Toronto band behind '80s hit releases song on Parkinson's disease

Two members of a Toronto new wave band behind a 1980 international hit have released new music, this time to raise awareness of Parkinson's disease.

Martha Johnson and Mark Gane of Martha and the Muffins helped to write Slow Emotion

Martha Johnson and Mark Gane
Martha Johnson and Mark Gane, wife and husband and band members of Martha and the Muffins, are pictured here in their home in Toronto. They released a new song, Slow Emotion, this week to raise awareness of Parkinson's disease. Johnson has had the disease for 23 years. (Helen Bagshaw/CBC)

Two members of a Toronto new wave band behind a 1980 international hit have created new music, this time to raise awareness of Parkinson's disease.

Martha Johnson and Mark Gane, are husband and wife members of Martha and the Muffins, which released the chart-topping hit, Echo Beach, in 1980. The band was founded in 1977.

Johnson has suffered from Parkinson's, a degenerative disease, for 23 years. The pair have now joined forces with a guitarist who lives with Parkinson's to create Slow Emotion, which paints an intimate picture of life with the disease.

In an interview with CBC Radio's Fresh Air, Johnson said the lyrics are "kind of metaphor for what you go through when you have Parkinson's." The song was released by their record label Muffin Music on all platforms on Thursday, which was World Parkinson's Day. April marks Parkinson's Awareness Month.

"Things change so much. You are always adapting. A lot of it is about having to slow down, take a slower pace in life. You hope that people are aware of the fact that you have this disability. I have people hold doors for me and that sort of thing. It's about being kind and thoughtful."

Guitarist Fabio Dwyer, who suffers from Parkinson's, also helped to write the song.

LISTEN | Slow Emotion paints a picture of living with Parkinson's disease:

Johnson's neurologist, Dr. Alfonso Fasano, introduced her to Dwyer, another patient of his, in the hopes that the two could make a song together. After meeting, they wrote individual songs and Johnson put them together.

Dwyer wrote the chord structure for chorus, while she and Gane wrote the lyrics. 

'You see your life in a whole different way'

Johnson said she waited about three years before telling many people in her life about the diagnosis. Even though her gait had changed, she said she hid some of the symptoms. She said she never had a tremour.

"It was quite devastating. You see your life in a whole different way," she said. "It has a huge impact on you and you don't know what the future holds... Nobody does, but you know it's not going to be a healthy one."

Johnson said symptoms of the disease developed slowly before they became debilitating. First, her sense of smell disappeared. Then, it was obvious that one foot was dragging. Her family doctor sent her to a neurologist.

'I think we were always pushing and pulling ourselves between pop sensibilities — which we love, obviously — and the more experimental stuff which we love, too.'
Martha Johnson and Mark Gane, of Martha and the Muffins, are pictured here in 1986. (Dimo Safari)

Gane said the diagnosis was shocking.

"I suppose when anyone deals with shocking news, you kind of go, this can't really be happening. But the other part of your brain is going, yeah, it's happening and this maybe it's like a sudden death, or even the birth of a baby in a positive sense. But you go, from this point on, life is going to be very different," he added.

"Parkinson's is a very individual disease. Some people get it and immediately start dealing with very serious symptoms. Other people can go for years as Martha did, and for a long time, we were still able to play. But I had to get used to being more and more of a caregiver."

'No other way but going forward'

Gane said making music played a big role in helping him and Johnson to cope with the disease.

"I think there's no other way but going forward.... You go, okay, I could sink like a stone or we can go forward. And I think one of the things that helps us cope with this is that we're creative people," he said. 

"Sure, we can't play live anymore. But in the years where after which we decided that wasn't going to happen, we've always continued to record."

Martha and the Muffins in 1980
Martha and the Muffins are pictured here in 1980. The band's big hit, Echo Beach, came out that year. (Peter Noble)

Johnson said she has had to accept more dramatic symptoms over the years, including stuttering, which only developed recently. 

"You just have to pull yourself up every time something happens," she said. "You have to be thankful for what you do have."

Johnson and Gane talked about the making of the song at an event, organized by Parkinson Canada, a national registered charity, in Yonge-Dundas Square on Thursday.

Disease disrupts people's lives, charity says

Parkinson's is a lifelong, incurable brain disease that affects more than 100,000 people in Canada, the charity said in a news release.

"The reality for people who face a Parkinson's diagnosis is that many aspects of their lives will be disrupted, including relationships, work, sleep, activity, mental health and more. Parkinson's not only impacts individuals, but also families, friends and care partners who come together to help manage the realities of the disease," it said.

"However, people living with Parkinson's can learn to live well, often for many years after a diagnosis. For every challenge that comes while living with Parkinson's, people can often find new perspective, patience and opportunities they didn't know were possible."

WATCH | A documentary looks at the making of Slow Emotion:

Parkinson Canada said it's important for people with the disease to:

  • Get support with managing symptoms through medication, speech and physical therapy. 
  • Develop coping strategies and support mental health by accessing counselling and support groups. 
  • Incorporate exercise and wellness supports to stay active and connected to others.


Muriel Draaisma is a reporter and writer at CBC News in Toronto. She likes to write about social justice issues. She has previously worked for the Vancouver Sun, Edmonton Journal and Regina Leader-Post. She is originally from B.C. Have an idea for a story? You can reach her at

With files from Fresh Air