25 January 2009

The Charmed Life of Martha Ladly



Closer, now closer the shore
Tarry, now tarry no more
Away from the one that I love
Away from the one that I love


Was there anyone in the post-punk era who led a more charmed life than Martha Ladly? From playing small clubs in Toronto, Canada, to a world wide top ten single, from aspiring art student to graphic designer for some of the most recognized names in music, hers is surely one of the most remarkable careers of the period. That she also left us with just two solo singles, now largely forgotten but no less wonderful for being so, seems only to add to the charm.

Like many young art students enrolled at the Ontario College of Art in the late seventies, Ladly found herself swept up by the mad excitement of the punk-new wave scene on the Queen Street Strip. Just a block south of their lecture halls, OCA’s best put aside their charcoal and oil paints, poured themselves into skinny jeans, and thrashed away at guitars and drums in clubs like The Beverley and The Rivoli. Martha and the Muffins were an established band on the scene when they approached Ladly, who played guitar, with the idea that she join them. They in fact already had a guitar player, the prodigiously talented Mark Gane. And they already had a Martha, in lead vocalist Martha Johnson, but it scarcely seemed to matter. Ladly simply switched to keyboards, weaving curlicued melodies around the band’s angular, Talking Heads influenced dance numbers, and when she joined in on vocals, too, it just all seemed to work.

In 1979, a demo tape was dispatched to Glenn O’Brien, record reviewer for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, who in turn passed it onto an A&R rep for Virgin Records, and before anyone on The Strip could believe it, the Muffins were jetting off to England to record their debut album at the Manor Studios. Metro Music is the very essence of New Wave: irresistible bass grooves, chiming guitars, sudden bursts of saxophone, and instantly memorable tunes about life in the city and its suburbs. On "Echo Beach" Martha Johnson sang about the loneliness of the cubicle worker, of a clerk dreaming of escape to a lakeside park, and the whole world got it. This was 1980, caught like lightning in the jar of a three and a half minute pop song.

No doubt as surprised as the band was by their sudden success, the record label sent the Muffins on tour across the UK and North America to support the album, and then booked them back into the Manor to whip up a sequel, Trance And Dance. Ladly penned one of the album's singles, "Was Ezo," and co-wrote a couple of the other tracks, but it seems that it was her work on the album's cover art that captured her attention most. It not only allowed her to return to her art school roots, but put her in touch with Peter Saville, the visionary designer whose work set the Factory label apart from all others. She soon left the Muffins, won a scholarship, and returned to the UK to study. There she renewed her relationship with Saville, contributing the Futurist-inspired painting that graced the cover of New Order’s Factus 8 1981-82 EP, and suggesting the titles for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's Architecture and Morality album, and subsequent hit single, "Tesla Girls."

Martha Ladly did not entirely abandon her performing career, however. She sang backing vocals and played keyboards on The Associates' Sulk (appearing with them on Top of The Pops) in 1982. She even joined Robert Palmer for a tour of Japan in 1986. But it is the pair of singles released under variations of her own name that most deserve notice.

Attributed to Martha Ladly and The Scenery Club, and produced by Mike Howlett, "Finlandia" is a glorious slice of post-punk pop. Ladly’s high, delicate voice is born up on a surging wave of sound, held aloft by rolling drums, ascending piano figures, and a rousing chorus that positively aches for the Nordic homeland. It has some of the yearning, Romantic quality that OMD achieved on singles like "Joan of Arc" and "Maid Of Orleans," paired with a wistfulness and winsomeness that were purely her own. It's these same qualities that helped make her subsequent single so memorable.

Released under the name of "Martha," and co-written with another ex-pat Canuck (and Peter Saville collaborator), Brett Wickens, "Light Years From Love" appeared on Island Records in 1983. It boasted a string arrangement by Simon Jeffes of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and New Order’s Peter Hook provided one of his signature bass lines. For those who only saw the video, with Ladly emerging from a swimming pool in slow motion, it may well have seemed a purely commercial endeavour, the kind of producer-led project where the singer is just there to add some glamour. But "Light Years From Love" is very much a Martha Ladly song, its brightly sparkling sequencers off set by her melancholic tale of sidereal love. With its stellar cast of players, and glossy Steve Nye production, the single attracted some attention, but not enough, apparently, to warrant a full album.

Martha Ladly eventually devoted her energies to her graphic design work, heading up Real World Design, the multi-media arm of Peter Gabriel's Real World Records. Today she is an Associate Professor of Design at the school where she began, now known as the Ontario College of Art and Design. From her office window I imagine she can just see the intersection of Queen and Beverley where once she played.

"Finlandia" is included here in its original 7" format, as are both the 12" and 7" mixes of "Light Years From Love" and its flip. As a bonus, we’ve included a track from Stephen Emmer’s 1982 album, Vogue Estate, featuring Martha Ladly on vocals. The Associates material is readily available on Sulk, which we are sure you already own.

--Crash The Driver

download

Martha Ladly And The Scenery Club
"Finlandia"
01 Finlandia
02 Tasmania
UK 7" Dindisc [DIN 32] 1981

Martha
"Light Years From Love"
04 Light Years From Love (Long Version)
05 Dramas of the Human Heart (Long Version)
UK 12" Island [12 IS 125] 1983

05 Light Years From Love
06 Dramas of the Human Heart
UK 7" Island [IS 125] 1983

Stephen Emmer
Vogue Estate
07 Never Share
Holland LP Idiot Records [WEA 28.407] 1982





31 comments:

  1. I seem to recall her playing with The Associates whilst wearing a rubber swimsuit which did all sorts of things to my already over enthusiastic teenage hormones.

    Thanks for the posting and the blog.

    Herbal T

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    1. I watched her live in Regina Canada 1981 with Martha and the Muffins swaying above the keyboard with no bra. I will take that memory to my grave.

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  2. what a great story. Of course, I fell in love with Echo Beach and have all the Martha and the Muffins stuff. Thanks for the tale.

    bill

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  3. I'd think that by now we'd have more of her students here on the blog posting about her latest lecture. Or maybe design students already have all the great tunes? Nah!

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    1. This year she was the instructor in one of my graduate studies classes at OCADU (yes, the letters keep acfumulating, it is a university now). She was awesome and energetic. I really enjoyed her class. Unfortunately I don't think she has an office looking at Queen and Beaverly :)

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  4. A truly terrific post. As well as having a professional liaison with Saville she had a personal one, as you probably know. There's a fantastic picture of the pair of them in Paris at the front of the Saville monograph from a few years back. They look so young.

    I've linked to you from my blog. Hope you don't mind.

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  5. Irk The Purists said "As well as having a professional liaison with Saville she had a personal one, as you probably know."

    Ah yes, we have some tales to tell. But the Driver and I are true gentlemen. Our lips are sealed!

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  6. Just found your blog, and am having a look around (as you can see from my trail of comments...) How can I not have a listen to these Martha Ladly tracks after that interesting write-up?
    Thanks

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  7. Fantastic! I, as I'm sure many others did, had a huge crush on Ms. Ladly as a spotty teenager. I met her a few years back and still found myself totally enamoured of her.

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  8. I TOO MET MARTHA WHEN I WAS 18 - SHE WAS ABSOLUTELY CHARMING - AND STILL IS - A VERY TALENTED AN UNDERESTIMATED ARTIST IN ALL OF THE ARTS. BOTH TASMANIA AND FINLANDIA ARE AMAZING TRACKS - MAYBE AHEAD OF THEIR TIME - I WOULD HAVE LOVED A SCENERY CLUB ALBUM...BUT I GUESS LEAVING U WANTING MORE HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE APPEAL OF MS LADLY. GREAT POST.
    KEITH

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  9. Sorry to say she went along way on very little talent - other band members carried her in the early years. So typical of our society that someone with marginal singing ability could go as far as she did...

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    1. Wow.

      Her keyboards are incredible - listen to Party Fears Two, they made that track along with that amazing bass line. And her backing vocals are almost ethereal.


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  10. Do you mean "marginal singing ability" like Bob Dylan, Nico and Johnny Lydon? You do realise we are talking pop music here and not opera?

    As for "other band members carrying her", I think you might want to listen again to the vocals, keyboards and songwriting she contributed to the first two Martha & The Muffins albums. The band would not have been the same without her.

    They needed all the marginal talent they could find. As do most pop/rock groups. The margins are where it's at.

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  11. She is lucky to have known Billy MacKenzie!

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  12. Loved 'Light Years From Love' when it came out, bout the 7". I wasn't sure there was a 12" till now, it still sounds like a hit single that should have been back then. Thank you!

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  13. Thanks 4 the music. Remember her from Martha and the Muffins. Fantastic 80s band.

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  14. what I remember of Martha and the Muffins are the bright eyes and pouting lips of a blonde girl I now know as Martha Ladly singing the backing vocals - i have seen them again for the first time in 30 years thanks to You Tube and found this enthralling article about a prodigously talented lady. Thanks for the memories Martha and the writer!

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  15. I remember Martha temping for my firm whilst in London just as Light Years From Love was released. Martha and I went for lunch and she lent me a copy of the video. Clearly talented but so unaffected by her success, just working in as an "office clerk" - as I teased her!

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  16. Great site - very much enjoyed reading this.

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  17. Martha is now a teacher at my school, OCADU. She came to a class of mine a few years back to give a lecture on Ethics. There was an odd tension in the room because we were specifically told before hand that she hated when people asked about her music career, so nobody said anything.

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  18. The entire class should have simultaneously held up copies of "Light Years From Love". :-)

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  19. That would definitely be the most positive statement :) Both singles are truly exclusive among New Wave's lost gems...

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  20. Count me in as a Ladley fan!

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  21. Top of the pops 1982 with The Associates, Martha looking absolutely phworr!!! Her contribution to the band musically and beauty will always be with me. The most stunning violin player ever. Dave.x

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  22. fell in love with the moment I seen her.

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  23. As a teenage boy she did things for me, so cute and sexy, now I discover she is not only still lovely but she has brains too. Surely the perfect woman.

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  24. I'm sorry but I need more proof with regard to the Peter Hook connection. Just because somebody played on the upper register of a bass guitar in the early 80s does not mean that it was Hooky himself. Does anybody have anything concrete other than assumption based on hearing high notes on a bass?

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  25. Says so right on the sleeve: have a look at discogs:

    http://www.discogs.com/Martha-Light-Years-From-Love/master/105632

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