Talk about a dream team. On this 1993 CD, Martin Newell collaborates with XTC’s Andy Partridge on this psych-pop underground classic. This music just feels good and lifts me up. Sweet nostalgia, anglo-pastoral peacefulness and good time jangling are the order of the day. I dare you not to sing along.
Newell’s tapes were distributed by various underground imprints. The copy of “Living With Victoria Grey” above was released on Hypertonia, the label of Jan Bruun from Norway. Joachim Reinbold’s Jarmusic label from Berlin was another supporter of The Cleaners From Venus material.
What was the lifespan of The Cleaners From Venus?
Roughly from Autumn of 1981 to spring of 1988. A few stray things have come out since, though.
And where did the name come from?
We still argue about it. Lol and I were in a pub called The Black Buoy in Wivenhoe one evening. Lol says he thought of it. We were both working as cleaners at the time.
Was it always a home recording project or was there some time in professional studios at all?
After Lol left and Giles Smith joined, we made two studio albums in Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, London they were Going to England 1986 and Town and Country 1987/ 88.
I’ve always thought of Cleaners as a solo project but actually you had occasional other members, correct? Did you write all the material?
The main Cleaners with me, who made decisions anyway, were Lol Elliott (81 to 84) and Giles Smith (85-88) Lol actually played in the studio at the same time as Giles. Other members and honorary members were faily numerous but the main ones, in studio or onstage with us were Nelson on bass( with New Model Army now) and Ichiro Tatsuhara on drums.
Did The Cleaners ever perform live?
Several times. In Hamburg at the Grosse Freiheit, at the Wivenhoe May Fair , in Scunthorpe and of course in London, where we played at Dingwalls, a place called Alice’s and somewhere else I think.
What about influences, talk about that briefly.
Collectively..I suppose Beatles, Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Syd Barrett- era Pink Floyd…quite a lot of punk rock. early Who, Small Faces, Move and Kinks. Lol and Giles really liked XTC but I didn’t really start getting into them till quite late on.
Was there any official end at some point or did it just fade away?
This is detailed in Giles’ book Lost In Music. My own spin on it is that I was exhausted, broke and I felt towards the end that the music had become something which had gradually moved away from my original ideas. I began to yearn for a more home-made approach again. It was my ball and I took it home with me, I’m afraid. I became a gardener again so that I could get my head together.
You also had another project, like The Brotherhood Of Lizards. How did that come about? Were there others?
The Lizards were me and Nel ( who left the Cleaners with me) . It was a similar thing to the Cleaners. Everything we did was recorded in my home studio. We did one cassette mini-album and one vinyl album. We promoted it by touring on bicycles. When Nel left in Feb 1990, I started doing my solo stuff and became a poet.
Can you describe the difference between poetry and lyrics?
Poetry and lyrics in most cases, are not the same thing. Some people think of them as being kind of brother and sister. I think of them as more like kissing cousins.
Both The Cleaners and Brotherhood appeared on various labels. Did they come to you about releasing material?
In all cases. I had to be persuaded. I have not sent a demo to a record company ( to obtain a deal, anyway) since 1980. They approached us. One two or three occasions I turned them down.
Your day job as a gardener is fairly well known. Is that something you still do? Was there ever a point where you thought you might be able to live on your music? In what way did your time as a landscape artist inform your music or lyrics?
I was never a landscape artist. I was a lawn-dog, a jobbing gardener and a pretty good topiarist, actually. I could cut hedges in shapes..but not as well as Edward Scissor-hands. I lived on my music only in fits and starts. Then I lived, rather sparsely on music and gardening..then in 1990 or so I began to get paid for writing. Then I lived on a mixture of the three. I have not done much gardening for a good few years now, though, I still help friends out and they sometimes pay me. I have mostly made my money from writing for the past 15 years or so and still some from music…mostly old royalties, songwriting and a little bit of live work.
I kind of lost touch with you after “The Greatest Living Englishman”. Was there some sort of change at that time towards a more commercial intention?
There was no change in my head. The two albums I did with Humbug though, were successful. But I was always ready to walk out of the door at anytime. I didn’t like the music business. I didn’t like the stupidity, the wastefulness, the greed, the drug culture, the bullshit, the traveling and the incredible inefficiency. What I did like, was my fellow musicians, the recording engineers , the music and the fun(which when it’s going well, it really is). I liked some of the people I met too. Actually some of the record company guys and publishers were okay too. My main complaint was the way the whole system worked.
How did you meet Andy Partridge? How would you describe what he did with you? Producer?
The very inspired Kevin Crace of Humbug records put the two of us together. By an incredible coincidence however, Andy already knew about me as a pop poet and rang me up one morning in 1992 to trade his new album Nonesuch, for my second book Under Milk Float. Kevin put us together musically, about six months later. I don’t think Andy had even been aware that I did music up until that point. Lol and I went round to his house for a meeting in late November and he got us both incredibly drunk on red wine. I got on very well with Andy. We were like twins as far as humour is concerned. Making the Englishman album was a scream, most days.
From hearing your latest music I’d say that your skills have not dissipated whatsoever but actually have matured and ripened. How do you compare your body of work during The heyday of The Cleaners and what you do now?
Well, that’s about it. I’m a more mature songwriter. I could probably go and make you another Cleaners album tomorrow if I wanted. But it would take time and money and quite honestly, I’m not convinced there’s enough interest.
What keeps you excited about your music?
I’m very busy being a writer at the moment and I’m using pretty much the same local is good/small is beautiful ethos. I’d love to do another record…but as I said, I’m kind of busy making a living and going through a sort of Lennon-like period of looking after my slightly chaotic teenage daughter. I’m up early making breakfast and packed lunches, home cooking the dinner, and shouting “Where the hell have YOU been? “All the stuff you have to do really. If I can steward her to adulthood properly, then a new album will have to wait. I can write poems, books and articles when she’s at school or at the weekends. She’s kind of my main job at the moment. On Tuesday nights, I play fretless bass with Hurricane a couple of my friends who do a lot of mid-period and vintage Dylan stuff. It keeps me exercised.
Has the internet been a real boost to contact, sales, collaborating projects, etc?
The Internet has kept the music alive and to an extent revived it. If we’d had the internet 30 years ago, with the ideas and energy we’d had at the time, who knows what we’d have achieved?
Have you ever done mail collaborations?
No. Only with composers anyway. Two operas were written like that. I think you should be in the same room as your fellow musicians.
I’ve commented that there seems to be a somewhat lacking community spirit in underground music now compared to when people had to physically mail things. What do you think? Is the internet superficial?
The snail-mail days were great. But the whole thing was much smaller. It was a village. The net is a great big city with all the impersonality which that will foster.
Do you think there is any lasting legacy to Cassette Culture or to the music created by lesser known underground ( non music industry) artists during the so called “golden years” of 1980-1995?
It’s been pretty much pensioned off by the Internet, I reckon. It was an idea. A great idea. It boomed in the gap between advancing home recording technology and the birth of the Internet. There will always be people out there who reject the industry.
What’s next for you?
More books. More poems and hopefully …eventually another album. Don’t know how, don’t know when. fate has a way of making these things happen though, and I’ll never be idle. Check the website.
Thanks for your time Martin. All the best with all that you do.