Tuesday, 17 February 2015

I want to tell you how I feel-Martha by Martha

Rock and roll is littered with artists who want to escape the bitterness and artlessness of their hometown. Lost, beaten suburbanites look skywards and dream of the big city-the hustle and the people whilst hardened city kids vow to themselves to escape the smog and crime and escape to the country. But what if you wanted to make your hometown a better place? There is a slightly wonky definition of Bohemia that describes it as trying to make your life better, not through politics, but through art. Is it possible to make your hometown bearable, cool even, through creativity and belief? Durham band Martha, and in particular their self titled debut EP are testament to creativity and togetherness. It's a classic.

The lovely people at Tuff Enuff have made my dream come true by finally releasing it on vinyl. Back in 2012, Martha released their eponymous debut EP on cassette and CD and (presumably surprisingly to the band) where taken to the bosom of the indiepop community. On the surface, this seemed something of a mismatch-the stripy-topped Walter the Softies aligning themselves with the Durham Menaces-, but Martha and indiepop really do compliment each other. Both thrive on inclusive, friendly, and cheap venues and tiny, day dreamy record labels. And, of course, a mutual adoration of the first Housemartins LP.

The main reason people fell in love with the Martha EP is simply because the music is so brilliant. On initial listening, the songs kick out the speakers in a kind of Big Star/Buzzcocks amalgam of pop and punk. But actually the songs are based on an almost Motown formula-No messing around rhythms, a chorus to shout along to and a heart that is almost defiantly joyful. So far so pop, but This IS a political band, presenting their politics in stories about the everyday. These are tales about the crushed, and those who kick back, sometimes the same person in the same song.

One of pops neatest tricks is present a song and later reveal an unexpected depth to it. Take Neil youngs FM anthem 'rocking in the free world, a song with verses so teeth grindingly angry the listener can only conclude the chorus is presented bathed in sarcasm. Or Happy Hour by the Housemartins, less a tie loosening peon to the pleasure of a post work pint, more a lemon sharp warning against falling for the same backward thinking that traps your workmates. Even bona fide classics like the Leader of the Pack by the Shirelles is seen in some circles as a gum popping camp curio rather than possibly the darkest 45 ever released. Similarly, Martha songs are almost like punk oyster's holding intellectual pearls.

Take 1978, Smiling Politely, which on my Ipod sounded like a gum chewing, dusty, sun dappled anthem or a paranoid ode to a road trip which pushes the pedal to the floor in the hope the velocity of the car will keep a relationships flame alight. But it's in fact a tribute to the incredibly inspirational poet /activist Audre Lorde. Lorde gained as many critics as supporters by confronting racism within the feminist movement. 

"What you hear in my voice is fury, not suffering. Anger, not moral authority" she told her critics. Throughout her life, and after her death in 1992, she has inspired and educated through her essays and poetry. (Anyone who has had their interest piqued by Martha name checking of this artist should start with Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches)

And Gretna Green, is that simply a song about wistfully looking back on lost love and chilly regret? Not quite. Gretna Green (the place) is just over an hour away from the scene of the Quintinshill rail disaster. In May 1915, two signal men were due to overlap their day and night shift. However, George Meakin and James Tinsley had come to an arrengement. There was a train going from Carlisle to Beattock that would go from Gretna to Qunitinshill, thus saving the man doing the early shift the mile and a bit walk. However, this would have the man arriving for work at 6.30am and and not 6. As the men rotated shifts, the came to an arrangement where the men would fiddle the records and get an extra hour in bed.

Tinsley and Meakin were discussing the war with two brakesmen in the signalbox when a local train fireman signed the train register without carrying out his duty by reminding the signalmen that his train was on the Up main line. Three minutes later, the first two of five trains would collide on the same junction. The collision and resulting fire injured 246 people and killed a further 226, mainly soldiers of the Leith Battalion of the Royal Scots.
Seemingly, the song is about someone waiting for their lover to arrive so together they could wed at the nearby Blacksmiths Shop(where young couples had wed since 1754) or at the very least eloping together. But tragically one half of the couple had died in the rail disaster, leaving the other half eternally waiting. The line calling marriage a patriarchal scam and the fact most of the fatalities where young men in the armed services it would appear the song was written from the point of view of a young women. It's hard not to wonder what she did with the rest of her life.

Martha humbly offer us the startlingly simple idea that music should not be about margins, fame or notability but about making new friends, seeing new places and above all having fun. Martha, like the Spook School, The Tuts and the much missed Ace Bushy Striptease make you want to be part of their gang. Not because of an attraction to T-bird cool but because they make everything look like so much fun. Despite lyrically tackling monstrously serious issues, they still stand by a defiance of taking themselves too seriously that borders on militancy. Time IS short and life IS cruel but it really is up to US to change this town called Malice, or Pity Me or Shrewsbury or wherever you find yourself. The thing with small towns is if you don't do it yourself, no-ones else will. Like Josie Long said so brilliantly, if you want something to exist, sometimes you have to make it yourself. Creativity in these towns is not a luxury but a real necessity. Even if buying the records and t-shirts is too much for you, support your local girl gang, punk band, indie venue. Every now and then a record turns up that reminds you why all this is worth it. The putting on gigs, the traveling for miles to spend £3 on watching bands above a room in a pub, the having a band sleep on your sofa, the writing for a fanzine or a blog. Sometimes a record reminds you that you made the right choice-that not worrying about where your career is or getting a mortgage or having babies is perfectly acceptable way to live your life. You are not wrong, just different. Martha's debut EP is one of those records, and I love it to the bottom of my daft heart.

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