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Lizard Tails
The Beginning, The Music, The Overview
By Martin Newell

It's pretty well-documented now, what happened in spring of 1988. The Cleaners went on tour without me. I'd been physically ill and mentally exhausted and  I went gardening. The Cleaners also went on tour without Nelson. Can't remember exactly why now but I don't think he liked the way things were going either. I began gardening and doing a bit of demolition with my friend Dick. Round about this time, Nel and I also became Colchester's first licensed buskers. There was a spanking new shopping precinct called The Culver Centre. We had to pass an audition, but hell, we were pretty good…for buskers, even if I say so myself. We dressed up in tailcoats, we swapped instruments a lot, and we did everything from old Sixties standards to some genuine Irish stuff which Nel taught me. We'd do a couple of long mornings every week, count out the money in Carol's Kitchen, have some food and go home, hoarse of throat and with aching fingers. 

As well as crowd-pleasers, we adapted some of the Cleaners songs for busking and they sounded pretty good. We did Cardboard Town, Julie Profumo and others and they rang pretty well in the arcades where we busked. It was only a matter of time before I started writing stuff for mandolin and guitar with the idea of getting back to some sort of organic music. If it was simple enough, I reasoned we could record it on my four-track and make a little tape to sell. The Brotherhood of Lizards was actually a name that Lol (founder Cleaner from Venus) had thought up, years earlier. The Cleaners themselves could have been called that. We'd also considered the name Peach Wellingtons, so that one's still up for grabs. Anyway, we opted to be called The Brotherhood Of Lizards. It was strange, cumbersome and defiantly uncommercial.

In fact the whole Lizards stance was one of DIY defiance, much more in keeping with the early Cleaners spirit. We worked in bits and pieces all that summer of 88. It was quite idyllic in a way. I had this little sail-loft on stilts round the back of Wivenhoe. We usually recorded on Thursdays or Fridays. Nel would cycle over, Mandolin, TR707, bongoes and reverb box on his back, we'd record all day, have a bit of lunch and cups of tea, then have some of my homebrew or go to the pub. Nel played with  another band or two.and I'd do my gardening. Occasionally we'd go busking too. By October we'd sort of finished our first cassette album. I have nothing but good memories of the whole period. Very folky, a bit trippy and quite a bit of Cleaners in there somewhere. Yeah it does sound lo-fi…but what do you expect, listeners?

I do remember we were both pretty broke of course, but they were happy times. Especially so because the previous winter had been very hard. That December, we got an enormous boost. Andy McQueen, Cleaners manager, who in spite of my apparent lunacy still seemed to believe in my songwriting, arranged for me to have Captain Sensible's old 8-track, after Capt upgraded to 16-track. A friend of mine and I picked it up from Notting Hill Gate one freezing December day just before Christmas. It was a major upgrade, in terms of equipment and Nel and I immediately set to work first thing in January 1989, on a song called It Could Have Been Cheryl

Although, I was still the main songwriter, what you have to understand about the Lizards was that we were a fifty/fifty partnership. Nel brought certain engineering know-how and listening skills to the table –as well as a formidable musicianship and quality control. The songs, although their nucleus was mine, could not have been the same without him. Nel also had an attitude about doing things properly and I had to shut-up and listen from time to time.

All of that winter, and spring we worked on the 12 songs which would become Lizardland. To tell the truth, I don't remember an awful lot about recording the actual songs. I do remember the atmosphere though. We’d had ten years of Thatcherism. We were poor. I suppose our attitude was that although we'd been coralled into a corner by the forces of grey-blue greed, there was no reason why we shouldn't paint the walls, sing and dance and be a nuisance. No-one was interfering with us because nobody cared. Whatever we did was unlikely to be played on the radio, signed up or reviewed by the pop papers. We were making an album for nobody, in a sail-loft in an Essex village. We did it gleefully. Nothing would happen. 

Then something did happen. Andy and Captain at the newly-formed Deltic heard Cheryl and a couple of other songs and signed us to finish the album. No advance, not much budget but they'd put the record out if we finished it. Spurred on by this we finished the record early in summer. I do remember setting an entire weekend aside to mix it. It was a beautifully sunny weekend, and I spent that Friday getting all the junk out of the tiny sail loft to turn it into a sort of mixing suite. We got extra speakers in for reference and we worked really hard mixing it down onto a borrowed DAT. I mean, we did feel that we'd got something special. And in retrospect, listening back to it now, which I do as I write this, it does sound pretty good, for the reduced circumstances in which it was made. 

How would I describe the music? Hmm, well it's much more electric than our first attempts. The song subjects were largely preoccupied by England as it was then. A chronicle of  traumatised Falkland veretans joining hippy convoys, deserted shipyards, spoilt princesses, white-socked Essex boys, broken-hearted guys in seaside towns, village England still wishing for wartime, party girls too exhausted to make the scene, young-marrieds fighting in Barratt Homes and all the contrasting riches and decay of Mother England in her threadbare gowns. Sorry Blur, but the Lizards probably got there about four years before you –at least in subject matter. It wasn't a style decision as such, it was just what I wrote about…and remember I didn't think of myself as any sort of poet in those days. 

The music actually sounds very druggy in places, although I don't remember doing much more than smoking a bit of weed from time to time. No, this sounds like a heavy mushroom-trip in places. For what it's worth, Robyn Hitchcock thought it sounded like XTC. A lot like XTC. I can see this, say, on The Happening Guy. Mostly though it sounds to me like well…us. There's  my usual perennial melancholy laced through the thing. I can hear Nel's solid bass-playing and my haphazard scatter-shot guitar breaks. Oh and the trademark perma-jangle. Steve Lamaq , who reviewed it for NME liked it a good deal, giving it a 7/10 review, with the gentle criticism that the production values were a bit samey…a thing I agree with now. When I'm in the mood for Lizardland I can listen to it all the way through and really like it. Other times I just hear where it could have been stronger. The opening riff for Market Day was actually lifted from a song called Loretta and The Pilot which I wrote when I was twenty. Cheryl and The World Strikes One were both written during the making of Town and Country but were never used. She Dreamed She Could Fly, or the tune of it, I'd had knocking around in my head since 1975. It wouldn't go away so in the end I wrote it. Sand Dragon was mostly Nel's song. He did most of the lyrics, except the very end ones: " Your pram will rock, your clocks with stop.etc etc." And he wrote all the music. I did the backward guitar, which was fun. Dear Anya was originally demoed in 1988, after The Cleaners finished. It  was also initially called Dear Anna. But after the Cleaner's drummer's  (Ichiro's) American girlfriend who was called Anna, told Ichiro that I'd written a song about her.( this was patently untrue -she may have been stirring it) I changed the name in the song. The last thing we recorded on the album was the whoos and tinkling and yeehhaas on the end of She Dreamed She Could Fly. During this time, we made such a racket that people coming home from work that sunny Friday, stopped and peered in at the windows downstairs. Oh I also broke a couple of glasses, bashing them with a drumstick while in headphones. So there, reader, is your trainspotter stuff. Happy now?

By January of 1990, after an awful lot of will he/won't he? it became definite that Nel had got the job in New Model Army. We now had all this extra media stuff lined up, including a nearly-finished 45 minute documentary about us. We had TV slots, features in papers and another week or so of bike-touring to do, in February(!) just so Deltic could get the promo. Nel would leave at the end of Feb. 

After all the work and excitement, to say I was gutted would be an understatement. I was flattened by it. But I never held it against Nel. He would be in a then, major band on regular wages, and not struggling with me on an indie label. Deltic were struggling too. They had cash-flow and distribution problems, as is so often the case with so many good little labels. The Lizards were over. There was a half-hearted attempt to replace Nel but how could I have done? I was wiped out again. The next six months were horrendous.  That's another story for another day. 

There was one major thing that came out of all this though:
At our last gig, in Ipswich, Nel and I were headliners with a second support from a young chap called Roger Rhino –a solo guitarist. He was incredibly nervous, so I offered to go on and do some poems, then he wouldn't be the first act on. I'd been tinkering with poems for some time, so for the first time in my life, ever, I went on and read poetry to a live audience. I read "I Hank Marvinned " and a couple of other early things. The reaction was good. Nel said to me: " You ought to try doing a bit more of that stuff, Martin . It went down alright." I laughed and shook my head.


A Brotherhood of Lizards mini site.Written by Martin Newell and Paul Wilkinson. All images and text copyright 2003.

Lizardland CD cover. Click to see moreThe Brotherhood Of Lizards. Click for more.