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.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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