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“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.”

Tell me about Wivenhoe.

“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 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].”

Simplicity was important to you?

“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.”

Which is why I was surprised to find you consented to Captured Tracks reissuing the Cleaners’ first three albums…

“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.”

What were you up to in the years immediately prior to forming Cleaners From Venus?

“When I was 17 I think my intellect suddenly developed in a certain respect, and perhaps for that reason I got sidetracked – I went to live in a town north of London, and got into trouble, well, I got bogged down in speed and acid to be precise. It really confused me: I’m not the sort of person who should take those sorts of things, and I never was. After I’d been busted, not severely mind, I think there was a breakdown of some sort – I wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but yes, I made myself very unhappy, and probably the drugs I was taking did at as well, and in the end the only thing to do was to leave the place I was in and come and live in rural Essex. My probation officer said if you go and live with your parents in this tiny village in the Essex marshes then you can’t get into any trouble. And he was almost right.”

“I must be the only person in history to have joined a rock band in order to stop taking drugs.”

“While I was at home, my Mum said, there’s this band here, called The Plod, a glam rock band. They’d lost their singer – and it was like a Cliff Richard film, I took the bus 13 miles into Colchester one morning, walked into a music shop, met a guy from the band, asked him if they needed a singer, he said yeah, I joined the band and within four months of receiving a vandalism charge aged 19 I was the lead singer of Colchester’s first, premier and only glam-rock band – and they were actually doing gigs!

“And it changed my life – completely. As I said in my book, I must be the only person in history to have joined a rock band in order to stop taking drugs. I mean, there were a couple of further aberrations, but that was basically it. The Plod saved my life. We went around doing pop copies, and when they find out that I could write songs, we started doing some of them, because they didn’t really write any themselves. They kind of broke up in ’75, having made one little record – which is something of a cult item now, it’s called ‘Rio City’. Even if I say so myself, it’s alright, that song.”

I’m guessing that by this time you were beginning to realise what the music industry was really like…

“With Plod we got a lot of rejections but that was OK. I began to understand the industry – I began to understand how trends work, how the NME works, how it’s hand in glove with the record companies really, because they need something to write about and the record companies need someone to promote their records. Before then I was very naive – I thought the NME were sort of ‘with the people’, I didn’t realise they were hobnobbing with the popstars and in the pockets of the record companies and getting free records and all the normal stuff. And I realised there was a whole industry, and it wasn’t just me against them, it was me against the whole industry.

“I was an idealist, and I hadn’t really thought about it – we may as well have been selling beans, and if you want to sell beans they’ve got to be in a certain type of package like, a tin, and they can’t be different shaped beans, and they can’t be green or purple, they’ve gotta be that same orangey kind of colour. Because that’s how the industry sells records [laughs]. When I was about 27 I really realised that fucking hell, these people can do whatever they want – you don’t get on the radio, you don’t get in the papers, you don’t get signed, you don’t even get to go on a tour – unless you do everything that they say. And I thought – there must be some other way of selling music?!”

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Is this when the idea of home-recording and self-distributing your music came to you?

“I thought, if I got a Portastudio then at least in theory we’d have the same facilities as The Beatles – you know, four tracks – and we could make a little garden-shed Revolver. That was my intention – the fact that I had nothing like the musical ability of The Beatles was no obstacle to me [laughs]. And I’d found someone else to join in with me, someone who was more shot away than me [laughs].

Lol Elliott.

“Lol had been travelling around with some kind of early hippie convoy, and for some reason three of them had come off the road and rented a house near to where I was living – him and a friend and his wife. They were from all over, but mainly from the North and the North Midlands. I was here, washing up, with nothing much on my hands, recording this and that. Lol came up to me in a pub and said [adopts thick Northern accent], ‘Have you got any droogs?” And he was kind of surprised that someone who looked like me and sounded like me didn’t. I mean, I’d have a puff of this and a puff of that, but I stopped most of that nonsense when I was 20.

“The music I did back then was wrought, however naively, from a young, vibrant soul, and it probably resonates – quite rightly – with other young and vibrant souls right now.”

“We had similar musical interests – you know, the Bonzo Dog band, the weirder side of The Beatles – and time on our hands, so we just started recording together. He had a cheap drumkit and we started recording every Monday. I did a month of nights in a restaurant washing up dishes and kitchen portering to get the money for the Portastudio – which was quite a new thing at the time, I had one of the first ones, a Tascam 144. And then I had to learn how to use it. I got pretty good at it, but still I wanted to push it to its limits – I wanted to be Phil Spector, but in my bedroom with a 4-track studio.

“In Germany recently, someone introduced me as ‘The Godfather of Lo-Fi’ and I said no, I just wasn’t very good at recording things ‘cos we didn’t have much money – you think we wouldn’t have wanted it to sound like Sgt Pepper‘s if we’d been able to afford the studio?

You can certainly hear in the records that you’re pushing the limits of the technology available to you. A lot of the drugs have a real dub feel – drums panning in and out of the mix, insane reverbs…

“Oh, definitely. I would be hunched maniacally over the table for hours, and I’d have to get someone to stand on the other side of the desk and say to them, ‘OK, when that bits comes up, move the mic this way and that way so that the drums sound like they’re coming in and out [laughs]. All that sort of thing.

“Once we’d done our first recording, I figured we may as well as do some cassette copies and try to sell them, which we duly did to people that we met in the pub, or people that we knew, and then I also got in correspondence with some fanzines. At the same that we didn’t want to be a part of the music industry, there was a whole load of writers who didn’t want to be part of the rock press, so they made these fanzines that they stapled together and often the thing would be meant to be come out in April but wouldn’t come out til July because they didn’t even have money to do a print run of 100. But this was our media.

“If we sold 100 cassettes over a few months, that was a result to us. And the fanzines would review them. We might have made the tape the year before, sent it out two months later, have it reviewed three months after that, and then some geezer would get hold of the fanzine two months after that, before finally getting round to ordering a cassette a year later [laughs].

“If we sold 100 cassettes over a few months, that was a result to us.”

“For a while there was really a healthy DIY cassette scene. We were suddenly aware of other people like us around the world, who thought like us, and we became friends, and in some cases I’m still in contact with them today. There was Geoff Wall who ran a magazine in Southampton called Stick It In Your Ear, there was a bloke called Fraser Nash in Birmignhham. Oh, and there was a label in Switzerland run by a guy called Rudi, called Calypso Now – it was through Calypso Now that all the Cleaners tapes, doubtless copied and recopied umpteen times, got into the States. I guess that’s how people like MGMT got to hear them, in that debased, nth-generation form.”

Are you still proud of those early Cleaners releases? Does it feel strange to have people like MGMT and Captured Tracks treating them with such reverence?

“I like [Cleaners’ early work] now…I think I’ve been vindicated in a way. All that work I did – however misguided or ineptly, it was sincerely meant, and some of the stuff was actually pretty good. Artists and musicians always think that what they’re doing now is my best and most important work and, you know, if you go and listen to the old stuff, that’s my old stuff. You like to think that you’ve benefited from the wisdom of experience and that you’re doing your best stuff now, and you have to – I mean, it would take your motivation away if you woke up every morning and thought, oh, the stuff I’m doing now is nowhere near as good as what I was doing back when I was young [laughs].


“I certainly don’t think that, but I also realise that I must recognise that the music I did back then was wrought, however naively, from a young, vibrant soul, and that it probably resonates – quite rightly – with other young and vibrant souls right now. I’ve been told that there’s a chap called Ariel Pink who’s very influenced by us or at least sounds like the early Cleaners. And if these young people do like it, then I should bloody cooperate and be bloody grateful and say thank you, like a good boy [laughs]. But…if someone from the music industry came up to me and said something like, ‘I’ve always been a fan of your work, Martin’ – I’d say, well, why didn’t you give me my money 40 years ago then, you cunt? [laughs].”

“Give yourself a cage to be brilliant in.”

Going back to the ‘Godfather of Lo Fi’ thing – does it feel odd that people like Ariel Pink are so in thrall to the DIY manner in which you recorded your songs, when by your own admission you’d have been recording in a proper studio if you’d been able to afford it?

“Well, I suppose I did want to impose limitations on myself to some degree, because in a sense I know that’s how the great pop songs were made – they got their popstars and they gave them 3-hour recording sessions and said come on, let’s do it. The art of pop is, you know, go and do it quickly. Knock it out quickly, then have a bit of a rest, mix it, and get on with the next one. I still work like that. Give yourself a cage to be brilliant in. If a teacher says to you, write a story about Autumn, you’re going to writ about Autumn, but if a teacher says to you, write a story about absolutely anything you like, where are you going to start?

“But yes…the Cleaners stuff was so badly recorded, in such poverty – but despite the poverty, our creative needs were such that we overcame everything. There was no way we were going into the music industry, because we couldn’t even if we wanted to, so we thought, if we’re imprisoned in this cell we may as well sing and dance and paint the walls while we’re here. So that’s what we did – and the Cleaners From Venus was that.”

Kiran Sande

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