Martha finally back in control

18:19, Mar 20 2014
MOTEL HELL: "The record company was trying to get me to promote myself," says Martha Davis. " 'You're the writer, you're the singer.' I fought that tooth and nail. I tried to keep it as a band as much as possible."

In 1980 American new-wave band The Motels hit it big in New Zealand with their debut album and two hit singles Total Control and Danger.

Back then Kiwis usually had to wait a long time for a hit band to tour here, but The Motels played Wellington that year. Their Wellington Town Hall gig was, according to keyboardist Marty Jourard, who kept a meticulous log of all their shows, gig No 182.

There are wonderful black-and-white photographs of the Town Hall gig taken by Fairfax NZ photographer Anthony Phelps. In one he captures singer and songwriter Martha Davis looking more like a French chanteuse than a new-wave rock star. She may have been singing Total Control, the slow-fuse ballad that was so unlike a lot of the new-wave songs of the time.

Jourard went on to note 434 gigs with the band. So does Davis, who performs in Wellington tomorrow for the first time in 34 years, remember anything of gig No 182?

"Well, baby Martha is so much thinner than old Martha," she jokes when I describe the photographs.

"I remember just loving New Zealand. I remember how beautiful it was, going to the botanical gardens. But in shows I go into an altered state. They are very surreal and the stage is a very surreal place. But I can't wait to get back."

Davis founded The Motels in the early 70s before punk and new wave, but success came when the band reformed in 1978 and a year later was signed to the giant Capitol Records.

While their debut was embraced in their homeland, they reached their highest charts spots in Australia and New Zealand. The Motels had other hits, including Only the Lonely and Suddenly Last Summer, and recorded five more albums with Capitol – one, Apocalypso, recorded in 1981, wasn't released until 2011 because at the time the label didn't believe it was commercial enough.

The band split after 1985's Shock. Davis says some of the problems revolved around outside pressures to distinguish her from her band.

"It was a slow sort of degradation," she says. "There was a risk early on where the record company was trying to get me to promote myself. 'You're the writer, you're the singer.' I fought that tooth and nail. I tried to keep it as a band as much as possible."

Producer Val Garay, first hired by the band for the aborted Apocalypso, "basically put all my guys on hold and brought in his guys. That was really hard on the morale. After a few years of this kind of stuff happening you don't have the crazy, wonderful thing that you had when everyone was running around putting posters up on lampposts.

"But I'm to blame with going along with the status quo. It was difficult because we didn't have a hit here in the United States until Only the Lonely on the fourth album. And it was actually my least favourite production because I didn't like that very polished stuff. My favourite album is still the first album."

In 1987 Davis released the solo album Policy – originally intended to be a Motels release – but the response was lukewarm and she left Capitol.

She went on to other projects, including songs for musicals.

But it's the past 10 years that have seen a resurgence in The Motels, as well as new solo albums. One was titled 16 Songs for Parents and Children.

"I had so much fun with that stuff. I even wrote stories to go along with all the songs. I actually did a children's album years ago when my grandkids were little – they're now in their 20s – when my daughter came up to me and said, 'Mom, please write some songs that I can stand to listen to'. That was back in the days of Barney the big purple dinosaur and the stuff was so banal and so awful, it would drive her crazy listening to it."

She's philosophical that she now tours as Martha Davis and The Motels when in the 80s she resisted pressure to change to that name. The new band has been together for 10 years, 2 more than the 80s incarnation. Management convinced her this time. "I realised I shot myself in the foot about being only The Motels when we were [first] together. When I went solo it was 'who's Martha Davis?' I actually went under 'Martha Davis Jnr' for a while. Then you find promoters don't want to hire you because there's no name value, so you go back to The Motels. Management said, 'make it Martha Davis and The Motels. Come on, you know that's what it is.'"


Martha Davis and The Motels play Wellington's Bodega tomorrow.


The Dominion Post