Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins: Song #22/250…The Great Canadian Road Trip

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.

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.

In this photo, you can see how small Sunnyside Beach actually is and how close it is to the Gardiner Expressway and the rest of the City of Toronto.

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.

Grant Avenue Studios in Hamilton, Ontario. This was home base for Daniel Lanois when he started producing and recording music.

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.

Producer/musician extraordinaire Daniel Lanois.

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.

***As always, all original content contained in this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of the post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Down By The Henry Moore by Murray McLauchlan…Song #11/250 on the Great Canadian Road Trip

The stories behind great Canadian songs that mention great Canadian places.

For those familiar with the evolution of modern music history, you will be aware that the late 1950s, into the decade of the 1960s was a time when society, in general, was becoming more open and permissive. The buttoned-down way of living that so characterized the Post World War II western world started giving way to the introduction of many new things such as the women’s movement, anti-establishment/anti-government protests, as well as changes brought on by the growing reach of television as witnessed most clearly by the daily coverage of the horrors of the Vietnam War. Musically, the 1960s saw the emergence of singer/poets like Bob Dylan, the move from acoustic to electric instruments, as well as the introduction of longer, more complex songs that extended beyond the traditional three minute mark and which began to feature a greater array of instrumentation and sound recording techniques. Creatively, the 1960s were a time of Modernism in the Arts and a revolution for the public recognition of the importance of the Arts in our society in the form of modern architectural design and the increasingly common practice of integrating modernist Art in public spaces. Overall, the 1960s was a period of societal transformation on many levels. Into that context, we place today’s song on the Great Canadian Road Trip: Murray McLauchlan’s classic tune, “Down By The Henry Moore”.

1960c Henry Moore in Hoglands The Henry Moore Foundation Archive 2×2 inch bw neg

Just because we lived in Canada didn’t mean that we were immune to the wealth of changes sweeping the western world during the 1950s and 60s. Sometimes for momentous events to occur, a perfect storm of conditions is required. At that time in the history of Canada, and in particular, the history of Canada’s largest city, Toronto, societal change was afoot there, too. Canada was developing its own identity as a country. So, too, was Toronto, as a city. As the 1950s went by, it began to be felt by those in power that Toronto was worthy of being recognized for the diversity of its cultural neighbourhoods, and that it was deserving of hosting great pieces of Modernist Art that would bring the attention of the world to this great city. The first step in changing the nature of downtown Toronto happened when the mayor at the time, Mayor Givens, through Council, authorized the funding of a new city hall with an adjacent square for public use. The new city hall was to be a modern architectural design. The incorporation into that design of a public square was meant to make the city hall a focal point in a vibrant new vision for how downtown communities could breathe and function. Into the vision of a public gathering place was added the notion that public spaces would be infinitely better if they contained Art. Thus, respected British sculptor Henry Moore was commissioned to create a work that was to adorn the public square of Toronto’s shiny new city hall.

Murray McLauchlan.

With plans underway for the building of the new city hall, an additional emotion flowed through Toronto. That emotion manifested itself in an explosion of music. The 1960s and into the early 1970s was the height of the Folk scene in Yorkville that saw singers such as Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte Marie, Joni Mitchel and others holding court. These singers began writing songs that used the real stories of Canadians: both ordinary folks, along with historical figures, to help create a sense of Canadian identity. It began to be important to tell the stories of places not named New York or L.A. One of those musicians who most took this to heart was a young folk singer named Murray McLauchlan. McLauchan was in his teens when he ran away from home and moved into the basement of a coffee house in downtown Toronto. While living in this coffeehouse, McLauchlan found himself in a music-rich environment. He also found himself with the freedom to explore the city. Eventually, he took pen to paper and began writing down his own poems and short songs. Soon enough, he acquired the encouragement of those who frequented the coffeehouse scene and agreed to perform a few songs live. Not long after his coffeehouse debut, he was offered a record contract which helped him launch a career that has seen McLauchlan record over twenty albums and win eleven Juno Awards. His very first song to reach #1 on the Canadian charts was called “Down By The Henry Moore”.

The Archer by sculptor Henry Moore.

“Down By The Henry Moore” is a biographical ode to the city of Toronto. It namedrops famous Toronto landmarks such as the El Mocambo nightclub, the Silver Dollar Saloon, Kensington Market, as well as Nathan Phillips Square, which is what the public space at the new city hall ended up being called. Into that public square was built a fountain that in the winter time transforms into a public skating rink. It is while skating at the public rink that Murray McLauchlan found himself “Down By The Henry Moore” because the Moore sculpture dubbed “The Archer” sits beside the rink/fountain in a place of visual prominence. Over the course of the next few decades, the Art Gallery of Ontario became home to the largest public collection of Henry Moore sculptures in the world…many of which were donated by Moore, himself, in gratitude and in recognition for how he perceived that the city of Toronto had managed to integrate “The Archer” into the fabric of its being in the very heart of the city. There are many people in other parts of Canada who hold Toronto in disdain because they detect a “centre of the universe” mindset at play. However, in all great cities around the world, mythologizing the everyday people and places that comprise those cities helps to create a sense of identity that transcends its borders. Creating a sense of community and of place is important. The Arts go a long way to helping that to happen. Murray McLauchlan, lovingly described as Toronto’s first poet, deserves a lot of the credit for documenting his city in verse and in chorus at a time when Toronto was just discovering who it could be. I am not sure if today’s Toronto poets, Drake and The Weeknd, have the personal freedom to explore all of the unique and interesting neighbourhoods in the city and translate their impressions into song, but, if they do, I am sure they would find lots to write about and to brag to the world about because Toronto is truly a great city. If you are new to Toronto and want to start your own exploration, going “Down By The Henry Moore” wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

The link to the video for the song “Down By The Henry Moore” by Murray McLauchlan can be found here.

The link to the official website for Murray McLauchlan can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Art Gallery of Ontario…home to the world’s largest public collection of sculptures by Henry Moore…can be found here.

The link to the official website for Henry Moore can be found here.

The link to the official website for the City of Toronto can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of the post may be reblogged, copied or shared in any form without the express written consent of the author. ©2022