Music Review: Martha And The Muffins Danseparc
There was a bad, and slightly disparaging, joke that circulated in the late 1970's early 1980's that asked how you could tell the difference between someone who was into punk and someone who was into new wave. The answer was that punks stuck safety pins in their flesh and new wavers wore pins of their favourite band's name pinned to their clothes. As an attempt at humour it was pretty lame, but it was typical of the attitude, a sort of inverse snobbery, expressed by those who thought that learning to actually play your instrument, and not being willing to impale yourself with rusty metal, diminished your alternative credentials.
While it's true that by the mid to late eighties the commercialization of new wave and punk resulted in abominations like Duran Duran and other things. Like every other independent or rebellious trend in popular music in the latter half of the twentieth century, it wasn't long before the industry succeeded in packaging a homogenized version of punk/new wave that they could sell on the commercial air space. However that shouldn't blind people to the fact that many of the early new wave bands created music that was just as exciting and provocative in their own way as the punks. Blaming them for things like George Michael is like blaming Little Richard for Neil Sedaka or Grand Master Flash for Vanilla Ice. Creativity and originality have always been, and always will be, anathema to the music industry, and they will always find a way to eradicate and replace it with their own pale imitations.
Like the other metropolitan areas where punk and new wave music first reared their heads the focal point in Toronto Ontario was an art collage. In Toronto's case it was students at the Ontario Collage of Arts (OAC) who formed the nucleus of many of the city's most innovative and exciting bands. While it seemed like almost everybody you knew in those days was getting caught up in the enthusiasm generated by punk and forming a band, (there were at least two in the high school I went to, one of which actually survived long enough to play gigs for a year at most of the local venues) very few achieved much more then gaining some local notoriety. One who was conspicuous by their success was the ingenuously named Martha And The Muffins
While, according to the band's web site, the name was only supposed to be a temporary measure for their first gig, it lasted for a number of years until being shortened to the M+M they currently go by. Their first year was typical of many bands of the era in that they went through a number of personnel changes before settling on the line up that appeared on their first release Metro Music which contained the international hit "Echo Beach". Ironically the album was recorded in England and initially the only way Canadian fans of the band were able to purchase it was as an import. Unfortunately it also marked the beginning of the end for that version of the band, and in the space of a year, 1980, they had released their second album Trance and Dance, opened for Roxy Music on their UK tour, and, by December, lost two members of the band.
The silver lining in this dark cloud came in the form of their new bass player Jocelyne Lanois who introduced the band to her brother Daniel who owned a recording studio in nearby Hamilton Ontario. Aside from Jocelyne, the core band members were now Martha Johnson, Mark Gane, Tim Gane (Mark's brother) and Andy Haas. Haas left the band in 1981 after they had released This Is The Ice Age and in 1982 Tim was replaced on drums by Nick Kent. So on what would turn out to be the final Martha and the Muffins release, Danseparc, only two of the original band remained.
However, with Daniel Lanois producing the band had finally found someone who encouraged them to give expression to their more experimental impulses, and in Danseparc they gave them full rein as can be seen in their use of a multitude of found sounds. Now, twenty-five years after it was first released, and preparatory to the first new M+M studio release since 1995, the band has reissued Danseparc on CD. As well as the nine tracks from the original recording the disc contains three bonus tracks; extended dance versions of "Danseparc" and "These Dangerous Machines", and a live version of "Sins Of Children" that was recorded in 1983 at the Ontario Place Forum. (Daniel Lanois had recorded the entire concert on a portable studio, but the masters had mysteriously vanished only for a copy to turn up just as mysteriously in their former manager's mother's house in 1998)
It's awfully dangerous business revisiting the music that you liked twenty-five years ago as there is no way of knowing how it stood up to the test of time or will compare to what your faint (and admittedly hazy ones on my part) memories tell you about it. So it was with some hesitation that I put Danseparc into my CD player. I needn't have been so worried because the only thing I wasn't prepared for was how good the disc is. Not was - is, as the only thing dated about this CD are the band's haircuts and fashion sense. In fact, if anything, Danseparc is fresher sounding today then it was twenty-five years ago.
First of all there are the lyrics, which belay the initial impression of cheerful pop music that the sound of their keyboards convey, by their subtle and intelligent subversiveness. There is something almost sly about the way they have built up layers of textured sound underneath the words so that initially you might not notice lines like "What people do for fun/I am using you. Am I amusing you?" in the song "What People Do For Fun". The song "Obedience" at first seems to be a series of unconnected phrases, which on closer examination turn into a listing of all the little things that we deal with each day that ensure we act the way we are supposed to: "Your time is up/Please join this line/Complete this form/Time is money/You don't conform/You don't compute/Check one box/This isn't funny".
People were just beginning to utilize found sounds in their music at that time, and Martha And The Muffins showed a fine and judicious touch when employing them on Danseparc. My personal favourite was the use of scraps of soap opera dialogue on "Walking Into Walls", as the segments act as a perfect complement to the song's lyrics as well as serving as an example of the behaviour the song is talking about. In other places it's impossible to know what exactly the found sound piece is, as it has been so skilfully blended into the mix. For them the object it to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts, not to show off the individual parts in an effort to impress anyone. It's a sign of their maturity as composers and musicians that their work had evolved to such an extent that even something as new as this was merely seen as an additional instrument to be incorporated into the mix.
Having grown used to keyboards and synthesizers as pretty accompaniment to light and fluffy pop tunes, I had forgotten it was possible for them to be used as aggressively as electric guitars. Danseparc not only destroys that misconception, it dismantles any thoughts you might have about new wave bands only making pretty, airy, music suitable for vacuous dance parties and little else. There's a raw edge to this recording that's the equal to or stronger than anything that their punk contemporaries might have created, or that others have created since.
As of now you can only purchase a copy of Danseparc through the band's web site and CD Baby but it will be made more readily available on September 26th/08. As an interesting sidelight, they are also offering for sale an old interview tape that was produced to promote the record's original release. Parctalk contains what Mark Gane refers to as a "carefully composed interview...featuring all the interesting (and presumably saleable) aspects of the album" with the interviewer's questions edited out. This was pressed as an LP and distributed with the questions printed out to radio stations so DJs could personally "interview" the band. While it sounds sort of sleazy, it does give you some interesting insights into the band's process.
With the predominance of industry controlled new wave bands in the later part of the eighties, it became easy to forget that at one time new wave was worth listening to. Martha And The Muffin's Danseparc wedded the energy of punk with technology and subtle intelligence. Hearing it again has me eagerly anticipating whatever it is they have planned for the future. Anybody who was making music this good twenty-five years ago is bound to be heads and shoulders above ninety per cent of what's on the market today.