The Wayward Genius of Martin Newell
By Rick Reger
In its broad outline, the plight of British guitarist and songwriter Martin Newell will sound familiar. Since 1980 Newell has been releasing brilliant, deliriously tuneful pop records--as the Cleaners From Venus and the Brotherhood of Lizards as well as under his own name--yet he's received scant attention and had little commercial success. Even in his own country, he remains largely unknown to the musical community.
Of course rock lore is strewn with neglected geniuses. Typically their failure to dent the public's consciousness is the result of one or more of the following factors:
(2) Drug abuse and debilitation.
(4) Music too far ahead of its time.
(5) Screwed over by record companies and/or business managers.
But Newell's still alive and kicking, he's never been institutionalized, his music is supremely accessible, and he's even been courted by the occasional record label. Yet throughout his so-called career, he's thwarted success at every turn, which perhaps does raise the question of whether he's not just a wee bit mad. He raised the question himself in a 1995 letter he posted to an Internet fan site: "So are we [he and some like-minded songwriters] all nuts? Er, possibly. If being nuts means not roaring around listening to hideous dance mantras and throwing Big Mac wrappers at hapless cyclists, we might be nuts yes."
Apparently Newell doesn't want to be famous. According to the liner notes of a wonderful new British compilation that spans his entire career, The Wayward Genius of Martin Newell, he refused to quit a prog rock band he was in during punk's heyday simply because his bandmates were "the nicest bunch of blokes I'd ever played with." Once, when Charisma Records offered him £25,000 to make an LP, he said he'd make the record for £5,000 and that they could give the rest to Ethiopian famine relief.
Newell started out in the 70s, playing around London in a variety of groups; he was a sometime member of London SS, a band that never got off the ground but included future members of the Damned, the Clash, and Generation X. In 1980 he released the single "Young Jobless," which was picked up as the theme for the British TV series Job Hunt but was later attacked by the Daily Mail as a celebration of indolence.
Music writer Richie Unterberger asked Newell about that flap in his recent book Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll: "The British press are quite ruthless in pursuit of a story," Newell said. "They'll tell any amount of lies, and they don't care who they sacrifice. It turned me into a druggy, paranoid little recluse. It helped me spawn Cleaners From Venus."
Accompanied by drummer Lol Elliott, Newell soon began recording pop songs in a home studio and releasing them on cassette under that moniker. His thoroughly charming, eminently English songcraft was evident early on. Packed with sighing harmonies, chiming guitars, and indelibly lovely melodies, Cleaners From Venus songs were very much in the tradition of mid-60s Beatles and "Waterloo Sunset"-era Ray Davies.
Looking back on his music in his 1995 post, Newell attempted to define that style: "The vaguely autumnal musical style which I belong to is not actually a movement as such but it's a belief in a certain way of songwriting. I share this neglected garden with people like Captain Sensible, XTC, Robyn Hitchcock, Stephen Duffy of Lilac Time, Julian Cope and a number of other people....
Another thing we share is a defiant determination to press on in that great songwriting tradition which was all but abandoned in the late seventies."
Newell did indeed press on. Throughout the early 80s, he and Elliott released Cleaners From Venus cassettes at a regular clip to a fan base that was steadily growing by word of mouth. Of course, Newell wasn't comfortable actually taking money for Cleaners tapes, so at one point he attempted to swap them with fans for groceries, a noble but impractical plan.
Over time, the sound quality of the Cleaners recordings improved, and Newell's songwriting became even sharper and more multifaceted. Cleaners lyrics tended to be about girls and sundry English locales, but Newell also sent off salvos of cleverly worded antiestablishment vitriol. In "Living With Victoria Grey," for instance, England is a beautiful, callous woman: "Her lovely face was everywhere / Someone pretending to care / The image of Victoria Grey / I heard some hungry children cry / Rumbling wheels passed them by / The carriage of Victoria Grey / Save it up / It's for a rainy day." Yet no matter what the subject, his verses were always couched in infectious pop of the highest order.
By the end of the 80s, Newell was working with a new drummer, Giles Smith, and the Cleaners' prospects were looking up. The band's work was being documented in real recording studios, pressed on vinyl, and even distributed in the U.S. A small measure of success seemed just around the bend, but Newell would have none of it. He parted ways with Smith, formed a new duo, the Brotherhood of Lizards, with bassist and drummer Peter Nelson, and retreated to his home studio.
In Unterberger's book Newell described that transition: "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. By the time Giles had been on the ship for a couple of albums, we were 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."
Newell's preference for low-budget home recording has resulted in his being cited--along with American R. Stevie Moore--as a patriarch of the lo-fi movement. But while Newell shares that movement's penchant for autonomy, the songs on Wayward Genius underscore that he isn't a true practitioner of lo-fi musical aesthetics. Where lots of subsequent dabblers have indulged in self-conscious amateurism and unedited rambling, most of Newell's Cleaners and Lizards recordings are robust and smartly played. Although mid-80s pop gems like "Johnny the Moondog Is Dead" and "Drowning Butterflies" were audibly made on the cheap, they clearly attempted to transcend technical limitations rather than wallow in them. The new disc unfurls nearly 80 minutes of astonishingly smart, hooky, sparklingly arranged pop that's clearly the product of a painstaking craftsman.
And while Newell freely acknowledges his influences and works within a well-defined pop tradition, his songs bear a unique melodic stamp and are mostly free of the overt retroisms found in the work of bands like the High Llamas or Olivia Tremor Control. On Wayward Genius, only the unabashed Beach Boys homage, "Miss Van Houten's Coffee Shop," wears its sources on its sleeve.
In his 1995 Internet missive, Newell took time to sum up his position in the contemporary pop landscape: "I believe that a good song should have lots of interesting little corners in it, rather like an old house with secret rooms. I don't hate dance music as such but I've begun to think of the beat as a tyrant. The message from the mainstream is, This is the beat we have selected for you for the current five years. If you are a customer you WILL listen to it. If you are a musician you WILL use it. Or you will be considered unfashionable and unworthy of attention and will be banished to the hinterland."
But who's banishing whom? Ultimately the Brotherhood of Lizards was short-lived, and in the 90s, Newell has curtailed his musical activity. He released two fine solo records, The Greatest Living Englishman (produced by kindred spirit Andy Partridge of XTC in 1993) and The Off-White Album (1996), but he currently lives in the fishing village of Wivenhoe, where he's devoted himself to gardening, making a living as a poet and contributor to the weekly Independent. He's apparently willing to make another LP, but only on his terms:
"I still think that if I had the time now, and a small budget, a sixth form thrasher for a drummer and one other cheerful assistant, I could go into an eight or sixteen-track studio and make an album every bit as good and quirky as anything I did in the past," he says in Brian Bell's liner notes. And I have to second the author's response, addressed to the head of the UK's Creation Records: "How's about it, Alan McGee? Five grand to Newell and twenty grand to a charity of his choice and you've got yourself a deal."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover, uncredited photo.