With Cleaners from Venus, the Brotherhood of Lizards, and as a solo artist, Martin Newell has crafted some of the most inventive, catchiest British pop-rock of the last couple decades. His songs burst with melodic exuberance and harmonies; his lyrics boast a wit akin to fellow U.K. zanies such as Robyn Hitchcock and Syd Barrett; his vocals are a fetching mix of charm and insouciance. While strongly indebted to such icons of the past as the Beatles, XTC, and Small Faces, it's not merere-creation, but contemporary in attitude, and fresh in execution.
It's music that, if packaged properly, might stand a good chance of making the international hit parade. But Newell isn't interested in the dehumanizing compromises that the music business asks in return for popularity. Much of his music has been done on a home portastudio, distributed by cassette only, relying upon underground fanzine reviews and word of mouth for sales and publicity. Thus he remains Britain's best-kept musical secret, known primarily to cult followings abroad, and virtually unknown as a musician on his home turf.
Is it true that back in the 1970s, you were one of the musicians getting considered for London SS? [London SS, despite never playing a gig, spawned future members of the Damned, the Clash, and Generation X.]
It's sort of somewhere between a myth and the truth. I wasn't in London SS. But no one was. London SS was an idea for punk. Back in the summer of 1975, it got to a point a lot of English musicians had grown very shaggy beards, or they were doing very long progressive rock LPs, or they were doing country-rock that wanted to sound like the Eagles or the Flying Burrito Brothers or whatever. A lot of people thought that we'd somehow lost the way. Record companies in England were only signing up this kind of shit. A lot of us, the people who were a bit too young to be hippies, felt that things should change, but we didn't know what.
I came out of the glam rock generation. I was one of those young dudes that David Bowie wrote about, that Mott the Hoople sang about. But what happened to me, in fact, was that instead of joining a punk rock group, I joined a progressive rock group. A classic Alfred E. Neuman thing to do. In fact, before that happened, there was about six months where, I suppose I was about 20, 21. My glam rock band had packed up. I had nothing to do but play bar billiards. I used to get drunk a lot 'Cause I wasn't in a band, I was very miserable. And during this time [I] used to ring up Melody Maker, the ads in there. And there was a band that said, "a really wild singer" [wanted].
I rang them up, and I spoke to someone who I believe, now Captain Sensible says, was probably Brian James. They wanted to form this band. It was going to be Billy Idol. None of these people were famous. It was Tony James, who later joined Generation X, Brian James, who later became the Damned, and one of those guys from the Clash. Might have been Mick Jones, I don't know. It was the biggest ever band that never played a gig. The London SS was a fucking idea. And I put this story together in the fullness of time. 'Cause I didn't know who it was. I just rang 'em up and said, "Yeah," got on with guy great. [They wanted an] outrageous singer, wanting to do something different. They didn't want to be country-rock, they didn't want to be progressive rock. And I said, "Yeah."
At the end of it, after a half an hour conversation about clothes and the rest of it and attitudes, I said, "What kind of music are you going to do?" And they guy said, "oh," just a kind of Keith Richards voice--just a kind of rock'n'rolly thing. And I thought, that's a shame, that. 'Cause that sounds really boring. I wanted to go in the space age. And in the end, it was a toss of a coin whether I went down to do this audition or not. And I didn't do it, however.
At some point, I was in contact with the people who started punk. That's the end of the story. But Captain Sensible, who was there, will verify this. He heard the story. We were both in Japan being interviewed, and I told this extraordinary story about being in touch with London SS, and he said, "I didn't know that about you." Because I'd been working with him ten years before this came out, you know. He said, "Fucking hell, mate, you never told me that." I said, "You never fucking asked." He said "that's right, you were probably talking to Brian James."
Then you did a single for Liberty in 1980.
"Young Jobless." That was my introduction to fame. I was about 26 years old. The single came out, and it suddenly went national. I was a washer-up in a restaurant, so about lunchtime, this very fluffy DJ called Dave Lee Travis, big in England, known as the hairy cornflake in some circles, used to play this fucking thing every lunchtime for about two weeks. I was working in a restaurant and hearing my record on Radio One. At the same time, a scandal broke, and my mother rang me up and said I was in some shitrag, a national newspaper called the Daily Mail. "You're in the paper. They said you made this record about dole and drugs." And I couldn't believe it. I was just like, "What?" At first I was excited. Then I started to get scared, because I realized they were angry about it.
I didn't think fame would be like that. I thought it would be girls chasing you, or people interviewing you. Like some '50s movie idea of fame, a guy running along, followed by a load of people running alongside with microphones and flashes of cameras. Again, a Mad magazine, American film idea what fame was like. In fact, the British press are quite ruthless in pursuit of a story. They'll tell any amount of lies, and they don't care who they sacrifice. If they happen to like you, it's great. If they don't, and they didn't...Yes, it turned me into a recluse. It turned me into a druggy, paranoid little recluse. Very important. Because it helped me spawn Cleaners From Venus.
Why did you decide to put out most of your early stuff on cassette, instead of trying to do the standard thing of getting record deals?
I was one of the inventors of the cassette underground. Being pretty much an average dumbshit Spinal Tap-type pop musician, which I was, I was interested in haircuts and girls and drugs and quite a lot of music really. I had no knowledge of politics. But I suddenly started reading anarchist tracts. I'd always been rebellious. But in this case I suppose I did have half a brain, and it started germinating about this time. I started reading. And I thought, hang on a minute. No one's so zealous as the recently converted. I became a fully-fledged agit-prop anarchist, let's buck the system, let's tear it all down, let's slash it up. I thought, the best thing is not to join in. You know that slogan that Lennon and all the others had about '70: "What if they had a war and nobody came?" Well, this was "what if they started a record company and nobody signed?"
So we said look, the equation is this: we want to make music, and there's people who want to listen to it. So how do we get our music out of our hearts, through our fingers, into people's ears without this plethora of basically parasites interfering with it? 'Cause there were parasites. And I thought, I know. As the technology improves--they'd just invented four-track portastudios--we could have the same facilities in theory as the Beatles had, in our living rooms, and we could send the stuff out. We could just mail it out to people. But Lol [Elliott, fellow member of Cleaners from Venus], who was well-staged in anarchism, said, "Look, do we have to take money for it? Can't we just do a direct swap--music for groceries?" (giggles)
But I thought, there's perishables. Obviously, the thing has a self-limiting factor inasmuch as if you start sending melons or oranges and stuff. We're vegetarians, so there wouldn't be any rotting meat or anything being to sent us. But it would have to be dried goods. I think somebody did actually send us some tea bags. But that's as far as it got. Then we realized that we couldn't swap tea bags for stamps, so we couldn't mail the stuff out. So we had to modify it a bit. So in the end we just charged the lowest prices we could.
It began to get quite successful, so I got in an argument with a businessman one day, who said, "Martin, blah blah, this thing seems to be taking off for you. What happens if you become successful? You'll have to become a capitalist." So I said "No, it's not anti-capitalism. I'll reduce the prices." He said, "You can't do it." I said, "I can." He said, "What happens if it gets really really successful?" I said, "We'll give it away." He said, "What happens it gets really global? " I said, "We'll pay people to take it with the money we've made." And he got really angry, and I had to leave the pub before he hit me. People who are interested in money get very emotional about it. They don't like the idea of anyone giving it away. It contravenes some essential law in their heads (laughs). This is probably why I'm in your book, because I harbor such ideas.
How did you get the cassettes heard and listened to?
There was a lot of fanzines around. In the wake of punk, all sorts of ugly spotty people in bedrooms and garages suddenly reared their heads and thought yes, maybe I could do something. So suddenly little magazines stapled together by the late-night lunatics in the provinces of England [appeared]. So I used to write off to them, saying, "Hi, I do tapes, you do a magazine, you want me to write something?" So we'd get out tapes reviewed, and people would write in on the back of serviettes and cigarette packages. These things really happened. They'd send us their 50 pences or their pound. Sometimes months later, because as you know fanzines come out six months after they're meant to. So a year after we'd done a tape, we'd get an order. And we'd get two quid in the post kind of thing. Somehow, I'd managed to, because I'm quite consistent, I have my tin of money, and me tin of addresses, and I'd somehow mail the cassettes out. We thought, if we sold 400 cassettes, we'd done a good job.
They'd get played on underground radio stations in Switzerland or all sorts of strange things used to happen. I just thought, "Well, I don't believe this." At one point during the Falklands War, the Argentinas insisted that the place is called the Malvinas, not the Falklands Islands. So at one point, for about five minutes, we recorded Cleaners From Malvenus, because we knew that would annoy people in England. They just thought it was funny. I changed my stage name once because I was doing gardening. I decided to call myself the Hedge, because I cut hedges.
The most radical it got was when Lol was coming home from seeing his mum, who was actually dying of emphysema. He was coming back on a coach from Darby, which is somewhere up north of here, quite away. The Falklands War was on. I think one of our jets had shot down an Argentinian plane. They announced it on the coach system, saying, "Well, our brave lads have shot down an Argentinian plane." And Lol, who was sitting in his seat, shouted, "Bullshit!" And this fucking guy grabbed hold of him by the shirt and said, "What do you mean?" Like he wasn't being patriotic enough. He wasn't cheering. 'Cause the whole coach cheered, because we'd shot another Dago down, which was scandalous, really, when you think of it in moral terms.
Anyway, it was during this time. I've still got a letter from a radio operator on HMS Achilles who was listening, in between battle stations, to On Any Normal Monday, one of the Cleaners From Venus cassettes. It's one of my most treasured possessions. We were the soundtrack for somebody's Falklands War. Which is an extraordinary sort of thing really, isn't it? He was listening to things like "Be An Idiot Pop Star" in between going into battle. It makes you a part of history, as a soundtrack or the theme tune for it. Which I did find vaguely titillating, it has to be said.
I find it interesting you were using very underground, DIY ways to make and distribute your music, but the music was quite catchy and poppy. Not like, say, Crass, who were also very anti-establishment in how they did business, but whose music was far less accessible.
They [Crass] converted Captain Sensible to vegetarianism. They did actually sound like two lathes buggering each other on an elevator in an aircraft hangar sort of thing.
Yes, I wanted to make pushy little pop tunes, with nasty lyrics, that's all. And sometimes nice lyrics. I only ever wanted to do pop music. I was very naive, really. I liked the Beatles and the Monkees and things like that. I wasn't interested in all those art statements. I actually liked pop. I like pretty tunes, verse-chorus, verse-chorus, a bit of psychedelic guitar, then that's the end. I leave it to the art-school boys to do all that noise.
The people who played music in the '60s were quite good musicians. And we weren't really. We were very bad musicians! I mean, Lol could keep a beat, but he was always fucking stoned or tripping or something. I just wanted to get the thing out of the way and get on with the next thing. I was never a good guitarist. When I was in a band, I was a lead singer. So although I could play a guitar, I couldn't play it that well. I always thought you should do things instantly. I believe that great pop was hatched by people fumbling around in the dark. That you should just do something instantly. I'm very impatient--just do it, get it out of the way, and let's get on with the next thing. I wasn't interesting in getting things perfect. I just wanted it to be fun, really.
It started with just you and Lol, but some other guys got involved with your groups too over the next few years.
Oh yeah. As we got better, various musicians would attach themselves. I've never classified myself as a musician. And they always thought "Martin, you could be really good if you had proper musicians." And people have tried to sort of refine me with varying degrees of success. But the problem is, I've got a built-in sort of overload that once too many musicians get involved with me, I break up the game and take my ball home with me. That's happened every time. I don't want musicians making me sound too good. The whole idea, the fun of it all, the genius of it all, the spark of it all, has got to be from experimenting, like boys building a den. And not to be had from bearded men coming in and stroking their chins, "Yes, we could tidy this up a couple of degrees, make it really good." I don't believe in craftsmanship. I think it should all be messy. It's more fun.
And I'm still like that. I might make another album this year. But I'm going to do it in a really bad, cheap studio. And I'm probably going to play all the instruments, which means it'll definitely be crappy. But I maintain that our real fans actually like that quality in us. Record companies and musicians, for 15 years now, have tried to make me so good. And I've considered it to a mission to fight them.
There's a definite British quality to your songwriting, in the whimsical flavor and some of the lyrical references.
Well, I'm English. Oddly enough it's an American idea, but Hemingway said, you should write about what you know, and not go that much off it. There's no point in me writing a song about Route 66, 'cause I've never been on it. I could write a song about the A12 or something, which--it's very boring, I wouldn't--but I could do it if I wanted to. I like the idea of writing about the little things that we know about. The more kind of...are you familiar with bathos? It's where you go from the sublime to the ridiculous. For instance, it's a Monty Python kind of thing, and it's a highway, he's holding up a coach, he's actually doing a robbery. And he says, "Well, I'm a pretty good shot. I could hit that tree over there." In the middle of a robbery, he's in a discussion about trees with one of the people he's trying to rob.
That's the essence of my writing. You suddenly remember all these things...like the half-day closing in England. Not so much now, it used to be. It would be Wednesday, it would be Thursday. But you'd go out to shops, and all the shops in your village or town would be shut by prior agreement from half-past twelve on Wednesday until the next morning. It's fucking mad! It still existed up to about five or six years ago. If you wanted to buy anything, you'd have to go to the top of the village on Thursday, and the top of the village on Wednesday, 'cause you could still find a post office open to buy stamps. Or you'd have to go to Colchester.
A lot of the people like me here in England know me as a poet, as a writer. Did you know that? I write particularly [for] one newspaper called the Independent, but I've got four books out of my poetry I do. Something else I do--I do tours, I do literature festivals, I periodically go on television. Here in England in the last six years, I am known as a humorous poet and generally as a humorist, who used to be a musician who wasn't very successful and was not known by anybody. It's a sort of joke. They'll say, "Oh yeah, he was a musician once. He was big in Japan." Or, "He knew Captain Sensible." Most people who know my poetry know me as a sort of famous poet, and I'm pretty famous as a poet really. Poets don't get that famous, like pop stars. But to get famous as a poet is a big honor. They don't know anything about music. They just assume I was maybe some glam rock or so and so. They haven't checked it out. They're not interested.
Why is it that you're barely known at all in England for your music, but your main cults are in different countries? Especially since your music is so British in characters.
It's very strange. Because people in Germany, Japan, France, think of me as quite a potent musical force. There are big articles about me in French magazines. They regard me as a kind of English Jacques Brel. In Germany, I'm regarded about the same as I am in America, as a kind of cult figure. It's an extraordinary story. Sometimes there's a crossover where people suddenly realize, someone from England will go across to a foreign country--I went to so and so, and your records were freely available in the shops! And I said, "Yes. Well, you know. I told you I was." But the fact is, if you go into your local pub here and say, "Well, I'm a pop star in Japan, or I'm a pop star in Germany, or they know who I am in America, and they play my records on radio," even to a small degree, people think you're either lying or mad. They can't conceive of it.
That's what it's like living in England. A few people in England know who I am. There are a couple of thousand people who buy my records, and occasionally I meet someone who just wants to touch the hem of my gown or something. But it's rarer here. I'd get mobbed in Japan, in fact I have been. But people find it extraordinary. If I told people in England half the things that happen to me when I go abroad, they just wouldn't believe me. I think in England, people are very cynical about success. They prefer--it makes them feel more comfortable if you're a failure. It helps them if you're a failure, especially if you say you're not doing very well, even if you are.
Have you ever had a thing sitting on a train...You're sitting in a station, there's a train sitting on the platform opposite going the other way. The train opposite you, one of the trains starts to move very slowly out. And you're not sure whether it's your train or their train. But you notice it's not your train--that you're train's still standing still, but the other train's moving--there's a feeling of disappointment, isn't there? That's what it's like for people in England when you become successful. You are starting to slowly move, and it emphasizes their own status. And they feel disappointed, and so they react usually with some kind of jaundice. Or they try and comfort themselves--well it's probably only a flash in the pan. It'll probably be back to normal tomorrow. Success is not seen as a normal condition in England. It's seen as an aberration, and it's there to be really watched and made sure the person doesn't get above themselves.
The fact of the matter is that talent is very fragile. It's like Tinkerbell, the fairy in Peter Pan. A lot of people go back to the office job. People say, "You still playing music?" Like it's some venereal disease. I dare say, a similar situation happens in America, though. It's double-plus here.
You did put out some actual record releases in the 1980s, though most of your stuff only came out on cassette. How was it different, working with record labels when you usually did it yourself for cassettes?
Some of the stuff on the albums was pretty good. If you pick out the best of it, like on Golden Cleaners, some of that stuff was really good. But the tapes had the spirit of it. It was not the same. It was not the same thing. When it was me and Lol mucking about, bashing bits of vacuum cleaner, and playing with our homemade bass, and overloading the WEM copycat echo machine, you know, it was good. Once we got signed by a record company, there were people like engineers and musicians to stop all that nonsense going on. "Rock musicians having fun? Can't have that. Put a stop to it immediately! It's fucking typical." The record company said, "We got you to make an album," I'd just turn around and say, "Fuck off! I'm going to stay here in the mud, thank you." "But Martin, we could make you famous." "No you can't, you fucking liar!"
They don't give you any money for it. That's the scandal of it all. It's a fucking miracle I'm still as good-humored about it as I am. A lot of people have been brought to nervous breakdown. You see doors rattle, the men in cafes gibbering to themselves. But it's their own fault.
What were the different things your collaborators brought to your recordings?
Lol's pretty ill at the moment. Lol was really a fun anarchist prankster hippie. He was brilliant. He was good fun. But absolutely no discipline. His drive was dissipated sometimes by the amount he smoked. But when he was good, he was really fucking funny. And he inspired me a lot. Whereas Giles [Smith]--he was only a couple of years older than Lol, but he was different. He was an '80s man, he was a product of his time. And I didn't realize at the time. He wrote Lost In Music. It was a revelation to me when I read it, 'cause he wrote it years later. He actually wanted to be a pop star! He wanted to be Green of Scritti Politti or George Michael, or Sting. I can't imagine anything worse!
So why did he hook up with you?
He was a good piano player. He was quite wacky at the beginning, as well. I think he went along with me. I think at the time, I was probably the best hope he had. I was a hennaed sort of punk hippie who wore mascara and had wacky ideas, but I had this spark. I was doing things. I had the track record. I'd had records out, I'd been on the radio, and just by association with me, something might happen, 'cause he was a college boy. He was a preppie. He's very talented, though, and he's very witty. He was at Cambridge. He was at Trinity. He was a very clever boy. He was nine years younger than me. I was impressed. He was intelligent, very very intelligent and urbane...he's a dazzling young urbanite, really. A large chunk of the book is about the Cleaners, and how disappointed he was that it didn't lead him into George Michael-type pinnacles of stardom.
But the fact of the matter is, we did get a record deal. The book is essentially about failure. It's very British in that respect. It's a good book, and it's a funny book, but it's not the whole truth.
What was the difference between the Brotherhood of Lizards and Cleaners from Venus? The Brotherhood of Lizards releases sound pretty similar to the Cleaners from Venus ones to me, actually.
The Brotherhood of Lizards was an attempt to return to the spirit of the Cleaners. I thought we'd lost the way somewhere after the third Cleaners album. If you look on it as a ship, basically, the whole thing is a ship. Me and Lol, basically, it was like a homemade log raft and a pair of underpants for a flag when me and Lol set sail into the shallows of the music business. And then later on, Giles joined. By the time Giles had been on the ship for a couple of albums, we were a fairly slick frigate. A schooner, or something like that. And instead of the pair of tattered underpants as a flag, we've now got at least a pair of open-crotch panties up there. But I didn't like it being so slick. So we kind of went back to being a rowboat with me and Nelson [the one-named bassist in the Brotherhood of Lizards].
Why did you go back to doing more low-key releases?
It got too professional, it got too slick. There was a lot of pressure on me from the record companies. You can't see it when you're going along inside it. You're on a sled going down a hill. You start to pick up speed, your hair's blowing back, and you're going, aaaah! And no one knows who's steering. And you can't see at the time, you can't see when you're going along inside it. It's only looking back on it now I can see what happened, that I'm basically a fairly homespun, unpretentious geezer wanting to do rough, jangly pop. Lots of people saw chances for money, career ambition. And I was never really very hungry for money. I loved the attention, I loved doing interviews and meeting people. But I'm not so hungry for fame that I'll lick out toilet bowls to get it. The money, really--yeah, I need to live, but the money I can say no to anytime. I'm not really interested in drugs that much. I like to drink, and I like a good time. I like to enjoy my life. The problem is, I'm very naive, and lots of other people who are much more ambitious on my behalf for me pushed me too hard, and occasionally the mechanism got broke. And I would say, no, I don't want this, and I would walk away.
Which of the many albums that you've done are the ones you like best?
When I listen to the early Cleaners stuff, I was thinking, we really had something there. Me and Lol, early Cleaners From Venus, that's pretty good. Round about the first album that me and Giles did, Going to England, that was pretty good. With the Brotherhood of Lizards, that was good, but we were treading water. That was alright, you know. But really, I think when me and Andy Partridge were working together, we did The Greatest Living Englishman. That's probably about the best thing I've fucking done, you know. 'Cause me and Andy were both at a loose end, and we were both in relationships that were breaking up. And not unlike Phil Collins and Sting, we didn't go to therapy or cry on each other's shoulders. We just got on with the bloody job, like the British chaps fucking do. Locked ourselves in a shed and made an album. And it's a cracker.
It got really well-reviewed. Rolling Stone reviewed The Greatest Living Englishman really well, They compared it to Shake Some Action by the Flamin' Groovies. They described it as a rock classic. Fucking Rolling Stone. All my life I wanted a Rolling Stone review. Finally at age 41 or something I get one, and it's a good one. Does it make me any money? No. Does it matter any more? No.
I ended my writing career when I heard Andy Partridge wanted to do an album with me, 'cause I'd always really loved XTC, and I couldn't imagine why. But I went to meet the bloke, 'cause he was in the West of England. I got on with him really well, let's see how we got on. And we made this cracking album. It's probably the best thing I've ever done. That's the one I'd stand or fall by. I remember finishing it and thinking, "Well, if I die now, I can go away and say, I made one good album. And if anyone says it's not a good album, they're a fucking cunt, 'cause this one's good." And I still think that now. That was four years ago.
Partridge's career really got messed up by the deals that XTC had with labels and the financial complications that came out of that.
Sorry, mate, they don't owe you money--you owe them money. He went to Virgin EMI and he held them over the coals. XTC got freed by that, but EMI/Virgin successfully stymied XTC's career for about three or four years. Basically, XTC went on strike. That's another thing I have in common with them. They're provincial lads. That's what I used to do, I used to go on strike. They had terrible problems, XTC. They were a bigger band, there was more at stake. The Cleaners From Venus were always sort of pretty small beer, really. I subsequently found maybe we weren't as small as I thought we were. We seem to have sold quite a lot of records. But it's not in the interest of the record companies to say how many records you're selling, really, is it? You're only going to go asking for money. Best just to turn around to you and say, "You're not doing that well, lads!"
The main thing that I say to record companies now is, "If you give me some money, I'll make a record. And you have to give me some of it in my hand now. Then I'll go and make a record." Otherwise you don't do anything. I mean, it can be as vulgar as, I'll say something like, "I'm sorry, I don't deal with record companies, they're all bent." Or if I'm in a cooperative mood, I'll say, I don't get out of bed and piss for less than two thousand. I'm not interested that much in money, but it's a point of principle. I need an amount of money to live on while I'm doing it. I need an amount of money as an advance. It's not even a big deal, we're talking pennies. But they'll get away giving you as little as possible, generally. I know [the] record company's going to make money. I've still got a reasonably good relationship with New Millennium.
How have your poetry books done?
One little academic publisher carried my poetry for a few years. He's American, actually. He's a good guy, but no kind of a businessman. I became my own publisher a few months ago. In the first two months of business, I turned over 5000 pounds worth. Which is extraordinary. That's English satirical poetry. It pays the fucking rent, you know. Poetry's the poorest--it's Cinderella, isn't it? Out of all the art forms, it's...I've taken my iconoclastic approach with me into poetry, just for music. "What is poetry, Martin?" "It's a very poorly paid branch of the entertainment industry". Which just drives the fucking academics and the blue stockings nuts. They fucking hate it? "What does the poetry establishment think of you, Martin?" I say, "It doesn't really matter, I'm shipping more units than they are." Which is just so vulgar it's untrue.
My mission is to annoy people,
They've had it too easy too long. The only difference now is that in
old days I used to meet university students in lectures at the pub and
annoy them. Now I get to meet and publishing people.
HOME WHAT'S NEW MUSIC BOOKS MUSIC REVIEWS TRAVEL BOOKS
LINKS ABOUT THE AUTHOR SITE MAP EMAIL RICHIE BUY BOOKS