Whatever happened to Martha Davis? That’s what many pop music fans are asking these days. Yet she’s neither retired nor incapacitated. And it’s just been two years since her last album. She’s still the lead singer and main songwriter of the Motels. The band has a new Capitol album, “Shock,” and a new single--the title song.
That question is sarcastic. Those who are posing it know she’s still around. What they’re getting at is that she’s not the Martha Davis fans were mad about in the ‘70s and the early ‘80s when the Motels were a beloved, struggling, local band.
Back then, when new wave was in vogue, the Motels were full of raw, unbridled energy. On stage Davis was the spunky, seductive tart armed with an endearing, what-the-hell attitude. And she could sing, too--in a torchy, bluesy style. There was no polish but that was a plus. She was a diamond-in-the-rough that you wanted to stay that way. Her songs weren’t always great but Davis, charisma in overdrive, transformed them into something special, squeezing out every ounce of drama.
That was the old Davis. In the last few years, commercialism has set in. She’s slicker and more restrained. But the polished Davis is not, as many fans have charged, worse. She’s just different.
Personally, I prefer the Davis that has emerged in the last few years. Naturally, so does she.
“I can sing better, with more feeling and emotion,” she said. “My range is better. I know so much more about singing and performing.”
Is the old Davis gone forever?
“I couldn’t stay in the same place. What do people expect me to do, stand still? I couldn’t do the same old stuff or be the same way forever. There’s a little thing called progress that happens to you. I don’t think this band is in such a horrible place. You can do pop music and not do junk.”
How about the charge that the Motels have gone Hollywood?
“Gone Hollywood?,” she asked indignantly, departing briefly from her charming, jovial demeanor. “Why in the hell do people say that? Our music isn’t mainstream junk like so much of the stuff out there now. It has some substance, some soul.
“I know why people say we’ve gone Hollywood. Because we have a few hits and sell a few records and things are different from the old days in the clubs. It can’t be like the old days in the clubs or we’d still be wasting away in the clubs.”
There was no way to avoid the inevitable question: “When are you going solo?” Davis hates that one. The way many music fans see it, Davis could do just as well--perhaps better--without Marty Jourard (keyboards, sax), Michael Goodroe (bass), Brian Glascock (drums), Guy Perry (guitar) and Scott Thurston (keyboards, guitar). But she doesn’t agree.
“I’m tired of hearing about my solo career,” she said. “I’m happy with the band. I like these guys and their personalities. The band is a challenge, a constant pleasant. Someone asked me what the greatest thing in my career has been and I said, ‘My band’.”
“Do you know I’m still renting my house (in the Valley)? I haven’t put enough together to buy a house because I put so much money back into the band. That’s how much I love my band. I need my band. I wish people would stop bugging me about going solo.”
Davis and the Motels have been on the brink of major stardom for the last three years. There have been two Top 10 singles, “Only the Lonely” and “Suddenly Last Summer.” “Shame,” the first single from the new album, started out like it might make the Billboard magazine pop Top 10 but peaked at No. 21.
The 1982 album, “All Four One,” which sold more than 500,000 copies, is the Motels’ only big seller. The last one, “Little Robbers” (1983), was neither as good as “All Four One” nor as popular.
The first two albums on Capitol, which signed the band in 1979, were intriguing but unfocused new wave. Capitol hired producer Val Garay, who later became the band’s manager, to direct the Motels into the mainstream. Garay did his job so well that he has been singled out as the villain responsible for the band’s musical corruption.
Garay, who also had assorted conflicts with the group, has been replaced by producer Richie Zito, whose task on the new “Shock” album was reviving some of the old musical textures while somehow maintaining a certain level of commercialism. A tall order, to be sure. To a large degree, he succeeded.
Though “All Four One” features better singles, “Shock” may be the band’s best overall album. But many music fans and critics--including Chris Willman, who reviewed it scathingly in a recent Sunday Calendar--don’t agree.
So far “Shock” doesn’t look like the platinum album (1 million copies sold) that Davis and the Motels long for. A big hit single is needed to keep it alive. The first single, “Shame,” wasn’t strong enough but the new one, the title song, just might be.
Currently the band is on tour--partly as a headliner but mostly as an opening act for Supertramp. The Motels’ next local engagement is New Year’s Eve at the Hollywood Palladium.
Though she has achieved considerable fame, Davis isn’t a major pop music star. But, she insisted, that isn’t one of her goals.
“I don’t want to be a star,” she said. “The fame, the glamour, that’s not for me. It’s not real life. It’s so far removed from real life that it’s ridiculous.
“I’m so damned simple and down-to-earth that it’s sickening. My favorite place to shop is Pic ‘n’ Save. Every time I shop at real deluxe places I’m disappointed. I’ve never been disappointed by Pic ‘n’ Save. I’m a Pic ‘n’ Save person mixed up in the glitter world of rock ‘n’ roll. At least I’m unique.”
Agreed. For one thing, she’s the only prominent 34-year-old female rock singer with children nearly out of their teens. She has two daughters--Patricia, 17, and Maria, 19. Davis, who grew up in Berkeley when it was the national center of youthful rebellion, was a precocious maverick by puberty.
A ninth-grade dropout, she was married at 15--to a teen-ager she’d been going with since she was 12. By 17, she was a divorced mother.
“It hasn’t been easy raising two kids and trying to be a rock ‘n’ roller,” said Davis, who’s been a serious singer-songwriter since the end of the ‘60s. “I can’t say that I’ve done everything well. I’ve screwed up some things. I was a crazy kid who got into the hard-core part of life way too early. I was in way over my head before I knew what was happening. I was playing catch-up for years. I don’t know whether I’ve caught up yet.”
Her life has been littered with assorted traumas. But none was as devastating as her bout with cancer two years ago. She licked it, with the aid of surgery.
“That was hell,” she said. “It’s hard coming back from something that terrifying. It wears you down. You get so turned around. That’s all you can focus on for so long. Nothing else really matters. When you come out of it, you’re not the same. You’re a little crazy, a little scrambled, a little scarred. I just buried myself in my music. It helped me forget. Music has been good to me.”