08 February 2010

The Changing Tableaux of Martha and the Muffins

The great thing about art school is not that it produces great artists. The great thing about art school is that it produces so many wonderful bands. Being in an environment of intense study, exposed to the entire scope of twentieth-century thought, expands the horizons of the participants. Support for quirky works of strong subjectivity, from an institution no less, validates the individual. No longer circumscribed by petit bourgeois concerns, art students then believe they have the freedom to do anything.

And what that often meant, in the heady years of the late seventies, was getting together with a bunch of friends and trying out a few tunes.

So it was at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, now a landmark building of great vivacity, then a dour series of brick barracks. Guitarist David Millar asked his friend Mark Gane, sometimes to be found splicing tape in the college Sound Lab, to start a band. Gane grabbed high-school friend Martha Johnson, then a student at York University in the north of the city. Once in the band Oh! Those Pants, she settled into keyboards and vocals -- because no-one else dared sing. She in turn pulled in her friend Carl Finkle as bassist as Mark's brother Tim Gane filled out the band on drums.

Rehearsals took place in an unheated stable. Named as a joke from a list of equally impossible monikers, they made an anti-punk statement by going for the softest label possible. Their debut was at the college Halloween party... yes, I remember the days when people did stuff like that.

This line-up expanded by two more bodies, likely because the parties were more fun that way. Martha Ladly, another friend from high school, joined on keyboards and additional vocals. And so the name Martha & the Muffins now took on extra resonance. Which Martha? Ah, a political question and a potential time-bomb perhaps.

Andy Haas, saxophonist extraordinaire, completed the line-up. At the time several live bands in the area had permanent sax players, a by-product of the strong Ontario jazz-blues scene. Chicago hipsters would regularly sally on up to Toronto, stopping at London, Guelph or Kitchener-Waterloo on the way. But not many sax-fueled bands made it to record; Andy's exploratory jazz leanings gave the band a distinct sound.

Insect LoveInsect Love 7"
A1 Insect Love [original version] (3:54)
B1 Suburban Dream [original version] (2:56)
7" Canada [MM001] 1978

This extended line-up trimmed somewhat when Millar switched to an off-stage role as sound man. It was this band that recorded and self-released a single with a punky black & white cover. "Insect Love" b/w "Suburban Dream" laid things on the line in 1978. The a-side is quirky and impossible, a deviant fantasy, but a naive and coy one. "I took a chance / on interspecies romance" declares the (male) narrator, though the song is sung by Martha Johnson. It's too silly to be kinky. Martha and the Muffins are, after all, a pretty nice bunch of people.

The b-side is where the action is: a new wave (by way of pub rock) dagger in the heart of all they had escaped from when leaving high school. The scenario is portrayed with razor-sharp lyrics:

Strolling through the plaza in the cool twilight
Sucking on a synthi-shake
Hidden in the ambient florescent night
High school boys are on the make

The topical references to the CN Tower and Hockey Night In Canada demonstrate that the Muffins are one of us, not some faceless band from anywheresville. And then there is the priceless couplet "thinking 'bout evolution puts me in a sweat / the price a city dweller pays". This was the Canadian version of XTC: acerbic lyrics sneered out of pursed lips, odd keyboard runs and pounding energy. Even if recorded fairly poorly this single makes a statement.

Insect LoveInsect Love 7"
A1 Insect Love (4:10)
B1 Cheesies And Gum (3:05)
7" UK Dindisc [DIN 4] 1979.10

A demo made its way to Robert Fripp and this secured them a date at Hurrah's in NYC. Then everything moved at light speed. Their gig in March of 1979 was witnessed by an A&R rep from Virgin, who snapped them up immediately, whisked them off to England and got an album in the can. Engineered by Richard Manwaring and produced by Mike Howlett, this did a reasonable job of capturing the songs, even if the energy of their live performances was muted

The first single was a re-recording of that hexapodous love song. It's available on a Virgin compilation, so we do not include it here. The b-side, "Cheesies And Gum", is a reference so Canadian that no-one in the UK actually knew what it meant when it showed up on the debut album Metro Music. After three songs by Mark Gane, this tune is co-credited to Martha Ladly.

Echo BeachEcho Beach 7"
A1 Echo Beach (3:38)
B1 Teddy the Dink [early version] (3:29)
7" UK Dindisc [DIN 9] 1980.01

And then it happened. "Echo Beach", that perfect snatch of summer longing, was issued in the dead of winter 1980 when everyone was sick of the holidays and the rain and wanted nothing more than to get away from it all. It comes in like a breeze through an open window and kick starts any heart. "Aaaaah, she's a romantic fool -- so am I but nobody knows it yet!"

Covered many times, first by Fripp's wife Toyah Wilcox in an execrable version, this remains the pinnacle of new wave pop. That little catch in the voice when the Martha's sing "clerk". The soaring sax solo. The close harmonies on the chorus. The chiming guitar. Yep, you could base a career on that sound.

Or it could be your albatross, as many one-hits are for the wonders who produce them. A huge hit creates expectations, creates pressures. Record bosses want more, more, more. They're not happy with a single vacation in the sun, they want a churning solar ball of hits all the time. So you go on tour, you go on TV, you go back into the studio. As the label issues single after single in the hopes of topping the charts a second time.

"Teddy the Dink" is not a response to that, but it might have been. Co-written with a certain "B. Harvey", it is literally the underside of that nice beach. It's about a nasty person stuck in a nasty life, but this time with no way out. It reminds me of some of those perfect bedsit dramas Squeeze were so good at writing. Later re-recorded to fill out the second album, this version hits harder and has a more chilling laugh.

SaigonSaigon 7"
A1 Saigon [single version] (3:51)
B1 Copacabana (1:22)
7" UK Dindisc [DIN 17] 1980.05

Personally, if I worked for Virgin, I would have tried "Paint By Number Heart" as a single. Instead we have the lovely, "Saigon", another travelogue, hinting at exotic possibilities in foreign lands. The single version has some great horn squawks in the second verse and I prefer it to the less flavoursome mix on the album.

The b-side is not the only double-tracked single I own, but it is the only one where one drop of the needle gets you "Copacabana" and another drop will get you the same song... backwards! Intriguingly, both sides were written by David Millar, the latter with Martha Johnson.

About InsomniaAbout Insomnia 7"
A1 About Insomnia [single version] (3:09)
B1 1 4 6 (4:45)
7" UK Dindisc [DIN 19] 1980.07

Issued on green vinyl with a lovely cover, "About Insomnia" is a perfect pop tune, with a loping beat and elliptical lyrics. And once again "the chimes of foreign places call for a changing tableau... do you suppose?" This single version has a surprisingly brash sax break which really should have been reigned in. But it acts as a great taster for the second album, Trance and Dance, issued quickly to keep the pressure on the market.

The b-side, "1 4 6" is a jam session, punctuated by odd vocal samples and noises. It could just as readily be found on a Flying Lizards album. But the Muffins were always an art school band. If they wanted to make noise for five minutes then they would make noise for five minutes. It is regrettable that the need to produce "Echo Beach Part Two" saw them increasingly trapped in a certain new wave production formula that was at odds with the more experimental content.

Suburban DreamSuburban Dream 7"
A1 Suburban Dream [single version] (2:56)
B1 Girl Fat (4:00)
7" UK Dindisc [DIN 21] 1980.08

This single follows the same formula. The a-side is a compact would-be hit by Mark Gane and the b-side is a more sprawling jam, credited to the entire band, but with bass prominent. Here the need to come up with material quickly led to the re-recording of a song at least two years old. Though this version is the definitive take.

Was EzoWas Ezo 7"
A1 Was Ezo [single mix] (3:22)
B1 Trance and Dance [edit]
7" UK Dindisc [DIN 27] 1980.10.30

The last single from the band's "English period" is as good as they get. The b-side is Martha Johnson's title track from the album cut down to fit (so we don't include it in our compilation). The a-side is Martha Ladly's tale of Hokkaido -- which once was called Ezo, hence the cryptic title. The version here, with bountiful reverb drenching the vocals, provides the template for Ladly's first solo single.

In 1981, as their second album was being released, the band ran away from increasing pressures and returned to Canada, less Ladly. There was a change of bassists and the group jumped right back into the studio with then-unknown producer Daniel Lanois. The result is one of the most astounding albums ever laid to vinyl, This Is The Ice Age. You should drop everything RIGHT NOW and buy the impeccable re-issue.

In the meantime, relish these eleven tales of changing tableaux.

-- Second Chameleon


Martha and the Muffins: Changing Tableaux
01 Insect Love [original version]
02 Suburban Dream [original version]
03 Teddy The Dink [early version]
04 Saigon [single version]
05 Copacabana [forwards]
06 Copacabana [backwards]
07 About Insomnia [single version]
08 1 4 6
09 Suburban Dream [single version]
10 Girl Fat
11 Was Ezo [single version]

These rarities, uncollected on any official release, have been ripped from our own collection. The copy of "Insect Love" used has a glitch that we've repaired as well as might. If you want to own a slice of history, go on over to the band's official site, where you can still buy this vinyl.

You will also find there details of Martha and the Muffins' brand new album, the first in eighteen years.


  1. they were clearly more than "Echo Beach" but that still was a heck of a single. Thanks

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  3. "Was Ezo" is the real gem here. Rescued from the inhospitable surrounds of Trance and Dance, and given a vibrant new mix, it truly shines. Martha Ladly may not have had the natural talent so evident in Gane and Johnson, but the simplicity of her music, its charmingly wistful and ever so slightly offbeat sentimentality, is distinctly her own.

  4. A huge thanks for sharing these - I've become a big Muffins fan over the last couple of years and it's been so hard to find their non-album songs - and you've filled nearly all my remaining gaps in one go!

  5. hi, i couldn't find your email anyway thank's for sharing...here a favorite extra rare track from the 90's (there were only 2000 copies of it & it's impossible to find)...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28XY436D74w

  6. I'm thinking of naming you in my will. For this post alone.

  7. This is a handy, quality post. And thank you for the companion Ladly entry, too. My Muffins knowledge is stunted by relying on Trouser Press guide reviews and liner notes from second-hand vinyl. Some developments can be intuited, but gap-fillers that go beyond canned history are welcome indeed.

  8. I am glad this post has been received so well. It was fun scrambling to find these hidden vinyl artefacts in those far-off pre-Internet days. And equally fun sharing them with you now. Please buy This is The Ice Age and thank me all over again!

  9. Any ideas on the name of the Virgin Records compilation that included "Insect Love" (Ver. 2)? I'd like to track it down, if only for that track alone...

  10. The CD compilation "Far Away In Time" from 1987 includes the entirety of the "Metro Music" album with "Insect Love", four tracks from "Trance And Dance" and even two from "This Is The Ice Age". If you think of it as the debut plus bonus tracks it's not as idiotic as it first appears. :-)

  11. Thank you! I was searching the web for the tab for "About Insomnia" and I didn't find that, but this blog came up and... wow! Just fantastic. Thank you, whoever you are. (And thank you, Tim Berners-Lee!)

  12. Thanks for sharing these!

  13. Wow... what a treat!
    The Muffins were one of my favourite bands back them- cool and fun without being snooty about it.