Creative Contradictions & Tango Tourism: A Review of “Culture Works” by A. Dávila

Ten years ago Richard Florida, a regional planning professor then known mostly for comparative studies of industrial management, published The Rise of the Creative Class. His dual thesis — that “creative” sectors were at the forefront of developed-world economies, and that their cauldrons of innovation, economic relations, and human labor were organized by urban form — was galvanizing for a time when urban boosters and economic analysts had only begun to abandon the “smokestack chasing” strategies of the industrial economy in search of lessons from the new economy. In the ten years since, critiques of Florida’s analysis, his booming urban consulting business, and many cities and regions’ uncritical and expensive embrace of his creative-class paradigm have been legion. But no critique has entirely refuted the underlying empirical dynamics that Florida certainly brought to wide notice, but that scholars had been simultaneously observing:
  1. Technology, design, advanced business and consumer services, professions, academia and cultural production sectors — i.e., the so-called creative industries — are, at their highest value-adding levels, led by the labor-market demands of elite workers, not the traditional organizational dictates of corporations. Perhaps the recording industry notwithstanding, “big business” in these sectors hasn’t exactly gone extinct over 15-20 years of being called “dinosaurs” and “elephants”; in important ways, corporations in these sectors have subsume their labor-control interests to the interests of these elite workers. This move was, after all, an important source of short-term, “flexible,” advantage in the new economy.
  2. Elite workers vary in the goals they pursue in labor markets, but they characteristically pursue assorted modes of labor autonomy in the workplace and throughout the broader sphere of labor reproduction. The latter points to the domains of private life, the schedules and balance of work and life, socializing and socialization outside the workplace, and — maybe most visibly, but not cut from a cloth wholly different than the other domains — the geographic location of the workplace.
  3. In the flexible organization of (let’s just use Florida’s shortand at this point) creative sectors, workers’ life course and cohorts constitute an important terrain upon which labor control is negotiated. When managers need workers to commit to burn-out “start-up” hours on the job, then single, child-free, 20- and 30-somethings start to characterize the workforce. When workers’ immersion in the latest collaborative practices, academic wisdoms, consumer styles etc. are sources of economic advantage in talent-driven industries, then the workplace takes on trappings of the college dorm. And when business involves the churn of start-up firms, the project-based hire of talent and independent contractors, and the regular vascillation between periods of intense work/high pay and no work at all, then the lives of elite workers start to resemble episodes of serial workplace monogamy punctuated by bouts of “sabbaticals” and the reordering of personal “values” and wants, with each stage textured by settings and milieus corresponding to workers’ lifestage and peer (sub)cultures.
Florida’s explanation in The Rise of the Creative Class of “creative” (elite) workers’ labor-market demands is lacking, I’ve always thought, because he understands these workplace/workstyle features as intrinsic to workers’ values and modus operandi. In fact, since the late 1970s the creative economy is enabled and constrained by the broader dictates of “flexible” management and the market organization of everything — the relations of employment and workplace, the spheres of social reproduction, and policy thrusts in social welfare and economic development — that we call neoliberalism. But, fine: thanks to Richard Florida, the lifestyles, workstyles, and place-based amenities that creative workers pursue have become germane topics where popular/policy interest in urban economic development are concerned. This shift in the discussion is appropriate, given the empirical research, if not the last word on the matter.An issue that’s obviously pressing when these economic dynamics are in play is the hierarchical racial and class ordering of the creative economy. Surprisingly, this issue hasn’t been taken up in a sustained, multidisciplinary fashion. Why not? To name four examples of critical scholarship on these new economy regimes, Richard SennettRichard LloydAndrew Ross and I have been focused on the external forces and structural contradictions embodied by creative workers and their workplaces. It’s one thing to recognize that capital externalizes costs upon groups and communities not advantageously tapped into the highly educated, highly mobile, and largely white workforce, but it’s another to devote attention to those groups and communities. And while this scholarship has paid considerable attention to the consumerist lifestyles and complex gentrifying gaze with which creative workers transform the cities and neighborhoods they inhabit (Lloyd’s idea that neobohemians make residential decisions and consume urban amenities through the prism of “as-if tourism” is especially clever), it hasn’t yet satisfactorily examined the costs and contradictions of the creative economy from the spatial/global bottom up, as it were.These shortcomings in the critical urban scholarship on the creative economy underscore the much-needed contribution of Culture Works: Space, Value, and Mobility across the Neoliberal Americas (NYU Press, 2012), the latest book from anthropologist Arlene Dávila. In it, Dávila advances a powerful critique of the creative-class paradigm, particularly its proposals for culture-based urban economic development and its ideas about creative workers’ migration (the latter an increasingly explicit subject of Florida’s last three books). In significant contrast to many of Florida’s critics, Dávila doesn’t arrive at her critique from a traditional urban studies approach. From the field of Latino/a and Latin American studies, she explores the racialization of the creative economy not just in terms of material inequalities of socioeconomics and geographic mobility (these being the usual focus of sociologists like myself), but also the cultural politics of representations that legitimate and contest these inequalities. As an anthropologist, she brings ethnographic insights into the ethnic enclaves and developing-world populations that are impacted by — and, in turn, challenge — creative-economy restructuring and the state policies that promote it. Dávila’s institutional analysis is keen, particularly regarding the state and nonprofit agencies that promote arts, culture and tourism. Around the middle of the book, chapters on the behind-the-scene politics of museum formation and arts funding, among other things, reveal her further deftness in radical cultural advocacy and art criticism.Dávila’s ultimate target is neoliberalism itself — the actually existing neoliberalism that encompasses the trends in economic restructuring and urban policy described above, as well as other developments on the geopolitical scene. Neoliberalism further entails the highly contested opening of developing world economies to capital: not just the establishment of export processing zones and global commodity chains familiar to observers of the international division of labor, but to flows of real estate investment and tourists from the global north. The state hardly shrinks away under neoliberalism; while rolling back public welfare services, it actively promotes and enforces neoliberal policies by deploying regulatory and policing/military powers on behalf of private interests. Legal codes proliferate to regulate contract activity and public-private ventures in the sphere of commerce. Alongside parallel developments in the nonprofit sphere (particularly to organize funding allocation and grant competitions), these shifts in state and legal activities valorize firms, cities and individuals as competitive entrepreneurs in the market, and accordingly encourage evaluations of social goods and activities in terms of their value to economic well-being. Additionally, with the safety net pulled back and rights of citizenship narrowed around capital’s needs, the informal sector blossoms in a variety of ways — one of neoliberalism’s unsurprising paradoxes.’Culture’ in all its manifestations is especially affected by neoliberalism in two key ways, as Dávila argues. First, cultural producers are evaluated, celebrated or denied institional support in terms of the economic benefits they generate; this is a crucial implication of the creative-class paradigm, if not Richard Florida’s original intent. Second, as evoked by the title Culture Works, cultures of expressivity, geography, community and identity are (in Dávila’s words) reduced and instrumentalized into economic policies. This is the gist of contemporary place branding and state promotion of tourism most notably, but it further involves the institutional regulation and hierarchical ordering of cultural producers themselves into primary and secondary tiers. To put a New York city face to this dynamic, Davila invites us to imagine a “highly educated, white, liberal, Brooklynite independent writer” from the economically ascendant, institutionally sanctioned ‘creative economy’ alongside thebarrio creatives of East Harlem, the city’s venerable Puerto Rican enclave:

In today’s economy, street writers, bomba y plena dancers, and tamale makers are not regularly considered cultural creatives…. When [these] local cultural creatives are recognized, it is primarily for providing background, color, and vibe, rather than as agents who in and of themselves are worthy of investments and policy initiatives…. The question I ask is, how can [New York City] be so widely considered “the global arts capital” when the majority of its residents remain at the margins of its creative economy? And how would the city’s economy be enriched or transformed if we accounted for the hidden contributions of its cultural workers of color? (pp. 73-5).

Dávila organizes the book into three sections corresponding to three research sites that comprise a suggestive tour of cultural productions and political stances by Latino/as and Latin Americans across the Americas. The first is Puerto Rico, the de facto colony of the United States where consumption-based investment (in the form of shopping malls and public-private artisanal fairs) has recently increased under the pro-business/pro-statehood policies of Governor Luis Fortuño. The second is New York City, where Latino/a cultural advocates have challenged the institutional funding and curatorial criteria that customarily disenfranchise Latino/a artists and cultural producers. (Their battle extends geographically to Washington D.C. for one chapter documenting the struggle to establish a National Museum of the American Latino as part of the federally funded Smithsonian Museums.) The third is Buenos Aires, where tango music and the urban scene have drawn growing numbers of visitors and migrants under the anti-neoliberal administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.The section on Puerto Rico examines spaces of cultural consumption and production. A chapter on shopping malls extends the “point of purchase” analysis ofSharon Zukin and other consumption scholars, by examining into how shoppers recognize and contest the national stereotype that (as one informant) “shopping is our national pasttime,” with the highest density of shopping malls across Latin America. Modestly interesting, this chapter sets up a far more engaging chapter on the folk art/craft fairs sponsored by shopping malls and other private interests looking to generate consumer traffic with artisanal events. Traditionally a field informed by strong cultural nationalist sentiments and dominated by older male artists, folk art has exploded as an informal income-generating strategy for Puerto Rico’s poor and (more recently) middle classes who have lost earnings and jobs under neoliberal economics.In this chapter, Dávila articulates two themes that recur throughout Culture Works. First, the incorporation of cultural production under neoliberal enterprises and their emphasis on extrinsic criteria of economic benefit invariably triggers authenticating discourses that are contradictory and interpreted differently among different stakeholders. Second, at least where cultural producers are concerned, neoliberalism and the claims to authenticity that emerge to challenge it give rise to a curious phenomenon of middle-class informality. It takes social capital to get choice spots in these fairs, and cultural capital to explain to sponsors and regulators how innovative craftwork falls under the umbrella of nationalist artisanal tradition. Without these forms of advantage, poor and unlucky artisans have to resort to crashing fairs and setting up in unsanctioned events that police regularly shut down; they find themselves in disrespected fields like craft jewelry and unable to successfully explain how their work satisfies the highly regulated standards of national folk art.Hierarchical conflicts over artistic authenticity and economic value resurface in the section on New York, where Latino/a artists and cultural advocates find themselves on the institutional defensive in museums and galleries. The still-ongoing initiative to establish a National Museum of the American Latino finds itself running headlong into the unfortunately familiar culture-war demand that it “benefit ‘all the cultures that make up the American identity, and [present itself] foremost about reinforcing U.S. national identity, rather than only one of its components” (pg. 99). In New York City, cultural advocates for communities of color band together as the Cultural Equity Group (in which Dávila has participated extensively) to challenge two expressions of institutional bias in the city’s art fundings. First, in a city of over 1400 recognized arts and culture groups, 34 institutions receive 75-80 percent of the city’s art budgets. These recipients include famous institutions that are no doubt legitimately funded, at least to some degree, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. But why aren’t the New York Historical Society, the Whitney Museum of American Art, much less the great number of institutions representing the arts and cultures of NYC’s ethnic communities?The second form of institutional bias comes from the aesthetic criteria adopted by curators and arts funders alike. While it’s romantic to believe that “art for art’s sake” is the best principle by which the artists can challenge neoliberalism’s insistence on economic value, this belief is premised upon “the dominant Western-based universalist notion that art is most valuable the more global, universalist, and disconnected from particular communities it is posed to be” (pg. 113). Organizations in the Cultural Equity Group are systematically disadvantaged by this belief. Generally originating from the city’s civil rights and ethnic nationalist struggles of the 1960s and 70s, these groups serve communities of color through multidisciplinary programming that can include neighborhood development and residential empowerment; to that end, they’re sometimes receptive to public-private solutions that are anathema to the romantic “art for art’s sake” perspective. As Bill Aguado of the Bronx Council of the Arts explains, “They see us as a social service organization, but not as arts groups or as valuable assets…. It’s all a colonial situation” (pg. 87).In fact, community engagement and collaboration with so-called social service missions can be enriching experiences for artists, as Dávila learns from Miguel Luciano in a chapter dedicated to this young artist whose work is celebrated for its pop-culture savvy and conceptual ruminations on Puerto Rican identity:

One of my challenges in accessing [traditional galleries and] commercial spaces is that these have not been the most interesting spaces for my work, because they are interested in the bottom line and in selling to their base. I’m interested in having these conversations about culture, history, identity, and empowerment, and this type of work works best with institutions where I can work with communities and where a conversation can be built around the work and where the concern is not with the market but with the experience of the work (pp. 123-4).

Platano Pride, a 2006 sculpture by Miguel Luciano
as featured on the cover of Reggaeton by Raquel Z. Rivera et al (eds.)
Overall, Dávila is skeptical of the vision that creative-city boosters would have us entertain of creatives and visitors actively “engaging” some generic, ethnically unspecified urban arts scene:

Connection to place represents another significant impediment to the evaluation of barrio cultural creatives. Our contemporary creative economy values movement and mobility, and it is “fickle” cultural initiatives that can pack up and leave that are most valued and that are said to require incentives and to demand romancing: the chain restaurant, the Starbucks, the museum from downtown seeking a cheaper location in a gentrifying neighborhood. In contrast, cultural institutions that are anchored in place, or whose activities revolve around their identity, are easily taken for granted. Most problematic, barrio creative work is devalued because it is regarded as instinctual to ethnic communities and lacking in any training and expertise. You are Puerto Rican; you dance bomba y plena. You are Mexican; you cook tamales. It is what you do; it is in your DNA. You are moved to “protect your culture” for ethnic pride or, in the eyes of many people, for ethnic chauvinism. If no higher degree is involved, if you do not come packaged with the appropriate credentials, then there is no creative work to talk about, despite the hours of training and the sacrificed income that characterizes most cultural work (pp. 81-2).

Mobility moves to the forefront of Dávila’s section on Buenos Aires, which to my thinking is the high point of Culture Works. The two chapters here make the most explicit and valuable contributions to urban studies and cultural geography, and Dávila’s ethnography is at its liveliest, not least because she’s a participant in the “tango tourism” that provides one chapter’s subject. This phenomenon refers to the marked boost in tourism to Buenos Aires since 2002, when Argentina ended its economic crisis by devaluing the peso devaluation. At the center of this tourism, mostly from America and Europe, is the consumption of tango music, in the form of experiences (dancing in tango venues, watching others dancing at themed restaurants, taking lessons, navigating “tango maps” of the city) and goods (CDs, “tango shoes,” etc.). Tango tourists correctly recognize that this globally popular dance and music came from Argentina, but few grasp how local Porteños (residents of the port city of Buenos Aires) regard tango with greater ambivalence. Most importantly, the generation that lived to see decades of military repression in Argentina end associate tango with this era:

Decades of military repression, alongside a postcolonial-fueled resistance to the acceptance and validation of tango, took a toll on how Porteños learned and related to the dance, to the point that few dancers, except newer generations or older dancers, have memories of learning to dance within the family or in intimate social encounters. In my interviews, older dancers recalled that after the Revoluión Libertadora in 1955, tango dancers would be followed from milongas [tango dance venues], questioned, and harassed by the police and that subsequent military governments promoted rock music and global rhythms, which were considered less politically volatile. Because of this legacy, learning to dance tango has become a matter of schooling, a time-consuming and costly venture more accessible to middle classes than to the popular sectors that historically originated it. In sum, the tango-Buenos Aires connection is not generalizable to the entire city or to all sectors of society. As one musician explained, “There’s no tango in the villas miserias[slums], there’s no tango in the provincias [provinces].” There you are more likely to hear cumbia or other more popular rhythms” (pg. 139).

Tango in Argentina is thus consumed primarily in delimited spheres — highly sanitized tourist bubbles in the day, milongas at night where foreigners outnumber Porteños as much as four to one. This is of course a fertile environment for authenticating discourses regarding tango. Dávila describes how controversy abounds over flashy kicks and exaggerated moves, and how umbrage is taken over clumsy dancers or foreign women unable to wait for the initiating “look” from a male Porteño. Controversially, in 2011 one tournament organized by city government was targeted to “Argentine natives” and required one partner to be an official resident of Buenos Aires. Yet Porteños’ participation in tango is complicated by class and race. Tango’s economic benefit to Porteños is enjoyed mainly by middle-class participants, those most likely to have the training and English-language proficiency that result in renumerable opportunites, from “taxi dancing” (male dancers for hire) to careers in performing or teaching overseas. Moreover, the high cost of admission to milongas as well as the broader impacts of tourism-fueled gentrification means “locals can hardly afford to go dancing on a nightly base, as is commonly done by tourists.”In fact, many Porteños look favorably upon foreign tango enthusiasts, distinguishing mere “tourists” from those who appreciate the dance in good faith, and even recognize them as “gente como uno” (people like us). As Porteña dancer Susana Miller explains, “No hay extranjeros en el tango, si entendés el tango como producto porteño” (There are no foreigners in tango, if you understand tango as a Porteño product; pg. 158). This moral identity, obviously a source of collective pride, is infused with middle-class anxieties over Buenos Aires’ stature in the world at large in the era of the devalued peso. Few Porteños are able to visit the global north as easily as tango tourists do their city. However, the popularity of their dance and their city with Americans and Europeans — especially Europeans, since Argentina has long been regarded as the most European of Latin American cities, a distinction that connotes a troubled history of Peronism and racial classifications vis-a-vis indigenous people of color — offers a sense of symbolic citizenship that compensates for this economically downgraded status.The book complements this supply-side view of Buenos Aires’ allure with a chapter on the demand-size view of Buenos Aires’ burgeoning expatriate community. Many expats cite tango as the initial attraction (for instance, read “lifestyle designer”/self-help dude Tim Farriss’ perspective on Buenos Aires), but even the choreographically challenged find much to admire in the city’s cosmopolitanism, urban amenities, easy-going way of life, and advantageous cost of living. The city certainly makes it easy for expats to stake a claim in Buenos Aires, rarely checking white foreigners’ documentation and ushering in urban gentrification by opening neighborhoods up to residential/commercial property developments in residences and commerce suited to expat tastes.Dávila’s key insight is that expats’ view of Buenos Aires living is spatially relational, predicated upon “the ‘wages of empire’ afforded by their nationalities, in ways that soften the economic uncertainty, insecurity, and downgrading that increasingly characterizes workers in creative sectors in the United States and Europe” (pg. 166). She elaborates:

This quest for a more balanced life was repeatedly mentioned by expats I spoke to, who openly shunned the stress and tediousness that they felt was characteristic of their respective career paths back home. Drawing on familiar dichotomies of rationality versus emotion, work versus enjoyment, and technology versus arts and beauty that have historically circulated as part of nationalist/imperial ideologies to distinguish the United States from Latin American countries, they tended to see Argentinean culture as an oasis of familiarity, social life, enjoyment, and liesure that many believe to be characteristic of Argentinean culture and the unique cultural disposition of Argentineans, rather than the product of the political and economic conditions that facilitate expats’ ability to achieve a greater degree of leisured living (pg. 174).

Although Dávila doesn’t inject her analysis of expats’ mobility with a great deal of theory from economic geography, this chapter provides illuminating ethnographic detail on the economically structured geographies through which people migrate from industry cores in the north to discretionary destinations in the peripheries. These are “creative” geographies not because the creative workers necessarily appreciate urban and cultural amenities more than other people (despite what Richard Florida might insist), but because their economic identities and “flexible” employment give them greater freedoms to prioritize lifestyle and pursue those priorties in places of their choosing. (In my writings, I’ve called these people quality-of-life migrants, and places like Buenos Aires quality-of-life districts.)In these geographies, success in labor markets back home inform the status hierarchies that expats enter into in Buenos Aires. At the top, the group Dávila calls “cyber workers” still draw high incomes from the north and thus have the greatest resources to enjoy the city at its fullest, if only for finite periods of sabbatical. Retirees also experience the city this way, although perhaps at lower income levels. Then there are various categories of labor-market dropouts who couldn’t afford this quality of life back home. Many of these become entrepreneurs in Buenos Aires, filling a peculiarly non-local niche: bed and breakfasts, taco restaurants, bagel and cupcake shops, and so on. “A few expats have even become successful brokers of Argentinean culture abroad,” Dávila notes, describing the case of electro-cumbia DJ Grant Dull, who internationalized a local music that underground Porteño DJs lacked the connections, savvy and influence to market abroad.
If the cultural gaze with which expats often view Buenos Aires is often explicitly colonial — one expat describes the city as an ideal “halfway house” between the global north and Latin America (pg. 177) — it nonetheless finds some sympathetic reception among Porteños who have internalized the colonial assessment that their city is less “modern” than the European centers it was modelled upon. In this way, a moral reciprocity is established between expats and Porteños, neither quite seeing the other in their individuality so long as they symbolically soothe each others’ cultural anxieties.I confess to not being very familiar with Arlene Dávila’s scholarship, so among other things I don’t know if she would call herself an urban anthropologist. But the Argentina section highlights how Culture Works is an important work of urban anthropology, insofar as the latter revolves around the study of people’s movements to cities. Customarily this is the move of indigenous or rural people to cities, still the most important manifestation of ‘urbanization’ in the developing world, but Dávila has pulled off a cool trick in redirecting the urban anthropological question toward a developed-world group celebrated (by Richard Florida, at least) for their peripatetic mobility and consumption of place.If Dávila insightfully strips the presumption of geographic immobility (which is traditionally an outcome of socioeconomic security) from the privileged groups in urban hierarchies (in this case, “creative classes”), I found myself once or twice nagged by how she problematically projects the presumption onto barrio creatives. On the whole, she succeeds her in aim “to expose that creative industries generate particular mobilities, that they favor certain type of mobile bodies while circumscribing the social and physical mobility of others” (pg. 16). And at least where mobility into elite institutional settings for art training and grant funding are concerned, she elaborates and further illustrates the concern that art historian Yasmin Ramirez raises in regards to New York art funding: “It’s not enough to say black and Latino organizations. You have to focus on the communities these organizations serve, and where they’re located, and address the class dimension at the heart of why some institutions serving blacks and Latinos languish and others are able to get monies and tap resources.”But then there’s the case of Miguel Luciano, the Puerto Rican artist who is the subject of a whole chapter in Culture Works. Luciano was born in San Juan, received his MFA at the University of Florida, and then moved to New York because, Dávila reports, “he was attracted to what he described as the city’s symbolic importance for the Puerto Rican community” (pg. 113). A crucial event in his career was his first mainstream gallery show, curated by Juan Sanchez at the Chelsea-based CUE ART Foundation.

Luciano’s selection for a solo show by the revered Nuyorican artist Sanchez was especially meaningful to Luciano and was evocative of his longstanding identification with the Nuyorican artistic community. Juan Sanches is not only one of the few Nuyorican artists who has received nationwide legitimacy from mainstream galleries and collectors; he is also an artist who has never been shy to explore topics related to Puerto Ricans’ identity and experiences with poverty, colonialism, marginalization, and empowerment both on the island and in the Diaspora. These are concerns that Luciano shares with Sanchez and that induce his pride in having his work identified with a Nuyorican artistic tradition, even though, in his own words, he is a “transplant” who did not experience what he described as a “typical” Nuyorican trajectory, having moved to New York City from Florida. The key identification is neither geographical nor historical; a “Nuyorican” tradition is thus conceived as the extension of the politicized and community interventions of Taller Boricua and the community of Nuyorican artists who broke artistic barriers in the 1980s alongside the Nuyorican movement to formulate the work that was in intimate conversation with the empowerment of the Puerto Rican community both in the States and on the island (pg. 121).

The issue I find odd here is an inconsistency (or, worse, a double standard) in what Dávila regards as legitimate mobility for the creative class. His artistic interests notwithstanding, Luciano surely counts as the creative class, not the barrio creatives — if an MFA and critical acclaim doesn’t give you that status, what does? His community membership among Nuyoricans is symbolic, not ‘real’ in terms of residential origins. How then does his mobility and institutional status not put him on the wrong side of the “class dimension” (in Hernandez’s words) that divides artists and artistic institutions of color? I don’t think an answer necessarily involves revisiting or reworking identity politics, so much as an acknowledgement that mobility is a more complex phenomenon that Dávila describes. It’s among this book’s many achievements that Culture Works introduces such questions into the on-going critique of the creative economy and its simplistic celebration.

View on the Musical Urbanism site.

The Dull Ubiquity of Placeless Music Festivals

Some questions for investigations here, presented in the form of a rant. As part of my research in musical urbanism, I consume a fair amount of music coverage in print and online. Jesus Christ, all I seem to find these days is “writing” about generic touring festivals headlined by Coldplay/Metallica/Fiona Apple/Beach House/you name it. News about new music festivals. News about cancelled music festivals. News about how the concert industry, which has put so much of its eggs in the festival basket, now outpaces the recording industry. And the evergreen question, what’s the line-up for Coachella 2013?

Look, I fully support the right of youth to indulge in the mass communion of bad sightlines, expensive food, sunburns and portapotty stench for the romantic pursuit of sex, drugs and [insert any pop genre here]. I’ve indulged in that myself.  Coachella, Glastonbury, Sasquatch, Werchter et al—by all means, let them be the gateway drug to a rich life as a music listener. But it’s interesting and, frankly, discouraging that the generic, touring festival seems to be the end game for live music these days, with generally no thought being put to how live music might be presented more imaginatively and meaningfully for listeners and musicians alike. And, conversely, little attention is given to those more imaginative and meaningful festivals 

Place is an especially important concern here. While geography is what ostensibly differentiates one Live Nation mega-event from the next, inside the venues the performers, the lineups, the layout, the vendors etc. are generally undistinguishable and internchangeable across the events. They’re carefully themed spaces that are paradoxically placeless, at least beyond the conceits of the event. The rise of generic touring festivals don’t yet make me worry for the fate of cities, urban economies, or local music scenes. But I sometimes wonder if the dull ubiquity of big-money touring festivals makes younger audiences eager for the theming of their everday spaces: the commodification of colleges and universities, the insularity of the hipster neighborhood, and so on.It’s understandable why ‘independent’ music, which at one pre-ironic point in cultural history was opposed to such commodification, increasingly hitches its wagon to corporate music festivals today. Although touring the music-festival circuit can be a draining, exhausting slog, the promotional opportunity can’t be beat, at least when these events are all any music publication or blog wants to write about. I suspect it also helps that “indie rock” is now mainly the purview of 20- and 30-somethings without dependents to tend to.This is something that the EDM industry has especially figured out. The facts that this music thrives in nightclubs and other smaller venues, and that rock music has long dominated the festival circuit, make me think there’s nothing intrinsically “rave” to the big-field setting for EDM festivals today. EDM has more likely thrived because the barriers to entry for performers are low. Bringing along a laptop or (for the old-school purist) a crate of records is all it takes for most DJs to hit the stage—no long load-ins or soundchecks necessary. Perhaps this infrastructural advantage is the real basis for the recurring rockist insult that “no talent is required to play electronic dance music.”At least those are my hypotheses. Here are a few more.

1. The context for this state of affairs isn’t live music itself. Obviously, this is what happens after the recording industry loses its profit model. Live music is what David Harvey would call a spatial fix—a secondary circuit of accumulation that capital taps into when profits in the primary industrial circuit dry up. We’re simply seeing the next iteration out from the recording industry’s abandonment of artist development and its short-sighted embrace of the quick-profit singles market.

The above means let’s not celebrate the initiative and entrepreneurialism of the “concert industry” just yet, since the high rate of event cancellations suggests they’re still largely throwing business models against the wall to see what sticks. An important question for further investigation is, Just how distinct in name/experience/profile are the players and financial backers in the “concert industry” from the rest of the “music industry”?

2. If we might expect the bovine migration of the corporate sector to the music-festival sector, I’m more disheartened by the failure of imagination on the part of the music media to write about anything else. Their rote, uncritical coverage isn’t limited to summertime, when festivals generally overshadow the release of noteworthy albums and (another dismaying phenomenon) the TV season for Idol, The Voice, etc. How many freakin’ tweets have I read about Coachella: the bands, the fashions, the line-up for next year, the threat of its cancellation, yada yada yada? And South By Southwest… thank god for the SXSW tweet-blocker. I think at least three factors could be culprits:

a) the collapse of the publishing industry, which has shrunk staff, dried up money for original reporting (i.e., news that isn’t “researched” via Twitter or a YouTube livestream), and made it hard for remaining music/arts & culture reporters—particularly at weekly alternative newspapers, still the source for the best local music coverage—to keep their ears to the local ground and make a living;

b) the tail-wags-dog rationale of bigger publications covering “what younger readers want.” So Spin Magazine calls its July/August edition the “Outside Issue,” etc. Implicitly, this further yields the album market to older/occasional listeners who (it will be assumed) want “the next Adele.”

c) the convergence of culture reporting and business reporting that has been encouraged by the dominance of Richard Florida’s creative-city paradigm. While the shrewd promoters will spin a line about how their event borrows from the SXSW model, city papers can now rationalize their arts coverage as a means to a more ‘legitimate’ end.

3. What’s perhaps most surprising is the absence of traditional urban business community involvement in the music-festival sector. Why is this? The rare “post-rave growth coalition” notwithstanding, I suspect the players in most urban growth machines rarely overlap with the world of festival promoting. This may be because many of these events are held in big, exurban fields, which suggests that large-scale property owners will be the main node of connection. But so far I don’t see much active participation (as opposed to passive profit-making) in festivals that happen in city environments either, short of a few notable exceptions—Austin, Berlin, etc.Traditionally, being an urban booster on the chamber of commerce has been the antithesis of hip. Historically, this has been the basis for criticism of its philistine Babbitry. In these ironic, hipster-saturated times, it’s a rare source of integrity for the urban business community. I happened upon a rare music event organized by a urban business improvement district recently: the Downtown Albany Blues Music Competition. Evidently the Chamber of Commerce even got to select the line-up of performing. How “hip” is that?

View on the Musical Urbanism site.

Listening to Home, Encountering the Other: Book Review of “Migrating Music” (Jayson Toynbee and Byron Dueck, eds.)

The settlement of foreign-born ethnic migrants has to be the oldest source of urban vitality. It’s also a wellspring of musical innovation. Might the latter connection offer insights into the modern city? That’s always my hope when I read books likeMigrating Music (Routledge, 2012). Edited by Jayson Toynbee and Byron Dueck, this volume addresses the cultural dynamics and social consequences of music that travels across borders. The most common scenario described within the volume is the diasporic one in which ethnic groups move to new countries and bring or rediscover their ‘homeland’ music. In other chapters, music migrates independently of a ‘native’ constituency. Hip hop takes hold of youth in countries with no basis in the African diaspora, this volume documents, while jazz performers and Brazilian genres might migrate at the behest of music industries and institutions.
I’ve written recently about the prohibitive costs associated with recent edited volumes of musical scholarship. Although this was an issue when Routledge originally published Migrating Music in 2011, the book has now been released at a (comparatively) more affordable paperback price. The writings here grew out of a 2009 conference sponsored by the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and its contributors are predominantly based in European institutions. Accordingly, with a few exceptions the research gathered here was conducted in European settings, although the diasporic circuits that this volume charts extend into Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The omission of research on diasporic music in the Americas might irk readers looking for the latest thinking onbanda or reggaeton, yet as Toynbee and Dueck point out, “more than one-third of migration in recent years has been to Europe, making it the most important region of destination for migrants around the world” (pg. 13).
The book is organized into four sections. “Migrants” and “Translations” give respective emphasis to the listeners and forms/transformations of migrating music, while “Media” and “Cities” suggest the importance of material contexts for, respectively, disseminating and producing migrating music. As these edited volumes often go, Migrating Music is a bit of a mixed bag across the chapters. This is true perhaps more so in terms of its sections, which are otherwise well served by the various introductions prepared by the editors. While conceptually the importance of media and cities to the question of migrating music is inarguable, and (separately) the chapters within each section are generally quite interesting, these concepts’ development in the context of the volume’s organization isn’t as consistently up to snuff as the first two sections on “Migrants” and “Translations.”
Despite the title’s promise of entering new terrains, Migrating Music pays almost no attention to the digitally-circulated, club-focused fusions that sometimes get called World Music 2.0. (If this phenomenon doesn’t ring a bell, listen to music made by MIA, Diplo and Moombahton, or check out the writings of Wayne Marshall andLarissa Mann.) So, Pitchfork readers may find very little here to make their hearts skip a beat. A possible exception is Helen Kim’s chapter, “‘Keepin’ It Real’: Bombay Bronx, cultural producers and the Asian scene,” which examines the London Asian urban music scene in which a “post bhangra” sound incorporates fusions with hip hop, dancehall and R&B. However, her concerns in this chapter aren’t musicological but instead more reflective of a cultural studies agenda, e.g., how generic distinctions (here vis-à-vis the tasteful, drum-n-bass-flavored “Asian Underground” associated with Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney) reflect contested ideas about British Asian youth identity.

The opinion that the Asian Underground was not for Asians is a loud declaration that not all Asians are alike. It furthermore reclaims ‘Asian’ for a decidedly less highbrow audience, construing the Asian Underground not only as ‘middle-class’, but additionally as inauthentic insofar as it colludes with white middle-class tastes. By defining themselves in opposition to the Asian Underground, cultural producers [at London’s Bombay Bronx] assert that they are countering white, middle-class, hegemonic space (pg. 22).

This example highlights two defining features of Migrating Music. First, the intellectual undertaking here is typically rooted in the anthropology and cultural studies traditions. I confess a little disappointment that there’s almost no musicological analysis (much less music criticism) in Migrating Music, if only because as a sociologist I’m most familiar with the social scientific approaches. Who knows, maybe the musicologists and critics will find these approaches a valuable corrective to the scholarship they’re used to. But as cultural studies is especially prone to do, these approaches support a narrative that eventually abstracts out of the particularities of their subject matter—the historic/geographic contexts, collective dynamics, and cultural artifacts including the music itself—to arrive at a recurring set of social functions: the collective negotiation of identity, the restoration of community, national/ethnic reaction to change from without, etc.
Social science writing shouldn’t have to be a poetry contest, of course. At one level, the predictability of these scholarly ‘punchlines’ reminds us of the stability and durability in the organization of the social world, without which the social sciences would be lost. But it would be nice to hear these general facts of the social world within the music, wouldn’t it? In this regard, the most notable chapter is “Un Voyage via Barquinho: Global Circulation, Musical Hybridization, and Adult Modernity, 1961-9″ by Keir Keightley. Reviewing the ‘migration’ (really, the diffusion by key composers, filmmakers, and media gatekeepers) of the Brazilian bossa nova via the Roberto Menescal/Rondaldo Bôscoli composition “O Barquinho,” Keightley describes the emergence of a very particular, indeed now quite retro, structure of musical feeling: that sense of pre-rock “adult modernity” associated with early-1960s signifiers of James Bond-cool and the jet-setting journey into the “now.” (Later groups like Stereolab, Portishead, and Broadcast mined this specific musical vein quite well.) Keightley’s critical analysis of a key track (from Francis Lai’s soundtrack to the the 1967 film “Live for Life”) makes the reader want to listen closely:

Consuming the adult good life, whether via jet or wine, appears as the imperative of a new sensibility; why else would the injunction “live for life” be necessary? The chord progression’s half-step drop occur and reoccur, creating an effect suggestive of lingering in one place and thn moving onto another. Presenting a montage of moments at both the lyrical and musical levels, the song’s harmonic instability and pleasurable pausing remind us of the restless mobility that characterizes the global consumption at issue (pg. 119).

In a second defining feature, Migrating Music isn’t especially preoccupied with the ‘newest and most exciting’ musical forms if the latter are understood to be whatever excites young people in diasporic communities (or popular music scholarship). To its credit, the volume is even-handed in covering music that resonates across the generations. It’s enlightening to learn of what older Afghanis who have fled their wartorn country are tuning into—the subject of “Music, Migration and War: the BBC’s Interactive Music Broadcasting to Afghanistan and the Afghan Diaspora,” a fascinating chapter by John Baily. It’s important to examine the circumstances by which young migrants find new relevance in ‘old-fashioned’ music from their homeland (as Carolyn Landau recounts for one Moroccan Londoner in “‘My Own Little Morocco at Home’: A Biographical Account of Migration, Mediation and Music Consumption”). An ethnographically rich chapter by Laura Steils, “‘Realness’: Authenticity, Innovation and Prestige among Young Danseurs Afros in Paris,” documents the unexpected appropriation of ‘old world’ Congolese/Ivoirian styles of music, dance, fashion, speech and display by French-African youth caught up in themusique afro movement of the last decade.
This attention to the ‘old-fashioned’ extends to the “Media” section. While elsewhere the book establishes the importance of the Internet and social media to disseminating music across borders, all four chapters in this section primarily address radio. Even more curiously, half of these chapters pertain specifically toBritish broadcasters. In “Migrating Music and Good-Enough Cosmoplitanism,” Kevin Roberts interviews Robin Denselow and Charlie Gillett, the latter a storied music writer whose work as a radio DJ exposed untold numbers of British music fans to “world music” (a generic designation that has been partly attributed to Gillett). In “Ports of Call: An Ethnographic Analysis of Music Programmes about the Migration of People, Musicians, Genres and Instruments, BBC World Service, 1994-5,” Jan Fairley recalls her programming work on the titular show, which was recorded in English for global broadcast. (I’ll not count Baily’s chapter in this category, as the two Afghani radio programs for the BBC World Service he describes were broadcast in the Pashto language.)
If the rationale (never made explicit) behind operationally defining ‘media’ as radio include the fact that the latter remains the chief medium of musical distribution around the world, for native-born residents and transnational migrants alike, then the point is well taken. So too is the editors’ reminder that radio is indeed interactive (increasingly via real-time telephone calls and e-mails with listeners) and can now be heard on a variety of Internet-ready devices. Still, the Roberts and Fairley chapters address quite Anglo-centric topics, and in a breezy, analytically undeveloped manner no less, which gives off an unfortunate whiff of academic laziness. In principle their British views into “world music” is interesting, insofar as they hail from a classic setting of the colonial gaze that these authors wrestle with —well, at least Robins does—from a contemporary context. But I also noted that the contributors to the “Media” section were among the most senior and august scholars in this volume (e.g., Fairley is a past International Chairperson of the IASPM). Did these selections originate as informal “conversations” in the 2009 conference? Do they merit inclusion in Migrating Music alongside the empirical research of the other chapters?
To return to a familiar point of reference for most readers, let me address the issue of youth-based pop culture once again. Were the assembled authors given a vote, I think it’s likely they would nominate hip hop as the most widely practiced lingua franca among youth cultures around the world. In all its artistic (and contested) diversity, hip hop is central to Laudan Nooshin’s chapter on “Hip-Hop Tehran: Migrating Styles, Musical Meanings, Marginalized Voices”) and Antti-Ville Kärjä’s chapter, “Ridiculing Rap, Funlandizing Finns? Humour and Parody as Strategies of Securing the Ethnic Other in Popular Music.” Elsewhere, hip hop gets alchemized along R&B and dancehall in Helen Kim’s chapter on London’s “Bombay Bronx” club, while the danseurs afros in Laura Steils’ chapter reject hip hop’s earlier grip on Afro-French youth to embrace Congolese and Ivoirian flavors.
This spectrum of local responses to the global spread of hip hop highlights Toynbee and Dueck’s chief theoretical contribution to the scholarship on migrating music, which elaborates anthropologist Michael Taussig’s ideas of mimesis and alterity (also the title of his 1993 book). Taussig’s concepts offer a different, more relativistic framework for understanding the encounter with a dominant culture’s influences than simplistic ideas of “Westernization” or “cultural homogenization.” Mimesis (or imitation, what the assimilation of outside influences evidently results in) can occur when two cultures encounter each other, as a way of containing their misunderstood or threatening cultural differences (or alterity). Taussig asserts that this process is rarely unidirectional, as both cultures are transformed in some significant way when appropriating the other’s elements; in this way, homogenization isn’t a foregone conclusion of mimesis. But the editors point out that Taussig’s framework still supposes the binary of the colonial encounter, whereas migrating music can reveal responses to more local, less hierarchicalized orders.
None of the assembled authors in Migrating Music takes up Taussig’s framework or the editors’ elaboration explicitly, but the eclipse of hip-hop by musique afro among the Afro-French youth Steils studies offers a good illustration of what Toynbee and Dueck are getting at. Whereas hip hop was assimilated as a means of addressing the racism of French whites, it became less relevant once assimilation of Congolese/Ivoirian influences gave Afro-French youth a way to renegotiate more subcultural (e.g., banlieue-specific) meanings of “realness.” This is a potentially productive framework, I think, for understanding the often complex semiotic innovations of diasporic cultural production. Certainly it’s an alternative to “glocalization,” an unlovely piece of academic jargon that the all the authors thankfully neglect. More to the point, mimesis and alterity highlight the signifying politics at work in diasporic cultural production, far more than the broad, ambiguous notion of glocalization does. However, the latter evokes a spatial framework that is intuitively salient to urbanists. The absence of such a spatial framework in this book underscores the limits of Migrating Music‘s contributions to cultural urban studies, as well as the insights that a more active urbanist reading of this volume can yield.
Throughout the book, “cities” are on the whole conceptualized narrowly as material sites for cultural production. In Kristin McGee’s chapter “‘New York Comes to Grongingen’: Jazz Star Circuits in the Netherlands,” Grongingen is the location for a musical academy whose jazz program derives international repute from its connections to NYC. In Helen Kim’s chapter on Bombay Bronx, London is the site of a particularly influential weekly nightclub. In Sara Cohen’s chapter, “Cavern Journeys: Music, Migration and Urban Space,” Liverpool is the site of the Cavern Club, a performance venue that sustains musical communities as well as (in the neoliberal era, with tragic historical oversights) supports urban brands. This focus on cultural production means the city qua community—of ethnic/migrant groups, neighborhoods, music fans or otherwise—is largely undeveloped in Migrating Music.
However, elsewhere the volume highlights diasporic ‘publics’ that are constituted by migrating music. As various chapters show, these publics may have urban foundations, although the analysis typically emphasizes publics’ manifest content—e.g., the imagining of cross-border diasporic nations and ethnicities—over their geographic milieu. (As a reader from urban sociology, I was puzzled how frequently some authors downplayed the physical location of their human subjects, at least in comparison to the imaginary locations evoked by the music.) The volume’s relative neglect of urban milieux for diasporic publics, and of the prospect that settlement in concrete places can in fact transform and differentiate the scattered members of diasporic publics, puts it at odds with the thrust of much scholarship in urban studies. Then again, the latter might benefit from this volume’s insights into the signifying work that goes into imagining publics, a work that involves considerable agency on the parts of audiences and contingency in the materials available to construct publics. Just think of how the concept of publics might retorque the critical scholarship on urban branding and hipster enclaves, to name two recent topics in urban studies.
The migration of music and people also supports another feature of cities: cosmopolitanism. Indeed, Byron Dueck questions the conventional association of cosmopolitanism with cities: “Unacknowledged comopolitanisms are hidden everywhere, all the more easily ignored when they seem to be manifestations of the traditional, the rural or the sacred” (pg. 199). This is a valid way to understand what’s at stake when (as John Baily’s chapter describes) women from Afghanistan call into the BBC World Service program Zamzama and share their zamzama—Pashto for everyday humming and singing:

AMINA: Salaam. Where are you speaking from, Farahnaz Jan?
FARAHNAZ: I’m from—in the north…
AMINA: And are you married?
FARAHNAZ: Yes, I’m married.
AMINA: Farahnaz Jan, do you listen to music?
FARAHNAZ: Yes, I listen to music, especially to the BBC. When I go to the kitchen I take my radio [mobile telephone] with me and listen every minute I’m in there. This is the song I want to sing.
[Farahnaz sings]
AMINA: Farahnaz Jan, thank you very much. I thought I could hear someone in the background while you were singing. Is there anyone else with you who would like to sing?
FARAHNAZ: No, there’s no one around because my husband’s very strict. That’s why I came to the kitchen as soon as my phone rang.
AMINA: I hope your husband is not too strict.
FARAHNAZ: Because of the situation in this country and because we’re in a village, people feel they have to be strict, they’re so nervous about upsetting someone.
AMINA: Your husband won’t be upset if he hears you singing on the BBC?
FARAHNAZ: He doesn’t know my [singing] voice that well!
AMINA: Thank you very much (pp. 189-90).

Ultimately, I think it goes too far to suggest that such mass-mediated musical exchanges occur outside the auspices of urbanism (as social condition). My view on this isssue may be more philosophical than empirical, but it seems that what Georg Simmel and Max Weber would recognize as the techno-rational media for modernity—in this case its structured encounter with the ‘other,’ the abstract reflection such encounters facilitate, and (ideally) the civilizing effect that results—emerged in fundamental respects out of the historic cauldron of city life. To acknowledge that modernity has since escaped its original setting hardly means that indicated urbanism has lost its significance. On the contrary, giving a nod to Louis Wirth, urbanism is now a portable way of life. In this way, perhaps new encounters with urbanism are among the best of what migrating music offers its listeners.

View on the Musical Urbanism site.

Weird Scenes from the 5 and the TCH: Metropolitan Structure and Rock in Canada

It was November 1977, and it was the first time any of us had traversed our home and native land. We soon found out what a big-ass country Canada is. The ground in Saskatchewan was covered with snow, and it was so fucking flat that you could see a grain elevator miles away. It looked like the earth had been run over by a giant bulldozer! Let’s just say the beauty of the heartland is an acquired taste. The road was like a skating rink through eastern Manitoba. I drove through a flotilla of cop cars and tow trucks, my knuckles white from grippin’ the wheel.

– Joey Keithley, I, Shithead: A Life in Punk (pg. 39).
This passage from the autobiography of D.O.A. frontman and Canadian punk pioneer Joey Keithley, a.k.a. Joey Shithead, conveys a fact of life known to all Canadians: theirs is a huge country with a fairly small population. Consider this: in 2011, Canada had a population of 33,476,688 residents within its 3,855,103 square miles (9,984,670 square kilometers). That gives the country a population density of 8.7 people/square miles (3.4 people/square kilometers). By contrast, in 2010 the U.S. had a population density of 83.0 people/square miles (32.1 people/square kilometers), while the U.K. had the respective figures of 661.8 people/square miles (225.5 people/square kilometers).
Of course, most of Canada is undeveloped or inhospitable by “modern” standards (scare quotes to give the country’s indigenous First Nations inhabitants their due). Thus, its population is geographically concentrated within a relative handful of cities close to the U.S. border. Canada’s statistics office reports that in 2006, 80.2 percent of its national population lived in “urban areas.” (I couldn’t find the most recent 2011 figures for urban population.) The census metropolitan areas for Canada’s three biggest cities alone — Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver — account for 42.3 percent of this urban population, or 34.4 percent of the entire population. As a point of comparison, you would have to sum up the 17 largest metropolitan statistical areas in the U.S., from NYC to San Diego, before you reached a comparable proportion of the national population.
It might seem that Canadians with an inkling to visit the big cities would have an easy time of it, considering how few of these major metropoles their country has to offer, but the vast distances separating the three cities can raise a significant obstacle. This point was illustrated to me when I met up recently with a recent graduate from Vassar College who hailed from Victoria, a charming little coastal British Columbian city some 70 miles (114 km) and a ferry ride away from Vancouver. A bright, intellectually curious student, this individual is very much what I’d call an urbanist by disposition. Just last summer, she bicycled across the U.S. with a team raising funds for Habitats for Humanity. And yet… she had never visited Toronto or Montreal, Canada’s two biggest cities.
Although I have no idea how typical her experience is for Canadians living on the West Coast, I’ll bet it isn’t all that out of the ordinary. U.S. citizens wouldn’t necessarily expect all Seattleites to have visited Chicago or New York City. Why should we expect Canadians living just across the border to have spanned similar distances? Well, speaking from an American point of view, we do it because Canadians have so few big cities in Canada to choose from than we do. Essentially, if you’re looking for the cosmopolitanism, diversity, amenities and cultural developments (including architecture) that we associate with ‘great cities’, there’s really only three places in Canada to choose from. Why wouldn’t a self-conscious urbanist take the time to visit these places?
Perhaps the construct of national borders blinds us to the more relevant metropolitan structure. To return to my example, this individual did have a repertoire of cities that she was intimately familiar with growing up in Victoria. They were situated along the Pacific West Coast and U.S. Interstate 5 (“the 5,” in regional parlance): Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego. Indeed, Washington state’s San Juan Islands stared at her and other Victorians any time they took the ferry, while her story of the family roadtrip to Disneyland could be substituted for any U.S. resident’s experience, except for the added element of passports.
These features of Canada’s metropolitan structure, particularly the vast distance separating Vancouver from the country’s bigger cities along and off the Trans-Canada Highway, have exerted an overlooked influenced on the development of pop music — in Canada, the rest of North America, maybe even further. Here now, three vignettes from the North America’s highway vector, along the 5 and the TCH.
The Collectors
I recently watched “Shakin’ All Over: Canadian Pop Music in the 1960s,” a CBC documentary from 2006 based on Nicholas Jennings’ book Before the Gold Rush: Peace, Love, and the Dawn of the Canadian Sound. The doc moves quickly through the usual suspects (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell) to focus on the national groups whohad hits and played gigs within Canada. As for the ascent of bona fide 60s rock played by and for countercultural freaks is concerned, the doc assigns Vancouver a key role in the story (at about 14:00 into this clip).

The Canadian music scene continues to thrive locally in the mid-1960s, but without any national music infrastructure. There is no cross-country radio airplay or touring circuits, so West Coast musicians look south to the psychedelic sounds of California. Like San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, Vancouver’s music scene is based in incense-filled clubs like the Afterthought and the Retinal Circus. Dozens of adventurous bands spring up with their own mind-expanding lightshows and groovy poster art.

The first significant group in this story is the Collectors, flower-punk pioneers from Vancouver who morphs into a Haight Ashbury folk-rock group, Chilliwack. Tapping into the West Coast connection wasn’t merely a matter of musical influences for the Collectors; it was also a matter of career practicality.

It was easier for us to travel 1500 miles to L.A., and there was a great center of music there, than it was for us to go 3000 to Toronto or New York.

– Bill Henderson, The Collectors
In turn, the geographical shift of countercultural musical energy to the West Coast between 1967-69, the key years for the Collectors, gave Vancouver groups special access to the central influences, markets and industry feeding the baby boom rock generation. This was a not-inconsiderable advantage that groups from Toronto and Montreal would be hard pressed to match.
The Deviants
The West Coast urban chain is also the setting for the final burnout of London’s late-60s underground legends the Deviants. Led by Mick Farren, a writer for the underground publication International Times, the Deviants recorded three albums between 1967 and 69 that never quite met the musical standards set by their inspiration, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, but nonetheless capture the anger and anarchy of the freak community residing in London’s Landbroke Grove neigborhood. By the third album, the group took on Vancouver guitarist Paul Rudolph, whose hometown connections lay the basis for a brief Autumn 1969 sojourn to Vancouver. Deviants manager Jamie Mendelkau explained the idea in Rich Deakin’s Keep it Together! Cosmic Boogies with the Deviants and the Pink Fairies:

In simplest terms, the gig was arranged via Paul Rudolph and his pal who owned the Colonial, and it was seen as a great way to reopen the place. I don’t know if he had ever listened to any Deviants albums at this time. Paul Rudolph was well known enough in Vancouver music circles to pull a crowd (pp. 132-3).

These gigs at the Colonial were disastrous. Few people showed up at first, and when they finally did, they received an abusive earful from Farren:


Farren’s aggravated state (“They were actually seeing a human being in neural disintegration, right onstage, without hesitation and shame,” he recalled) burned the final bridge to his bandmates. Rudolph, bassist Duncan Sanderson, and drummer Russell Hunter sacked Farren from his own band and, stranded in the U.S. without return airfare, obtained a week-long residency at Seattle’s Trolley Club opening for… the Collectors.
From their they made a pilgramage to San Francisco, where they played a few poorly attended shows, crashed at various communes (including Chet Helms’ Family Dog; see the photo below, with Rudolph sitting to the left of a pontificating Helms), and caught gigs by the Grateful Dead, Jeferson Airplane, Steve Miller, It’s a Beautiful Day, as well as touring performances by the Velvet Underground and Crosby Stills & Nash. Rudolph and Deviants Roadie Boss Goodman even made it to Altamont; in exchange for help setting up the stage, they had backstage view to “loads of little magic moments” and “some of the most atrocious sights you’d ever seen” (in Goodman’s words; pp. 148-9).
Perhaps most importantly, it was in the music room of an Oak Street commune belonging to one “weird hippy religous sect” that the three remaining Deviants put together a new set of material, including an epic new jam, “Uncle Harry’s Last Freakout.” After a final sojourn into Canada for a series of gigs at Montreal’s McGill University, the band finally made it back to England. By the end of 1969, the three Deviants convened with psychedelic musician Twink — ex-Tomorrow, ex-Pretty Things, and creator of the Farren-produced/Deviants-supported solo album Think Pink — to form the Pink Fairies.
DIY in the age of CanCon
In 1971, the Canadian Parliament legislated the recommendations of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission that radio and TV begin broadcasting a fixed minimum percentage of content that is in some way written, produced, presented, or otherwise contributed to by Canadian citizens. Known as the CanCon requirements, the law responded to longstanding concerns about the Americanization of content broadcast on Canadian airwaves. CanCon’s impact on creating awareness among Canadians of their own popular culture is immeasurable. Furthermore, as intended, CanCon gave a massive boost to the economic sectors associated with Canadian television and music. In the case of music, Canadian bands now could expect that national record labels might give them a serious lookover — at least in the aggregate.
(Famously, Canadian rockers Rush was totally ignored by Canadian labels, and they had to independently release their self-titled 1974 debut album. It took the surprise breakout of the album’s single “Working Man” from a Cleveland rock radio station to get them signed by a major label: the U.S. wing of Mercury Records. The whole situation was “pretty pathetic when you think about us being the biggest band Canada has produced,” Neil Peart told Sounds in 1980. “It makes you a little bit cynical about the [Canadian music industry].”)
Still, Canadian radio formats remained wed to the generic designations promoted U.S. radio consultants (see Line Grenier’s 1990 article, “Radio Broadcasting in Canada: The Case of ‘Transformat’ Radio,” published in the academic journalPopular Music). A punk-rock band in Canada could no more make headway into mainstream radio or the bars venues booking pop and rock acts than it could in the U.S. at this time. Thus the predicament facing Joey Shithead and other punks: they would have to do it themselves. As described in the opening quotation of this essay, Shithead took his first band the Skulls east to Toronto, where a lively punk scene had emerged in 1977. Still, it was fairly tough going at this time, as he recalls in his autobiography:

In one sense Toronto was like Vancouver: there were very few places to play. We had heard about the Crash’n’Burn, a place the Diodes had helped make famous, but it was closed by the time we arrived. We did go to to a couple of parties the Diodes threw, but they came across as art school posers to me.

Perhaps one incentive for the Skulls to make the daunting drive east (during a cold Canadian November no less) was that the trip was always meant to be one-way; after making a name for themselves in Toronto, the Skulls had aspirations to move to London. After their ignominous failure in Toronto broke up the band, Shithead returned to Vancouver and formed D.O.A. Significantly, this band found like-minded groups and made a name for itself largely via travels across the border and along the 5. Jello Biafra was a particular champion after D.O.A. shared several bills with the Dead Kennedys; he included the D.O.A. track “The Prisoner” on the seminal hardcore compilation Let Them Eat Jellybeans! (1981), and his Alternative Tentacles label would periodically release subsequent D.O.A. recordings. Through such support, the band went on to become legends of hardcore punk, opening up smaller cities and towns throughout North America to the punk-rock circuit that in turn laid the foundation for “alternative music’s” hegemony by the 1990s.
Another hardcore band that was committed during this period to playing “secondary and tertiary markets” (as Henry Rollins sarcastically calls these overlooked places, above) was Hüsker Dü from Minneapolis. “D.O.A. and Dead Kennedys were the two bands that were the most instrumental in getting Hüsker Dü to the West Coast,” Bob Mould writes in his autobiography See a Little Light (pg. 48). In turn, Hüsker Dü laid important ground for punk rock along the Trans-Canada Highway. Mould describes the inaugural dates of Hüsker Dü’s first North American tour (1981) in Calgary at the Calgarian Hotel (“a flophouse with a bar and lounge on the ground floor”). A real baptism by fire for the band, the event also provides a view onto the conditions for punk rock in Calgary, then a city of 591,857 people.

       I’d sat next to bleeding unconscious people in bus terminals, I’d watched Johnny Thunders shoot up, and I’d watched drunk women attempt to vandalize our musical equipment; I’d experienced sketchy before. But this was a whole new level of sketchy. One woman who was a regular at the Calgarian was stabbed on Monday night, and then stabbed again that Wednesday. It was that kind of place.
Early in the week, we were playing our first set while a handful of local Native Americans were getting drunk. During the second set, some ranchers started showing up. Then the two groups started going back and forth at each other. A fair amount of fighting happened around the pool table between the cowboys and the Indians — those are crass stereotypes, but it was the reality. We would fire the music back up, and they would stop what they were doing and say, “What the fuck is this punk rock? This band sucks!” So now the cowboys and Indians were putting their beef on hold and uniting against the punk rock; not ony against us, but also the punks in the audience. Of the fifty or so people in the bar, there would be a dozen cowboys and a handful of Indians, but the majority were the punks. You might that that ratio would have discouraged the cowboys and Indians, but it didn’t. We’d finish a set, get off the stage, leave the drums and amps behind, run upstairs, go back to the rooms they gave us for free, and just sit there and say to one another, “We have to go back down there?” Fights were pouring out into the street, and since our room was in the front of the hotel, we saw everything. It was like a barroom brawl straight out of an old western movie.
This continued for six straight days. By the end of the week, we’d not only managed to keep ourselves out of harm, trouble, and jail, but we’d also become acquainted with several folks in the Calgary punk rock community. It was a hell of a way to start a tour (pg. 50).

As this passage suggests, there was already a small punk rock community in Calgary whose flames Hüsker Dü only had to fan. One wonders if the band didn’t have a special affinity, coming from the U.S. nothern midwest themselves, for punk rockers stranded in the Canadian plains, hundreds of miles away from the next outpost of good music.

View on the Musical Urbanism site.

A Place That Is Lost: the Geographical Visions of Martha and the Muffins


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.


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.


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.


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 
Baby-hatching apparatus. 

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.


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:
Prickle bushes.
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:

Honey Harbour 

Wasaga Beach 

Lake Of Bays 

Dick Lake 

Serpent Mounds 

Buttermilk Falls 

Red Lake 

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 
This is 

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.


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:


View on the Musical Urbanism site.