The release of their 1984 album `Mystery Walk’ found the band Martha and the Muffins at a transitional stage, the band’s name shortened to M+M and now primarily consisting of just lead vocalist Martha Johnson and her husband, guitarist Mark Gane augmented by a number of key session players.
Yet that 10-track recording registered two hit singles; “Black Stations/White Stations” and “Cooling The Medium” and that first track in particular has relevance even in 2014 with all the racial unrest currently happening in the United States.
“It’s just incredible that 30 years later, there are still racial tensions in this world,” noted Gane on the phone with Johnson to promote the re-release of Mystery Walk, 30th Anniversary edition CD which features re-mastered versions of the original 10 tracks along with dance mixes and dub mixes of “Black Stations/White Stations” and “Cooling the Medium” along with one rare bonus track; X0A 0H0. “It’s a problem that continues to roll down the centuries. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Having decided to disband the original group and basically go it alone, following the less than ecstatic reaction to their 1983 `Danseparc’ release, Johnson and Gane decided to concentrate on their song writing and produce dance-based tracks that contained a lyrical message.
“We were going through a transitional period,” allowed Johnson. “We had given up the camaraderie of being in a band to experiment with new directions and to work with studio musicians rather than band members.”
While driving in her car one day, Johnson heard the story about how Van Morrison’s 1967 hit , “Brown Eyed Girl” was supposed to be called “Brown Skinned Girl” but Morrison ran into static from his record company about the racial implications of such a lyric so he decided to change the title.
“I just thought that it was so wrong, that radio would have problems with racial integration so I wrote the lyrics to “Black Stations/White Stations” as a form of protest,” Johnson noted.
Naturally, some radio stations did chose to boycott the song but a lot of others didn’t and spurned by a major push in the dance clubs, Black Stations/White Stations soared to No 2 on the Billboard singles charts only losing a No.1 position to Prince’s “When Doves Cry”.
“That song came out when radio formats were still segregated,” informed Gane. “White musicians fell into certain types of formats and African American musicians fell into others. At that time, MTV was initially debating whether to play any videos off Michael Jackson’s `Thriller’ album. I mean how sick is that? And of course the irony is that some of the musicians who performed on Black Stations/White Stations were black session players.” Drummer Yogi Horton and bassist Tinker Barfield routinely recorded with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross while the album’s unmistakeable horn sound was provided by the legendary Randy and Michael Brecker.
Looking back, `Mystery Walk’ reflected a statement of Johnson and Gane attempting to take control over all aspects of their career. Having initially enjoyed success with their debut 1980 album `Metro Music’ (which spawned their biggest hit “Echo Beach”), Martha and the Muffins could have continued with their wacky, alternative direction. Yet Gane and Johnson were aware that the benefits of such a move would be short term.
“We were on Virgin Music at the time and we were under pressure to write another 20 versions of “Echo Beach”, “noted Gane “. A lot of bands at that time kept doing the same thing because that’s what they did to remain successful but we weren’t going to do that. The band started out in 1977 as this project between David Millar and me at the Ontario College of Art, we brought in Martha on keyboards, she brought in Carl Finkle on bass and my brother Tim on drums and then we added Andy Haas. We really had no expectations and the success of “Echo Beach” came as quite a surprise to us.”
`Trance And Dance’ released in late 1980, did not produce a single and the 1981 “This Is The Ice Age” would be the band’s last album for Virgin even though it spawned one hit single, “Women Around the World At Work”. Debuting on this album was bassist Jocelyne Lanois who brought along her brother Daniel (later to have major success with the likes of U2 and Peter Gabriel) to produce the release.
“We were just trying to find ourselves,” explained Johnson. “There was honesty about music at that period (1984) and it was something we wanted to develop. Think about the Parachute Club and their “Rise Up” anthem. There was a song with a great Soca beat but also contained an important message and that’s what we were all about at that time.”
A new record deal with RCA imprint, Current Records, was met with internal upheaval within the group which resulted in less live performances and more song writing for the surviving members which by the time they released Danseparc in 1983 numbered just four players; Johnson, Gane, Jocelyne Lanois and drummer Nick Kent, and by the time Mystery Walk was issued 12 months later, Johnson and Gane were the sole survivors of that original lineup.
M+M as they were then known in 1985 recorded “The World Is A Ball” in Bath England, with producer David Lord, (Peter Gabriel, XTC). They returned to live there in 1987 to record an album that was completed when they returned to Canada in 1989. In 1992, `Modern Lullaby’ was released as Martha was giving birth to her daughter Eve so future projects were put on hold as the pair attended to family matters.
Sadly, Johnson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2000 and her battle against this affliction eventually cut into her ability to perform live on stage. The pair tried a few half-hearted reunion attempts which included the 2003 Mike Bullard Show and in 2005 with Parachute Club with a May 14th CFNY date. But with only Jocelyne Lanois adding to the lineup, attempts at a live reunion were thwarted.
Johnson and Gane produced one more studio album, “Delicate”, released in 2010 , their first new recording in 18 years and in 2013, Johnson battled the elements of her illness to record a solo album, “Solo One”. “I was really proud of that album,” stated Johnson. “But I couldn’t get any radio exposure on the record. Even the CBC wouldn’t play it.”
With both Gane (prostate cancer) and Johnson (breast cancer) currently struggling with additional health issues, on top of Johnson’s Parkinson’s Disease, touring to promote the new re-release is out of the question so they have to rely on social media to get the word out about the new record.
“You tube is great for exposing new video content, it’s something I could work on all day if I didn’t have other commitments,” Gane explained. “Our other income is derived from re-working original material with dance remixes and dub mixes, especially of Echo Beach which is still popular in Europe.”
With “The World Is A Ball” planned for the re-release treatment in 2016, Gane claims his biggest regret is that the timing of Martha and The Muffins could have been better. “The reality is that we came out too soon,” reflected Gane. “You look at Arcade Fire, there is total acceptance of their music and their stage presence, but with us, no one could figure us out. We were constantly at war with our record company. They didn’t like our music; they didn’t like our album jackets, they didn’t like our live performance. Bands these days don’t have those problems, they control everything.”
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