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


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

"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

24 January 2009

Ultravox! Live At Reading, August 27, 1977

Hello, Mutants of the mud!

A quick update for all you enjoying the Faith Global post. Here's Ultravox!, with the exclamation point intact, playing before the sodden crowd at the Reading Festival on August 27, 1977. The sound quality is better than most from this period, and it offers a rare snap shot of the Foxx-era line up at about the time of Ha! Ha! Ha!. Shears' guitar stands out from the get-go, and the band really hits its groove with a blistering take of "Young Savage."

Stay tuned next week for a new post, of particular interest to fans of New Order, the Associates, and Martha and the Muffins--you remember "Echo Beach," don't you?

-- Crash The Driver

Ultravox! Live At Reading, August 27, 1977
1. Rock Wrok
2. Slip Away
3. The Frozen Ones
4. Distant Smile
5. Young Savage
6. My Sex
7. The Wide Boys
8. Satday Night In The City Of The Dead
9. Artificial Life
10. The Wild, The Beautiful, And The Damned
11. Fear In The Western World

20 January 2009

"The Same Mistakes" by Faith Global

It's always the best
That seem to crack and break
So it always seems right
To make The Same Mistakes

Stevie Shears must have known that his time with Ultravox! was coming to an end when he first heard a copy of the band's second album. Released at the very height of the punk explosion in November of 1977, Ha! Ha! Ha! was a raucous rejoinder to those critics who had dismissed Ultravox! as pretentious art rockers, hopelessly out of sync with the times--all rampaging guitars and sheets of wailing feedback it gave the spiky-haired bands a run for their money. But even to the band's guitarist, the standout track had to be not one of the more aggressive songs such as "Rock Wrok," or "Distant Smile," but "Hiroshima Mon Amour," a plaintive ballad for drum machines and synthesizers, to which his most important contribution was a saxophone solo. The future, it seemed, would belong to the machines.

Shears of course was not the only guitarist to struggle in the dance hall days of the late seventies and early eighties. Those schooled in the funk grooves of bands like Chic and Parliament prospered, but more rock-oriented players, like Shears, or Japan's Rob Dean, had an increasingly hard time among the banks of Arps, Korgs, and Oberheims that now crowded the recording studios. Even Gary Numan dropped the guitar for his most successful album, The Pleasure Principle. So when Shears slipped out of sight following Ha! Ha! Ha! no one seems to have much wondered why.

The first inkling that Shears had remained actively involved in music came in the form of a twelve inch EP released under the moniker of Faith Global on the independent label Survival Records in 1982. "Earth Report" had the wide-eyed optimism and soaring ambition of bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and The Wild Swans, with a sound that was decidedly less commercial than that followed by Shears' former band mates. Shears played not only guitar, but bass and synths, too, conjuring up a colourful, almost impressionistic swirl of sound to support newcomer Jason Guy's stirring vocals.

Comparisons were made to the Psychedelic Furs, perhaps not unfairly, but with a pair of strong b-sides, the record garnered favourable reviews and augured well for the album to come. The Same Mistakes contained nine tracks, two of which in fact featured Furs saxophone player Duncan Kilburn, together with some session players. Dave Henderson, writing in Sounds, gave the album a resounding four stars, adding, "Here is a confident new dance music that doesn't steal religiously from funk, and has no intentions of falling into an electrobop typecast."

The b-sides were re-recorded without the abrasive drum machine, giving the tracks a smoother, moodier feel. Surprisingly the single itself is not on the album; back in the post-punk era value for money was still a reality.


The Same Mistakes
01. The Same Mistakes
02. Forgotten Man
03. Hearts and Flowers
04. Knowing The Way
05. Love Seems Lost
06. Coded World
07. Yayo
08. Slaves To This
09. Facing Facts
UK LP Survival [SUR LP 003] 1983

Earth Report
10. Earth Report
11. Coded World [version]
12. Love Seems Lost [version]
UK 12" Survival [SUR 124] 1982

Faith Global are...
Stevie Shears: guitar, synthesizer, piano, bass, sleeve design
Jason Guy: vocals, acoustic guitar

bass on 01, 02, 03, 04, 07: Neil Hughes
drums on 01, 02, 03, 04, 06, 07: Graham King
saxophone on 02, 04: Duncan Kilburn
bass on 05, 10, 12: Steen
snare on 10, 12: Dave Modesty
guitar on 05, 12: Adam Hart
Faith Global has been stuck in my head for decades. The opening bass riff from the title track of the album bounces my head into a slamming piano chord which makes way for intertwined snakey guitar lines. Guy's bizarrely appealing vocals launch into odd abstract vocals about... something. All this in the first thirty seconds. In part evoking the krautrock-influenced Sons and Fascination period of Simple Minds, in part kin to England's Trance by Placebo (no, not that Placebo, the original one) and definitely recalling a Talk Talk Talk without Richard Butler's bravado, this record has everything I want in post-punk. I don't know what it's all about, but I know it was important to those who made it.
-- Second Chameleon

The album has a charmingly ramshackle quality, like it was bolted together in somebody's garage out of spare radio parts and disused lighting grids. I don't think it is appreciably better than the single, however, and the fact that both b-sides ended up as album tracks suggests that Shears and Guy weren't exactly brimming over with ideas at this point. No surprise, then, that there was no follow up. Still, there's lots to like here and "Earth Report" will always be a personal fave.
-- Crash The Driver

Read another appreciation at Down With Tractors.

18 January 2009

Welcome: A Rant

Welcome to "The Same Mistakes," a blog about the most vital period in popular music of the post-capitalist era, a time from about 1978 to 1982 when social conventions and accepted truths were called into question and there remained the possibility of imagining the world as other than it was.

We have been delaying for years starting this blog, and in the meantime have seen a renaissance of interest in the post-punk period. This has largely been spurred by a boat-load of bands claiming inspiration in this period. Thus, for example, Franz Ferdinand have tipped their hat to Joseph K. and The Fire Engines. Belle & Sebastian acknowledge the importance of the Young Marble Giants and Felt. And everyone seems to pilfer from the Gang Of Four.

By now there are many other sources of information for music of the types we will cover here. So why are we embarking on this journey so very late? Perhaps because we still have a few things to offer.

It has been said that the music one hears when one is 18 will live with one forever. I was 18 in 1981 and 1981 is the greatest year in popular music. Ever.

One thing we can offer, then, is passion. We are still living this music. It still reverberates within us and throughout our interactions with others. It has shaped our lives and will continue to do so until we lie down dead in our graves. We have been DJs, critics, radio producers, audio engineers, yes, even musicians. We are involved.

Another thing we can offer is perspective. Most of the music we are interested in came from the UK, and though we tracked its progress carefully, we lived across the ocean in North America. We had an outsider view of what was going on in that hot-house environment of multiple weekly music papers, television shows, radio programmes, billboard advertising, etc. Had we been enveloped in that media bombardment I am sure our experience would have been different. Would it have been more intense? More vital? More overwhelming? Perhaps so. But we use our distance as an advantage.

There is more than one mind behind this blog, more than one opinion, more than one perspective. Sometimes we might write in the first-person plural, and other times I might write in the singular. You might very well read contradictions or even arguments. Comments will stay open, so you can take part.

We will from time to time offer links to music that is difficult or impossible to find, or that we feel deserves greater attention. Some we have digitised from our own extensive collections. Other times we have collated from the best quality sources we have found elsewhere. Sometimes the original source of these is obscure. If we don't know enough to credit you, please accept our apologies in advance.

Music will stay available until it isn't any more. So subscribe using your favourite blog reader or RSS tool. You won't want to miss our posts.

The name of the blog? We'll get to that in the next installment.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for caring. Thanks, most of all, for listening.