This is presented apropos of literally nothing whatsoever. You may not be familiar with the Cleaners From Venus. In that (very likely) case, this blog post will not strike you as terribly relevant — though I do hope at the very least to introduce you to a band that you ought to get to know.
The Cleaners from Venus was basically a one- or two-man band with a sort of Beatlesesque jangle-pop sound. This was in the ’80s, and while they were thousands of miles away from janglers in the Paisley Underground like The Three O’Clock or southern bands like Let’s Active and R.E.M., there are some interesting sonic similarities. But the Cleaners from Venus were far, far more English. Over to the right, I’ve embedded maybe their best song, “Julie Profumo.”
The bandleader and mastermind was Martin Newell, but he worked with a couple of other collaborators. One of them was Giles Smith, who later became a journalist and wrote a memoir about his time in the band, the superb Lost in Music. The Cleaners self-distributed their own tapes in an underground tape exchange market; interestingly, another British band that did the same thing at the same time was Chumbawumba. This is how Smith described his collaboration with Newell:
This was the Martin Newell whom I joined full-time in the Cleaners from Venus: an angered pop guerrilla with his own agenda, a one-man music-biz resistance unit. Contrast these bristling principles with my own musical attitude at this time, which was, roughly, ‘fame at any price’.
For two people about to set out on a journey into the world of pop, matters on which Newell and I held conflicting views were, I suppose, dangerously numerous. For example:
Newell: big on artistic integrity; vehemently opposed to anyone from a record company imposing a marketing strategy upon his music.
Me: ready to talk.
Newell: firmly averse, on well-founded left-wing principles, to wasting time and money in expensive foreign recording studios, ‘like the rest of those pampered nancies’.
Me: the Bahamas look nice.
Newell: angry that machines have taken over many of the performance aspects of pop music, replacing its flawed but vital heart with a brutal perfectionism; concerned to reestablish a sixties ethic – energy first, accuracy second.
Me: unhealthily obsessed with the clean lines of Scritti Politti’s Cupid and Psyche, an album on which nobody does anything unless a computer says so.
Newell: strictly anti-producer.
Me: hoping very shortly to have Trevor Horn’s home phone number.
Newell: strictly anti-touring, on the grounds that it is unnecessary in the age of television and video, wasteful of resources and endangers a songwriter’s mental equilibrium by removing him from the life that inspired him to become a songwriter in the first place.
Me: looking forward to Wembley.
Newell: hostile towards partying, schmoozing, ligging, showbiz insincerities and ‘all that “star” rubbish’.
Me: Rod! Great to see you!
Newell: utterly convinced of his moral responsibility, in the event of success, to remain unaffected by staying close to the normalizing influence of his roots at home.
Me: the Bahamas look nice.
As if this wasn’t enough, we presented a striking visual contrast, too: Newell with his shaggy hair and Fagin kit, and me with my spiked crop and Oxfam suits, continuing a phase begun at university. (Newell frequently referred – satirically but with a hint of jealousy, I sometimes felt – to my ‘sensible teaching trousers’.
Then, again, consider what we had in common. Both of us believed in the sanctity of the three-minute pop song. Both of us were fundamentally pro-Beatle. Furthermore, though Newell was a Lennon man and could accurately ape the gritty disdain of his singing voice, neither of us hated McCartney. Both of us considered the theme tune for University Challenge to be the funniest piece of music we had ever heard. And both of us thought jazz was for tossers. This was, surely, more than enough cement for a musical relationship.
They were a great band, but they never made it as rock stars, just local cult heroes. XTC’s Andy Partridge produced Martin Newell’s terrific first solo album, “The Greatest Living Englishman,” and Newell has proceeded to periodically release solo albums over the past two decades. He then resurrected the Cleaners moniker for two recent albums, “English Electric” and “The Late District,” and has begun digitally re-releasing the old albums in box sets, called Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol. 3.
(Amazon’s selling the first two, the equivalent of seven CDs worth, for $16. The material can be uneven, but within those seven albums are a whole lot of good songs.)
Another highlight is “Ilya Kuryakin Looked at Me,” whose title refers to one of the main characters on “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”
Oh, and here’s the theme for University Challenge:
Now, back to the thoroughly exciting baseball offseason!