Martin Newell’s The Greatest Living Englishman turns 25 this year and Captured Tracks has just reissued the vinyl. I’ve written a feature for The Quietus about the maverick elements (Andy Partridge of XTC, Kevin Crace of Humbug Records, Captain Sensible of The Damned) that came together to make Newell’s best-known album. I’ve also just produced a podcast talking to Mr. Newell about that record, his current work, and his thoughts on music today. As always, it was a very entertaining conversation. The podcast and piece would be my fifth and sixth interviews respectively with Martin since 2012. And I find there’s always more to say.
Never would I have suspected that this would be the case late one night in the summer of 2011, when, plagued by the usual insomnia, I was scanning the blogs looking for any music I hadn’t heard that seemed appealing. It was 3 a.m. and I happened across The Very Best of Cleaners From Venus – Living With Victoria Grey. I didn’t know what to make of the band name, this could be some terrible new wave outfit, but I had gone to high school with a Vicky Grey. Such coincidences are enough for me to give anything a try. And I was blown away.
This was outstanding pop music. ‘Illya Kuryakin Looked At Me’, the title track (thanks, Vicky), ‘Mercury Girl’, ‘Girl On A Swing’, all instantly brought on that feeling you want from a pop song. And the excitement continued as there was so much more to discover. Since 1981, the Cleaners – who began as Martin recording songs on his day off (Monday, hence the title of the second album, On Any Normal Monday, whose opening track, the dreamy ‘Night Starvation’, was another early favorite) with drummer Lol Elliott – had been releasing about a cassette per year throughout the 80s.
Self-distributing these tapes, their popularity grew, with RCA releasing Going To England and Town and Country in the ’87 and ‘88. Newell and Cleaners bassist Nelson formed The Brotherhood of Lizards after this, recording a mini-album and then Lizardland for Captain Sensible’s Deltic label. They would embark on a tour of England done completely by bicycle, becoming the focus of a television documentary. But by the early 90s, Newell was fed up with the music industry and began his career as a poet which continues to this day. He is currently England’s most-published living poet. But he couldn’t stay away from music for long. He never stopped writings songs. For Martin, it’s all about the song. And he sure knows how to craft one.
1993 would see the release of The Greatest Living Englishman followed by The Off-White Album, produced by él Records veteran Louis Philippe (also released on Humbug), and then a string of solo records for Cherry Red. It was a joyous time in the months following that bout of insomnia, tracking down all this top-notch music. This was still in the days when you could get almost anything easily from the blogs and they were in fact necessary because until April 2012, when the Captured Tracks reissues began, those early Cleaners albums were only available from the cassettes, which thankfully a handful of music lovers had digitized (I salute you). Captured Tracks would make them available on cd and vinyl for the first time ever. By the winter of 2012 I was writing for The Quietus and did a big interview with Martin for the Record Store Day release of Blow Away Your Troubles, On Any Normal Monday, and Midnight Cleaners. I’d speak with him the following year too, for the next batch of three.
So, it was that in April 2014 I travelled to Wivenhoe, Essex, with my friend Ben for my third interview with Martin in three years, a piece that would eventually be published in the December 2015 issue of Shindig! Martin welcomed us into his home, mentioned he’d just finished a new album, was actually thinking of getting a label to release it, and would we like to hear it? Ben and I quickly shot each other a look, eyes wide open, barely able to contain our excitement. Martin put on the first song “Cling To Me” and it was great. So great in fact that I immediately pulled my phone out and texted Johnny from Soft Bodies Records ‘Martin Newell’s playing us his new album and he’s looking for someone to release it. Are you interested?’ Martin caught sight that I was not giving my full attention to what was coming out of the speakers, got up, and pressed fast forward to the next song. Lesson learned, I put my phone away, although Johnny was indeed interested, beginning a fruitful relationship that saw Soft Bodies release the next three Cleaners records.
The next song that Martin skipped to was “He’s Goin’ Out With Marilyn”, a song of such pop perfection that I must’ve listened to it 100 times in the following week. For, to my continued surprise, Martin burned me a copy of what would become the Return To Bohemia album to take home with us. I visited Cardiff for the first time the next day, a city I’ve become very fond of over the years, and I have wonderful memories of initially walking its streets with Bohemia blaring through my headphones. It is arguably my favorite Cleaners record, definitely of the new millennium stuff. Midnight Cleaners and Living With Victoria Grey (the album, not the best of) are both pop masterpieces too.
I began my review of Bohemia with “This is one of those albums pop fanatics dream of. A collection of songs that – once one gets past the initial “wow!”, and this may take a long time – picking a favorite from will be endlessly debated.” I stand by these words. It’s impossible for me to choose between ‘Marilyn’s infectious hook and the way ‘The Band Plays Delilah’s wistful verses flow into a chorus of such sheer triumph (softly, stately), that it seems everything is going to alright. Bohemia really highlights Martin’s love of 60s pop, obvious in the titles of ‘Mrs. Gale & Her New Lover’ and ‘The King Of The Sixties’. The latter keeps jumping to new spectacular vistas and then rushing you off again to another. There’s also the dreamily psychedelic ‘Imaginary Seas’, and even a song for Eurovision with ‘The Royal Bank of Love’.
Midnight Cleaners kicks off with a quintessentially ethereal new-wave instrumental, the lovely melody sounding like it is played on the ever-cool stylophone. ‘This Rainy Decade’ is the deepening dusk of evening setting in, that magical time the French call ‘entre chien et loup’ (‘between the dog and the wolf’, when you can’t tell the difference between the two), that leads us three songs later down the hours to its sister/shadow song. ‘Corridor of Dreams’ has one of my favorite feels of any song ever. Breezy yet full of emotion, it captures more than can possibly be said about it, what we need music for in the first place.
Living With Victoria Grey is so full of hits, I’d like to single out one that might get lost amongst the rest. “Stay On” is just a great soul-flavored love song. And that line “Desolation, worry, and pain, when might daybreak hit me again” gets me every time.
Speaking to Martin recently, he told me, “I think that most of my music is upbeat. There is a good core of melancholia throughout, but I do try to write cheerful songs. It’s much more difficult to write a cheerful ‘let’s go out dancing’-type of song than it is to write a ‘oh I remember when my girlfriend and I were still in love’ song. Loads of people are doing that. The world is full of misery, it’s very chic. It’s very easy to do a dour song, easiest thing in the world.” Most of Martin’s songs are upbeat, and he does this while still packing them with meaning, none are empty ear candy. But when he does do melancholy, he does it exceptionally well. “Bag Of Dust” is powerful. Again, its feel is exquisite, perfectly radiating an ambience beyond words.
The Off-White Album’s “Goodnight Country Girl” is another great example of this. It’s never completely melancholic with Newell, it’s more that he’s great at presenting the air of the inevitability of a situation. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth something, actually worth quite a bit. There’s always a firm sense of the life in these things, and that translated through his command of words and knack for brilliant melodies, is what makes these songs so affecting.
But let’s get back to the more positive side. “Soldier Town” was bizarrely relegated to a download-only extra on his A Summer Tamarind album. Largely autobiographical, this rocker gives you that charge, the one that makes you wanna fling yourself into whatever the emerging evening has to offer. Although it deals with the nature of time – inevitability again – relegating enjoying yourself even more quickly to the past, I can’t help but do so whenever I hear it.
HURRY – CHECK OUT THE COUNTERFORCE MARTIN NEWELL INTERVIEW
PHOTOGRAPH BY ASHLEY POWELL