence on the album is quite plain. Songs like“Paradise” and “Where Blue Meets Green” (“So cool, so serene”) probably weren’t written to be postcards for the city, but they nonetheless evince the heightened geographical sensitivity, even a uniquely Bathonian set of environmental referents, that accompanied this period of creative reinvigoration.
Lyrically Modern Lullaby is filled with allusions to a geographic gaze in service to personal becoming; “I’m looking for Paradise,” “I need to know I’ve found the place/Where I’m supposed to be,” etc. This horizon points away from a burdensome, unwanted past. In “Fighting the Monster,” Johnson sings of an unspecified “Memory [that] stalks the hallway/Like an unexploded bomb.” The specific place haunting this memory is revealed on “Everybody Has a Place,” the emotional center of Modern Lullaby. Over a plaintive acoustic melody, Johnson sings a lament for sites of her Torontonian youth now lost to physical development and the thoughtless equation of progress with a bland suburban ideal. It’s not at all ironic that “Everybody Has a Place” was written and recorded in a city rich in history and design-consciousness. Bath’s creative stimulation has allowed Johnson and Gane to articulate the trauma underlying all their narratives about place, mourning the disposability of metropolitan settings and life.
Modern Lullaby also benefits from a sonic clarity missing from the prior album, indeed from any album since This is the Ice Age. Johnson and Gane’s accompanists have been reduced to the rhythm section of Piltch and Sloski, with occasional violin by veteran British musician Stuart Gordon and percussion by Tim Gane. The group sounds inspired by the need to do more with less; absent the 80s studio gloss, the listener can once again hear the Muffins’ flair for melody and mood.
For Johnson and Gane, the brightest spot of 1992 was the birth of their daughter, Eve. Having been effectively abandoned by the music industry, Johnson and Gane retreated to Toronto to raise their child and record for film and TV. Johnson wrote songs for her daughter that developed into the Juno-winning children’s music album, 1995′s Songs From the Tree House (released under the solo moniker “Martha”). The time off from Martha and the Muffins also gave Gane an opportunity to pursue his interests in landscape design with an unconventional approach:
MARK GANE: I was commissioned to design and build a garden for the 1999 Artists’ Gardens project at Harbourfront this summer which turned out very well. (Harbourfront is Toronto’s waterfront cultural/entertainment complex which encompasses several galleries, workshops, theatres and stores, etc.) The garden is titled “All Trees Point To Heaven” and incorporates a large blue-stained twig ladder that hovers over a variety of conifers and ground covers. As the plant material grows over several seasons the design will hopefully become more and more attractive… Still in the garden vein, my Garden Music project is coming along with several bed tracks having been completed. Some of it is going to be pretty weird which is good…
Basically, I’ve been doing a lot of research into plant names with the intention of choosing 10-20 names and then composing an instrumental piece based on each name, relying mainly on my intuitive response to each particular name. In addition, each plant will have a “portrait” in the form of painting. Each painting in effect, will have a “soundtrack” accompanying it. This “painting with a soundtrack” approach is an extension of some of the work I was doing as a student at the Ontario College of Art in the mid/late Seventies. However, it was Martha’s idea that I should “do something” that combined three of my major activities — music, painting and gardening — into one project.
In the 1990s, Johnson and Gane acquired licensing rights to recordings across their years with Dindisc/Virgin and Current/RCA, leading to 1997′s Then Again, the first authorized MatM anthology. The timing was fortuitous; in the five years since Modern Lullaby, the Internet had emerged as a viable medium for fan correspondence and music promotion.
In 2002, Johnson and Gane participated in the electronica compilation Select Cuts from Echo Beach, a tribute to MatM’s biggest hit that was assembled by the German label Select Cuts — an offshoot of a larger German label called Echo Beach (!). I’m tempted to say the album represents a new generation’s appreciation of MatM’s spatial resonances, now updated via the modular compositional techniques of assorted techno, big beat and dub producers. In fact, it’s something of a snooze, through no fault of MatM. Almost all the producers use Gane’s opening riff and the song’s minor-key chord sequence as the foundation for their contributions; only Vincenzo’s “Beach House Version” dramatically recontextualizes the songs original elements, in this case into a jazzy, Ibiza-flavored dance track.
Nonetheless, the album illustrated how “Echo Beach” and Martha and Muffins were circulating as minor undercurrents in the new millenium’s globally wired popular culture. In 2005, a revived Dindisc gave This is the Ice Age its first CD release; three years later, Cherry Red Records reissued Danseparc, with Gane promising future reissues of the M+M records. By 2010, Johnson and Gane’s effectiveness in using the Internet to sustain interest in the group led to the band’s eight album, Delicate.
What can I say about this album? It’s a competent, welcome return by a duo with a unique voice committed to creativity and artistic/social integrity. Does it hold up to the standards set by their other albums. Not generally, if you’re expecting a fully developed, thoughtfully arranged set of tracks, although its reasonable to hope thatDelicate is the the necessary first step toward a reenergized Muffins. I think it’s highly significant that finally there are almost no songs about place on this album. Having raised a daughter and heard firsthand from hundreds of fans who have shared what Martha and the Muffins has meant to them, Johnson and Gane may finally have found the place they had been searching for all this time. Perhaps it wasn’t where they thought it would be; maybe it’s not the “place that is lost” that they have longed for since childhood. But maturity and the pragmatic outlook on life that accompanies time’s passing seem to have changed Johnson and Gane’s view on their geographic quest. As one of Delicate‘s more memorable songs says, “Life’s Too Short To Long For Something Else.” Maybe this illuminates the oblique text on the CD’s booklet:
STOP REMEMBERING/START FORGETTING.