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Random Jukebox: Martha & The Muffins’ Echo Beach

Sometimes you just have to roll with the selections of that Random Jukebox, and today it’s landed on the perennial favourite Echo Beach, a graceful, gorgeous, wistful pop tune guaranteed to whisk you far away in time.

Compared often and inaccurately to the B-52’s because of the duopoly of female voices — or Blondie, thanks to a strong keyboard-driven New Wave sound — Canadian sextet Martha and the Muffins offered melodic art pop with a refreshing lack of focus on style. A pre-Smiths Smiths if you like, though considerably less photogenic to boot.

The Muffins’ quietly ironic tunes were distinctive, but they didn’t necessarily rely on a single bold signature, preferring teamwork and varied arrangements to flashy musicianship. Some would find their understated songs bland; others would call them deliciously subtle.

Over to Cheggers.

The band’s relaxed attitude stemmed from the fact that they weren’t really aiming for the big time in the first place. When Toronto guitarist Mark Gane and two fellow students at the Ontario College of Art got together in early 1977, they had an equal balance of ideas and technical inexperience. In due time the other two departed and brother Tim Gane (drums), Carl Finkle (bass), Andy Hass (saxophone) joined, headed by the twin set Marthas on vocal and keyboard-sharing duties; Martha Johnson and Martha Ladly, almost a decade apart in age* but bonded by their weaving of curlicued melodies around the band’s angular, Talking Heads influenced dance numbers. It just all seemed to work.

The band’s first gig was Halloween 1978, and they settled on the odd moniker right before that first date just to have something to put on posters, as Mark Gane recalls.

“Part of the reason we chose the name was that at the time there was a whole series of bands in Toronto like the Viletones, the Curse, and the Ugly. We wanted something that was the antithesis of that. ‘Martha and the Muffins’ couldn’t be more wimpy.”

But the group did have enough drive to put out a homemade 45 in March of 1979, which started the ball rolling. Toronto radio played it, Virgin subsidiary DinDisc signed them, and a few months later the Muffins recorded Metro Music in England.

The Ontarians were “far away in time” when Echo Beach, the second single from the album, was released on 8 February 1980, quickly becoming their signature song. Mentally escaping from the everyday hum-drum, the girls sang about the loneliness of the cubicle worker, of a clerk dreaming of escape to a lakeside park. It caught like lightning in the jar of a three and a half minute pop song, shooting up the British charts to nestle at the foothills of the top ten.

Suddenly a band with very little experience was under the microscope, learning difficult lessons only success could teach. 

After releasing three albums on DinDisc (1980’s Metro Music and Trance And Dance, 1981’s This Is The Ice Age), the line-up started fracturing, with those still on board heading home, changing their name in 1984 to M+M, signing to RCA and scoring major US and Canadian hits with the Black Stations, White Stations single and Danseparc album. Mark Gane was instrumental in the name change to M+M.

“Inevitably, Martha was Martha and I was a muffin, which I hated. We were never meant to be pop musicians but as the Echo Beach thing got bigger, some band members wanted to be pop stars, which created rifts.”

Martha Ladly would go on to work with Avalon era Roxy Music, which was followed by a stint as an auxiliary member of The Associates, providing keyboards and luscious backing vocals to supplement Mackenzie’s virtuoso vocal performances through to 1986. Now appearing more glacial than secretarial, she’s the keyboardist who gets her heart stolen — literally — by Billy Mackenzie in the infamous ‘chocolate guitar’ performance of 18 Carat Love Affair on Top Of The Pops.

Lastly, Ladly had an impressive concurrent career in the visual arts, which got off to a suitably stylish start when designer Peter Saville incorporated her Futurist-inspired painting Factus 8 for the sleeve of New Order’s North American EP 1981–1982. She later became the design manager for Peter Gabriel’s Real World portfolio. Now a distinguished professor in her sixties, 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.

Steve Pafford

*Coincidentally, Johnson is actually 72 today (Hi Pats!), while Ladly the Mysterious was born “around 1960.”

BONUS BEATS: In 1987, Toyah Willcox released a version of Echo Beach. And as you can see from this chintzy telly performance, it’s somewhere between Flashdance and a witch strangling a bag of cats. Enjoy.

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