“The who from what?” you may well ask
You’d be forgiven, though
There’s no NME beat report
On arts in Wivenhoe
That’s where our hero makes his lo-fi
A quiet, one-man war against
The biz’s sordid slop
In case you don’t already know, The Cleaners From Venus is the ongoing nom de plume/guerre of Martin Newell. Having long ago lost patience with the machinations of the music industry, he’s spent decades churning out quintessentially-English, underground pop music from his home in the fishing town of Wivenhoe. He doesn’t tour, he doesn’t tweet, he won’t be moving to Brooklyn, Martin Newell is never seen drinking cappuccino in Italian restaurants with oriental women, yeah.
That’s not to say he’s a recluse; he just chooses to make music on his own low-key terms/budget/turf, so he’s remained somewhat obscure despite an enormous body of work in a variety of media—he’s also been an author, columnist, poet (England’s most-published living poet, in fact), book reviewer, radio host, even actor in his own tongue-in-cheek audio & video serials, and surely a few other things I’ve missed. And gradually the world’s catching on; recent years have seen MGMT performing a cover of 1982’s “Only A Shadow” and the more obscure parts of the Cleaners back catalog, much of which was originally released only on homemade cassettes, tidied up and reissued by Captured Tracks.
Working under the Cleaners rubric*, the process is simple: don’t mess about, bang it out using whatever’s on hand, and stick it up on the website for a few pounds. You get more mileage out of fresh inspiration than meticulously crafting an amp emulation. (It’s the next phase, new wave, dance craze, I’ll stop.) And the songs are remarkably fresh and jubilant, full of idealism and appreciation for the small moments and the full spectrum of life, either despite or because of having emerged from a period of health troubles and other personal hardships.
There’s a clear focus in the lyrics on recognizing and embracing what’s truly important, always presented with good humor and charm. Rather than pining for love, the characters here actually caught it and their happiness is infectious. “The Royal Bank of Love”, a plea for a better world, isn’t just one of the best things he’s written—concise yet epic, and genuinely moving—it belongs in the pantheon of optimistic anthems alongside “All You Need Is Love”. At the very least, every politician’s clock radio should be rigged to play it when the morning alarm sounds.
As always with Newell, there’s also pointed satire (“Welcome to Bohemia”) and wistful reflections on the passage of time. “The Band Played Delilah” has a deceptively jovial, major key, singalong quality to the chorus that makes the song’s end-of-the-evening/year/life observations even more poignant, not unlike how the chorus of “You Are My Sunshine” can almost make you forget how heartbreaking its verses are. If there are still pubs where punters sing around a piano, “…Delilah” deserves to be there, eliciting a smile and a tear simultaneously.
If you hadn’t yet discovered Martin Newell, now’s the best time; he’s at the top of his game, and his entire oeuvre is more easily accessible than ever before.
The following are a few of my favorite tracks: “The Days of May”, “A European Girl”, and the aforementioned “The Royal Bank of Love”.
And here’s his entire Mule TV video series, in which he chronicles his quest for a higher quality entry to be submitted to the Eurovision song contest.
*I say “the Cleaners rubric” as opposed to releases under his own name, a format that he often reserves for more produced affairs. They include two of the best albums you may never have heard from the ’90s: the Andy Partridge-produced The Greatest Living Englishman, and the Louis Philippe-produced The Off White Album.