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Review: The Motels’ Great Lost ‘Apocalypso’ Worth the 3-Decade Wait

The album offers a case study in what can go right and wrong when dark work is shelved for commerciality

It’s never too late for a shelved album to get released from the vault. Some suppressed projects, like Prince’s “The Black Album,” only gather dust for a few years before seeing the light of day. Others might take 45 years – like the Beach Boys’ “Smile,” the original tapes of which are supposedly being pieced together for pop history’s most seriously belated official release.

Nothing else in the rock era is going to rival “Smile” for a conception-to-light-of-day gap. But the Motels’ “Apocalypso” might set a new mark for greatest time elapsed for a MIA alt-rock — or do we need to say New Wave? — album.

Recorded in 1981 for Capitol, the aborted LP is finally seeing release through the independent Omnivore label, complete with the original fiery (and expensive) intended jacket art, just in time to commemorate the 30th anniversary of its … snuffing.

While “worth the wait” may no longer qualify after a certain number of decades have passed, “Apocalypso” does turn out to be the lost gem that Motels fans hoped for, at least those who even knew of its cobweb-laden existence. Even so, you’d be hard-pressed to second-guess the suits who nixed the project and had the band regroup and record the album that briefly made them stars instead.

For about a four-year period from 1979-82, the Motels were one of the great L.A. bands, with Martha Davis playing a half-seductive, half-tragic noir heroine nightly at venues like Madame Wong’s. By the time they were ready for their third album, Capitol was ready for a hit. What they got, instead, was Davis’ then-boyfriend, Tim McGovern, a lead guitarist and arranger whose instincts lay anywhere but with the then-nascent MTV.

The band recorded “Apocalypso” with a hot producer of the moment, Val Garay (“Bette Davis Eyes”), but as Davis makes clear in the liner notes, McGovern ran as roughshod over Garay in the studio as he ran over her in their down time. Upon hearing the results, Capitol said it was time to make a return on their investment, which meant scrapping the album, scrapping McGovern as both guitarist/de-facto-producer and boyfriend, and letting Garay really produce.

The slickly re-recorded result, “All Four One,” was the band’s breakthrough “third” album – although the title made obscure reference to the fact that the real third one had slipped, or been pushed through, through the cracks.

In her liner notes, Davis doesn’t evidence too much nostalgia for her volatile relationship with McGovern, but she does miss “the last time the Motels were uninhibited, wild, and not worried about our place on the charts. In my heart, I think I’ve always liked ‘Apocalpso’ more.”

You might be hard-pressed to disagree, especially since ex-Capitol A&R man Bruce Ravid, in a separate liner essay, points out that “if the Motels were a new band just coming out now, I’d suggest a vibe closer to the sound of this album. Indie bands are much more lo-fi these days.” Even he says that when the band came back with the substitute effort, “All Four One,” “I quietly wondered at the time whether maybe it was a little too clean for a band that had such artistic cred.”

Even now, it’s great fun to A/B the two albums – which share seven out of their 10 songs – and form a dusty-armchair quarterback opinion on which of the common tunes came out better in which rendering. McGovern’s approach was to make Davis sound like she was singing in a reverb chamber one room over, all but eliminate Marty Jourard’s trademark keys and sax, fuzz out the guitars, and make his own solos sound as untraditional and nutso as possible.

That served most of the songs well, at least if you cotton to McGovern’s nutso-surf-guitar sensibilities, as heard on “Tragic Surf,” the one track that survived the transition between albums. Others, like “Only the Lonely” and (ironically, the guitar-driven) “Mission of Mercy,” turned out better on the re-do.

Commercially, the Capitol execs and Davis ultimately made the right decision to go in and re-record an album that only played at darkness instead of embracing it.

Of course, it was that very commerciality that ultimately killed the band. A lesson that resonates even 30 years later, no?