Martha Davis of the Motels: "I'm Still a Storyteller"
Every city has had its scene at one time or another. In the '60s, it was London; in the '70s, New York; Boston ruled as far as the folk crowd was concerned, and today Austin and Nashville are at the essence of Americana.
Photo by Mike Krzeszak via Flickr cc
Nevertheless, the '80s belonged to Los Angeles, and it was there, during that time, that Martha Davis and the Motels first emerged at the dawn of the decade. Originally from Berkeley California, the first incarnation of the band emigrated to L.A. in the mid '70s, but were dismayed to find that none of the local venues -- specifically, the Whiskey A Go-Go and the Troubadour -- offered a place to play for any band that wasn't signed to a label.
"I had to leave my two kids, my house, my life, and move to L.A. where I didn't like it, and where we couldn't play," Davis recently recalled, speaking by phone from her manager's L.A. office. "That was the first real 'whoops!' moment, like maybe this was a mistake. But we put together an event we called the Radio Free Concert with three bands -- the Dogs, the Pop and the Motels -- and we did our own original music. It was really well attended and very successful. Shortly thereafter, the Whiskey called and said, 'Maybe you should play here.' So there was that kind of camaraderie with different bands that all clicked together. We all had to stick together just to survive. Yet there was so much individualism as well. It was an interesting time."
When the record labels subsequently began seeking out the hottest local bands to sign, the Motels were at the center of the action.
"At first, all the record labels were looking to New York to sign bands, and then the Knack came out with 'My Sharona,' and then they all went, 'Oh, maybe we have talent here,'" she remembers. "So everybody got signed in L.A. It was a kind of feeding frenzy. You didn't notice though, because you were working so hard at becoming one of those bands. The beauty of the '80s was that none of us wanted to sound like any of the rest of us... Everybody was different and so unique. That was the main directive. You had to have your own identity and you had to have your own personality. That's what made it such a heady time, because it was such an individualistic era where people were really touting their intent along with their clothing and their hair color. Talk about a me generation! It was all about the art."
While it was undoubtedly a transitional time, it was also fraught with frustration, at least for the Motels. A demo recorded for Warner Bros. was rejected, and when Capitol Records came calling, the band not only declined, but disbanded in the process. When they later reformed with Davis on guitar and vocals, along with bassist Michael Goodroe, drummer Brian Glascock, guitarist Jeff Jourard, and Jourard's brother Marty on sax and keyboards, they gained a groundswell of support, and the next time Capitol appeared interested, they accepted.
"I had so many heydays," Davis recalls. "It was with a fabulous record label and an amazing team. I was there for the beginning of MTV. It was a wonderful time to be making music. I have no complaints really. It was such a great label. It was like a family."
Despite the fact that their first two albums for the label, The Motels and Careful, helped expand their burgeoning following, Capitol rejected their third attempt, Apocalypso. They didn't consider it commercial enough. Still, Davis didn't harbor any grudges.
"I'm always one of those people who thinks when one door closes, the fire escape is always available," she laughs. "It was Rupert Perry, the head of A&R, who told me their decision, and he was so sweet about it. He said, 'Martha, we'll release it if you really want us to, but we don't think promotion people will work it, and we don't think the marketing people will either.' So I thought, if nobody's going to get behind it, then what's the use? And it was fine. I was kind of pragmatic about it and I saw this freedom that came with it.
"So it all worked out. Maybe in other circumstances it would have been a more crushing blow, but you have to learn early on in the music business -- or you should learn -- to take rejection. That means everything from going out to do a show and not have people interested in you, to having people walk out on you and getting bad reviews. If you let that shit get to you, you can't do this business. You have to be secure enough in knowing that if it doesn't work, you'll have something else going.
"That creative energy has always been strong in me. I live to think of the next thing. That's my happy place. So instead of taking rejection as rejection, I think, 'Well, what do we do next?' And I go forward. So I guess I'm in a good place that way."
For Davis, there were other reasons to move on as well. Her boyfriend, Tim McGovern, had replaced Jeff Jourard, and as their relationship soured, so did the creative process. Nevertheless, after revamping Apocalypso as All Four One, the band hit their commercial stride, scoring a hit single with the top ten "Only the Lonely" and two other successful singles, "Take The L" and "Forever Mine," garnering an American Music Award in the process. Their next album, Little Robbers, continued their winning streak, courtesy of another chart topper "Suddenly Last Summer." The album then went gold in the process.