When a band has been around for nearly half a century, you don’t necessarily expect their music to carry any particular message beyond “Yep, we’re still alive.” The legendary Martha and the Muffins are a blessed exception: Their jaw-dropping new single shows they’re less concerned with their own survival than with everybody else’s.
With their radical reworking of a certain anti-violence perennial, the venerable Toronto-based group have paid full respect to the source material while simultaneously contorting it into a bone-chilling lament that couldn’t be more pertinent to the mortal dangers of today.
“Not only is Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 classic ‘For What It’s Worth’ timeless in its own right, but Stephen Stills’ poignant lyrics are more relevant than ever,” M+M mainstays Martha Johnson and Mark Gane say of their decision to adapt the seminal protest tune for a new era. “Gun violence is an ongoing societal blight, a perverse virus perpetuated by hypocrites mouthing their meaningless recitations of ‘thoughts and prayers.’ With this in mind, our interpretation is slower, darker and considers the possibility that events that were once rare and unacceptable are now met with a shrug of indifference.”
How times have indeed changed. When he wrote the song, Stills took his inspiration from some nasty altercations that had been going on between police and kids on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Over the ensuing years, “For What It’s Worth” became a sort of all-purpose plea for peace in strife-torn locales from Vietnam to Minneapolis. The Muppets even turned it into a broadside against hunting. But this isn’t Martha and the Muppets we’re dealing with here, so prepare yourself for something a lot more sinister: an almost unbearably tense accompaniment to the now-constant specter of yet another shot-up school or house of worship.
“We wanted it to be seriously dark and dramatic, as though something alarming might happen at any time,” Johnson says. “We decided that Mark should sing the verses with his low, doomy voice, and then I did the choruses and the ‘better beware’ sections, so that there were distinct vocal textures happening throughout the song.”
The deliberately unsettling effect is reinforced by atmospheric keyboards and guitar that manage to sound both foreboding and elegiac; you can hear the theatrical instincts Johnson and Gane have honed in their side career scoring films and TV programs.
The issue of gun violence hits close to home for both Johnson and Gane, and the song’s video director, Jason Cipparrone. Prior to producing the video for their recorded song, tragedy struck close when the band’s recently retired accountant of 40 years, Russ Manock, and his wife Lorraine Manock, were fatally shot along with three others in their Vaughan condo building in December 2022. The shocking incident garnered widespread media attention, leaving the duo in disbelief when they learned of the tragic events. In a separate but equally unsettling incident, Cipparrone experienced the impact of gun violence when he heard a shot in the hallway outside his apartment. To his horror, he discovered a gunshot victim lying just outside his door.
Johnson explains, “It’s particularly haunting to realize that the video’s ‘Gun Heads’ scene they filmed for the video took place right where this crime occurred. The hallway still bears the marks of this grim event, with a visible dent left by a bullet ricocheting off the floor. The gravity of these incidents amplifies our commitment to addressing the urgent issue of gun violence through our music and advocacy.”
Check out the video on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kd_-VwkAs8o&feature=youtu.be
Still, it’s as one of Canada’s greatest-ever gifts to rock and pop that Martha and the Muffins will always be known. All the way back in 1981, James Muretich of The Calgary Sunwas already declaring “There is no other band which emerged from Canada’s fledgling punk scene of a few years ago which matters.” The 1980 international hit “Echo Beach” lit the spark of such well-deserved praise; timeless follow-ups like “Swimming” and the Danseparc album further burnished the group’s sterling reputation for canny songcraft. And with the 1984 dancefloor breakout “Black Stations/White Stations,” the band took the lead in exposing the racist underpinnings of big radio.
With Johnson and Gane consistently at the helm, Martha and the Muffins have released eight studio records since their 1977 formation, breaking boundaries and exceeding expectations every step of the way. They’ve had five Top 40 hits in their native Canada and won a JUNO Award for Single of the Year. They even introduced the world to superstar producer Daniel Lanois (who co-produced three of their records and went on to win Grammys for his work with artists like Peter Gabriel and U2). The group’s most recent offering, 2021’s Marthology: In and Outtakes, is a compilation of rare and previously unreleased tracks from the broad expanse of their illustrious career.
That tradition of excellence continues with “For What It’s Worth,” which Johnson and Gane played and recorded entirely on their own at their home studio, The Web. Mixing was done by Tim Abraham (Grand Analog/Odario). The single arrives January 19, accompanied by a music video that’s every bit as startling. Shot in stark black and white, it shows a couple of humanoid figures with literal revolvers for heads wandering from public place to public place, going about their business as if their presence is the most natural thing in the world. Gane came up with the concept, and director Jason Cipparrone– who’s not only a filmmaker but an accomplished photographer – brought it to bracing reality.
“Gun violence has become omnipresent in today’s society, and its impacts are horrifying,” Cipparrone says. “We made this film to highlight how apathy leads to integration of such themes into daily life, such as buying a bulletproof backpack for one’s child.”
If there’s one reaction Martha and the Muffins will never engender, it’s apathy. Lend an ear to “For What It’s Worth,” and you’ll hear the latest of a million reasons why.
Editor’s Note: At a recent staff meeting with our writers, it was mentioned that no one is willing to write or take on a protest song like they did in the 60’s, Kudos to Martha and the Muffins for not only taking on a classic but making it their own.