CSFTD #18: Martha and the Muffins – Echo Beach

Between Christmas and New Year many people start to think about their summer holidays and getting away from the daily grind, this is what ‘Echo Beach’ by Martha and the Muffins is all about. Considering that the song is 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. In fact it only made #10 in the UK charts.

The song 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 vision in red, Martha Ladly. She was an additional vocalist as well as keyboard player so until she left in 1980 to take an art scholarship (she is now an academic, having relocated to England for a while where she worked with Peter Gabriel as a designer) there were two vocalists called Martha. While Johnson was the main one 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. 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 US. 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 through to the video production. It is just about the perfect pop song, right up there with the likes of Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know (although I thought Tracy Ullman’s cover was better).

So what of Echo Beach? Does it exist? It is supposed to represent where the Muffins would rather be, somewhere ‘far away in time’ as the song goes. It was apparently dreamed up by Tim 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 hails 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. It should be noted that Echo Beach was also referenced as a faded time and place in the lyrics of Hiroshima Mon Amour by Ultravox in 1977, the same year the Muffins’ song was written.

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

Several people have pointed out that there seems to be something magical going on between Johnson and Ladly in the final part of the video where they are singing together. Somebody asked on YouTube “did the Muffins ever eat each other?” I couldn’t possibly comment.

© D J Bentley, 2015-2016