The Motels came out of the MTV 1980s with a string of hit videos and songs such as “Only the Lonely,” “Take the L,” “Suddenly Last Summer” and "Remember the Nights.” Martha Davis' distinctive voice and cinematic lyrics separated them from other New Wave bands that were hitting the charts.
From her ranch outside Portland, Oregon, Davis said from Duran Duran to Devo, from Blondie to The Pretenders, each band in the 1980s wanted to sound and look different from the others.
“It was time of extreme creativity in terms of the whole of the music business,” said Davis who will be performing the hits and new material at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach on Saturday, Dec. 29. “That was really exciting. Shortly after that you started to get this homogenization that we see a lot of now.”
In recent years, Davis has been busy creating new music, including this year the album, “The Last Few Beautiful Days,” which Davis calls the best album The Motels has released. Because she feels the new album, as well as other new music including two children's albums and one jazz record, didn't get a proper release or backing from the record label, she founded her own, Remarkable Records.
“Now it's time for me to actually get things done properly instead of just putting things on the internet,” said Davis, adding that she hopes the new music will be released on the label in 2019.
Life in music
Davis has tackled many genres of music over the years, but her first “oh my God moment” came when she was just 5 years old and her mother played Stravinsky's “The Rite of Spring” on the record player.
“I remember sitting there and staring at the record,” Davis recalled.
At 8 years old, she was taught three chords by a young African American man, Felton Henderson, who was on scholarship from Cal Berkeley. Her father had hired Henderson, who later worked for Robert Kennedy, to teach her guitar. The first song she learned was “Tom Dooley,” a song based on the brutal murder of a woman in 1866. The first time Davis performed on stage, she performed a rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” in fourth grade.
“I spent a lot of time with those three chords... but I fell in love with the negro spirituals,” David said. “But mostly I sat in my room and made stuff up, that's what I did more than anything... I finally wrote my first song when I was 15.”
After Davis became an Air Force wife and became pregnant at 16 years old, her music career really began when she joined The Warfield Foxes, a band from Berkeley, in 1971. They had only three rehearsals before they took the stage for the first time on Halloween night in 1971.
“I remember there was a naked man painted blue dancing in front of me,” Davis said.
The Warfield Foxes moved to L.A. in 1975, eventually changing their name to The Motels. The band broke up in 1977, but reformed in 1978.s. The Motels were signed by Capitol and recorded the albums “The Motels” and “Careful.” While they had some success in Australia and France, they made little impression on the American charts, although “Careful” reached No. 45.
The album “All Four One” and the single “Only the Lonely” gave them the breakthrough they needed when it was released in 1982. “Only the Lonely” reached No. 9 on the Billboard charts, while “Take the L” and “Forever Mine” hit the charts as well.
Davis resisted a more pop, main stream sound, even with the success of “Only the Lonely” which she called “not my favorite.”
“I've always wanted to be a little more outside, a little crazy, sort of push the boundaries a little bit,” said Davis, citing David Bowie as one of her musical heroes. “We are very happy with for success of 'Only the Lonely' and I know that song means a lot to our people and me too, but that was definitely the beginning of the career... and me becoming less and less satisfied. I really believe that music should not be safe it should be something that engages you.”
The follow-up album in 1983, “Little Robbers,” was equally as successful, reaching gold sales (500,000 copies) in the U.S. “Little Robbers” included the top 10 single “Suddenly Last Summer” as well as “Remember the Nights,” which reached No. 36 on the charts. “Shock,” released in 1985, included the hit “Shame” that reached No. 21 on the Hot 100.
Davis called “Suddenly Last Summer” the “weirdest song” she had ever written. The song had its genesis in Berkeley, around 1971 or 1972, during the end of summer when she was singing in her backyard and a cold wind came through like “winter was knocking on the door.” At the same time she heard an ice cream truck. She thought “that's the last time I was going to hear that ice cream truck this year.” Years later she was living in L.A. and was startled awake around 3 a.m., which triggered a memory of that day.
“Lyrically it doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense... but as I did it of let that same feeling that I felt in the backyard,” said Davis of “Suddenly Last Summer. “It's a loss of innocence, the seasons have changed and you will never go back to what it was before.”
New music and performing the hits
With their 2018 album, Davis said “we're not chasing an 80s feel,” but her bandmates “probably like the 80s more than me.” The current band includes original member Marty Jourard, who returned in 2011, guitarist Clint Walsh, drummer Eric Gardner and bassist Nic Johns.
“They embrace the sound of the 80s,” she said.
Even after singing some of the same hits for over 30 years, Davis said “it's never the same” performing them.
“It's never the same surroundings, it's never to the same people,” Davis said. “There are people in the audience who have never heard it... nothing in life, second to second, is ever the same.”
She added, “Sometimes it can move you so much, even after all of these years, just because of who's in audience or what’s going on in your life.”
Martha Davis and The Motels will be performing at Saint Rocke, located at 142 Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach, Saturday, Dec. 29, beginning at 8 p.m.