Martin Newell is a fascinating character.
In 1980, Newell formed The Cleaners from Venus with Lawrence “Lol” Elliot, though since then, he has remained the only consistent member. Under this moniker, Newell has released a multitude of albums, and this isn’t even taking into consideration his wealth of material under his own name. Starting with Blow Away Your Troubles, Newell showed the world what to expect from The Cleaners from Venus: wonderful, jangly music that was staunchly lo-fi.
While Newell certainly has impressive melodic sensibilities, showcased particularly on the 1982 album (well, one of them, anyway) Midnight Cleaners, he also refused to let his songs get to the point of being “pop.” The closest The Cleaners from Venus came to this disgusting term was the song “Only a Shadow,” a tune with an earworm of a guitar melody and an anthemic chorus. However, everything is coated with a lo-fi hiss that behaves almost like the needles of a cactus. By this, I mean that it will scare off any surface level listener. However, for others, the almost demo quality of the recordings makes them more endearing.
Newell and Elliot, upon starting out, used hardly any equipment to record their music, sometimes even using homemade instruments. Eventually, a four track recorder was brought into the mix, which became Newell’s preferred method of recording. Rather than upgrade to a professional studio environment, he stuck to his D.I.Y. guns and continued letting the substance of the music speak instead of the style. And what an amount of substance there was!
The lyrics to each Cleaners from Venus song are woven together like the finest wicker basket. Whether they are painting gorgeously detailed pictures of life in England (“Wivenhoe Bells (II)”), highlighting working class angst (“Summer in a Small Town”), or outright damning the state of the world (“The Jangling Man”), each word is fascinating to listen to. Newell’s gift for writing is one that is truly overlooked, with each song packed with enough meaning to make the most stubborn folk music enthusiast blush. The sparsely recorded (and sparsely produced) instrumentation acts as the perfect canvas for these poetic yet direct verbal drawings.
During The Cleaners from Venus’ initial decade-long run, they largely avoided record labels and did not tour often. Newell has been quoted as saying that the music business and media “tend to ruin everything.” This only added to the mystique of the enigmatic band, and early cassettes of their work became highly prized collectors’ items. The sheer amount of support for the band’s works actually inspired Newell, who had largely decided to back away from music, to start recording under the Cleaners from Venus moniker again in 2010. Since then, he’s been prolific as ever, and he continues to record music even to this day, with his newest single “Lo-Fi London” coming out last month.
Outside of The Cleaners from Venus, Newell has lived an extraordinary life. He has been a successful poet and writer, even touring as a spoken word artist. In 1989, he teamed up with a fellow cleaner from Venus, Nelson Nice, to form The Brotherhood of Lizards, an acoustic duo that gained much attention for completing a tour by bicycle, riding their bikes to every show. Newell has also released six solo albums, with his first, 1993’s The Greatest Living Englishman, being his most successful release to date.
To this day, Newell embodies the idea of D.I.Y. done right. He does whatever he wants, and because of this, he has many dedicated fans. The Cleaners from Venus proved that, in the decade of excess and beyond, true heart and creativity will always stand the test of time. In a time where mainstream music has lost even more of its nutrients, Newell’s work past and present remains an organic field. All you have to do is take a bite.