Martha Davis – circa 1982
“I heard him talkin’ / I heard him say / He wasn’t gonna kill you / He was just gonna f*** up your pretty face” – ‘Celia’ (Martha Davis)
See the quote above? It may be thought that, chilling though it may be, it’s just a bit of drama for the narrative of a song…but that’s incorrect. It’s an incident from real life. In fact, the mythical ‘Celia’ of the song is really Martha Davis, the leader of U.S. rock band The Motels. The identity of the person making the threat is even more disconcerting. “This was a line that my husband actually told me,” Martha Davis confirms.
The story of The Motels is really the story of Martha Davis, their sultry vocalist, guitarist and songwriter.
Martha Emily Davis is born 19 January 1951 in Berkeley, California, in the United States of America. She is the product of ‘very liberal parents.’ Her mother had been quite a scholar in the 1940s, but became a frustrated housewife. “When I was a kid,” Martha recalls, “my Mom had an amazing record collection and my Dad would sing to me at night.” Her early eclectic listening included ‘The Rite Of Spring’ by classical composer Stravinski; ragtime and jazz pianist Jellyroll Morton; blues singer Bessie Smith; Dixieland jazz; and negro spirituals. “I loved musicals, classical music…I loved soul music,” Martha gushes.
When Martha Davis is 8 years old she receives her first guitar. Her father salvages it from the basement of his workplace. It’s a very old instrument and he was worried that it would be ruined if it was just left there. “When I was 8, I learned my first three guitar chords,” Martha says. It is her babysitter who teaches her the chords.
At 15 Martha Davis discovers she is pregnant. The father is Ronnie Baschell. A marriage is hastily arranged and her husband enlists in the U.S. Air Force. “I became an Air Force wife in Tampa, Florida,” Martha says, recalling how the newlyweds moved south to honour Ronnie’s obligations to the armed forces. “I had my first child when I was 15 years old,” she adds, in reference to Maria (born 1966). “I had two kids,” the other one being Patricia (born 1968). Martha Davis doesn’t take her guitar to Florida since it is too fragile for the trip. However, her father buys her a new, cheap guitar. “I wrote my first song when I was 15,” Martha states. She does this “just to occupy myself and work out some emotions I was having at the time.”
Martha Davis’ marriage to Ronnie Baschell is quickly going wrong. This is when he makes the threat that he won’t kill her, just f*** up her pretty face. Martha Davis’ mother commits suicide when Martha is 19. Martha divorces Ronnie and returns to California.
Although her father consistently reminds her that she has two young daughters to care for, Martha Davis resolves to follow her own creative impulses. Her mother’s suicide acts to convince Martha not to bow to community pressure as her mother did and end up so frustrated that suicide seemed like a good option. Martha’s determination is put to the test when she receives a telephone call from her friend Lisa Brenneis (pronounced BREN-iss). As aspiring bass player, Lisa has a band of her own and, aware of her friend’s own musical aspirations, invites Martha to come over. This is The Warfield Foxes which the two women form in Berkeley, California, in 1971. “The name came from a theatre in Oakland [,California,] called the Fox Warfield,” Martha explains, “so we just inverted it…We had our first gig…Halloween night in 1971 at a place called Project Arteau in San Francisco…As soon as I was on stage I realised that’s where I wanted to be…It was like I was possessed or speaking in tongues…” Although Lisa Brenneis is crucial in getting Martha Davis into the performing side of music, Lisa herself soon bows out.
Martha Davis observes, “It was a very difficult time for women in rock…But I was a wily girl who spent all her money buying equipment, thinking that I could lure guys into coming and playing with me…and it worked!” The Warfield Foxes line-up in 1971 stabilises as: Martha Davis (vocals, guitar), Dean Chamberlain (guitar), Chuck Wada (rhythm guitar), Richard D’Andrea (bass) and Robert Numan (drums). Martha describes this unit as “very funky” while admitting that “a lot of the songwriting was done by guitarist Chuck Wada and Dean Chamberlain.”
By 1973 the still struggling Warfield Foxes move to Los Angeles. In summer 1975 they become The Angels Of Mercy. It’s not a name they are all comfortable with, though. By one account, it is Dean Chamberlain who comes up with a new name, but Martha Davis seems to remember it being Robert Numan who is responsible: “At that time on Santa Monica Boulevard, that’s where all the motels used to be. So walking down there one day he looked up and said, ‘Why not The Motels?’” This edition of The Motels dissolves in June 1977. “When that band broke up, I coerced him into giving me the name,” Martha discloses.
A new incarnation of The Motels is born in August 1978. The line-up of this group is: Martha Davis (vocals, guitar), Jeff Jourard (guitar), his brother, Marty Jourard (saxophone, keyboards), Michael Goodroe (bass) and British-born Brian Glascock (drums) (born 17 July 1948). “As a musical unit we were all babies,” Martha confesses. “I couldn’t rate any capable players; I was just a baby myself with not much to offer. So we all grew up together as best friends.” Having said that, she allows that, “Jeff Jourard was the one who made it happen.” The Motels get their first gigs in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles, securing a residency at a venue called Madame Wong’s. They begin to draw the attention of record company executives. “There was a bit of a feeding frenzy about The Motels,” Martha notes. Capitol Records wins out. “We were signed on Mother’s Day  and the next day we went into the [recording] studio,” says the still faintly surprised Martha Davis. “Basically, [for the debut recording] we played the same set we did at Madame Wong’s.”
The Motels are normally categorised as a new wave band. In a case of transatlantic ping pong, punk rock is, arguably, invented in New York by The Ramones around 1975. It then explodes in London, England, thanks to The Sex Pistols in 1977. Los Angeles then becomes a nest of late-blooming punk bands in the late 1970s. New wave is the better behaved cousin of punk. It begins as an offshoot of punk in London and then bounds across the ocean to the U.S.A. The Motels are part of the Los Angeles new wave boom, a movement triggered by the commercial breakthrough of Los Angeles new wave act The Knack in 1979. The Knack’s success is what motivates the recording company ‘feeding frenzy’ for new wave acts to which Martha Davis referred. Both punk and new wave seek to strip rock of its pretensions and reduce it to the basic essentials. The difference between them is that punk is brutal while new wave is just oddball.
So what’s odd about The Motels? Well, aside from the basic, scraped-down sinews of new wave rock, The Motels offer a sort of smoky atmosphere like a 1940s movie. Martha Davis describes it as “a sort of darker, weird [sound]…In fact I use the term film noir of music…Crazy little vignettes that are provocative and hopefully atmospheric.” Film noir is a genre that flourished in movies in the late 1940s. It literally means ‘dark film’ (the French word ‘noir’ means ‘black’ or ‘dark’). They were black and white movies in which shadows were everywhere. Typically detective or crime stories, they also offered a ‘black’ morality: corruption was endemic, women were femme fatale seductresses, and the most likely dénouement was a fatal gunshot. It is really Martha Davis who brings the film noir qualities to The Motels new wave with her sultry looks and songs of the downtrodden and desperate.
Martha Davis is the focus of The Motels vision. She is the singer, the main songwriter and, as a guitarist, a capable member of the band musically. “I’m a songwriter…That’s what I am more than anything. I don’t want to be a diva,” she claims. “I’ve always been a tomboy and lugged my own gear…I’m not a girlie-girl.” In regard to her singing, Martha points out, “I was never ever trained. I never thought of myself as a singer. I thought of myself as a songwriter first…To me it’s more important to tell the story…Because I write my own songs, I write them to my voice.” Martha continues, “I love writing…because the shy girl who’s afraid to speak her mind can now dissolve into the visceral character I write about.” Thus, to round out the film noir analogy, Martha Davis is screenwriter, director and starlet rolled into one.
The comment about being a ‘shy girl’ is also telling. Despite being the person about whom The Motels revolve, Martha Davis feels some discomfort in that role. “I was just never that sure of myself,” she says. Indeed, at times other members of the band or their record producers seem to exercise more influence. “Even though I was the frontperson, I don’t really have the confidence to stand up to these powerhouses of musical vision and I think I was intimidated…I can be easily bulldozed…As long as I’m making music, I’m still having fun.”
‘The Motels’ (1979) (US no. 175, AUS no. 13) is the group’s debut, released in September. The first two albums by The Motels are produced by Capitol Records staff producer John Carter. Martha Davis says, “Carter is one of those more Zen producers.” In other words, he basically just tries to capture the sound of the group without any added personal touches from him. “The first album is one of my favourites because it captured what I think of myself as being about,” offers Martha. For this reason, ‘The Motels’ is their best album because it presents the clearest expression of that musical film noir aesthetic. It is also home to The Motels’ finest song. ‘Total Control’ (US no. 109, AUS no. 4) is co-written by Martha Davis and guitarist Jeff Jourard. “I remember being very angry at the time I wrote that song,” Martha confides. “I wanted it to be my first punk rock piece but Jeff Jourard came up with these beautiful chords and, all of a sudden, the lyrics sat right down on top of it.” Martha Davis’ narrator avers, “Ooh, I’d sell my soul for total control / Over you.” But her lover has left her in a mess. “Stay in bed / Stained sheets / My head hurts.” The whole thing positively aches. A nerve-tapping guitar and rising keyboards finally blossom into a sublimely smoky saxophone solo from Marty Jourard. ‘Celia’ contains the sinister threat of violence to the subject. A throbbing pulse builds in intensity until the narrator is urging ‘Celia’, “If I was you / I’d take the next train out of town / I’m tellin’ you that man is mad / He’s mad as hell and he’s got a gun.” This album is also home to the quirky ‘Love Don’t Help’ and a look at juvenile delinquents out for ‘Kix’.
‘The Motels’ meets with a fairly muted reception in the U.S.A. and the band has the ‘strongest impact’ in Australasia. Martha Davis suggests that, “The highlight of my career was probably when I walked on stage in Australia for the first time, went into ‘Total Control’ and heard the entire audience singing along at the top of their voices…I’m beginning to believe that the stork had a really bad sense of direction and dropped me on the wrong continent,” she quips.
Martha ‘Davis and Jeff Jourard soon run into serious creative arguments, resulting in the guitarist leaving the group’ in 1980. His replacement is Tim McGovern from The Pop. “Tim was my boyfriend,” Martha acknowledges, “and I fell in love with him because he was a great musician [but it turned out] as a boyfriend Tim was not good at all.”
Tim McGovern debuts on ‘Careful’ (1980) (US no. 45, AUS no. 26) in June. The cover image is a print of a painting by Dougie Fields that seems to play into their 1940s style – albeit with sadomasochistic overtones in the painting. Martha Davis notes that “the second album has more co-writing” with other members of the band, though the disc is deemed by critics ‘an interesting failure.’ The title track, ‘Careful’, and ‘Bon Jour Baby’ are co-written by keyboardist Marty Jourard and bassist Michael Goodroe. Martha Davis and Tim McGovern co-write the sharp new wave of the nominal single, ‘Danger’ (AUS no. 88): “Danger / Your love is like a stranger / So close / And yet so far away.” However the highlight of the album may be Martha’s solo composition ‘Whose Problem?’ (AUS no. 43) that shows off her sense of humour. “Whose problem am I / If I’m not yours?” she asks a reluctant beau. With purposefully out of kilter chords and a wobbly guitar solo, Martha sings, “I think you’re wondering maybe you made a mistake / Hell, nobody’s perfect / Now why don’t you give me a break?”
‘Apocalypso’ is the projected third album from The Motels – but it runs into problems. “’Apocalypso’ was pretty much done by Tim McGovern [but] I still wrote most of the stuff,” Martha Davis points out. Capitol Records thinks it is “too freaky, too strange,” according to Martha. Capitol is said to have ‘rejected’ the album, but the band’s leader claims they offered to release it, but not promote it, which would have doomed it. Tim McGovern exits the band, a move that probably coincides with him exiting Martha Davis’ affections too. Guy Perry (guitar) joins The Motels and the group expands to a six-piece with the addition of Scott Thurston (guitar, keyboards, other instruments) (born 10 January 1952).
‘All Four One’ (1982) (US no. 16, AUS no. 20) is The Motels third official album, but its title pays service to it being album number four by one reckoning. This set and The Motels’ next are produced by Val Garay (surname pronounced Guh-RAY). “He was very difficult to work with,” scowls Martha Davis. He “came in with his team of guys…a pop machine…Stephen Goldstein [did the] keyboards [and] arrangements…” The result is, in Martha’s words, “more pop, more shiny, more produced.” It is also more commercially successful. The breakthrough is ‘Only The Lonely’ (US no. 4, AUS no. 28), a Martha Davis original, not a cover of the 1960 Roy Orbison hit of the same name – though Martha’s closing high note evokes the memory of Orbison’s voice. “We lied / About each other’s strengths,” Martha sings, with the air of an old movie star, going on to say that, “It’s like I told you / Only the lonely can play.” This track was present on the original ‘Apocalypso’ and ‘Apocalypso’ [the song] itself is also here, awash in eccentric percussion. At the other extreme, ‘So L.A.’ is as synthetic as a vinyl skirt. Aside from ‘Only The Lonely’, the best moment is ‘Take The L’ (US no. 52, AUS no. 21) as Martha Davis wittily observes, “Take the L out of ‘lover’ / And it’s ‘over’.” Portentous keyboards and a chugging guitar power the song as the singer agonises, “Every drink and cigarette / All those hands we never met / These are things we should forget / Now it’s over.” The song is written by Martha Davis, Marty Jourard and former producer, John Carter. Martha Davis says of ‘All Four One’, “That’s when the hits came, which was kinda sad for me, ‘cos it wasn’t really my favourite type of music. I wanted to do a lot more left of centre [things].”
By September 1982 the household of Martha Davis contains not only her teenage daughters, Maria and Patricia, but her sister’s son, Phil (born 1967), who she has adopted. Martha also has a new partner, Kevin McCormick, who is ten years younger than her.
‘Little Robbers’ (1983) (US no. 22, AUS no. 34) is spearheaded by ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ (US no. 9, AUS no. 34). Chiming and soaring keyboards frame Martha Davis’ voice as she sings, “It happened one summer / It happened one time / It happened forever / For a short time.” There is a sense of loss…but of what? “Loss of virginity? Sure,” Martha says amiably in a later interview. The title track, ‘Little Robbers’, is a fruity samba goosed by the bass. ‘Trust Me’ is a fast guitar boogie shuffle. Scott Thurston co-writes with Martha Davis ‘Remember The Nights’ (US no. 36). The complex arrangement sounds like busy street traffic as Martha pleads, “I can’t go back / But I can’t stay / Help me / Remember the nights with you.”
‘Shock’ (1985) (US no. 36, AUS no. 23) is produced by Richie Zito. Martha Davis describes him as “great – but even more pop [than Val Garay].” Initially at least, the result of the change in producers is positive with the impressive ‘Shame’ (US no. 21, AUS no. 18). Castanets click over mountainous synthesisers to give proceedings a surprisingly dramatic tone. “A very simple statement / A very simple crime,” agonises Martha, “A lot of grief reflected in how we spend our time.” ‘Annie Told Me’ is co-written with drummer Brian Glascock. It’s a thoughtful number with prism-like keyboards as Martha observes a reassuring friend: “She sleeps so lightly / Almost like she’s never slept before.” ‘Icy Red’ is a strange beast pairing Indian sitar synths with syn-drums and then breaking into a countryish sprint. ‘Cries And Whispers’ is very much a product of its times with the 1980s hallmarks of synthesisers and big drums. Martha Davis shares co-writing credits on ‘Cries And Whispers’ with producer Richie Zito and Davitt Sigerson, another Los Angeles record production identity.
The Motels dissolve in 1987. This is attributed to ‘a cancer scare’ for Martha Davis. While it seems to be true she had a brush with cancer around that time, Martha doesn’t remember that as the reason for the break-up. “It had just gotten to the point where the band was no longer the band it used to be,” she claims. “It’s difficult…like being married to five people all at once…There was always pressure from the record company…to make me [the focus. They’d say] ‘You’re the star’…I didn’t want that.” On top of that, “The money had run out…We were totally demoralised,” Martha concludes.
So what starts out as The Motels’ sixth album instead becomes ‘Policy’ (1988) (US no. 127, AUS no. 28), Martha Davis’ first solo album. It is best remembered for the single, ‘Don’t Tell Me The Time’ (US no. 80, AUS no. 8). “[Producer] Richie [Zito] hired all these guys,” Martha says with some dismay. As well as saxophonist Clarence Clemmons from Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, mellow brassman Kenny G puts in an appearance, and Martha finds herself giving voice to a song from hit-maker Diane Warren. “I called my lawyer and said, ‘Get me off this label’,” Martha fumes.
“It ended up very sad,” Martha Davis says. “I upholstered furniture. I didn’t do any music for a year.”
When she finally decides to return to the fray, Martha Davis goes through many incarnations of The Motels. After a brief stint as W.M.D. (for Weapons of Martha Davis, rather than Weapons of Mass Destruction), she hooks up with “a bunch of young kids” as Martha Davis And The Motels in March 1998. This changes quickly to, simply, The Motels. However, the line-up of the latterday Motels is very unstable, changing almost completely (except for Martha Davis) every time they surface. “There have been more Motels incarnations than anything,“ Martha admits. “There have been so many people in The Motels that it is hard to see straight anymore.” None of these outfits completes any official recordings in the 1990s.
After another Martha Davis solo album, ‘So The Story Goes’ (2004), The Motels latest incarnation issues ‘Clean Modern And Reasonable’ (2007). The same year as the follow-up, ‘This’ (2008), Martha releases another solo effort, ‘Beautiful Life’ (2008). The rejected ‘Apocalypso’ (2011) recorded in 1981 gains an official release thanks to the archival label, Omnivore. Martha Davis tries her hand at entertaining the little kiddies with her solo album, ‘Red Frog Presents: 16 Songs For Parents And Children’ (2011). None of these twenty-first century recordings trouble the pop charts.
The Motels career from 1979 to 1987 is the heart of this tale. It was in these years that Martha Davis and her confederates formed a lasting legacy. From inky musical film noir to glossy pop, it was all channelled through Martha Davis’ warm and witty sensibility. She may have known harrowing personal challenges (the abusive husband, her mother’s suicide, the cancer scare), but her creativity saved her and, in the process, created some great music. Martha Davis was characterised by ‘her intense, earthy and endearingly unpretentious talents and style of operation [and] for her often starling eroticism and tenacious dedication.’ The Motels were ‘one of the most successful and acclaimed bands to emerge from the fertile Los Angeles new wave scene.’
- rockwired.com – Martha Davis interview conducted by Brian Lush (2009)
- wikipedia.org as at 5 August 2013
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 5 August 2013
- ‘Revenge of the ‘80s’ (U.S. syndicated radio program) – Martha Davis interview conducted by Chris Cordani, Pt. 1 (August 2009)
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 172
- ‘People’ magazine Volume 18, No. 12 – Martha Davis interview conducted by Gail Buchalter (20 September 1982) (reproduced on people.com)
- virginmegamagazine.com – Martha Davis interview conducted by Gerrie Lim (6 February 2001) (reproduced on the-motels.info)
- annecarlini.com – Martha Davis interview conducted by Russell A. Trunk (2006)
- ‘The Best Of The Motels – No Vacancy’ – Sleeve notes by Glenn A. Baker (Capitol Records, 1990) p. 2, 4, 8
- the-motels.info as at 12 September 2013
- allmusic.com, ‘The Motels’ by Jason Ankeny as at 11 September 2013
- ‘Revenge of the ‘80s’ (U.S. syndicated radio program) – Martha Davis interview conducted by Chris Cordani, Pt. 2 (August 2009)
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 150, 158, 175, 192
- lyricsfreak.com as at 10 September 2013
- ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p. 330
- goldenageofmusicvideo.com – Martha Davis interview (12 August 2011)
Song lyrics copyright Clean Sheets Music (BMI) with the exceptions of ‘Total Control’ (Clean Sheets Music / Frettssongs Music (BMI); ‘Danger’ (Clean Sheets Music / Clams Casino Music (BMI / ASCAP)); ‘Take The L’ (Excessive Music / Minimal Music (Admin. By Bug) / Clean Sheets Music (BMI)); and ‘Annie Told Me’ (Clean Sheets Music / Very Not Music (BMI)).
Last revised 19 November 2013