Pop Music, On His Terms

British songwriter Martin Newell is working less and enjoying it more. 

By Rick Reger

Many aspiring pop musicians will do just about anything to become famous. Others may not conciously seek fame, but when it finds them they're more than happy to accommodate it. And then there's British songwriter Martin Newell. 

For the past 20 years, Newell has been creating some of the catchiest, most melodic, Beatles-worthy pop songs around. In the process, he's attracted the gushing admiration of musicians such as XTC's Andy Partridge as well as the curiosity of various record labels.

Yet Newell's accessible, inviting songs are known only to a relatively small number of worldwide fans. That's because for the past two decades he has steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the music industry at almost any level.

That refusal has led some to assume Newell's either an angry rebel or an eccentric recluse. But during a recent phone conversation with Newell from his home in Wivenhoe, England, he sounded more bemused than bitter about his musical career: " I'm pretty much your textbook English rock musician," says Newell. " I started bashing around in bands in the very late '60s when I was 15. But when Punk came along, that's when my trend for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time started. I had been asked to join this early punk band (London SS) with future members of The Damned, but instead, like Alfred E. Newman or something, I decided to join a progrock group."

Newell's inability to make a name for himself isn't simply the result of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. It stems from a blend of idealism and independence that's rare even in the so-called independent music scene. 

In 1980 Newell released his first solo single" Silvie in Toytown" b/w " Young Jobless". To his surprise, the B-side which addressed Britain's burgeoning youth unemployment, generated 

a fair amount of controversy thanks to its lyrics and was soon being played on prestigious BBC Radio One. Suddenly Newell had a hit single and his name in the tabloids. " But I realized," he recalls, " that this fame and succes I'd been after was not what I expected or wanted. It was all false. One day a director at EMI heard my record and called me down to his office to discuss a contract. Britain was in a deep recession at the time, so when I arrived at his office I was surprised to find a very famous pop group there having a champagne party I thought, this is the company that wants to organize a contract for me and my song about youth unemployment?"

EMI asked Newell to cut a follow-up single, but when he requested a small advance to help pay his band, he was told the company didn't have the money.

" So what else could I do but go on strike," says Newell with a laugh, " Basically I've been on strike for the last 20 years."

Though Newell went on strike, he didn't stop working. He and a young musician/anarchist named Lol Elliott christened themselves the Cleaners from Venus and soon began making cassette albums at home, which they distributed themselves.

The early Cleaners from Venus records were low-budget, low-fidelity efforts, strewn with bits of satire and parody but often distinguished by some of Newell's remarkably tuneful, charming pop songs. With each succeeding album, the audio qaulity improved a bit as did the Cleaners' knack for accenting the tunes with colorful splashes of glockenspiel, violin and keyboards. But the focal point of the albums soon became Newell's inspired pop-craft with its audible ties to the sounds of the British Invasion.

" My musical roots are the Kinks, the Beatles, the Who, the Small Faces and the Move," says Newell, " I never wanted to copy them. But what's that saying…follow not in the footsteps of the ancients but seek what they sought. I just wanted to find out what they had that was so good."

Newell evidently found it, because by the late '80s the Cleaners from Venus had cracked U.S. college radio, had secured a major label European record deal and – according to Newell had attracted the interest of California's Enigma Records at the urging of R.E.M.

The band was now working in professional recording studios and producing impeccable pop records such as " Town and Country" and " Going to England".

But Newell felt pressure from his label to tour and essentially return to the rock 'n roll treadmill he'd dropped out of a decade earlier, so, on the brink of breaking through again, Newell broke up the band.

He subsequently made two more low-fl, folky but no less fetching records with New Model Army drummer Nelson as the Brotherhood of Lizards. And in 1993, at the urging of a tiny German label, and in the collaboration with XTC's Andy Partridge, Newell recorded his first solo album "The Greatest Living Englishman", a pop masterpiece that sounds like the fraternal twin of XTC's "Skylarking".

After a nearly-as-good collection of songs entitled "The Off White Album" in 1995, Newell disappeared from the music scene when his career took an unexpected turn.

" Back in 1990 a deejay on Radio One read this poem I'd written, and it generated a lot of interest," says Newell, " Then an old associate from the Cleaners from Venus who was working at The Independent newspaper rang me up and asked me to send them some of my funny poems about pop singers. The next thing I knew, I had morphed into a poet. Over the next 10 years I became a weekly contributor to The Independent, starting getting booked to do readings and I began selling my books. It's been extraordinary!". 

As a 'pop' poet, Newell has to be able to make the kind of modest but steady living that he could never manage as a marginal musician. What's more, he found that he really enjoyed writing. " One day I thought, well, this is what I was meant to be doing," he says " Maybe I was never meant to be a pop singer".

However, in one life's typically strange twists, just as Newell shifted his focus away from making music, his records suddenly became the subject of renewed interest.

In 1999 England's Cherry Red Records (a label Newell likes because he says they don't 'hassle' him) issued a superlative compilation of late-period Cleaners and early solo work entitled "The Wayward Genius of Martin Newell".

Then, in 2000, a label,reissued virtually all of the original Cleaners from Venus and Brotherhood of Lizards records on CD.

Cherry Red has subsequently reissued "The Greatest Living Englishman" and recently released Newell's first new CD in five years, "The Spirit Cage". The new record's tuneful songs recall the Cleaners from Venus with their homemade feel.

Newell acknowledges the irony that as he's spent less time making music, he's actually started to make more money from it. But he admits to having some guarded optimism all along.

" The secret is that I've really worked at this stuff," he says, " despite what people think, I didn't have a grunge against the world. I wasn't bitter. I just wanted to do things in a way that made sense to me. If you work hard enough, something will happen. You may not get rich, but you will get recognized in some way."

But don't get the idea that Newell is about to start taking either himself or his musical career with newfound seriousness. Asked what he currently finds most rewarding about songwriting and making records, he responds: " Having a drink afterwards. Three pints of lager after a really good day or recording, there's nothing better."

Article from the Chicago Tribune, published Sunday, February 11, 2001