In May of 1977 as a young visual artist/experimental musician, I was invited by fellow Ontario College of Art student David Millar to start a band with him. The punk/new wave scene had been going for a few years and its ironic and distainful stance against the blandness of 1970's mainstream culture was immediately appealing. Suddenly, everyone around O.C.A. and neighbouring Queen St. W. seemed to be starting a band or was in one already.
Over the spring and summer of 1977, people drifted in and out of our rehearsal space, a former stable on St. Patrick St., (with one tiny window and no heat as we found out the following winter), trying out on various instruments with mixed results. David knew a woman who played an Acetone organ in a band called Oh Those Pants! and so Martha Johnson became our keyboard player. Martha in turn brought in a friend she knew from high school, Carl Finkle who played bass. As everyone else seemed too terrified, Martha started singing some of the early songs: "Saigon", "Insect Love" and "Suburban Dream". ("She has quite a good voice...", I wrote in my journal that September.) When my brother Tim joined the band as drummer a few weeks later, the line-up was complete. Now we had to come up with a name for our first gig at the annual Ontario College of Art Hallowe'en Party.
A Tentative List of Band Names:The Anemics, The Appliances, The Case Histories, The Confused Tourists, The Deadly Nightshades,The Furious Clones, The Gel Heads, The Kitchenettes (all girl band?), The Near Misses (all girl band?), Oui Ouis From Paris, The Turbojets, The Vistas, Xenolith ("A rock fragment foreign to the igneous mass in which it occurs.")
We wanted an epithet that would distance ourselves from the cartoon-violent names of the copy-cat punk bands. Someone, (various people claim this honour), suggested The Muffins as being diametrically opposite and Martha's name was put in front. While no one was that enthusiastic about Martha and the Muffins, we decided to use it as a temporary name until we could all agree on something better.
It wasn't until February 1978 that another O.C.A. student, Andy Haas was invited as guest artiste at a gig at The Beverley in Toronto, playing sax on "Sinking Land" and "Suburban Dream". Shortly after that, David Millar quit the band to become our live sound engineer. A friend of mine from high school, Martha Ladly, was auditioned on guitar to replace David but was better on keyboards and backing vocals. With the addition of Andy Haas and Martha Ladly, the band line-up would remain the same until August 1980.
One of the best things about early MatM was its sense of adventure, musically and otherwise. Our six personalities seemed to collide in a good way - creating a richly disparate mix which made Martha and the Muffins sound different from anyone else.
Our influences ranged from pop across to free jazz with everything in between thrown in. Like many bands in the spirit of the times, we hadn't formed to "entertain" or to get a record deal or become famous - it was just the novelty of doing it. We could wear outrageous clothes, (even a three piece suit), jump around, make noise, dye our hair and shave off our eyebrows knowing nothing serious was at stake. We assumed that we'd probably all be doing something else in a couple of years.
That started to change rapidly when Andy sent a tape of songs we had recorded in June 1978 to Glenn O'Brien, the music critic of Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine in New York City. Glenn wrote back offering to help us get a gig at Hurrah in New York. He played it for Robert Fripp, (who liked it too - his wife, Toyah Wilcox would be the first person to cover "Echo Beach" on a record), and Dave Fudger from Virgin Records who was also in New York at the time.
Shortly after playing Hurrah in March 1979, a recording contract was seemingly dropped into our laps and we signed with Dindisc/Virgin Records. In August, we were recording our first album, "Metro Music" at The Manor near Oxford, England. By the time "Echo Beach" had become an international hit in 1980, we found ourselves enveloped in all the trappings of pop music fame; endless interviews, gigs and television shows in Europe and the States, meeting famous people, doing Top of the Pops, etc.
1980 was also the year the original band unravelled. To say that the six of us reacted differently to the sudden, intense pressures and demands of the commercial music industry is an understatement. Without having a manager to mediate between ourselves and the label, the head of Dindisc stupidly exploited the growing divisions within the band which only made things worse. During the recording of our second album, "Trance and Dance", and afterwards as the opening band for Roxy Music's U.K. tour, we started to self-destruct. By August 1980, Martha Ladly was out of the band and Carl Finkle quit in December, after the Canadian tour. For all of our success, it was one of the unhappiest years of my life.
After much soul-searching, Martha, Andy, Tim and I decided to keep MatM going. After all, the main writers, the lead singer and the characteristic Muffins "sound" was still intact and there was no shortage of ideas for the next album.