Mark Gane, Songwriter and Co-Founder of Martha and the Muffins, Talks "Echo Beach", It's Legacy and More | Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame
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Mark Gane, Songwriter and Co-Founder of Martha and the Muffins, Talks “Echo Beach”, It’s Legacy and More

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By Karen Bliss

For this year’s 25th anniversary of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF), the non-profit organization is inducting the 80s new wave classic “Echo Beach,” written by Mark Gane, co-founder of the Toronto band Martha and the Muffins with singer Martha Johnson, now his wife.  The song came out on their debut album, Metro Music, released in early 1980, first in the U.K., Europe and Australia, and eventually in their home country of Canada.  The single — and album — both went gold (then, 50,000 units sold) before the end of that year, and earned a JUNO Award for Single of the Year in 1981.

“Echo Beach” will be honoured at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio Nov. 1 at CSHF’s Legends Series, supported by the RBC Foundation through RBC Emerging Artists.

Gane spoke to CSHF about the creation of the song, its legacy, his favoruite cover versions, as well as Live Nation naming a venue “Echo Beach.” He also reveals some of the other projects he has in the works, including an instrumental album based on plant names, and the nurturing and co-writing, with Martha, of young female songwriters on “heartbreak” songs.

“Echo Beach” has had a very long life.
It certainly has. It’s got legs.

It’s been said you were inspired to write the lyric when you were working as a wallpaper inspector. What on earth is that?
That’s elevating it a lot (laughs). It makes it sound way more important than it really was. Basically, one summer I was working at the Colour Your World paint factory around the Lakeshore and Royal York area. They had these huge wallpaper presses that periodically broke down. They would grind to a halt and they’d climb up there, where some part of the spool was damaged and some wasn’t. My job was to reel it out, cut the good stuff from the bad stuff, and separate it. Obviously, you could daydream while you were doing it, so that’s where the germ of the idea of the song came from. And then later on, I used a lot of that wallpaper to wrap my parents’ house that summer (laughs).

Back then, of course, there weren’t smart phones in order to dictate a lyric or hum a melody. So you’re at work, what did you do exactly? Did you write down lyrics on the other side of scrap wallpaper? Or do you have a good memory? Or did you just go home and get to work?
It wasn’t that fast a process. The song itself was written for the most part in early ’78 so it was two and a half years after that. But when I was thinking about the idea of the song, that’s where most of the first verse came from. It wasn’t like I went home from the wallpaper factory, “I gotta write this down.” There was a quite a long space of time between the wallpaper experience and the actual writing of the lyrics.

You had written songs before “Echo Beach” and have written songs since. Did you feel something special about that song when you finished it?
No, I wouldn’t say when I wrote it.  I thought the guitar riff was pretty cool. But it was so early on in the history of the band. I had other songs, but it always got a good reaction, even back in the very early days of Queen Street at the Beverley Tavern, that was all full of our art student friends and teachers and artists. But because we never started the band with the idea that it was ever going to go anywhere, and we didn’t really see ourselves as real musicians, we thought, “Well, we’ll do this ‘til it runs out and then we’ll go back to what we thought we were going to do.” And then, the extraordinary series of events that got us signed by Virgin Records UK. We got plucked out of this little scene and thrown into the London music scene, which was quite an eyeopener. So, in context of all the other songs, it certainly got a great reaction, but we were getting good reactions anyway. There was a semi-special feeling that was more unconscious, perhaps.

Why do you think it resonated with people?
I don’t know that I ever really thought about it that hard until my dad and I were having a conversation about it years ago and he said, “Why had that song done so well?” I said, “Well, it’s catchy, I guess.” And he said, “It’s because it’s nostalgic.” And I think he was actually quite right. When I think of some of my favorite songs of all time that have really lasted, like ‘Moon River’ and ‘Over The Rainbow,” they all have a very nostalgic but not cornball approach to the feeling of the song. It’s not cliched, but it has a very heavy feeling of yearning. And, I think, that just resonates.

Plus, I was just thinking about a beach, but I’ve never been a beach bum, so it was just another idea, but it resonated, particularly in places like Australia and Bali, and there’s a hotel in Zanzibar named after it [since closed]. So, all these beach locations have grabbed onto it. And then all these other weird things, like a short science fiction story and an online dystopian game show (laughs).

And not too many artists can say they have a venue named after one of their songs [Live Nation’s Echo Beach in Toronto].
For a songwriter, one of the biggest rewards for me is that, wow, it went way beyond the boundaries of the song itself and has become a cultural meme in places.

In announcing the song’s induction, the press announcement says “The term echo beach  has become a phrase used around the globe.” How so? How do people use it?
Yeah, I’m not sure about that. I’m not sure what that means. To be honest, that’s the first time I’ve heard about that. So if people are using it as a phrase, I don’t know about it.

The song is almost 44 years old. You did a version for the 30th anniversary. Are you thinking ahead to the 50th?
When we get there, we might think differently about it, but I think we nailed it with the 30th. It’s really interesting when you go on our YouTube channel because there’s people saying I hate this. They couldn’t have done better than the original and why did they bother? It’s so slow and boring. And then other people that are completely moved by it. As an artist, it’s a big reward when you get such a strong opinion either way. At least, it’s not pablum.

Don’t mess with perfection as they say. What made you decide to update it?
I don’t think it was so much updating it, as now we had a perspective. Rather than being 20-something years old, how old were we back then? In in our 50s or something. And when you think of your own life, who you were, you’re the same person as when you’re young, but you have all sorts of other experiences that you’ve lived through. And so, somewhere I said, “Well, this is our grownup version,” which was a simplistic explanation, but it’s darker; it’s slower and it has the weight of experience on it, but it’s still nostalgic. It’s almost a double nostalgia because the original song was nostalgic. You were imagining the nostalgia and the later version you were actually reliving a nostalgia for parts of your own life. I wasn’t just writing it as a songwriter going, “This is a cool idea now.” It was coming from Martha’s and my direct experience of being older. And, I think, that’s why a lot of people liked it. They felt that too. I guess you had to be a certain age to understand that. Although, as I say, some people our age probably hated it, but I’m okay with that. As long as you’re reacting somehow (laughs).

Do you have any favourite cover versions of it?
I’m a huge King Crimson-Robert Fripp fan. I don’t know if you know about Toyah Willcox and

Robert Fripp Sunday Lunch [weekly videos], which are insane, but they’ve been out on tour and they do a live version of “Echo Beach.” Toyah, I think, was the first one to cover it [in 1987], that I know of. Since then, she’s had really kind words to say about the song and she has it in her permanent live repertoire. And now that Robert’s out there playing, it’s absolutely thrilling to see my huge hero guitar player playing that song. I could never have imagined that.

But one of the best versions was by this Australian, Tim Van Der Kuil [released under Van Der Kill], and he did a really dark version. I would like to say 10 years ago, but I bet it was 20. It’s really slow with a change of key in the middle that we liked so much, we adapted his version to the 30th anniversary one. When it steps up into that other slight change that isn’t in the original, that was his idea. That is Martha’s and my favorite version because he actually added something new. And as a songwriter, I went, “I should have thought of that.” He also put a more minor melancholy feeling into it, which we really like too.

Have you gone to Echo Beach, the venue?
No. I’ve never been there. We had a bit of a battle with Live Nation because when it was named and all the banks started putting their logos all over everything, we reached out and said, “We’re not that comfortable with everybody else making money off this when it’s based on our song.” We actually had a reasonably amiable ending. There was a settlement. But one of the things we asked them to do, which they would not do, was put a plaque up acknowledging that it was named after the song.

That’s unfortunate.
Especially in your hometown. Having been in the music business, I understand how lawyers think, actually more than I care to know. I can just see them going, “There’s some potential liability issue.”

Can’t imagine what that might be. It would be nice to have a plaque there, but everyone knows what it’s named after.
Exactly.

This summer, Rolling Stone included Martha and the Muffins in their 50 Greatest Canadian Artists of All Time list. And now you have “Echo Beach” inducted into the CSHF, as part of their Legends Series.
It’s all cumulative, right. They all add some weight to the acknowledgement that you actually might have done something that’s lasted some period of time. And so, it’s all welcome.

What are your plans after the induction and into 2024?
Martha and I are always busy. About a year ago, we did a cover of Buffalo Springfield “For What It’s Worth.” That was for our manager’s covers album. We’ve just finished a video that is quite striking that we’re the releasing in November. We’ve also been working with younger songwriters and doing co-writes.  And I’ve just finished my first solo album called Garden Music, which is an instrumental album based on common plant names.

That is unique.  Are plants one of your hobbies and how do you write a song based on plant names?
Well, I do love gardening and it does run in the family. Genetic. I started with finding interesting common plant names, like Feverfew and Love-lies-bleeding and Deadly Nightshade and things like that. And then thought, “What would these names be like if they were people and what would be the situations they would find themselves in?” Some of it’s quite abstract; some of it’s sort of soundtrack. I come out of an experimental music background. Before the band, during the early days, I was in art college doing experimental and improvised music. So that’s as old or older than my attempts at pop music. I span both worlds quite comfortably. There isn’t any kind of music that’s too weird for me. Some of it’s on this album. It’ll probably send some people screaming in the opposite direction, but I know there’s a lot of people who will dig it too.

There has been a lot of scientific experiments with the sound of plants in recent years.
Yeah, when I sent this music out to some people as an advanced copy, somebody said, “What is it about a lot of people doing plant music now?” (laughs).

Which young songwriters have you and Martha been working with?
Sam Casey, who is going to be singing “Echo Beach’ for us the night of the induction. She’s a great new talent. She’s got quite a character. We started this project quite a while ago. It’s under the name Dazzlefield and it’s in progress, but it’s an album of breakups songs by young female songwriters. And she’s one of them. Martha and I are doing co-writes with all these young singers, and we’ve got a few done [Kyara Tetrault & Juliana Eye, “Cool California Nights;” Chloe Jones, “End Of Pretending;” Sam Casey, “Passing Out”].

The great thing is that what we’ve written with them, the lyrics are very heartfelt because they have broken up at least at some point, and they brought that true, honest feeling into these songs. They’re all very different songs because they reflect the character of each of the singers. We’ll get that out at some point. We take a long time sometimes to do things. Like this instrumental album has taken more than 20 years. I started it when our daughter was a little kid and now she’s got her own child (laughs).

That’s longer than Guns N’ Roses.
Yeah. Maybe, it’s a world record (laughs).

When is it coming out?
I’m not sure. The next thing I have to do is make a website before I let everybody know so that they have somewhere to go to.

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