Songs by the Motels tend to pop up on lite rock radio, as bandleader and lead singer Martha Davis knows all too well.
“I tend to hear them when I’m in a thrift store, which is often,” Davis laughed in an interview from her farm home in Portland, Oregon.
The hit-making record All Four One that cemented that Motels’ sound — soft-synth hooks with Davis’ unmistakable pleading vocals and lyrics telling tales of love and regret – was apparently more record-company production shaping than a cohesive Motels’ statement. In fact, that third album was actually the band’s fourth album; their third album, Apocalypso, was not met with enthusiasm by Capitol Records, and was shelved.
Thirty years later, Apocalypso has resurfaced and has just been released on CD and vinyl by Ominvore Records, revealing a much more edgy, daring and even schizophrenic Motels sound, the one that Capitol Records found too risky to support.
Back in 1981, the band had convened to record the follow-up to their 1980 release Careful. The band’s lineup consisted of Davis on vocals and guitar, Marty Jourard on saxophone and keyboards, Michael Goodroe on bass, Brian Glascock on drums, and Davis’ then boyfriend Tim McGovern on guitar, who had recently replaced founding member Jeff Jourard.
“So it was,” Davis said, “a band, on their third attempt to gain some commercial success in the U.S. A relationship quantified by music and qualified by its abusive nature—and of course there was the Art, that most magical place of expression—‘tear down the walls,’ ‘piss in the face of tradition,’ ‘make something no one has ever heard before’—and in the ’80s there were a lot of drugs, which might explain all of the above. We did as all bands do—locked ourselves away in a room with a tape machine and started making demos, a heady, wonderful experience, where we made up the rules. Tim’s influence and command over the process is not to be overlooked. When we were convinced we had amassed the perfect collection of what were obvious hits or at least great album tracks, we went to the label. When Capitol heard the album the reaction was something like, ‘We’ll release it if you really want us to, but the promotion department will not work it.’”
“I was on such an automatic pilot in the trajectory of my career at that point,” Davis lamented. “Because Val [Garay, producer] was so aced out of the first two albums, it really was a classic clash of wills. We saw Val and Tim as two strong egos, and the rest of us just tried to stay out of the way. Tim’s was a musical talent, but Val’s was just this big ego, and Tim had a huge ego. Apocalypso was really his musical vision more than anything else. Just brilliant, but — is ‘sourpuss’ a nice way to put it (laugh)? And because I was his girlfriend, I was getting it unleashed on me. It was not a pretty time. And when the rejection of the album came, it became an opportunity for me to go, you know what? None of this is working. You’re not working, move on. That’s when Val jumped in whole hog and basically replaced the band [for the next album All Four One]. None of it was fun! It was really a bad time in my life. Strangely enough, I got cancer within that period, and I know exactly why. That sort of stress and strain is not good for your body.”
The resulting album All Four One was released in 1982 as The Motels’ official third studio record and was the band’s first commercial success, featuring the hits “Only The Lonely” and “Take the L”, two songs with videos that found high rotation on early MTV.
“All Four One came out, and we had our first real chart success in the U.S.—we were mainstream, baby… But something was lost with Apocalypso, the album that got away,” says Davis. “I look at it as the last time The Motels were uninhibited, wild, and not worried about our place on the charts. In my heart, I think I’ve always liked Apocalypso more.”
Davis said the 2011 release of Apocalypso came as the result of reconnecting with an old friend.
“I’d been working with a manager, which didn’t work out,” Davis recalled, “and I had recorded a jazz album last year. I hadn’t talked to my old friend Cheryl Pawleski [founder of Omnivore Records] in a while. She had decided to form a record label, and run it like they did in the old days. I just called her out of the blue, and someone had been Facebooking me about a new label, and I hadn’t put two and two together, but it was her! I told her I had this great jazz record, and I also sent her about five albums worth of stuff, and she said to me, “Martha, you’ve never had a problem writing songs.” She knows me from working on the Anthologyland album [a b-sides/demos/rarities collection], so she’s gone through heaps of my stuff. She knows how many songs are in my closet right now!”
Davis said she has a staggering back catalog of unreleased songs.
“How many would that be?” she said. “Hundreds and hundreds. Maybe a thousand. Crazy….now, I will only write when inspiration comes down and bonks me on the head. I did a children’s record last year, and I wrote a radio play, and that was my first longform script. So anyway, she was listening to all of it, and said, “This is all great, but the way we’re doing this label is that was have to have a story. We need something with a hook, something that will grab people…what about Apocalpyso? And I said “Yeah, good old Apocalypso.” I had talked about putting it out forever, it would sort of show up and then go away. She thought it would be a great way to reignite our base, so that’s how it happened, it was literally a complete circle. I’m so happy to be working with Ominivore, because, well, there’s no other way to say it – they are record geeks. Serious vinyl geeks! I have to say, this is the closest I’ve come to in a long time to a situation like when I was first signed to Capitol. ”
Davis also admires Omnivore’s dedication to great marketing and packaging for their artists, specifically a limited edition orange-vinyl version of Apocalypso that will soon be available.
“Their marketing is brilliant,” Davis said. “They want to give record fans what they want, so every package they create is beautiful. Rare and unattainable stuff. If Apocalypso had come out before, it would have come out on CD, and that would have been it. With this, it comes out on vinyl also, and the original album artwork, which was such a brilliant idea of mine (laugh).”
Davis recalled the shooting of the album cover, which shows bustier-clad Davis engulfed in flames (see below).
“There were two rows of flames, I guess, and propane tanks – I was a little preoccupied having my cleavage strapped in (laugh). There were two sets of flames I’m standing between. Pre-Photoshop, people! The funniest thing is that they kind of look less like flames than if it was Photoshopped, you know? That’s what real fire looks like! I remember on several of the shots had my hands distorted because of the heat. The funniest thing was that here’s Capitol paying a lot of money for this cover shoot, they hadn’t even heard the record! We’re shooting the cover of the album and they hadn’t heard a note! It couldn’t have been cheap! But in the end, we have a beautiful cover, so we’re happy.”
She is also partial to certain demos that are included as part of the album release.
“I’m really partial to the ones that didn’t make it on the record,” she said. “I like the ones that Michael and Marty wrote – ‘Fiasco’ and ‘Obvioso’. I love those tracks. I love the craziness of ‘Schneekin’, a song I wrote about a psychopath who killed a lot of people. And I love ‘Lost But Not Forgotten’. ‘Only the Lonely’ here is obviously more like the version I envisioned when I wrote it. I wanted it to be almost a Mink DeVille kind of thing. The only tip-off I had that it was going to be a hit was that it was one of those times that I picked up my guitar, and it was sitting right there. It was written. The less you have to do with writing a song, the better it is. If you can get out of your own way, or when the song just clobbers you, that’s it. “Suddenly Last Summer” woke me up in the middle of the night. When they appear like that, you must obey.”
Davis has fond memories of the music videos the Motels shot in the 1980s, especially her experiences with veteran video helmer Russell Mulcahy and then-emerging director David Fincher. In a previous interview for The Golden Age of Music Video, Mulcahy recalled that he was trying to establish a sort of Casablanca look in the video for “Only the Lonely”, a beautiful, smoky period piece which spotlighted Davis’ pouty visage and earned her an American Music Award for “Best Performance in a Music Video”.
“He was wonderful,” Davis recalled. “I remember the brainstorming sessions with Russell, and he, let me say, is crazy. Aussie crazy! (laugh). He said, ‘I see you in a giant chilled cocktail glass out in the desert.’ And I’m like, ‘let’s just reel in back in just a bit, okay?’ But so fun to work with. Like I said, I’ve been so fortunate to have worked with these true geniuses. To me, geniuses go where no one has gone before, and I do believe Russell was the first one to blow up a TV screen in a video. That was the absolute forefront of music video at that time.”
“It was completely renegade. We shot ‘Take the L’ and ‘Only the Lonely’ for $60,000. That gives you an idea of what we were dealing with. People were working for free. They found a location for ‘Only the Lonely’ downtown in some great old building,” Davis remembered, “and the P.A.s were running round pulling people off the street to be in the video. The best one was the old man behind the bar – we were ripping off The Shining like crazy! We found this guy for the bartender role — he was born and raised in L.A. and had moved to Oklahoma for forty years, and he had just gotten back to L.A. It was his first day off the bus and these kids grabbed him on the street and said, ‘Hey, want to be in a music video?’ (laughs). So he was our bartender. He was hitting on me all day. So cute.”
She also recalled that the scene in “Take The L” where she is drowning was not as hard to pull off as the homage to a legendary Hollywood scene was.
“It was the From Here To Eternity scene that was tough,” Davis said. “Me and Brian lying down, and they were throwing garbage cans of water, and let me say, it was ice cold water.”
Davis also recalled donning the white makeup from the All Four One album cover image for a scene in the “Take The L” video.
“Why do I torture myself? (laughs) I do not take the easy path. For the album shoot, it was an eight hour makeup session, but it didn’t take that long for the video shoot. The interesting thing about the album shoot was that the final photo is not a photo cut in four. He took a thousand shots of each part and then they put it together. On the inside cover of the album is a picture of me and my eyes are clearly bloodshot, and that’s because they took that picture after the hours and hours and hours of shooting photos– I wasn’t stoned!”
She also recalled feature filmmaker (then video director) David Fincher having big budget aspirations for their collaborative efforts on the videos for “Shame” and “Shock,” the latter a wild and suspenseful clip that showed camerawork choices and set pieces that trademarked early Fincher features such as Alien 3 and Panic Room.
“I was watching a movie called The Keep,” Davis said, “not a big movie, but a sci-fi horror movie about Nazis with weird haunting or something. The cinematography really got me, so I got on the phone and told my agent that I really wanted to work with that director. And he said, ‘well, that director’s a little bit busy right now working on a little thing called ‘Miami Vice’. It was Michael Mann! So, that didn’t work out, but my agent suggested another guy. ‘He hasn’t done much but I think you might like him.’ And that was David Fincher. Good directors can’t talk in any way except pictures, and he couldn’t talk except in images. He came in with all these ideas, and it was all beautiful and I said we’ll do it. It’s collaborative to a point, I mean, sometimes I would have more to do with the videos, but David is a genius – and I called it! (laughs).”
“He’d done work at Lucasfilm,” she continued, “so he’d blown up some starships or something, but he’d done a project for my pal Rick Springfield. A live shoot, but it really looked live without looking live, because to me, a live performance is the most boring stuff in the world. You kind of have to be there, you have to feel the audience, you have to hear it pumping out of the speakers, the sweat, you know? It’s like listening to baseball on the radio – some people can do it but I just can’t. You gotta have a Dodger dog, you know what I’m sayin’? So he had done this video, and it was beautifully shot, and it was live, but then there’d be some crazy blimp going across the back, things that were happening that made it just a little surreal. And it totally sold me. I thought that if he can pull that off, that’s who I want to work with.”
“David had to have the steadicam. He always wanted helicopters,” she remembered.
Later on, Martha would play opposite actor Robert Carradine in the video for “Suddenly Last Summer,” a Billboard Top Ten hit in the fall of 1983.
“Yes, Bobby!” Davis recalled. “When we went to shoot that, Val Garay had not only taken back the reins of producing, but he had decided he was managing me, then directing the videos. Really megalomanical stuff. but at that point in my life, I was basically non-combative in any form. I’d say, ‘Okay. Okay.’ So he got John Alonzo, a brilliant cinematographer who had shot Chinatown. Great guy. And then he said, ‘You need a star in this. You need to be hooked up with a leading man and take it to the next level.’ So we got Bobby, who wasn’t doing a lot then, but the beauty is that the next role he got was Revenge of the Nerds [Carradine played nerd leader Lewis Skolnick in that film and its sequels]!”
The clip juxtaposes an ice cream truck rolling through empty streets with a young Davis dreaming of herself and Carradine carrying on in a beach setting.
“It’s about when something happens and you can never return to that place,” Davis explained about the song’s lyrics. “Loss of virginity? Sure. The reason that the video had that feel was because the riff for the song woke me up at 3am. But the song itself, the story,one of the few songs I can trace all the way back to its beginning. Sometime pre-1975, in Berkley, and I was sitting in my backyard, it was summer, but that first bite of autumn, that chill in the wind when you know that the end of summer is upon you? And at the same time I heard the ice cream truck coming up the street, and I thought to myself, ‘that’s the last time I’m going to hear that this year.’ It was the end of something. All of these images and things, the loss of virginity, the loss of innocence, the changing of life that happens with every summer…it’s about endings and new beginnings.”
Davis said that song reflects the way she has always written, finding that retreating or escaping into songwriting was and is a mechanism for coping, a method she feels that she shares with many other musicians.
“I’ve playing the guitar since I was eight, and whenever things would get hard, as they often tended to be, I would go I nmy room and pick up my guitar, and that would take me away. It’s that way for a lot of musicians. That’s our sanctuary. And also, I’ve done a lot of music in my career that wasn’t necessarily what I was after, but I’m happy when I’m doing music. It doesn’t matter what kind. It really doesn’t. It so satisfying to me, that even if I look back on it and think ‘man, that was sh*t,’ during the time it was helping me find happiness and joy.”
“I think people find me unique is that I started out terribly shy, and music really helped me to change that, to come out. I’m still a loner. I find that alone is my happy space. I never had any desire to be a singer, I just wanted to write songs and I figured the best way to tell a story is to have the storyteller tell the story. I figured if Bob Dylan can wow us and make us feel deeply with that voice, why not me? People come up to me all the time and say that they can’t sing, and I say anybody can sing. Everybody can sing, and everybody has something to say. That’s the beauty of Tom Waits!”