The Los Angeles band The Motels in conjunction with Omnivore Recordings recently released their previously unreleased, “lost” album Apocalypso. On what would have been its 30th anniversary the group released the work on an expanded version CD, a limited edition orange vinyl LP and in a digital bundle. But for those not up on your pop culture, let’s review.
The Motels are a New Wave band perhaps best known for their hit songs “Only the Lonely” and “Suddenly Last Summer”. Both songs climbed to number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982 and 1983 respectively. (They also had a hit titled “Total Control” in Australia a couple years earlier (1980) that hit number 4 there.)
Now travel back through the mists of time to 1981 as the band meets to record the follow-up record to their 1980 album Careful which had gone gold in Australia hitting number 26 there and 45 on the US charts. The group roster included Martha Davis (vocals and guitar), Tim McGovern (lead guitar), Marty Jourard (keyboards), Michael Goodroe (bass) and Brian Glascock (drums).
Davis recalls they were a group on its “third attempt to gain some commercial success in the US. A relationship quantified by music and qualified by its abusive nature—and of course there was the Art, that most magical place of expression—‘tear down the walls’, ‘piss in the face of tradition’, ‘make something no one has ever heard before’—and in the ‘80s there were a lot of drugs, which might explain all of the above. We . . . locked ourselves away in a room with a tape machine and started making demos, a heady, wonderful experience where we made up the rules. Tim’s influence and command . . . is not to be overlooked.”
They pushed themselves artistically and the resulting tracks were generally heavier and darker than anything they had previously released. While Val Garay (“Bette Davis Eyes”) was the producer McGovern reportedly took control of handling and arranging the tunes. Garay and the group left Capitol in the dark during the recording process.
Both the original and current LP playlist contains ten tracks. The album opens with “Art Fails”. This is a previously unissued cut. It’s both dark and provocative as it reflects upon commerciality that is reminiscent of damaged, foreign art pop.
“Tragic Surf” is the second selection. This is an interesting cut for music historians as it is both influenced by the 1960s girl group songs with its tale of tragic relationships and also by the Beach Boys in that the story is set seaside. It’s a sad song about a sorry surfer who is taken down by a killer wave.
“Critic’s Choice”, of course, must go to the original version of “Only The Lonely”. This is how the song was meant to be—less slick and plastic than the version that would become one of their biggest hits. The basic building blocks are here yet this first version is a bit raw and naked.
Davis opens the track over only a piano line as opposed to the later used guitars and slick keyboards. This original not only features the famous sax solo but also includes a guitar solo as well. The formula is in place although it has not yet been produced into the huge commercial hit it would one day become.
“Schneekin” and “So L.A.” are both noteworthy rockers. The former has a bit of a film noir feel while the latter is a more specific statement. “So L.A.” is both a sarcastic and cynical story about Californian lifestyle and trying to make it in such an artificial area. Davis sings: “. . . the dream and the woman and the time and you / Are all very welcome to Hollywood”.
Side 2 starts off with the title track “Apocalypso”. The title is, of course, a clever combination of the words ‘apocalypse”—the end of the world– and “calypso”—a specific music genre. This is also a previously unreleased cut and it is followed by another exceptional rocker–“Mission Of Mercy”.
“Lost But Not Forgotten” opens with a lyrical literary reference: “How much do I love you? /Let me count the ways.” It’s certainly an apt inclusion here as its very title summarizes the story of the entire album. In truth, it is another number about failed relationships. Note the lyrics: “Call you on the phone / To find you’re not alone / Remember the time / When your love was mine.”
The final two tracks on the record are both previously unreleased as well. They are “Who Could Resist That Face” and the experimental “Sweet Destiny”. The entire second side is not as impressive as the first perhaps mainly because it contains lighter material. The album as a whole however certainly makes Apocalypso the band’s strongest effort.
Unfortunately, record execs did not quite see it that way. They thought it was “too strange, too dark” and asked “where’s the single?” Capitol A&R man Bruce Ravid added that it “It was very much a Tim McGovern record” and it “seemed like too great a departure for The Motels” adding “We dreaded the thought of telling the band they needed to return to the well.”
Davis said that the label was not willing to promote it at all. “The reaction was something like, ‘We’ll release it if you really want us to but the promotion department will not work on it’.” The band decided to shelve the project.
Davis adds “. . .this was actually a good thing. It was long past time for Tim and I to part ways and this was the opportunity to get out of a bad relationship. So Tim was gone and with him the album Capitol didn’t want to release.”
The expanded CD version includes 7 bonus tracks. Those tracks are all previously unissued and include an alternate version of “Art Fails” which actually sounds as if it was sourced from an old vinyl copy, a long, 4-track demo of “Don’t You Remember” which is a nice slice of neo-soul and a 4-track demo of “Tragic Surf”. Also included here is a demo of “Fiasco” which is quite Beatle-esque and obviously inspired by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
There’s also a demo of “Obvioso” which is slightly Donny & Marie. It’s both a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Call it prototype cow punk if you will. There is also a demo of “Only The Lonely” which actually turns out to be a demo of a demo only here the piano has been replaced with synthesizers that actually made way for the more commercial version to come. The final bonus is the hidden track—the TV mix—of the same tune.
It’s overall an interesting presentation of melodramatic and melancholic new wave numbers. Davis recalls that after the release of the next album, All Four One, they went “mainstream” but feels that ‘something was lost with Apocalypso, the album that got away. I look at it as the last time The Motels were uninhibited, wild and not worried about our place on the charts.”
Davis adds: “In my heart, I think I’ve always liked Apocalypso more.” This was the first and final time the band would ever sound like this. Indeed, Apocalypso was the group’s most serious attempt at being more than a disposable pop band.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.