Go ahead, call me prejudiced, but it seems that “English” and “eccentric” have more in common than just the letter e. It’s easy to envision a nation of oddball limeys — encouraged by technology that lets loopy ideas flow straight onto portastudios — sequestered in their scattered rural cottages, brewing up cassette albums for the delectation of a select and similarly offbeat audience. Comparable in some ways to the American national treasure R. Stevie Moore, Martin Newell’s work is a delightful diary of one man’s pop obsessions.
As the Cleaners From Venus, with assorted collaborators, singer, guitarist and keyboardist Newell (who had been part of the pre-Clash/Gen X London SS) began issuing charming, offbeat cassettes of his kitschy and clever originals in 1981. The fifth of these (Under Wartime Conditions) became the band’s first vinyl — in Germany. Rudimentary and casual, but musically substantial and indicative of anything-goes pop talent, the LP has elements of XTC, Mike Oldfield (“The Winter Palace” instrumental, which sounds like it’s being played on water glasses, bears a resemblance to “Tubular Bells”), odd bits of talking and sonic ephemera and, significantly, a “Song for Syd Barrett.”
Newell recorded the accomplished Living With Victoria Grey aided by keyboardist Giles Smith; some of the songs from the tape were reworked onto the Cleaners’ engaging first UK LP, Going to England. With wonderful Carnaby Street pop (“Living With Victoria Grey”), catchy TV kitsch (“Illya Kurayakin [sic] Looked at Me,” to which Captain Sensible adds guest guitar) and delightful ’60s Farfisabeat soul (“What’s Going on in Your Heart?”), the album is gently nostalgic and entirely likable.
By the time of the relaxed and rustic pure-pop Town and Country, the Cleaners had added a bassist (Peter Nelson) and drummer and were pursuing an explicitly XTC- oriented sound (in Beatlesque settings) with some of Newell’s smartest, loveliest English-culture songs: “Let’s Get Married,” “The Beat Generation and Me,” “Tenpenny Hill” and “I Was a Teenage Idiot Dancer.” Great!
With a stack of tapes, three vinyl/CD albums under the name (and a bunch of reissues to come, like the useful rarities-sprinkled pair released on CD by Tangerine), Newell retired the Cleaners moniker and transmogrified into the Brotherhood of Lizards, a duo with bassist/drummer (and future New Model Army conscript) Nelson.
Lizardland (the contents of which are unrelated to the cassette entitled The Brotherhood of Lizards) is the only album credited to the Brotherhood. Melodic and clever without fuss, it offers a dozen melodic and modestly poetic vignettes (“Market Day,” “The World Strikes One,” “Love the Anglian Way,” “Dear Anya”) of life in the British Isles. The bubbly ’60s psychedelipop of “She Dreamed She Could Fly,” the catchy chorus of “It Could Have Been Cheryl” and the Turtlesque refrain of “The Happening Guy” are positively brilliant; the remainder is merely splendid. With improved cover art and a pair of bonus tracks recalled from the relatedly titled Cleaners’ last tape, Lizardland even received a belated American release.
Besides publishing books of his poetry, Newell’s radical next step was to launch a solo career, with help from some old pals. Produced and drummed on by XTC’s Andy Partridge (the album’s American cover nonsensically trumpets “Featuring the New Improved Andy Partridge” in type as large as the artist’s name), The Greatest Living Englishman is another absolute delight, a seamless, sensitive blend of XTC, the Beatles and all those who have pledged their fealty to one or the other. Alternately rustic, pop-accomplished and mildly psychedelic, each song is a distinct-sounding gem of tuneful delectability and country town lyrical resonance. The “Home Counties Boy” enjoys “Christmas in Suburbia,” promises “We’ll Build a House” (but can’t say when) and looks back on it all as “The Greatest Living Englishman.” Newell is a skilled singer, an excellent songwriter and a dab keyboard hand; Partridge gilds his efforts with countless deft touches (toy piano, Starr-y drumming, XTC soundalikes, effects) and dewy clarity that removes all sense of time for a pure treat. (A limited-edition version of the English release included a bonus spoken-word CD.) Let’s Kiosk! is a four-song EP of the album’s rousingly catchy “The Jangling Man” plus three otherwise unreleased numbers.