Smile Politely

The Martyrs: Two can’t miss evenings

Champaign band The Martyrs got together in the big old wide open days of 1980. They eventually released one song “Offtrax” on the Stabs in the Dark compilation LP, and recorded their own full LP The Martyrs in 1982, releasing it on January 4, 1983.

1980. 1982. 1983.

Long time ago, huh? Let me tell you….you have no freaking idea how long ago that was for us. A different life. Not better, not worse….but WAY different. I was ummmm, well, let’s just say I was a little bit older than the guys in the Martyrs were at that time, but not all that much in hindsight. They were in high school and I was a damned cute undergrad. Yeah, I SAID it was a long time ago. Ernie was the tall blonde guy working at Record Service, and it was a hell of a good time to be a music lover in Champaign. When the Martyrs album came out we were in the midst of one of those magical periods – when the stars align and the Champaign music scene becomes a place to be, a scene to be talked about — you know, a ‘pop capital’ or ‘the next Athens” in this instance. There have been various magical scenes here over the years….and the early 80’s was definitely one of them. Check out the vintage Mabel’s calendar pictured in the cd booklet if you question me!

The guys in the Martyrs first knew each other as kids. Kent describes how they met:

My first memory of John was probably in Kindergarten or first grade. His back yard and mine met. His older sisters used to babysit for my brother and me when we were really young. I could hear John playing drums from my house from about the 3rd grade on. I first saw Charles in maybe 6th or 7th grade. He was the lead in the Edison Middle School play. I went to Holy Cross so I had never met him. We called him Oliver for the next year or so. He also worked at Skelton’s Pharmacy on Springfield (now Framer’s Market) John and I were walking by one afternoon and Charles bought us each a pop. He was out filling the machine on the side of the building.

I just love seeing those memories in my mind’s eye. Could they be more all American classic images?

It had to be an exciting time as they started playing. Can you imagine? Riding their bikes to street dances and record stores on campus — they were too young to get into the bars even with fake IDs…..listening to Jon Ginoli’s Going Underground radio show, and absorbing the new music coming out as well at that time as well as their older siblings’ classic rock albums. And as Charles Andews said, “it would be hard to exaggerate the impact of the Vertebrats. They were a great model for me and gave me courage to believe that we too could write our own songs.”

Next thing you know it’s 1982 and they’re headlining clubs. It had to be pretty heady stuff.

Time moves on though and as they graduated high school their lives began to go in different directions. They never officially broke up, but they ceased to be a regularly gigging band. Over the years they played together when they could and talked wistfully of remixing the album to be what they had hoped it would be the first time around. And suddenly, the time is right. The album is remixed and remastered, complete with unreleased bonus tracks….all ready for your ears.

The other night, Ernie and I listened to the album as we cooked dinner in our kitchen. As Ernie looked at the cd booklet, I stirred the curried lentils and when ‘Only Girl’ began to play I couldn’t help but laugh happily, saying, “it sounds just like Champaign, doesn’t it?” I don’t mean that it sounds like a generic song in any way, but just that it captures some of the essential things that ran through all the best local music of that era. It’s got a garage base, a pop ring, the songs are original or perfectly chosen covers, and it’s packed with the energy of, well, high-schoolers, and the incredible promise and excitement of what really seemed to be a new era in music.

So on Friday, January 21 and Saturday, January 22, 2011, when all four original Martyrs — Kent Whitesell, John Richardson, Chris Bowe and Charles Andrews — reunite on the stage of the Highdive to celebrate the release of their remixed and remastered album, we’ll be there. We’ll be there to hear them play and we’ll be there to enjoy seeing friends, and we’ll be there because good music does our hearts good. It will bring back memories yes, but it won’t be mere nostalgia. These will be a great nights to take in some important Champaign music history and good nights for hearing songs written with teenage angst and a passionate feel for music. And I bet it will probably they will be good nighst to admire the bond of four men who fell in love with creating music and grew up together in the process.

To make the nights even better, Vertebrat Matt Brandabur will open and his special guests include friends and family, including a couple of other Vertebrats, namely Jimmy Wald and Kenny Draznik. So, basically…..a can’t miss evening — twice.

And be sure to check out Smile Politely Radio tomorrow evening (5:30 p.m.) on 90.1 FM, when The Martyrs will be in studio for a live interview.

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