“Music more than anything else in the world – except maybe our sense of smell for some bizarre reason – it will transport you. It is like a time machine. I can sit there and sing Total Control, or Only the Lonely, whatever, and totally go back in time.” – Martha Davis.
Earlier this year on Gold FM here on Melbourne radio, I heard front woman Martha Davis of The Motels explain how her song Total Control was originally a punk rock song full of spite and anger. She joked how it sounded almost like a rap vocal performance at first. Later of course she said she tempered her vocal style to suit the haunting melody created by Motels’ guitarist Jeff Jourard. It was a wonderful interview that revealed Davis was still very comfortable talking about the old days. Equally, she also found it exciting that new fans were discovering The Motels old catalogue.
The Melbourne radio interview triggered a quick internet search to see what Davis was up to nowadays. I was surprised to learn Davis (now in her seventies) lives in Oregon away from the old LA scene she was once part of. Interestingly, she is very much in charge of her own musical affairs and songwriting still keeps her occasionally busy and plans for The Motels to tour and a new album are in the pipeline. (The Motels last album was 2018’s The Last Few Beautiful Days.)
The first stirring of The Motels was in 1971. By the mid-70s The Motels were still a struggling unsigned band with no place to play. With no one interested in helping them get a leg up, Davis and company decided to book their own gig in 1976 in L.A. called Radio Free Hollywood with two other local bands called ‘Pop’ and the ‘Dogs’. The rebellious show would go a long way for The Motels to get noticed. Soon after The Motels caught the attention of Rodney Bingenheimer at Los Angeles and Orange County’s alternative rock music station KROQ/106.7 FM who asked them to play on his show. Not long after this Capitol Records offered to sign The Motels, who by now had started to implode with band in-fighting. They disbanded and two years later in 1978 reformed and were lucky enough that Capitol was still interested in them.
Under Capitol The Motels released five studio albums between 1979 and 1985. They achieved moderate success with All Four One (1982) and Little Robbers (1983) both earning gold record status which also reaped two Top Ten singles, Only the Lonely and Suddenly Last Summer. From the mid 80s onwards The Motels disbanded and reformed several more times, recorded a few more albums and went through numerous line-up changes with Davis the band’s anchor.
What is interesting about The Motels is that perhaps while they might be best known in the United States for their early 80s semi-hit singles like Take The L, Only the that Lonely and Suddenly Last Summer, here in Australia that honour lies with Total Control.
Anyone who knows anything about The Motels will tell you that it was in Australia in 1980 on Countdown that The Motels first truly strut their stuff internationally. Total Control the second single of their debut self-titled album was whole heartedly embraces by Australian music listeners peaking #7 on our charts well before anyone else in the world gave a damn about their new wave sensibilities. Only years later would Tina Turner record a cover version of the 1979 song for the We Are The World soundtrack and more recently Australian music royalty Missy Higgins would record her own version of the song for her mini-album Total Control (2022).
Total Control is an infectious melancholic slow burn fraught with emotion. It includes a memorable saxophone solo that feels as sultry as Davis and her vocal performance. Davis originally wrote it to express her anger and pain after The Motels guitarist Dean Chamberlain broke her heart. Some might say it is Davis trying to take control of her pain. To do so she’s prepared to sell her soul. While others point to lyrics like “Looking counter clockwise/ Knowing what could happen/ Any moment maybe you maybe even you” being about the ability or desire to turn back the clock to a time before. But no matter what our interpretation of its lyrics might conjure, Davis had cleverly shifted the narrative for women on Total Control.