JAIMIE VERNON – THIS IS 1984

Merch table_Hamilton_Dave Rave_2002

George Orwell references aside, 1984 marked a substantial turning point for pop music in Canada. The most significant of those was the launch of our answer to MTV – which we lovingly, un-ironically, called Much Music.

Much Music

The new medium of visual music was on the rise having been bum-rushed, unwillingly, by Michael Jackson and his juggernaut ‘Thriller‘ nearly two years before. Prior to the album becoming the long standing biggest selling album of all time, Jackson and his supporters felt MTV wasn’t airing his material from ‘Off The Wall‘ because he was black. Upon release of ‘Thriller‘ in November 1982, CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff pressured MTV by declaring “I’m not going to give you any more videos and I’m going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don’t want to play music by a black guy.”

ThrillerThis strong-arming allowed the videos for “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” to change the face of the station in 1983. The success of the videos catapulted the singles up the Billboard charts and subsequently the album itself. By the end of 1983 Jackson released a 14-minute long-form film version of the album’s title track and changed how the industry made and promoted videos and their accompanying music releases forever.

None of this went unnoticed in Canada where a multi-cultural country and its diversely populated cities like Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto lived harmoniously with their differences – yes, I said harmoniously. This was a Queen westtime of banding of brothers, of culture and art and music embracing its own ethnicity. It was the most prevalent on Toronto’s Queen Street circuit. Coalescing in the late 1970s the once decaying row of tenement buildings from University Avenue west to Bathurst Street began to grow gypsy-like establishments to cater to Ontario College of Art students, lost souls, immigrants, and suburban disenfranchised youth via restaurants and bars that could feed their bellies, decadent minds and the wanderlust in their souls.

But there was also burgeoning Caribbean community attracted to the bohemian village-inside-a-city atmosphere only steps from the flea market Ishan Peoplecharm of Kensington Market and the Asian hospitality of China town riding atop the Spadina Fashion district. Only lower Manhattan could claim the same type of diversity. The artisans and actors and musicians turned it into a ‘scene’ and one that mutated and grew from avant-garde and punk to one of world citizenry. This is where racism died and the gay community flourished simultaneously.

Martha MuffinsOne of Queen Street’s earliest denizens was a group of ragtag art students calling themselves, playfully, Martha & The Muffins [technically, they should have been called Marthas & The Muffins as there was singer Martha Johnson and keyboardist Martha Ladly…but it would have been awkward to pronounce]. As friends growing up in the northern Toronto suburb of Thornhill the members of the band moved to downtown Toronto to tap into the infant alternative music scene beginning to grow.

martha-and-the-muffins-insect-love-1979-7By 1977 Mark Gane, David Millar, and Carl Finkle asked Martha Johnson of The Doncasters to play keyboards in their new band along with Martha Ladly and Mark Gane’s brother, Tim. Their first independent single “Insect Love” in 1978 helped land them an unprecedented eight album record deal with Virgin Records UK. They toured extensively in Britain throughout 1979 and 1980 on the strength of their first Virgin single release “Echo Beach” from the debut album ‘Metro Music‘. “Echo Beach” would tie with Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance” for JUNO ‘Single of the Year’ in 1980.

Suburban DreamBy the end of that year Martha And The Muffins had recorded and released their sophomore effort, ‘Trance And Dance‘, which included a free live EP in its initial pressing and was, like ‘Metro Music‘, produced by Mike Howlett. Next was 1981’s ‘This Is The Ice Age’ which was produced by the not-yet-a-household-name Daniel Lanois and featured the addition of Lanois’ sister Jocelyne on bass. The album produced the hit single “Swimming” and other tracks written entirely by Mark Gane.

1982’s ‘Danceparc‘ was again produced by Daniel Lanois but the line-up of the group had morphed into Mark Gane, Martha Johnson, Jocelyne Lanois, and Nick Kent (drums) courtesy of a well-publicized spat between other Danceparcmembers of the band in, of all places, the editorial section of Toronto’s ‘NOW’ Magazine. They also debuted the album on Gerry Young’s fledgling Current Records. The album featured both the M + M designation and their original Martha & The Muffins moniker. It was confusing to fans and as Mark Gane later said it, “…turned out to be a PR disaster.” The album received alternative radio airplay but a hit single eluded them. The will to play live was dampened as well and it was determined that keeping musicians on retainer for intermittent appearances was not the best use of funds. Martha Johnson and Mark Gane decided to adopt M + M as their own and carried on as a duo.

M + MThat brings us back to 1984. M + M, unbeknownst to them, was now in the right place at the right time. They now had control of their publishing, the duo was a couple and writing Lennon/McCartney-style in a room together as never before and they were determined to delve deeper into their craft.

Recording of the new album, ‘Mystery Walk‘, commenced at the Power Station in New York with Daniel Lanois back at the helm. He also upped the recording ante by bringing some heavy session players on board – Diana Ross/Aretha Franklin drummer Yogi Horton and bassist Tinker Barfield plus Blue Note jazz legends Randy and Muffins Black StationsMichael Brecker. These latter horn players would turn the groove of the album’s lead-off track, “Black Stations/White Stations” into a dance-funk rave up. It would also be indicative of the new direction M + M were heading. No longer would Martha be singing deadpan New Wave iterations – she would experiment with her upper register particularly on songs like “Come Out And Dance” and “Alibi Room”. Mark would also expand his abilities as lead vocalist on “Big Trees” and the thought provoking “Nation of Followers” as well as bringing his A-game to the instrumentation being laid on top of that of the more seasoned session players.

‘Mystery Walk‘ was nominated for four CASBY Awards by listeners of Toronto’s CFNY-FM – ‘Album of the Year’, ‘Group of the Year’, Black Stations‘Engineer/Producer of the Year’ (Daniel Lanois) and ‘Video of the Year’ (“Black Stations/White Stations”). “Black Stations/ White Stations” reached #2 in Canada but was met with serious resistance at US radio due to the assumption by radio programmers that the lyrics – which talked about musical segregation on the airwaves by race – was a slap in the face to US radio stations.

Mystery WalkIn the brand new 30th anniversary edition of ‘Mystery Walk‘ the duo explains the controversy and the idea that they thought musical racism – like the type experienced by Michael Jackson not too long before the album came out – was an antiquated concept. They weren’t necessarily condemning it, but merely observing that it still existed and at the end of the day why couldn’t we “break down the doors”?                                                                                                    This was 1984 after all.

The new re-issue is a labour of love handled personally by Martha and Mark through a crowd-funding campaign and features restored artwork, complete Cooling the mediumlyrics, rare photographs from the period and bonus tracks. Included here are the two extended dance mixes of “Black Stations/White Stations” – this time featuring vocal assists by ubiquitous Canadian session singers Shawne Jackson and Sharon Lee Williams. We also get the 12″ remixes of the album’s second single “Cooling the Medium”. And for true die-hards there is the non-album b-side “XOA OHO” [which in 2014 represents a Canadian postal code in Iqaluit, Nunavut…where Inuit art similar to that found on the album cover can be found].

The album sounds fresh. It eschews the post-New Wave and New Romantic fadism that preceded it and delves into more mature musical themes being M + M2established by Bowie and Gabriel at the time. Either by chance or by design it lacks the typical instrumental sounds that would expose its best-before synth-pop expiry date. Only once or twice do we get whispers of sampled Ensoniq Mirage/Emulator keyboard parts that would become the hallmark of Tears For Fears on 1985’s ‘Songs From The Big Chair’. That says a lot about Martha, Mark and Lanois’ prescient visions. You will never accidentally think this is a new record, but it’s a lot harder to pigeon hole as an ’80s toss-off. It’s got staying power – especially on tracks like “In Between Sleep and Reason” or “Rhythm of Life” [which should have been single #3 in my humble opinion].

Looking forward to M + M’s 30th anniversary remaster of the ‘Mystery Walk‘ follow up ‘The World is A Ball‘ from 1986. Pretty please? http://marthaandthemuffins.com

THIS WEEK’S VIRAL FIND:

THIS WEEK’S VIRAL OLDIE (NSFW):

Send your CDs for review to this NEW address: Jaimie Vernon, 4003 Ellesmere Road, Toronto, ON M1C 1J3 CANADA

=JV=

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com 

One Response to “JAIMIE VERNON – THIS IS 1984”

  1. What a wonderful look back to a special moment in time. Thanks Jaimie.

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