As fans of our Facebook page know, Rocker Magazine loves a birthday. So it was a moment of real inspiration that found me spending a Friday night trying to track down the birthdate of one of my very favorite “Jangling Men”, elusive pop king Martin Newell.
Most famous in the US for the company he keeps (co-writing with Captain Sensible of The Damned, and his Andy Partridge of XTC 1993 album “The Greatest Living Englishman”), his position as a Cherry Red label stalwart and firmly on the outside of the mainstream music world has often succeeded in keeping his records out of the hands of those who would cherish them most. Sporting the kind of lyrical and sonic charms that would make any fan of Robyn Hitchcock or Ray Davies sigh, Newell has spent more than 30 years stuffing songs with the shiny hooks, and clever crooks, that unilaterally make pop lovers swoon. But enough of that, when is his birthday?
Within hours I was surprised to find myself in a short back and forth email exchange with Newell himself, who revealed courtesy of Brooklyn label Captured Tracks, his back catalogue was about to be given a bump in the form of a swanky Record Store Day box set encapsulating the first three (formerly cassette-only releases) by his turn of the 80’s outfit The Cleaners From Venus. It was just a hop and a skip then to realize we were going to have to get on the phone to talk more about that, his radio show, books, and everything else that is going on with this multitalented fellow.
His birthday by the way is March 4. Do send him a card.
Rocker: So Captured Tracks is about to re-release the first three Cleaners From Venus records for Record Store Day UK. What can you tell me about those albums?
Martin: Those were made in our twenties, and we had nothing to lose. We didn’t even know we were going to release them, let alone that 32 years later, they’d be getting released and people would be talking about them like serious, critical things. We really were boys mucking about in the shed.
Rocker: They’re very lo-fi, were they recorded in your home?
Martin: They were recorded wherever we could record. Sometimes it was this big weird building I lived in, sometimes it was an old derelict kitchen in a big house I was looking after that wasn’t being used by anybody. We had a tape recorder mic, and people think it was a “style device”, but we just didn’t have any money for equipment. We couldn’t really play very well, but we had loads of ideas and loads of enthusiasm. It wasn’t a bad thing, really.
Rocker: Were you surprised when you were contacted to get these records rereleased?
Martin: No. People have been trying to get hold of these tapes for ages. I thought, “This is stupid, I don’t want to release these things. I’m not selling the family silver,” and one [of the people from Captured Tracks] said to me, “We’re not asking you to sell the family silver, we’re only asking you to license it to us.” And I thought, “Yeah, I probably am being stupid. I have some old oxide rotting upstairs in the attic, and I could be turning it into alcohol.” People do want to hear it.
Rocker: Did you do any remixing, or are they exactly as they were?
Martin: There was really no way of remixing them. I was quite careless about those things. We didn’t have any master tapes, we just had one good cassette copy of each thing. I had to ask a friend of mine, “Do you have a copy anywhere? Mine’s got all this dropping out on it, and tape degeneration and hiss,” and he found one that was slightly better, and I very painstakingly digitized it and sent it off to America where they cleaned it up a bit and took some of the grunge off of it. So really they’re just cleaned-up versions of what we’ve got. Nothing’s been remixed. I wouldn’t like to remix them, anyway. Those things happened then, that’s what they were like. I’m sure it would be interesting for completists to have remixes of Rubber Soul or Revolver, but I kind of like the ones they’ve got.
Did you know MGMT have covered one of our old songs? It’s on Midnight Cleaners, it has 80,000 hits on it on YouTube, it’s called “Only a Shadow.” They covered it, and did it pretty much the same as us. I had to find out who had the copyright so I was in touch with Andrew, I said, “Hey Andy, we’ve got quite a famous band in America doing covers of our songs,” and he made sure it was reactivated. I don’t know if it will earn me any money or not.
Rocker: These records weren’t your first foray into recorded music though,…
Martin: No, my first record was made in 1975. It’s a glam rock record called Neo City by a band called The Mighty Plod, and it’s me aged about 20 or 21, and it’s pretty good. Then I was in a band called Gypp, we were kind of a space rock band of some sort. Good music, but we made a record, which was not particularly good. After that, I got a solo deal in 1979 and put out a single called “Young Jobless,” and the B-side of that was called “Sylvie in Toytown,”
The Cleaners from Venus was just a step backwards, really, it wasn’t even a proper studio, it was my old sound machine. It wasn’t until the second one of those albums that I managed to buy a porter studio.
Rocker: I read something saying you’d had an ‘unsavory experience in the music industry,’ in the 70’s which lead you to fall back into home recording. Is that accurate?
Martin: It’s the usual stuff you hear in the music industry, you have to wade through a lot of the brown stuff before you get to the green stuff.
I was very naïve, and until up about 1980, or ’81, I still roughly had an idea that the music industry was kind of like being in A Hard Day’s Night or The Monkees or something. Andy Partridge thought that. He said he joined The Pop Group because he thought it would be like being in The Monkees.
Actually, I just think I was the wrong kind of person to go into the music industry. I’m too rebellious, I don’t care about money enough, and I think a lot of what they talk is bullshit. I met some lovely people in the music business, Captain Sensible, Andy Partridge, all these musicians I’ve played with, they’re all right.
Rocker: Your most recent record ‘English Electric’ is self released, why did you self-release it rather than stick with your usual label, Cherry Red?
Martin: Because I thought I’d make more money.
Rocker: Were you right?
Martin: Yes! Cherry Red is very nice and Ian is a brilliant guy, but they don’t really have the machinery to promote a record really big, so they really just make it available. If you don’t go out and promote it and get your own press, you aren’t going to get much press with them. So I thought, what if I get this album, put it out on the online shop, sell it, and deliberately don’t send any review copies out, just tell people? I must have a fan base of sorts, I’ve reasoned. Within a month, I had sold some records and made the making costs back, which was only about 500 quid, and it’s made me more money, just because I sell it for the download, outside of a few hard copies.
I’ve had to evaluate the whole thing of fame and success. That if you make a record, is there any reason why you need to sell two million? Can’t you just sell 2,000 and move on to the next one and say, “That was all right.” Run it like a cottage industry. Everything doesn’t have to be big, everything doesn’t have to be international. With things like Dropbox, you can send files for albums through cyberspace. You wouldn’t have to tour if you didn’t want to, would you?
I don’t want to take over the world, and I’m unlikely to do it, but the songs on English Electric are good to listen to. I’m really liking it. It’s one of my favorite albums of mine. It’s full of good songs, and cheerfulness, and jangles.
Rocker: Is there any sort of music that’s not full of cheerfulness that you dig?
Martin: I have a huge taste for melancholy music, but I don’t like miserable stuff, and I don’t like high art, but every so often some sorrow will become exorcised in me, or exercised, I don’t know which.
Rocker: In my experience as a journalist, I’ve found a lot of the people who make the cheerful music are less cheerful inside, and the people who make the angry music seem cheerful when you meet them. Is that true for you?
Martin: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s my default setting, one of melancholy. Most of the time, I’m a creator and a builder. I’ve been like that ever since I was a kid, getting into records, pop groups, all that. It’s that thing where you get up in the morning and it’s Saturday… I was always an enthusiast like that, but there is a melancholy in me, it’s a default setting, really. You can’t reasonably expect to be happy all the time, but there are just some people who seem to be grumpy and miserable,… Ray Davies, Van Morrison and Paul Weller all come to mind…they wouldn’t be out for a night of being stupid in the pub, really. Maybe a night in a pub, but not one of cheery, chappy jokes or anything like that.
Rocker: You’ve had a lifetime making some great pop music but also had a lot of other things going on, your poetry, books,.. are there things artistically you’re really not keen to do?
Martin: You know, I’ve never wanted to be the kind of musician who says, “I want to go back to my roots,” and start playing blues or Celtic stuff or some bollocks like that. I’m not an old black guy, and they’re not my roots, my roots are the Kinks, The Who, The Small Faces, all those guys. I’m really not interested in roots music. I find it very annoying, and boring. “I’m going back to my roots.” What, you mean you picked cotton in the Southern states of America? I don’t think so! You were brought up near Birmingham in the late Fifties! They do it because their palettes get jaded, and that’s all. I think it’s the music industry, stretching its greedy tendrils out too…its cultural tourism, isn’t it, really?
I’ve always just done loads of stuff, so I have writings and recordings, partly because I never got mega-successful. I’ve made a living, but I haven’t had to do a proper job for many years. But because I never got mega-successful, I never got too polluted by the industry, I never got jaded by fame or corrupted by money, and so the boyish enthusiasm with which I first went into doing anything creative, like music or writing, is essentially still there. At the core of me, even though I look in the mirror and see a gray-haired guy with a few lines on his face, underneath that is still a 10-year-old boy or 15-year-old boy saying, “Let’s make a pop group! We’ll put something out! Get some guitars! Go in that garage and make a record!” That person is still there. With many people in the industry, I see that it’s not. I think that when I see certain mega-famous talents being interviewed, I’m not surprised they’ve resorted to the blues or jazz, because blues and jazz are nice, simple, generous enough spaces to hold them. They had everything they wanted, too much, too young, too soon, and they can’t really tally this idea that there’s things they did when they were boys and it’s still what people want them to do now, whereas I’m not being asked to do that, no one’s pressuring me at all. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been quite successful at a number of things, there are people who stop me on the street and say how much they like to read my page about local life, living in this region, and I how write it as if I were writing my last ever article. That’s what it’s like. I think I’m quite lucky. I think I’ll be doing this for years to come, writing and mucking about. I have been lucky in that respect, I think I’ve been unpolluted, and I’m still an enthusiast. “Are we not going to make any money doing this?” I say, “That’s even better, because there’s not going to be any extenuating factors.” It’s just going to be getting on with it, seeing what happens, and that’s the most fun, the money is when things start going wrong, I’ve found.
Rocker: Do you have any plans to come to the States to do any touring behind the rerelease?
Martin: No, but I never say never. I thought about it at one point last year, they wanted me to do some gigs in San Francisco, which I quite fancied, and Los Angeles, which I quite didn’t.
I like doing gigs. What I don’t like was the hassle that surrounds it. I don’t think I’m absolutely typical of what a lot of musicians like. Remember, I’m getting on a bit. I don’t feel old, but the fact of the matter is, I’m in my late fifties. Why would you have the same appetites and want the same things as you wanted when you were 20? It was great when I was 20, putting on some lipstick and eye makeup and going out and jumping around for an hour and a half every night in front of a bunch of people. But it would be a bit silly if I did it now.
As for the States, I’ve always thought “If I could sail there, if I could get on a boat and spend a week sailing there…” I just don’t want to get on another plane, not because I’m scared, but because of all the stuff, taking off your shoes and belt, all these questions… I can’t be arsed, really. I don’t care if I don’t leaveEnglandagain, or evenEssex.