|If there ever was a Doctor Who of pop...this is him.|
Most of you have never heard of The Cleaners From Venus (well, most of you who aren’t hardcore power pop fans, or deep devotees of 80‘s British pop in general).
There’s a reason for that. Cleaners was primarily the brainchild of former Plod frontman Martin Newell. Newell was so traumatized by the way Plod has been mistreated by its label that he retreated into Britain’s music underground. Thus, The Cleaners self-distributed their albums in an age when self-distribution was difficult to make work, sending out cassette tapes that could be bought through ads in music magazines. Newell, mostly with drummer Lol Elliot, managed to produce nine albums between 1981 and 1990, and each one is a weird microcosm of popular music styles--a typical Cleaners From Venus track, even with all the tape hiss, can sound like something out of the Britpop invasion, or the Mod movement, or classic middle-period New Wave. It’s bizarrely timeless in its OCD-like tendency to jump the tracks, and any of these albums are recommended.
Which brings us to today’s song, which was taken by a retrospective collection called Golden Cleaners, and shows that Newell was an excellent storyteller as well. Starting with Martin’s chant of ‘not go mad, not go mad, not go mad’ it tells the story of a traveling salesman spending a day in the titular small town and sitting in a cafe reflecting on how the music he loved as a child has mutated into something that terrifies him. He keeps telling himself he can leave any time he wants, but seems horribly fascinated with how punk rock, psychobilly and other forms that make up the new soundtrack of this season indicates that ‘the Golden Age is not the present one.’ We get the impression that this man wants to escape from this world, but is resigned to continuing to move through it.
What continues to floor me is how this feels so much like something out of the 90‘s years before the pioneers of the Britpop movement picked up their instruments. Newell’s vocals are, in their phrasing, so reminiscent of such bands as Carter USM that it’s uncanny that they were recorded ten years prior. The shimmery guitar work seems to evoke the cleaned-up sound of the Jesus and Mary Chain--except that I’m pretty sure that the J&M Chain wouldn’t popify itself for another couple of years from when the original source of this song, Under Wartime Conditions, was released. There are half a dozen other bands I can cite--but almost all of them are bands that didn’t reach prominence until years later. This song, and other Cleaners songs, seem to have tapped into something universal that we all find in pop music. Newell, in his desire to pursue his own muses, may have hit upon this weird Cradle of British Pop Civilization, and we’re all the better for it.
Martin Newell, God Bless Him, is still alive and out there. While his last musical contribution of note is a jazz album from 2004, The Light Programme, he continues to write (both musically and literary) and provides inspiration for all the wonderful artists who decide to travel down more unconventional paths when getting their music to the public.
Obviously, there are no official videos extant--but here’s the song anyway.