Martha and the Muffins are often thought of as “one-hit wonders” because of the success of their debut single, “Echo Beach”, in 1981. While “Echo Beach” was a huge hit…in fact, it won the Juno Award for Single of the Year…the song was just one of many that charted in those early days of the burgeoning Alternative music in and around Toronto. However, Martha and the Muffins had an impactful career, not just because of the music they produced but also because of the people they worked with along the way. In fact, an argument can be made that it was because of the band giving a break to a teenage boy working out of his Mom’s house in Hamilton, Ontario, that the face of music around the world changed for the better as the 1980s rolled along. So, sit down, strap in and make yourself comfortable. Here is the story of “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins.
The band Martha and the Muffins formed in the late 1970s at the Ontario College Art and Design (OCAD) in Toronto. The original members were the Gane Brothers (Mark and Tim), along with friends, David Millar, Carl Finkle and singer, Martha Johnson. At the time, punk rock was exploding around the world. Bands like The Clash and The Damned were making a name for themselves. The members of Martha and the Muffins wanted to play a form of Art Rock but didn’t want a harsh sounding name for the group, so, as a lark, they called themselves Martha and the Muffins. They never intended to have that as the real name of their band, but the joke was soon on them. In 1980, they recorded their debut album and released their first single, which was “Echo Beach”. While the band members all felt that “Echo Beach” was a cool sounding song, no one was prepared for how quickly it caught fire and roared up the charts. It became such a smash hit that the band’s name became their brand, whether they wanted it to be or not. In later years, after several lineup changes, the core members tried to rebrand themselves as “M + M” but by then, they had become too well known as Martha and the Muffins to make that change come to fruition.
There is no actual beach in Canada called Echo Beach. When the song speaks of having a boring job and of daydreaming about this idyllic beach, that much is based in fact. The song was inspired by Mark Gane having a summer job in a wall paper factory. It was a terribly boring job (checking the paper for rips as it came off of the production line) and one that had him dreaming of being anywhere else but where he was. The beach Gane was actually thinking of was a real beach in Toronto called Sunnyside Beach. Sunnyside Beach is a small stretch of sand on the shores of Lake Ontario. It sits almost directly across from High Park, on the southern side of a major highway in Toronto known as the Gardiner Expressway. The Gardiner Expressway is the major road artery that brings vehicular traffic into the lower downtown area of Toronto. Over one hundred thousand cars a day travel on the Gardiner Expressway as it meanders along the Lake Ontario coastline. Just north of the Gardiner Expressway sits the city of Toronto proper and all two million of its residents. Sunnyside Beach exists amid it all as a tiny little oasis of calm. A series of trees shields the beach from the noise of the Gardiner Expressway. Once you are relaxing on the sand of Sunnyside Beach, you can almost imagine that you are somewhere else entirely, even as two million people go about their business less than a kilometre away. The song “Echo Beach” speaks of the universal desire for peace and relaxation and for getting away from the hustle and the grind of everyday life. It is not surprising that its message resonated so well with so many who heard it.
But, the story of Martha and the Muffins doesn’t end with this one great song. Their importance as a band stretches far beyond “Echo Beach”. The story goes that their one hit song had record executives clamouring for a follow-up. By the time the band was ready to start work on album #2, there had been several lineup changes. Most notably, they hired a new bassist named Jocelyne Lanois. *(When her time ended with Martha and the Muffins, Lanois helped form another Canadian band of note, Crash Vegas). In any case, besides bringing her musical skills to the forefront, Jocelyne Lanois’ most important contribution was recommending her seventeen-year-old brother for the job as producer. Her brother’s name was Daniel Lanois. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Starting in the 1980s, Daniel Lanois has become one of the most successful record producers and recording artists in the entire world. While he was a complete unknown when Martha and the Muffins came calling at his Grant Avenue Studios in his mom’s Hamilton, Ontario home, Lanois would go on to produce all of U2’s greatest albums during the 1980s including The Joshua Tree, as well as producing Peter Gabriel’s “So” album *(which was the very first CD I ever bought), Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Canada’s own The Tragically Hip and many many more.
The early 1980s, when Martha and the Muffins sought the services of a very young Daniel Lanois, was a time when the music industry was changing. The digitization of music was in its infancy. Compact discs were just starting to replace record albums as the format of choice for consumers. The process of digitization meant that recordings weren’t restricted to the sounds that artists could produce live, in studio. Now, sounds could be recorded, reformatted and tweaked in numerous electronic ways. Daniel Lanois was very interested in experimenting with the recording process. This involved everything from how microphones were used, to how many tracks could be laid over each other and so on. The members of Martha and the Muffins, having a background in Art and Design, were predisposed to liking the creative process of sound manipulation that Lanois was proposing. As a result, their second album was more experimental sounding. While the band liked their work, as did Daniel Lanois, there were no “hit songs” to emerge. After another album or two of music that was more cutting edge than it was commercial sounding, Martha and the Muffins were dropped by their record label. From this point on, the process of reinvention took place. The band tried to tour as “M + M” but to no avail. Eventually, the band members began releasing solo material. In fact, lead singer Martha Johnson created a children’s album and ended up winning her second Juno Award (for Best Children’s Recording).
The band eventually came to terms with the notion that they will always be Martha and the Muffins in the eyes of their fans and have started touring again. They now find themselves in a situation similar to bands such as Violent Femmes (with “Blister in the Sun”) and Pulp (with “Common People”) in that they have an entire catalogue filled with music they are proud of, but in the end, they know that their audiences usually come to hear that one hit song. They know that when they play those familiar opening notes that the roof will blow off of whatever venue they find themselves in, and, at least for that moment in time, they can help their own audience to remember those happy times when they, too, were able to get away from the hustle and grind for a while and feel the sunshine on their skin and be happy. To be able to do that for another is a gift worth giving. And so Martha and the Muffins continue to play “Echo Beach”, a song that is far away in time in more ways than one.
The link to the video for the song “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins can be found here.
***The lyrics version can be found here.
The link to the video for the 30th anniversary reissue of “Echo Beach”…much slower and jazz-like…can be found here. Excellent video, btw.
The link to the official website for Martha and the Muffins can be found here.
The link to the official website for the City of Toronto beaches and parks directory can be found here.
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