Martin Newell missed UK punk. Or, rather, it missed him. "I felt that punk was a party which had been partly my idea," he told me through recent e-mail correspondence, "but which I then ended up not going to because it was already too crowded."
He'd skirt the party's periphery some years later, through various in-roads in the late '70s and '80s, but he'd already been making music years before young, excited Brits would shrug off glam-rock hangovers and coalesce into their own units, such as the Damned, the Clash and, of course, the Sex Pistols.
Indeed, before glam flamboyance rolled over to punk's increasingly rabid trappings, Newell was already a seasoned player in the heady bacchanal popularized by Slade, the Sweet and Mott the Hoople. At 20 years of age, he served as the frontman to Plod, a raucous glitter group who played often to great response, recorded a series of clap-and-stomp "hits" in '75, then folded due to what he now characterizes as "a dodgy record company." (Italy's Rave-Up Records issued the recordings on LP some 35 years later.) At Plod's demise, he wasted little time in joining another group, Gypp, and they continued to mine glam territory, now tempering it with prog-like exploration.
Their exploration was largely on-stage, however. "Gypp was a great live band," said Newell, "and a brilliant bunch of guys. I'd just had three years on the road with them and was very frustrated with not being able to spend time recording."
Exacerbating that frustration with Gypp's slim recording schedule was the band's lack of positive critical reviews -- of which there were some, but not enough -- and as the '70s wore on, Newell found himself through with Gypp, done with life on the road. But not with music altogether.
He took on a job as a kitchen porter in Wivenhoe, Sussex, UK, where he'd lived for awhile. He also answered an ad in Melody Maker, nearly joining legendary London SS as their vocalist sometime in '75 or so. Alas, he never made it to their audition.
In May, '79, he made it to a Wivenhoe pub, where he chanced to meet a hippie prankster and fellow kitchen porter named Lawrence "Lol" Elliott. As Martin himself remembers it, "He wanted to know where [he] could get some kind of oriental smoking mixture, I believe. I didn't have any and though I had heard of the mixture in question, was not able to furnish him with any. We drank and talked about music instead. Eventually we started playing together."
The duo would gather every Monday morning at Newell's home, writing and recording slapdash, whimsical and bizarre pop songs that corralled elements of glitter, '60s rock, bubblegum and psychedelia -- even dub. Though one could easily hear traces of Syd Barrett's shimmering delivery and the Kinks' or the Monkees' pop prowess in their collaborations, it was apparent that their collective sound reflected a swath of influences. It was also apparent that their creative energy and wild ambition transcended the myriad limitations of their cheap, slipshod equipment.
They toyed with a few names before settling on Cleaners From Venus -- a nod to their part-time jobs -- and in 1981, they released their first cassette, Blow Away Your Troubles, on their own imprint, Man At the Off-License Tapes.
The Cleaners had no real distribution, given their decision to forego crooked record companies and their vampiric practices. (Though Newell would, however, release a great solo single, "Young Jobless," that Liberty Records would ultimately distribute.) They advertised in British weeklies, plying their tape on the cheap, and they even considered trading their release for food with like-minded rock oddballs steeped in the anarcho-political DIY ethic, many of whom also released their own tapes.
For example, "I knew Keith from [Fuck-Off Records]," said Newell by e-mail. "Kif Kif le Batteur was his stage name. Had a conversation with him on the phone once. He was in a festival band called Here and Now. Their guitarist was called Steffi Sharpstrings and Lol our drummer became a sort of step-dad to his daughter Gabrielle." He also befriended Insane Picnic, who lived in nearby Clacton, among others still -- others whose approach to self-recording and songwriting was much less "pop" than Newell's own.
And Newell's focus was on pop songwriting. Accessibility and catchy, strange hooks were at the forefront of his tunes -- that much was clear. But while the Cleaners' first tape garnered critical praise from those who heard it, distribution initially stifled their popularity, as did the band's reluctance to play out. "I did not want to go out on the road with the Cleaners and fought all the day not to do so," commented Newell.
Nonetheless, Newell wrote songs with a dazzling speed and recorded them just as quickly -- oftentimes without Lol, whose new home became Bath, where his girlfriend lived. He and Lol worked together when they could, readying their second tape.
1982's On Any Normal Monday -- a markedly superior recording to their first promising tape -- reflects Newell's growing songwriting. And his increasing aptitude for engineering and "producing" their sounds under adverse conditions.
Immediately after releasing Monday, Newell worked diligently on their third tape, Midnight Cleaners. Lol's contributions had, unfortunately, all but ceased. Newell cobbled together pieces of Lol's pre-recorded drum bits to fashion his own songs, and when he exhausted that possibility, he used a primitive drum machine. The results were startingly brilliant, and the quality of the Cleaners' pop hits now, in this writer's opinion, rivaled that of the band's influences and similarly-styled contemporaries (like XTC, whose Andy Patridge would later collaborate with Newell to stunning results).
Midnight Cleaners benchmarked the final split between the group's core duo, though Newell would eventually soldier on with a variety of other capable musicians, occasionally under the Cleaners from Venus tag, but also as the Brotherhood of Lizards, the Stray Trolleys and Newell's own handle. His discography is expansive and impressive. (As is his poetry, some of which you can see here.)
In April of 2012, as part of Record Store Day, Brooklyn-based label Captured Tracks reissued the first three Cleaners From Venus tapes as an LP (or CD) boxed set. The vinyl set is, of course, long gone, but you can still buy the LPs individually through the label's website.
Thanks to Martin Newell for his time and patience.