Releasing their début album, The Motels that year, they soon received worldwide critical acclaim for their collection of 10 strange tracks, particularly the top five hit in Australia, Total Control.
After a worldwide tour, they released Careful in 1980. Very similar in style to their eponymous release a year previous, two singles from this album became the only two songs of the band's career to chart in the UK. However, things were certainly looking up for Martha and her boys, as this album also received a warm reception from critics, and also made the top 50 in the US album charts, as well as the top 30 in Australia.
The Motels have always been famous for their striking and original album covers. Whereas their first album is modelled on a postcard seen by Davis in a motel, featuring a sunburnt middle-aged woman wearing a swimsuit, the distinctive artwork for the Careful album cover pretty much sums up the band's music. "Love the Careful album art", comments Martha. "That's the very talented Mr Duggie Fields (www.duggiefields.com). I found a copy of the print in a book in a thrift store... immediately bought the book. I've always been very involved with the artwork."
|Careful's album cover personified The Motels' original unique and unusual sound|
None the less, despite their growing success and popularity, The Motels were still at the mercy of their record company when it came to putting out albums; so when Capitol Records refused to release the band's would-be third album, Apocalypso, Martha and the band were distraught. As Davis has since explained: "They said this album is a little too dark, a little too weird, a little too strange... and there's no hits on it." Because of this, an album that was supposed to be released on August 9th 1981, finished up finally being released 30 years to the day after it's intended release date, complete with original artwork of Davis dancing in real flames. An incredibly graphic and interesting story is included in the CD booklet about that particular photo shoot.
Martha says that there is still much unreleased Motels material. "There is so much unreleased material that it's kind of crazy... more than anything I write, that's what I do and have done since I was 15. To make it worse, I'm kinda fast, so yes James, way deep archives..."
With a new producer and a much slicker new-wave sound than that of their first two albums, The Motels' third album to be released, All Four One, was a surprise to critics, fans, and the band itself. Hiring a new guitar player, Guy Perry, the third consecutive new guitarist on the third consecutive album, All Four One proved to be the group's best-selling release to date.
Their single Take the L became a huge hit in Australia, whilst also faring quite well in America. But the album's second single, Only the Lonely, originally recorded for Apocalypso one year earlier, proved to be one of their two biggest and most enduring songs. As well as Only the Lonely, six other songs on All Four One had originally been recorded for Apocalypso. Having access to both versions of these songs, it becomes apparent just how drastically the different producers changed the sound of the band in such a short space of time.
|The Motels' third album, All Four One, was their most commercially successful and featured their biggest hit, Only the Lonely.|
Despite a number of gems, such as the reggae-infused Isle of View, and good rockers like Remember the Nights and Monday Shutdown, this release lacked the originality and edge of it's predecessor, All Four One, and sounded more like The Bangles and less like the weird artistes they had been just three years earlier.
Davis has often expressed her unhappiness on how the original sound disappeared after All Four One became successful. "I kind of like the first album, I think it represented more of the quirky style that I embrace. To be perfectly frank the more polished sound was not my favourite, I'm really not a M.O.R. (middle of the road) kinda gal...the hard part was that when we got all "gussied up" and slickly produced, we finally started selling... the pressure was on to sell more... and there in lies the rub, commerce vs creativity."
None the less, Little Robbers proved another commercial smash, hitting number 22 on the US Billboard, and only last year Rolling Stone magazine included the top 10 hit single Suddenly Last Summer in their 'Best Summer Songs of All Time' list. The single also hit number 1 on the US Rock charts.
As the pressure for more success took hold, tensions within the band were stretched to their limits, and Davis in particular felt the strain. As she began to lose more and more control over what their music should sound like, her drinking increased. She commented in 2004 on the band's episode of VH1's Band's Reunited: "I was a drinker, I liked wine. I had red writing wine, white working wine." The fact that she could say that tongue-twister in one go is evidence of her long-time sobriety.
The band's final album is up there with releases such as The Hunter by Blondie and The Rolling Stones's Dirty Work. A critical failure, original member, keyboardist and saxophonist Marty Jourard states on his website that by the time The Motels released 1985's Shock, they had "...delved into the hideous world of over-produced mid-80's techno rock", and that "Martha's writing had become professional but to my mind the craft was replacing the passion."
By the time Shock was released, The Motels's middle of the road sound had driven them into the ground. Headlines such as 'The Motels play it safe' and 'Motels need to rediscover grit' had started to surface in the music press.
In January 1987, the weary band reconvened to begin recording a new album. However, in just a matter of weeks, Guy Perry quit, and Marty Jourard followed suit just two weeks later. Finally, Davis dissolved the band. She took each member individually to a bar down the street from their recording studio, and explained to them, over a drink, they were out of money and that she was continuing as a solo artist.
The album they had begun to work on ended up being a Martha Davis solo record called Policy. Being a solo artist proved to be a difficult transition for her. "I'm terrified of being a solo artist, that's why I always have a band, which I did for my solo album. The transition to solo was more heartbreaking than anything else... the Motels had been a family for 8 years... it was hard."
|As ever, the album cover did the talking. Shock was an intense and erratic final album|
While Davis pursued a moderately successful solo career, the other ex-Motels pursued other ventures- some completely away from the music business. Bass player Michael Goodroe got a Bachelor of Science degree and worked in a medical centre. Drummer Brian Glascock became a photo finisher, whilst Marty Jourard stayed true to his passion and became a music teacher, whilst Guy Perry began working in a guitar shop.
The quintessential line-up of The Motels reunited in 2004, thanks to VH1's programme, Bands Reunited, for a one night only performance in the US. Unlike other groups that were featured on the programme like Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Squeeze, it was a welcome sight to see the five-piece genuinely pleased to see each other again. "I still work with Marty Jourard", says Martha. "He lives pretty close to me in Seattle. A couple of years ago he partnered up with me to help me with a Jazz/Standards album that I had written, which also contained a co-write with Marty. He also comes out on the road with us when we're lucky enough to have him. I'm also still very close with Michael Goodroe, one of my dear friends. Sadly, Michael and I aren't as geographically blessed, he's in New Mexico, but we sure as hell will get on the phone and gab for hours. The rest of the guys I don't really have much contact with. The funny part is the guys I play with now have been with me longer than the old Motels were together."
|Apocalypso was recorded in 1981 and not released for 30 years.|
Since this reunion, Davis has hit the road with a brand new band, entitled 'Martha Davis and The Motels'. As well as releasing Apocalypso after 30 years, they also released This in 2008 and Clean, Modern and Reasonable the year before. Now this incarnation of The Motels is working on a brand new album. "The new album is forming itself as we speak. I'm a firm believer in the organic process... you scatter a bunch of seeds, not entirely sure what kind they are... as things start to bloom they present you with picture of what your crop will be. Because I've been writing so long, it is not difficult to come up with "a song" or "a bunch of songs", so of late I've become more interested in cohesive interwoven projects, more like a loose weave concept album. I'm happy to report, it has informed me of its direction and songs are availing themselves... though to be perfectly honest, if the songs should decide to do something completely different, I would just have to obey. My credo... the only ego allowed in the room is the songs."
Martha and The Motels are still a popular live act and just last month performed at the Whisky A Go-Go's 50th anniversary show. Davis says she still gets a huge kick from performing. "Shows are like your kids or your songs, they're all different, but for the most part you love them all. Because this band is so great, no matter how produced or polished the original track, there is an urgency, and great energy to whatever we play. My favourites are always new songs. We play songs from all the albums; somehow it works."
But when not on the road, Martha leads a very different pace of life. "I'm on a farm outside of Portland, Oregon... so when I'm not playing music, I'm working on my house and farm, and trust me, there is a lot to do!"
With a new album in the works and still so much energy in her performances, surely it can't be long until The Motels check in to play more dates in the UK? "It's been since the 80's that we've been to Europe and the UK, and it sucks! Hopefully this year we will get there... I have a new manager and he's great, he very much wants to get us over there... so, soon?"
|Martha, with the latest line-up of The Motels|
By James Nuttall
Many thanks to Martha Davis and Marseille & Company Management
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