In this edition of our Toronto-music oral history series: the story behind the record that transformed a ragtag group of OCA students and “Thornhill weirdos” into unlikely international pop stars, and gave a popular local concert venue its name.
Martha and the Muffins are the rare band that became famous almost by accident. The duo of Martha Johnson and Mark Gane first got together in 1977 due to a shared interest in experimental music, named their band as a joke, and weren’t really trying to sign a record deal. They wound up becoming pop stars and writing one of the most enduring hits of their era. Here’s how it happened.
Part I: Art School Confidential
A group of art students and “weirdos from Thornhill” get together and start playing gigs under a makeshift name.
Mark Gane (Guitarist, Martha and the Muffins): We had no expectation whatsoever that this was going to last more than a couple of years.
Martha Johnson (Vocalist, keyboardist, and guitarist, Martha and the Muffins): We weren’t seriously trying to make music our profession. It was more of a fun thing to do.
David Millar (Saxophonist and, later, sound engineer for Martha and the Muffins): Me and Mark worked in the recording studio at OCA. I bugged him about writing some songs together. Mark, David Clarkson, and I got together a couple of times to work on songwriting and then David was busy doing his art.
Martha Johnson: David Millar was a common friend of mine and Mark’s, and he asked me and Mark to get together at his house and see what happened.
Mark Gane: [Millar] had played in other weird Toronto art bands, so he basically gathered people together that he’d known before.
David Millar: I was playing in another band with Martha, so she got involved. Martha was friends with [bassist] Carl [Finkle, pictured with Johnson below], who was playing in another band, so Carl joins. We need a drummer, so Mark’s brother Tim is drafted.
Mark Gane: Over the summer of ’77, the line-up kind of coalesced. It was kind of a mixture of other OCA people and all the weirdos from Thornhill.
Martha Johnson: No one could agree on a name.
David Millar: David Clarkson started The Diodes, and should be blamed for suggesting Muffins as a band name.
Martha Johnson: We just went with The Muffins at first; the Martha thing came later on, and we just kind of kept going, “We’ll change it, we’ll change it.” Then we kind of got some press—nothing major, just the U of T paper and the Star. But it was enough that we thought, “Oh, we better not change it.”
Part II: England calling
On a whim, sax player Andy Haas mails a demo to the New York offices of Interview magazine, setting off a chain of events that would take the Muffins from Queen West’s Beverley Tavern to Oxfordshire’s famous Manor Studios.
David Millar: I was busy doing other projects, but I was working as sound engineer and technician to pay the rent, so I started mixing for the band and Andy Haas took over on sax.
Mark Gane: [Haas] sent a copy of our demo to Glenn O’Brien at Interview magazine. Apparently he was listening to it with a guy named Dave Fudger, an A&R for Virgin Records in the U.K., and Robert Fripp from King Crimson, so Dave Fudger contacted us.
Martha Johnson: He went back to England and told the woman who was setting up Dindisc—which was a [Virgin] sub-label—about us, and we signed a contract with them. It just sort of fell into place. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to be signed; we just weren’t looking that hard.
Mark Gane: We were sort of snatched out of Canada and immersed in the London pop-rock environment. We didn’t have a lot of contact with Canadian labels, and they weren’t really interested in us anyway.
Martha Johnson: We were all very young, and music is what we loved to do. And how many people get a chance to make a record at [The Manor], where “Tubular Bells” had been made and the Sex Pistols had recorded? It was an extremely odd situation to find yourself in, because we hadn’t even been together that long.
David Millar: [Manor Studios was a] state-of-the-art music production facility. It was probably the high point of analogue recording.
Martha Johnson: It’s an 11th-century hunting lodge. We’d walk along the canals between recordings, and the studio was very well equipped.
Mark Gane: When I was in high school, this Mike Oldfield album came out, Hergest Ridge. On the cover of it is a picture of the Manor, and I remember being in Grade 12 and thinking, “Oh man, would that ever be a cool place to record.” On the cover are the three Irish Wolfhounds that live there and, when I drove up, these Irish Wolfhounds come out and start running around and I’m looking at this big old manor house… I just couldn’t believe it.
David Millar: It was the first studio I’d seen with a computerized mixing board. That was amazing to me. Back then, you had to mix everything by hand. It was absolutely detail-oriented engineering and production.
Part III: Learning experiences
The young band works with a producer—Mike Howlett, best known for recording Gang of Four and A Flock of Seagulls—for the first time and occasionally clash with him. The Muffins also show the world that Canada has more going for it than just Rush and folk singers, leading to encounters with the slightly terrifying British music press.
Martha Johnson: We had never worked with a producer before. It was kind of difficult. Being young, we had ideas about how we wanted to do things. We were very stubborn. [Howlett] had ideas about what would sound good, but we were very headstrong, Mark in particular. So there was a lot of adapting to do.
Mark Gane: I was the main writer, and I was young and arrogant and I thought everything I wrote was great.
Martha Johnson: For “Echo Beach,” [Howlett] wanted to put the chorus that’s at the end of the song in the middle of the song. Mark wouldn’t go for it. It’s funny, because when we did the 30th-anniversary version, we put the chorus in the middle. It worked really well.
Mark Gane: We’d never had an objective person saying, “If you re-introduce that guitar riff in ‘Echo Beach’ in the middle, that may be really cool.” That was one of Mike’s ideas. The whole thing was a huge learning experience, just seeing how the process worked.
Martha Johnson: I think we had an energy, and that translated well to the vinyl. We were the first band from Canada to experience that kind of British success. We were the first [Canadian] new wave band [to do so], anyway. Canada was really known for bands like April Wine, Rush and real straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll bands, but nothing with an experimental side to it.
Mark Gane: All Canada had been known for in the U.K. at that point was Rush and folk singers. We were this real sort of novelty: “Oh, there’s the band from the colonies and they’re like nothing we’ve heard before.” You’d be in London and go to a restaurant, and Virgin would have booked the whole restaurant and the entire British music press would have been there, and you were sort of thrown to the wolves. Because as much as people were interested in what we were doing, it’s still the British music press, and there are people just looking to bury you.
Part IV: Life’s a “Beach”
The band release their debut album, have a breakout single, tour the world, and struggle with fame.
Mark Gane: Most of the songs on that album dealt with urban situations. It was Canadian, and it wasn’t country music, it wasn’t bar band music, so we wanted something on the cover that said “This is Toronto…” We wanted to present ourselves as a smart band, and by putting an ordinance-survey map on the cover and calling it Metro Music, we kind of put ourselves on that side of the equation.
Martha Johnson: [“Echo Beach”] from the first time we played it live, had something special about it. It connected with people right away.
David Millar: “Echo Beach” was one of the good songs. It got a good response from the audience when played live, but I don’t think it was thought of as the hit single. Let’s put it this way: When we put out the first 45 single on our own, the song selected was “Insect Love.” It was during the recording in England where it became apparent that “Echo Beach” would be the first single and the rest is history.
Mark Gane: “Echo Beach” just kind of kept climbing, and I remember thinking it was really neat. But I didn’t really get what it meant when they’d say, “It’s at number 15, it’s number one in Portugal, it’s here in Australia.”
Martha Johnson: The success of “Echo Beach” was a catapult into a whole other world. It kind of sunk in when we were playing these clubs in Manchester and Glasgow, and all of a sudden we had people setting up our guitars and things. We were used to to lugging our gear up stairs.
Mark Gane: I thought [chart success] was pretty cool, and there was more and press, but it wasn’t until I got my first royalty cheque that I said, “Holy shit, I guess this is what this really means.”
Martha Johnson: Carol Wilson, the woman that ran Dindisc, had very specific ideas about how she wanted the band presented with the girls [Johnson and keyboardist Martha Ladly] up front, and she wasn’t that interested in exploring the experimental side. We didn’t stand united against that as a band, and eventually that’s what drove us apart.
Mark Gane: The band started splitting up when some people were more into the fame thing and others were more into experimenting. At the time I was like, “I’m not some lapdog of the record company, I’m not going to write another song like ‘Echo Beach.’ I’m interested in other stuff.”
Martha Johnson: The first two albums [Metro Music and 1980's Trance and Dance*] were less experimental than we really were. They kind of represented one side of us. The record company really wanted us to have a pop hit. We became a much more interesting band a couple years into our career.
Martha and the Muffins were dropped by Dindisc/Virgin following the release of 1981′s This Is the Ice Age. For 1983′s Danseparc, they signed to Current/RCA and changed the band’s name to M + M. In 1984, they downsized to a duo consisting of just Johnson and Mark Gane, who had become romantically involved. As M + M, they had another hit song with 1984′s “Black Stations/White Stations.” Johnson and Gane resurrected the Martha and the Muffins name in 1987, and have continued to sporadically play and release music as the Muffins ever since. Johnson also released a children’s album in 1997. David Millar took his “Echo Beach” money, went to MIT, and has spent the past three decades working on different ways to use computer technology in music and video production. Meanwhile, the “Echo Beach” name has been appropriated by a local venue, among many other entities. Gane, Johnson, and Millar have some theories as to why that song has enjoyed such longevity.
Mark Gane: It’s a crazy thing. This song has got legs.
David Millar: It speaks to everyone, the lyrics make a connection. And that great guitar hook and sax solo are viral.
Mark Gane: My dad said, “That song is about nostalgia—songs about nostalgia have a very powerful hold over people,” although I didn’t know it at the time. It’s the quality of yearning for something you don’t have. And it mentions the kind of job that a lot of people can relate to—like, yeah, I have this shitty job, but at least I can get away sometimes and picture myself in a beautiful setting.
Martha Johnson: It has a nostalgic quality. It’s about someone who’s looking back on a time when they were free.
Mark Gane: There are a lot of things that have been named after it. There’s the venue, which is cool. But there’s also an Irish show jumping horse, a German dub label called Echo Beach, a bunch of tropical getaways, a gay porno film…
CORRECTION, OCTOBER 10, 2012: Due to an editing error, the original version of this article misidentified the title of Martha and the Muffins’ second album—the correct title is Trance and Dance.