Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Martha and the Muffins: It started in Echo Beach and ended up in Danseparc

A few weeks ago I stumbled across a French Canadian blogger who swore blind that Echo Beach was a make-believe place that never existed (except in song). I always thought the beach existed, but now, with an interview that was recently published in Canada's National Post newspaper, I think I was bang on the money.

"The song was inspired by a trip the Muffins' guitarist, Mark Gane, took with his pal Harvey to Sunnyside Beach, a soft-sanded cove on Lake Ontario in Toronto's west end. On that fateful summer evening 30 years ago..."

Here's the National Post story in full (published on July 14 08)

Song's creator goes back to 'Echo Beach'

Craig Offman on Martha and the Muffins' guitarist, Mark Gane, who was inspired by a trip he took to Sunnyside Beach in Toronto.

In the late '70s, when walrus-moustached rockers in hockey jerseys ruled Toronto's stodgy music scene, an aspiring guitarist named Mark Gane helped change all that with a hit called Echo Beach.

The song was inspired by a trip he took with his pal Harvey to Sunnyside Beach, a soft-sanded cove on Lake Ontario in the city's west end. On that fateful summer evening 30 years ago, Mr. Gane may or may not have smoked the sweet herb, soaked up the Impressionistic lights flashing in the evening fog and dreamed up lyrics about this isolated retreat, where "waves make the only sound" and "there's not a soul around."

Echo Beach, as the chorus goes, was "far away in time." So far away, in fact, that it can't be found on any map. Legend has it that Martha and the Muffins made up the whole damn thing.

Over the span of about six weeks, Mr. Gane cobbled together a larger narrative about an office clerk remembering her summer idyll. "The only thing that helps pass the time away," she laments in the chorus, "is knowing I'll be back at Echo Beach some day."

Sung by Mr. Gane's future wife, Martha Johnson, and performed by their band, Martha and the Muffins, the jazz-inflected tune quickly became a CanCon classic in 1980 and cracked the Top 10 on the U. K. charts. At the time, this was a rare coup for any Canadian band with arty pretensions.

"The year before, we were playing at the Beverly Tavern," said Mr. Gane, sitting at the Sunnyside Cafe, metres away from where the inspiration hit him. "Then all of a sudden we're on top. It was all very surreal."

A one-time student at the Ontario College of Art, Mr. Gane was part of an era when many art-school kids minored in rock. Many of them flocked to the Beverly Tavern, a hangout that helped pioneer alternative culture in a white-bread city. "It was where weird bands like ours could have an audience without people calling us faggots and throwing beer bottles at us," he recalls.

Bans like the Diodes and the Dishes hung around there. So did another act, Oh Those Pants!, led by Martha Johnson, who with Mr. Gane and four other musicians would form the Muffins in 1977.

A year later, the band snagged a record deal with Virgin Records, which signed them up partly on the strength of their song Insect Love, which was about a lovelorn man who falls in love with a moth.

That summer, Mr. Gane took his fateful trip to Sunnyside Beach.

Three decades later, Mr. Gane's recollection of the creative process is a little hazy. At first he suggested that pot might have assisted in the songwriting craft, but then wasn't sure. "It's not out of squeamishness. I just don't remember."

Other details are equally hazy. The song's name occurred to him subconsciously, he said, as did one of its signature lines, "My job is very boring/I'm an office clerk." For several summers Mr. Gane was a wallpaper-quality checker. In hindsight, he speculates that he could have been channelling Ms. Johnson's brief experience as a provincial ministry worker. "Martha would finish her work, and when she offered to help out the others they refused because they wanted to drag it out. They wanted the overtime pay."

The song also cites a surreal building, but from our vantage point on Sunnyside Beach, I couldn't really see anything except a wind turbine.

"I actually haven't come back here to look at what I was actually seeing," he said.


"I probably have been here," he replied ponderously. "But not in the analytical sense. Not to analyze it."

After Echo Beach took off, the band headed to London, where they dodged spitgobs from adoring punk fans at such venerable clubs as The Marquee and The Electric Ballroom. They also won a coveted appearance on The Top of the Pops, only to be ridiculed by disc jockey Steve Wright while they lip-synched. "Strange to see that the singer of such a cool song had hair like Auntie Iris and dresses like Lieutenant Ohura," he scoffed.

Mr. Gane recalled a lot of sniffy reaction from the Brits, not least of all from the New Musical Express. "They hated us: The mewling muffins and their crappy little song."

At the same time, fans recognized them in chip shops and in Scottish hamlets. An audience in Paris bowed to Ms. Johnson as she sang.

Following the initial success, there were other memorable early-'80s CanCon gems, notably Women around the World at Work. The band then survived many intra-band hookups and breakups, teenage stalkers, critical praise, a name change (M + M) a brief commercial resurgence with the single, Black Stations/White Stations, and then a slow slip into obscurity.

After a 16-year hiatus, Mr. Gane, now 54, and the rest of the Muffins will release a new album in November, mixed by Grammy-winner David Bottrill. In the meantime, the band has just reissued a remastered version of Danseparc, their 1983 album produced by the legendary Daniel Lanois, brother of Muffin bassist Jocelyn.

Despite the band's absence over the years, the song's mystique has not waned. Fans from all over the United States e-mail Mr. Gane, wondering where they can find Echo Beach. There are hotels, hostels and boutiques all over the world named after the song. There is even a namesake drama series in Britain.

Ironically, Mr. Gane believes that Echo Beach does not represent his band's best work, but he is not about to disavow it, either. "I don't like taking anything for granted," he said. "I don't."

Okay, but what's the story behind "Danseparc", Martha and the Muffins' 1983 studio album, produced by Daniel Lanois. Danseparc, a far cry from Echo Beach, is like a distant cousin. First the obsession with beaches, and then parks? What's the connection?

Danseparc is one of those songs that has this hypnotic bassline, played by Jocelyn Lanois (sister of Daniel), enhanced with Martha Johnson's sexy Karen Carpenter vocals, backed with some weird keyboards and King Crimson-like guitar rhythms.

The album is getting a 25th Anniversary release on August 4th via Cherry Red Records in the UK. The album's been digitally remastered by Peter J. Moore (the dude who produced the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Sessions album) and includes 3 bonus tracks including a 12" inch dance mix of the blessed Danseparc.

What's next for the Muffins, Smells Like Teen Spirit?

And for those cynics out there that said it couldn't be done, think again.

How to destroy a classic in three easy steps.

1. Choose the wrong singer.

2. Film the video as if it was a cross between a Jane Fonda workout video and a piece of soft porn.

3. Watch as the singer attempts some really naff dance moves.

The result?

Toyah slaughters Martha and the Muffins's classic Echo Beach.

Be very afraid...