Listen to this track by Queen Street West Toronto scenesters and new wave social commentators Martha & the Muffins. It’s “Women Around The World At Work”, a single as taken from their 1981 album This Is The Ice Age, their third.
This album is one that began something of a new phase for the band. First, they’d taken on a new member in bassist Jocelyn Lanois. And second, they hired her brother, Daniel Lanois, to produce their third album recording it in Toronto and in Hamilton where he was based. It wouldn’t turn out to be as big as Peter Gabriel’s So, or U2’s The Joshua Tree, which Lanois would also produce later on in the decade. But, it would prove that the band had plenty in the tank creatively speaking other than their most widely-known song “Echo Beach”.
One of the things that allowed them to expand on their sound, was a new exploration of politically motivated subject matter. This is one of their finest examples, a discussion of an issue that is still very relevant today, unfortunately.
The late ’70s and early ’80s when Martha & The Muffins formed at the Ontario College of Art, was a period when Canadian music was just beginning to recognize the talent to be found in little scenes through out the country rather than standard show business channels. Further to that, not too many Canadian acts at the beginning of the era hooked into a post-punk or new wave sound with any mainstream impact. That would certainly change as the ’80s progressed, with Spoons, Blue Peter, Men Without Hats, Strange Advance, and Images In Vogue being among the most prominent on mainstream radio nationally. This band was among the first to gain traction working in this musical vein, blazing a trail for the others.
But, Martha & The Muffins had more than just a stylistic handle on new wave, with a new palette of influences to bring to the table. They had the songwriting chops to put their material across. And as this song demonstrates, what they were writing about had substance. They had things to say.
This song discusses the issue of gender, and of two worlds that separate the influence of men, and that of women in the larger world. While wars are waged and nefarious deals are made in one version of the world largely controlled by men, it is the efforts of women that keep things normal in the other world where everyday work and schedules are kept. Women’s roles in war and in times of political unrest range from the earliest times when women took care of households and children while men fought, to taking factory jobs to hold up industry, to resistance movements and peaceful protest campaigns piloted largely by women. This was all along with the protection and rearing of children often under almost unbearable circumstances. This song rails against global aggression most often authored by male leaders, while also being a reminder that the essential work of women goes largely unsung in times of strife which that aggression causes.
In this, this song sheds light on a wider narrative. That history itself is highly subjective when it comes to who influences its outcomes. To me it, it suggests that heroes who are venerated by history are possibly less heroic than those who have supported their communities so as to make that more celebrated heroism possible. It’s a pretty thought-provoking idea when one looks at how infrequently we hear about the movements and contributions of women in the community when it comes to the Middle-East, the Ukraine, or during the Ebola crisis in West Africa in the news today. It was true in 1981, and remains so today it seems.
It’s hard to say why Martha & The Muffins were not a bigger band as far as their international presence is concerned. This could have more to do with timing and where Canadian music was at during this era, and less about the quality of their output. I personally think that they are among the best bands our country has ever produced. They showed consistent skill for pop music, and for growing a sound of their own while still creating accessible songs.
This is evidenced by the many quality singles that did so well here in Canada, and not so much outside of it, “Echo Beach” not included. Maybe it is because they tackled such weighty topics that turned over the rocks of society and exposed what was underneath that made them a harder sell in the United States. Their lack of worldwide success wouldn’t deter them from doing that, pushed along by a solid audience in Canada.
In various forms, Martha & The Muffins have endured to this day. You can learn more about them and their newest record Delicate at marthaandthemuffins.com
And for more about producer Daniel Lanois and his approach to the making of some of his most well-known and career-defining production projects, check out this article.