Formed in 1977 in Toronto, early members came and went through a revolving door, but the core of the band comprised of guitarists Marc Gane & David Millar, two students at Ontario College For The Arts. They recruited a former psychology and theatre student at Toronto’s York University named Martha Johnson of O Those Pants as their new keyboardist – who reluctantly took on the singing chores. Along with Carl Finkle on bass and Gane’s brother Tim on drums, their first show was at the OCA’s Halloween party that year.
Before long they became staples of the Toronto new wave scene and released an independent single “Insect Love” early the next year. Around the same time Millar stepped off the stage and was their new sound engineer. Andy Haas was brought in as saxophonist, shortly before Martha Ladly was brought in on keyboards. They were playing in New York when they were noticed by Dave Fudger of Virgin Records, signing them to the UK label in ’79.
First order of business was to release a re-worked version of “Insect Love” that fall. They recorded their debut lp METRO MUSIC with producer Mike Howlett. The lead single “Echo Beach” was an instant smash on the airwaves and the new video medium. It’s message of someone toiling thru the drudgery of a job they didnt’ like was universal. It wasn’t long before the band was recognized for their potent mix of strong melodies & provocative lyrics in songs like “Saigon” (the third single) and dry sense of humour with songs like “Cheesies and Gum”. In no time the record was certified gold and “Echo Beach” was recognized at the next year’s Juno Awards, tieing with Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance” for single of the year and would become their biggest hit.
TRANCE AND DANCE followed, released the same year and also featuring Howlett’s production. Initial pressings included a 4 track live-EP, appropriately entitled 1980 TOUR. Some of the tracks on TRANCE AND DANCE actually date back to before METRO MUSIC, such as “Suburban Dream” and Ladley’s “Was Ezo”. Other noteable tunes included the title track, “Symptomatic Love” and “Primal Weekend”. Though not pushed as well as its predecessor, the band more than made up for that with a world tour that included backing up the likes of Roxy Music and Yello, showcasing their on-stage creativity. The Canadian leg wrapped up the tour late that year, and Finkle and Ladley both left shortly thereafter.
The next project was their first album done in Canada. Forced by Virgin to record it on a budget, their new bassist Jocelyn Lanois talked the band into letting her brother Daniel produce it. Recorded at Toronto’s famous Nimbus 9 Studios (home of, among others, Guess Who recordings) and Hamilton’s Grant Avenue Studios, it possessed what would become Lanois’ trademark production techniques.
THIS IS THE ICE AGE hit the stores before year’s end and was quickly heralded as one of the most inventive and experimental albums of the new wave era. Gane handled the majority of the writing, and although the sense of humour was still preserved in the new record, it was almost bittersweet. “You Sold The Cottage” was seemingly the semi-sombre sequel to “Echo Beach”. The two singles – “Women Around The World” and “Swimming” helped solidify the band as one of Canada’s top new wave groups. But by year’s end there were more personnel changes, with Haas leaving to pursue outside interests. Tim Gane also left, with Nick Kent picking up the drumsticks.
DANSEPARC followed a year later. Again produced by Lanois and recorded in Hamilton, it marked the band’s first collaberation with Canadian label Current Records, distribution handled by RCA. A number of people guested on the near avant-garde album, including sax players John Oswald and Ron Allen and Gane’s brother Nick on keyboards. Though still every bit a ‘new wave’ record, DANSEPARC marked a definite shift in direction. Constantly evolving, the band showed this wasn’t just another run of the mill pop record void of substance. With Gregorian chants and bagpipes, it again explored the band’s creativity. The lyrics for “Obedience” and “World Without Borders” meshed with the ambience of their progressively social tone of the record. Nonetheless, they still managed to slip in unadulterated dance numbers – like “Several Styles Of Blonde Girls Dancing” and “What People Do For Fun”.
1984’s MYSTERY WALK followed, marking the beginning of the end of The Muffins. It was decided to concentrate more on studio recordings and less on live shows. Stripped down to Johnson and Gane and re-dubbed M+M, Lanois again did the production work, with the original tracks recorded in NYC’s Power Station Studios. With a multitude of session players a more ‘dance=oreiented’ sound emerged. The lead single was “Black Stations/White Stations” and peaked at #2 on Billboard’s dance charts (topped only by Prince’s “When Doves Cry”). The video meanwhile, while getting steady airplay in Canada and the UK was banned in the US for its controversial subject matter. Also on the record were other infectious grooves – “Come Out and Dance” and “Rhythm of Life”.
Due to his commitments to other projects, Johnson & Gane had to find a new producer for the next project. They settled on David Lord, whose resume included the likes of XTC and Peter Gabriel. They went back to England and recorded THE WORLD IS A BALL, released the summer of ’85. All ten tracks were collaberations and Gane made his vocal debut with “Stuck On The Grid”. Other noteables included the sobre “I Watch I Wait”, “Watching The Boys Fall Down” the modern-funk “Song In My Head”, the penned-up anger of “Don’t Jump The Gun” and the title-track – one of the cleanest dance tracks that year.
Upset at the lack of push from the label and tired of the music business in general, Johnson & Gane packed up their home studio and moved to Bath, England. Virgin Records meanwhile released the first compilation of the ‘Muffins years’, entitled FAR AWAY IN TIME in 1988. They moved back to Toronto in ’89 but it wasn’t until ’92 that Gane and Johnson resurfaced. Going under the ‘Muffins’ monikor again, they landed a deal with Canadian indie label Intrepid Records.
MODERN LULLABY delivered a definite maturity in writing, reflecting thir personal growth and the first time they produced their record themselves. The experimentation in the studios which had long been one of their trademarks was still present. With the violins of “Rainbow Sign”, the haunting “Everybody Has A Place” and melodic title-track it was clear Johnson and Gane hadn’t lost a step in the evolving pop world. Unfortunately tho, Intrepid went bankrupt shortly after its release and the usually very supportive MuchMusic didn’t give airtime to any of the three videos.
Johnson set about recording a children’s record, releasing SONGS FROM THE TREEHOUSE in 1995 on their own label Muffin Music. It was quickly heralded by the critics for the original recordings and won the Juno for best children’s recording a year later. The summer of ’98 saw the definitive compilation – THEN AGAIN – A RETROSPECTIVE, which spanned their entire career (unlike the first ‘best of’ 10 years earlier). DANSEPARC and MYSTERY WALK were released as a double album set in 2000, followed by the re-release of THEN AGAIN the summer of 2003.