Flame Dancer: Martha Davis and the 'Twisted Pop' of the Motels
What happened when Motels founder Martha Davis stepped into a row of flames? Thirty years later, Apocalypso holds the answer.
"Indefatigable." That's how Rolling Stone described Martha Davis in a profile of the Motels from September 1982. It was then and is now an accurate characterization of the group's founder, primary songwriter, lead singer, and guitarist. Then: the Motels were celebrating their first Top 10 pop hit in the US with the Davis-penned "Only the Lonely" after the group nearly imploded while recording their third album for Capitol Records, the unreleased Apocalypso (1981). Now: Martha Davis is celebrating the long overdue release of Apocalypso, whose embers have been rekindled by Omnivore Recordings after 30 years of lockdown in the vault.
To see Davis stand among towering flames on the cover of Apocalypso is to understand the kind of decimation she's survived in the intervening decades. Not even flames could desiccate the well of creativity that's nourished her through the Motels' dissolution in the '80s, major label woes, and her re-emergence with a new Motels line-up in the '90s. The release of Apocalypso has given Davis a chance to reclaim the classic Motels sound and fashion a fresh concert set that explores what might have happened had Capitol issued the album instead of the lacquered sheen of the group's breakthrough, All Four One (1982). Original member Marty Jourard, whose distinctive keyboard and saxophone playing contributed to the group's core musical identity from the late '70s through the early '80s, has joined Davis and the Motels for a series of Apocalypso-centric dates. On the first night of the Apocalypso tour in Philadelphia, Martha Davis revisited that moment 30 years ago when, in her words, "the train got de-railed".
"Hold on, here we go"
That train started its circuitous journey in 1979 with the release of The Motels. The group's eponymous debut catapulted them from local L.A. sensation to international renown with the Top 10 success of "Total Control" in Australia. Careful (1980) marked a crucial change in the band's aesthetic when Tim McGovern replaced Jeff Jourard as the group's lead guitarist. "Tim was so different from Jeff," Davis observes. "Jeff was very precise and clean. Tim's playing was just explosive." Produced by Capitol executive Carter, songs like "Cry Baby" and "Danger" exhibited the band's mastery of an accessible yet eccentric pop-based style that maintained their credibility while still expanding their audience.
In spring 1981, the group met with producer Val Garay to discuss their third album. Within weeks of meeting the Motels, Garay's handiwork on "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes would top playlists and trade magazine charts. Capitol might have been happy had the Motels followed suit, but their sessions with Garay produced something very different: Apocalypso. "It was a great artistic plunge," says Davis. Though Garay produced the album, the tone of the 10-song set was largely influenced by McGovern. "He was mastering the whole thing along," shares Davis, whose mercurial relationship with McGovern produced spellbinding music but also exacted an unhealthy toll. "I take my responsibility in this: I was following, he was leading. What Tim did was wonderful but there was so much emotional stuff going on as well." Upon hearing Apocalypso, the top executives at Capitol didn't discern any hits. Davis recalls, "The fine stately British man who was the head of A&R at that time said, 'Martha, you know we really love you guys. If you really, really, really want to put it out, we will, but we don't think our promotion department will work it,' which is pretty much like, 'It's not going to happen.'" The train de-railed: Capitol didn't release the album and Tim McGovern parted company with the Motels.
Hiring new guitarist Guy Perry, the Motels returned to the studio with Val Garay to re-record the bulk of Apocalypso. What ensued was the more radio-friendly pop of All Four One, which spawned the AOR classic "Take the L" plus a glossier version of "Only the Lonely". Little Robbers (1983) bred another massive hit ("Suddenly Last Summer") and the band's exposure on MTV made them more visible than ever. In retrospect, Davis is clear-eyed about the consequences of fame. "If that success had kept going after All Four One and Little Robbers, it would have been awful," she says, warily. "That success should not be dealt out until you're so ready to understand it and what it is. You got a hit, and everybody's pumping you up. This little bubble, with all the enablers, starts forming around you. You have to be so strong to say, 'Bubble, there. Me, here.'"
The Motels remained intact through the Shock album from 1985, before divisive tactics by the label and internal hostility unraveled the group. Policy (1987) inaugurated Davis' solo career, though it had begun as a Motels album. "It wasn't happening," she states. "Nobody wanted to be there. I took them all across the street one by one, bought them a drink and fired them." Only two weeks into the session, Capitol still expected a release from Davis, indelicately advising the prolific songwriter to work with outside writers like Diane Warren. Without much promotional (or moral) support from the label, Davis toured Australia, where she ostensibly mapped and managed the dates herself. Upon her return, she dismissed her manager and requested a release from Capitol.
Without a band or a record label, Martha Davis had reached a sobering juncture by the early '90s. She recalls, "I went all the way back down to, 'How do you pay the rent?' -- reality, which is the most important thing in life, especially if you're going to write. I wanted to start all over and I wanted to be present. I started 100% over again with a little garage band of young guys that had never seen a label. Now I'm 100% here and 100% managing myself and 100% in love with it." Over the past decade, Davis' renewed vigor and clarity relaunched the Motels and yielded a series of new albums including Clean, Modern and Reasonable (2007) and This (2007).
In between Motels studio dates and concert tours, Davis continued to record an array of solo sides. Her inimitable songwriting has shaped everything from a children's album (Red Frog Presents 16 Songs for Parents and Children, 2010), to a piece honoring her deceased mother (Beautiful Life, 2008), to a (forthcoming) jazz record of original Davis compositions. It was the latter project that helped facilitate the release of Apocalypso.
Exploring label options for the jazz record, Davis contacted her friend Cheryl Pawelski (formerly of EMI) at Omnivore Recordings. "I sent it to Cheryl," Davis begins. "She calls me back and says, 'It doesn't sound like it's finished,' which I understand because I really want to add some Nelson Riddle-ish kind of stuff to it. She says, 'Martha, we need something to kick-start this thing. Do you know that it's the 30-year anniversary of Apocalypso?'" Realizing that the anniversary date was imminent -- it had been slated for release on August 9, 1981 -- Omnivore quickly seized the opportunity and released Apocalypso on the exact same day in 2011.