“I must be the only person in history to have joined a rock band in order to stop taking drugs.”
Martin Newell’s path has been a strange one, and the path of his most lauded band – Cleaners From Venus – even stranger. Having returned to his hometown of Wivenhoe following a run-in with the law, Newell played in a couple of ill-starred bands – including The Stray Trolleys, glam combo Plod and prog hopefuls Gypp – before meeting Lol Elliott, a bored Northern hippie with whom he struck an immediate bond. The pair formed Cleaners From Venus, primarily as a vehicle for Martin’s remarkable songwriting: an anachronistic hybrid of baroque, psychedelic 60s pop and urgent dole-queue punk.
Unable to afford recording a professional studio, the Cleaners decided to do things themselves. Newell worked nights as a pot-washer and kitchen porter so that he could buy a 4-track Portastudio, reckoning that, well, the Beatles only had four tracks to work with too. It was on this machine he and Elliott would record their early, and still best-loved, albums – among them Blow Away Your Troubles (1981), On Any Normal Monday (1982) and Midnight Cleaners (1982). Those three collections in particular, self-released on cassette, became classics of the burgeoning DIY scene, making their way meiotically to the Continent, the US, and beyond – the vitality of Newell’s melodies enough to survive re-production after re-production.
Elliott left the band around 1983, but the Cleaners have never really gone away – their most recent album, English Electric, came out in 2010. Meanwhile, over the last 20 years Newell has also enjoyed a colourful career as a poet, memoirist, literary critic, regional TV presenter and much more besides – he is, as they say, a character (in his own estimation, ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’), and the stories he has to tell – about everything from pop music to the history of farming – could fill a thousand pages. But it’s the early years of Cleaners From Venus that are our present business: the three aforementioned albums have just been released on vinyl for the very first time by New York’s Captured Tracks label, available separately or presented together in a lavish box set. It’s the culmination of a surge of recent interest in Newell’s work among US indie dreamers and oddballs: last year Gary War and Taylor Richardon reissued his 1985 solo album, Songs For A Fallow Land, on their Fixed Indentity label, and the Cleaners have been vigorously name-checked by Ariel Pink and MGMT, the latter even covering ‘Only A Shadow’ from Midnight Cleaners.
Shortly before the release of the Captured Tracks reissues and box set, FACT asked Cleaners fan Kiran Sande to get Newell on the blower and find out more about his work. “I’m not the ‘Godfather of Lo-Fi,” the 59-year-old Wild Man Of Wivenhoe assured him. “I just wasn’t very good at recording things…”
“I wasn’t interested in art, I just wanted to be a popstar.”
“Things have changed quite a lot in the last 30 years. It’s got a population of about 8000 people. There was a shipyard here, there was a port here, and it was at the centre of a miners’ strike dispute – it hit the national headlines in 1984, there were huge picket-lines. It’s rural. It’s always had a reputation for a certain artiness – Francis Bacon would hang out here. The shipyard’s gone, and we’ve seen what’s happened to shipping and farming. What’s happened in the meantime is that it’s become [with something of a sneer] desirable. What Hampstead is to London, Wivenhoe is to Colchester [laughs].
“So it has this reputation for being arty, but I don’t think it’s necessarily artier than anywhere else. People kid themselves. When a place gets a reputation for being arty, loads of challenged watercolorists move in, and they’re rather precious about it – and the thing is, they don’t actually like the people who [make art] for a living. They’re kind of shocked by it. I don’t go out too much, I think I’m widely disliked here [laughs].”
Did you have artistic aspirations from an early age?
“Well, I always thought I was different, but I wasn’t interested in art, I just wanted to be a popstar – I wanted to be Stevie Marriott or George Harrison or Roy Wood or Ray Davies – one of those blokes with a pageboy haircut. I mean I read, but I thought that all that stuff like poetry, writing and painting was something that people who’d been to university did. Back then not everybody went to university – I left school when I was 15. It never occurred to me for a minute when I was younger that I would become, at one point, England’s most published living poet.
“Far from making people like you, or admire you, it seems being an artist or a writer or whatever makes people dislike you. I mean, I’m not the world’s easiest person, I don’t think I have much in the way of charm when it comes to facing the faint praise of the English middle classes, all that ‘oh, well done you’ sort of thing – I had very much a glam-rock, punk-rock, yobbo rock ‘n roll ethos, and that would make me stick my fingers up to it and say, so fucking what? Why the fuck should I be interested in what you think of me? And of course I got a terrible reputation [laughs].
“All of these battles I fought, I look back on them now and realise they were rather quixotic, because there was no enemy, there was just the music industry, and the music industry is just an industry, one that has absolutely nothing to do with music. You only have to look at the BRITs: they get Adele to sell all those records for them and when she just wants to say thank you to her team or whatever, they’re like, get her off, we need to get her off and make way for the next thing…[laughs]”
“I thought, this is pop, and pop is for us, it’s not for those fucking cunts in suits.”
So what was your first step to achieving your dream of becoming the next Steve Marriott?
“Well, I left school because then I could buy a guitar and an amplifier, and join a band and start making pop songs. But by the time I was on the cusp of actually doing this, that style of music – the three-minute pop song, that rash of singles that The Who, The Hollies, The Small Faces and The Kinks all did, kind of stopped and along came this rather self-important blues-based stuff. And while I liked the weirder, prog sort of stuff, I wasn’t into that.
“Have you heard the Cream song ‘Politician’? It’s nearly kind of quasi-classical..it was pop’s bid to try and get itself accepted as something that could be important to art kids, but I at the time thought, why do I care about that? This is pop, and pop is for us, it’s not for those fucking cunts in suits [laughs]. I liked it pop as it was, and I thought, can’t we leave it like that? I mean, I still think three-minute songs are the best. Whenever they do the 100 Best Classical Tunes on the radio, they’re always about three minutes long, aren’t they? That bit in Vivaldi’s Four Seaons, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – the bit that everyone remembers – is basically the single off the album, isn’t it? So why bother writing the waffle, why not just write the good bit? [laughs].”
“As soon as I’d learned three chords I didn’t think, let’s learn a third; I thought, let’s write a song. I was 14 when I wrote my first song, and I don’t think I ever really got to be a great musician – I can now play a number of instruments to a reasonable level of proficiency, but I’m not virtuoso on any of them. I can sing quite well, but…my trade is: I’m a songwriter. The problem with being a virtuoso musician and a songwriter is that you end up wanting to write something that’ll live up to your virtuosity, rather than writing something that’ll be of wider interest to listeners.
“Nonetheless, despite my espousal of pop and popness generally, I still really failed to capture the imagination of the public! You could say kindly that this was because I never really been exposed to them, and the reason I haven’t been exposed to them is because as soon as I ever met someone saying, ‘Hey Martin, we like you’re music, we’re going to do so and so,’ I’d say, ‘No we’re not, fuck off.’ I’m still like that – people think I might’ve mellowed but I still think they’re a bunch of twats and I’m still not interested in talking to them.”
“I got approached by [Captured Tracks boss] Mike Sniper, and a woman there called Rian Fossett, she really helped to swing the deal – they should give her a bonus for that, she was great, had a nice way about her and it was clear how much, and how genuinely, she liked the music. I said, look, I’m not selling the family silver – I had this idea in my head about the Cleaners’ stuff being sacred, and felt it should just remain rotting in a plastic bag in my loft, and occasionally got out to listen to when I’m drunk for old time’s sake, you know, so i can, say ‘Rarrgh, I really had it THEN’ [laughs].
“But then I just woke up one morning and said to myself, am I being stupid or what? There are some old tapes in my attic, and here’s this guy saying you can have some money – not a huge amount, but a fair price – for him to release them, so that people who are interested can hear it. And not only that, he says he’s going to do a really beautiful job producing it. And I thought, well, I’ve said yes to more stupid things than that. This Mike Sniper is one smart cookie: I said to him, ‘I don’t want to sell the family silver,’ and he said, ‘Martin, we’re not asking you to sell the family silver, we’re asking you to license it.’ And I thought, oh, right, alright then [laughs].
“My probation officer said, ‘If you go and live with your parents in their tiny village in the Essex marshes then you can’t get into any trouble.’ And he was almost right.”
And that was that?
“Well, I said I’m not going out on tour, I’m not going to play any gigs, and if there’s any awards, I’m not fucking going to them. There was talk of an American tour, with a backing band lined up for me, and I said no, I’m not doing that. Why not? Because it’ll make me unhappy. What are you going to do instead? I don’t know…go for a walk, do some gardening, have a wank – I’ll think of something.”
You’ve had some rather negative experiences with record companies in the past, right?
“Yes, it’s all very well-documented. When I was a teenager I just thought, you get a guitar, then you find some other people who are like-minded and start a band, and then you play some gigs, then you play some larger gigs, then you get signed by a record company and put out some records and gradually you get chased by more and more girls, and have a few drugs and buy a nice big house in the country where people can’t stop you doing what you’re doing. I was very naive.
“I used to read things about what the Rolling Stones or The Who or The Kinks were doing and think, that sounds like a nice life, better than going to an office or digging a hole in the road. It’s a way out. Some people want to be footballers. I was a normal teenager of the mid-late-60s who just really wanted to be a popstar – that’s all I wanted to do. I couldn’t see myself wanting anything more – I thought if I get this job I really want then I’ll be really conscientious and I’ll write the best songs I possibly can. I thought, I’ll be like Peggy in Heidi-Hi after she gets her yellow coat – I’ll be mad with happiness and work myself to death, because that’s what I found interesting – the writing, playing and recording of songs.”