Pop Classic #48: Martha and the Muffins – Echo Beach

Pop Classic #48: Martha and the Muffins – Echo Beach

“From nine to five I have to spend my time at work
My job is very boring I’m an office clerk
The only thing that helps me pass the time away
Is knowing I’ll be back at Echo Beach some day”

We all have our ambitions. In the case of Martha and the Muffins it was just a matter of getting away from the daily grind.

Considering that the song, 40 years old next year, is still so very well known internationally it didn’t perform well in the charts anywhere outside of Canada where it won ‘Single of the Year’ at the Juno Awards (the Canadian Grammys) in 1980 and Australia. In fact it only made #10 in the UK charts.

It was written three years earlier and it was only the third ever by its writer, Mark Gane. He formed the band with fellow Ontario Art College students David Millar and Martha Johnson. The band’s name was a temporary one while they decided on another (they never did) and chosen deliberately to distance themselves from the many punk bands they were in competition with. (Later they recorded as plain M&M).

Subsequently several others on the video joined, notably sax player Andy Haas and Gane’s brother Tim on percussion. Millar then left the band, returning to work as sound engineer on live performances, and was replaced by the lady in red in the video, Martha Ladly, who could be Carrie Brownstein’s sister. As much a pin-up in her era as was The GoGo’s’ Jane Wiedlin (and sounding very much like her) she has probably the most interesting story of all the band members.

Ladly was an additional vocalist as well as keyboard player. So until she left soon after the song was released to take an art scholarship (she is now an academic in Toronto, having relocated to England for a while where she worked with Peter Gabriel as a designer at his Real World Studios and also with The Associates, contributing keyboards on ‘Sulk’ and appearing in the official video for ‘Party Fears Two’) there were two vocalists called Martha and the band should really have been Marthas and the Muffins. While Johnson was the main singer Ladly gets pretty much equal billing on the video.

The album that spawned ‘Echo Beach’ is ‘Metro Music’, recorded in Oxfordshire in 1979. Since then there have been numerous personnel changes and 10 albums (the last in 2010) and two compilations. Various members have tried their own thing, notably Martha Johnson with a couple of solo albums and Martha Ladly who had, surprisingly, an only moderately successful solo career, specialising in new wave.

Hardly anything else has had much success the only exception being ‘Black Stations/White Stations’, an anti-racism song off the 1984 album ‘Mystery Walk’, which charted highly in Canada and the U.S. They really were as close to a one hit wonder as you can find (and are – they are still going, with just two members, Johnson and Gane).

But what a great song it is. I hear and see nothing at all to dislike in this performance from those opening guitar notes that everyone instantly recognises, through the organ coming in at exactly the right moment, Tim Gane’s crisp drumming, the pulsing bass, that sax bridge and the video production. It is just about the perfect pop song.

So what of Echo Beach? Does it exist? It is supposed to represent where the Muffins would rather be, somewhere “faraway in time” as the song goes. It was apparently dreamed up by Mark Gane while he was doing some mundane work, and reminiscing on past visits to Sunshine Beach on Lake Ontario near Toronto, which is where the band hailed from. There is some confusion caused by different maps on different covers of the single, one of the Toronto islands, the other of Chesil Beach in Dorset. ‘Echo Beach’ was also referenced as a ‘faded time and place’ in the lyrics of ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ by Ultravox in the same year the Muffins’ song was written.

It was covered by Toyah in 1987.

Echo Beach was a short running ITV soap opera set in Cornwall in 2008 and the Muffins’ song was also covered by Gabriela Cilmi as the theme song.

Since 2011 an outdoor concert venue in Toronto has been named after the song.

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