We learn all about a wallpaper inspector’s daydream that became one of the finest singles of the new wave era
Formed in Toronto in 1977, Martha And The Muffins became the first Canadian band to sign for a UK label when they joined the Virgin stable; releasing debut album Metro Music on the label’s Dindisc imprint in 1980. Though best known as a new wave act, their career has taken in elements of punk, dance, jazz, and experimental pop music along the way. Their biggest hit in America, 1984’s Black Stations/White Stations, made it to No 2 on the Dance chart, only beaten to the top spot by Prince’s When Doves Cry.
Back in November 2021, founding members Martha Johnson and Mark Gane released the album Marthology: In And Outtakes. Digging deep into their archives and the band’s 45-year history, it contains rare singles, B-sides, unreleased tracks and the stripped-back and atmospheric 30th-anniversary version of their classic single Echo Beach. First found on Metro Music and released as a single back in February 1980, the new wave classic sounds just as fresh and enticing today as it did when it was written and recorded over four decades ago.
With its nostalgic lyrics – given additional rasp by the fact that Johnson had a head cold when recording her vocals – and evocative riff, Echo Beach continues to call us back. Here, songwriter and guitarist Mark Gane reveals all…
“Needless to say it wasn’t exactly rocket science, so I could daydream while I was doing this. Even though it was about two or three years before I actually wrote the song, that’s where the germ of the idea came, certainly for the first verse. So instead of going, ‘My job is very boring I’m a wallpaper inspector,’ I tried to think of something more universal and so… office clerk.
“The second verse primarily came a couple of years later. A friend of mine had a motorbike and we rode down to the shore of Lake Ontario one evening and I was looking back at the city and basically, the second verse, ‘The sky’s alive with lights,’ all that stuff was basically a description of what the city looked like that night. So those two ideas fell together and ended up being the main lyrical content.
“People have been asking where is Echo Beach ever since the song was written and it’s a natural question. I just thought it up and it seemed like a neat name. When the song became well known, we started getting letters from all over going, ‘oh you must mean the one in Australia,’ or, ‘You must mean the one in northern Ontario,’ and of course, I said, ‘No.’ One of the greatest things about it was that we were getting all this reaction from people around the world that were personalising it with whatever spot they knew. Maybe that added resonance for them as well.
“I actually have a list… and this is one of the astounding things about being a songwriter is how this song has embedded itself into various cultural memes. So, over the past several decades we have: a German dub label, hotels in Bali and Zanzibar, a racehorse, there’s a sci-fi short story called Back To Echo Beach, an Australian youth hostel, a British TV series, a gay porno film, an iris, a UK dance performance, there’s a venue in Toronto that got called Echo Beach and I think finally, about a month ago, there’s an online game called Greetings From Echo Beach.
“I had the music first. The very first recorded version I did was when I was an art student at the Ontario College of Art because they had what they called The Sound Lab, which was a very basic studio. The guitar riff came from nowhere, I was fiddling around and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool.’ As a guitarist I’m self-taught, I tend to think in patterns if I’m not just doing chords. My riffs tend to be based on patterns and are often circular and I guess it was something circular about that that I liked. I did a little demo in the art college studio. It’s only two tracks. There’s the riff and then the accompanying rhythm guitar, which is somewhat different from how it ended up in song. I never got around to adding vocals or anything, but that was the first demo. I still have it and it’s never been released.
“I have the original lyrics from my art school notebook and I think it’s dated February ’78 and the band started during the summer of ’77. Even though we were in the early days, we were still writing songs, enough to have a decent set. Echo Beach was probably about the third song I ever wrote. I really didn’t know anything about writing pop songs because I came out of an experimental improv music background. That is probably why there’s no chorus till the very end. I don’t think I really thought ‘Oh, this is a verse and this is a chorus,’ because otherwise I probably would have put the chorus after the first verse.
“We have to give our producer at the time, Mike Howlett, credit because it was his idea to reintroduce the guitar riff in the middle of the song, we didn’t do it that way in the early days. When we were recording the first album at The Manor just outside of Oxford… it was actually the pre-production before that. He’d already said, ‘Look, you know this riff is great, put it here,’ and it was a stroke of genius. It helped propel the song forward in that middle section.
“Back in the day, it was all DIY and everybody at our college was like, ‘Hey, let’s form a band. That would be cool.’ But it was never started to become entertainers or have a hit song. We just thought it would last a couple of years and then end. I knew nothing about writing songs. The idea that I would have to write a song and know what Martha’s range was, that was something we only learned later through the process of making albums and working with musicians and producers who had more knowledge about this stuff than we did.
“Generally in the early band, the songwriter would bring in their song. I was pretty dictatorial about it but, with Echo Beach, the only parts I had were the riff, the accompanying chords, the melody and the lyrics, which I guess sounds like a lot. But for the arrangement, everybody kind of just figured out their part.
“We used an Ace Tone organ, a combo organ sort of in the same vein as a Vox Continental. We used a flanger on it which probably made it sound more synth-like. Andy [Haas]’s sax solo is quite memorable. There’s one little moment where it’s almost off and there’s some passing note, but it’s so great. It’s so idiosyncratic and he was a great idiosyncratic player. The thing with Andy was he would never play the same solo twice. He came out of a jazz background, that’s where his sensibilities were, the improvised free-form end of things, so he was very committed to trying to never repeat himself when it came to soloing.
“It’s hard to remember because it’s decades-old now but, even if we didn’t think that much about it, from the very early days… there was this venue we used to play just near the art college called The Beverley Tavern and that’s where all the artists and bands played for a long time. It held about 40 or 50 people. Even in those early days, people went crazy for Echo Beach.
“We actually have an early recording from the Beverley Tavern; we sometimes had to play songs twice, because at that point we didn’t have enough for two or three sets. It’s probably near the end of the night and people were yelling for Echo Beach. I’ve just broken a guitar string and I’m winding it back, people are screaming and I’m kind of panicking going, ‘We’d better start the song.’ I get it kind of in tune, launch into it and it’s completely out of tune. We go merrily off into the song and people are yelling along with this incredibly out of tune guitar riff. Nobody seemed to mind, they were probably all drunk, but at that point, it was obvious that there was something about the song.
“My dad and I talked about this many years ago and he said, ‘You know why that song is so popular? It’s because it’s nostalgic.’ It has a feeling of nostalgia that you were somewhere and you want to go back there and it represents the ideal refuge from the humdrum everyday world that we have to deal with.
“I have to say, we were huge Roxy Music fans at the time. I was very under the influence of the band and Bryan Ferry’s writing. Basically, what I wanted to do was write lyrically the way Bryan Ferry would have. I think, from a North American point of view, those lyrics are very unusual. They’re much more like Noel Coward, and Bryan Ferry channels that era of music too. Saying, ‘I know it’s out of fashion and a trifle uncool.’ I mean, what punk band or new wave band is gonna say that without their tongue firmly in their cheek? But that’s what I was going for. But can’t you imagine Bryan Ferry or Noel Coward singing those lyrics?
“We’re never ungrateful for Echo Beach. It didn’t make us rich, but for the most part, it meant that we could continue spending most of our time writing music and releasing albums. The older we get, the more we realise what a gift that is. That does not happen often enough for people that have talent and maybe never get the chance to be heard, so we’re deeply appreciative. On the other hand, there were periods where certainly I got tired of playing it and one of the disadvantages of having a song do so well literally five minutes into your career is that it kind of obliterates, for some people, any notion that they want to hear anything else.
“I think we’ve done nine albums now and we get hit with that ‘one hit wonder’ thing in certain parts of the world, when in fact we’ve had many hits in Canada and Black Stations/White Stations was a hit in The States. It is a bit frustrating to think that there are all these other songs that as songwriters, we think… it’s not like there are songs that are better than Echo Beach, they’re just other songs that are as good or are different or hit people in other ways. I would love more people to have heard more of our stuff. I think the listeners are divided into those who only know Echo Beach and those deeper listeners that know all of our stuff and have been there for 40 years through all of our ups and downs and our different styles. It would be great if more people got to hear that but that doesn’t diminish Echo Beach in any way.”