When the somber synthesizer chords of the Motels’ “Only the Lonely” start and Martha Davis begins singing the first verse of that 1982 hit in a nearly tearful, cinematic voice — “We walked the loneliest mile/We smile without any style/We kiss all together wrong/No intention” — she knows what to expect.
Fans in the audience who grew up with ’80s New Wave bands — and perhaps their children or even grandchildren — will sing along.
“When it starts, I definitely will hand the microphone around or lower it and have them join in,” the good-natured Davis said in a call from her Oregon farm. “It’s really fun on the high notes sometimes. I let them have at it. There’s still a demand for the ’80s. We call them ‘the won’t go-away-ties.’”
That enduring popularity of New Wave bands has spawned “Lost ’80s Live” — a cavalcade of hit-making acts from that era, each performing three of their biggest hits in arrangements faithful to the recordings firmly lodged in the memories of Gen Xers. The series, in its 12th year, is bringing the Motels and six other acts to the Silver Legacy’s Grande Exposition Hall on Dec. 9. The bill includes A Flock of Seagulls (whose biggest hit was “I Ran (So Far Away)”), Naked Eyes (“Always Something There to Remind Me”), Gene Loves Jezebel (“Jealous”), Nu Shooz (“I Can’t Wait”), Animotion (“Obsession”), and Annabella’s Bow Wow Wow (“I Want Candy”).
“It’s sort of the pu-pu platter of ’80s music, a little sampler of a lot of different stuff,” Davis quipped.
While The Motels — featuring players who’ve been with Davis longer than the lineup when the band was at its ’80s peak — typically perform 90-minute sets on tour, including new material, the “Lost ’80s Live” gigs “are always great fun,” she said.
At 65, Davis’ singing continues to garner positive reviews — indicating her vocal chops should easily connect with listeners who firmly recall The Motels’ two Top 10 hits — “Only the Lonely” and “Suddenly Last Summer” — plus one of the lesser hits, “Take the L,” that rounds out their “Lost ’80s Live” set.
Her strong, controlled voice — sometimes breathy, sometimes chesty — is still capable of transferring to the listener the ache of love lost or unrequited. Couple her unique timbre with her song hooks — short, bittersweet, indelible — and the chemistry is what enduring pop songs are made of.
Quirky lyrics, artsy videos
It was Davis’ voice and songwriting that propelled The Motels to the crest of the New Wave of post-punk poppy rock that frequently incorporated synthesizers as prominently as guitars in the mix. This atmospheric texture was anchored by beats that were strong and exaggerated (thank the 1970s disco influence), and paired with unconventional melodies and lyrics that were frequently bittersweet, ironic or simply quirky.
The music went well with artsy videos — meaning the New Wave meshed with the advent of MTV, helping shoot bands such as The Motels to stardom. Fans of current video-friendly chanteuse Lana Del Rey (“Summertime Sadness”) will recognize similar qualities in Davis’ voice: sultry but understated, brooding but not exactly regretful — painting images in the listener’s mind like scenes in a movie. It’s a voice that is unforgettably emotive, from high notes sung with girlish innocence to low, jazzy notes conveying the wisdom of an experienced woman.
Unlike Del Rey, Davis developed her voice without formal training. She began singing simply to perform the songs she was writing on her guitar as a teenager in the San Francisco Bay Area, obsessed with a British pop star with a glamorously theatrical flair: David Bowie.
Her first band, The Warfield Foxes, relocated from Berkeley, California, to Los Angeles in the 1970s and became The Motels with Davis on lead vocals and guitar. They rose in the indie-rock scene and, after personnel changes that included bringing in a keyboardist, signed with Capitol Records in 1979. Their third album, “All Four One,” featured their breakthrough single, “Only the Lonely.” Unlike the Roy Orbison classic for the lovelorn that shares its title, the Davis-penned ballad speaks to the emptiness of success. It was accompanied by an MTV video in which Davis, clad in black like a widow, walks through an empty nightclub. She took home the Best Performance in a Music Video award that year at the American Music Awards.
The Motels’ follow-up album, “Little Robbers,” had another Davis-penned Top 10: “Suddenly Last Summer.” She disbanded the group and went solo in 1987, recording in different styles. A decade later, she recruited a new band and began performing as The Motels featuring Martha Davis.
They’ve toured the United States and Australia. Davis has continued releasing new material solo or with The Motels. Nostalgia-tinged tours with fellow ’80s New Wavers have drawn large crowds, including with another L.A. band that made it big back then: The Go-Go’s.
New Wave originality
Some critics have called the 1980s a low point for rock music, claiming the essence of the genre didn’t return to the mainstream until Nirvana brought guitars and rawness back in the early ’90s. Davis agrees that New Wave did diverge from “‘rock’ rock” but says the genius of New Wave bands was exemplified in their originality.
“It was one of the most creative periods we’ve seen in a long time. Oingo Boingo didn’t sound like Talking Heads, didn’t sound like Chrissie Hynde. It was our drive to sound completely unique. It had such a huge, wide-spreading musical palette that I don’t think we’ve seen since then,” she said.
The music endures.
“‘Suddenly Last Summer’ and ‘Only the Lonely’ definitely got legs,” Davis said. “I still hear them time to time at places, including the Burbank Airport, which I fly out of when I leave L.A.”