The Cleaners from Venus, Vol. 2 is a four-disc collection of mid-period Cleaners from Venus albums. The set reveals the lo-fi pop gems of a prolific and innovative songwriter, often bordering on absolute genius.
The Cleaners from Venus are a lo-fi pop group from the ‘80s with a revolving lineup that consisted of Martin Newell as the only constant member and main musical force under the name. The group’s releases were mostly on cassette and, before this reissue campaign, the music was difficult to find. Luckily, Brooklyn label Captured Tracks has begun reissuing these indie gems. The Cleaners of Venus’ music very often calls to mind a groovier Guided By Voices by way of ‘80s new wave. The songs here are power pop in the mold of Big Star and mid-‘60s British Invasion bands with a guitar sound that resembles a more clattering version of ‘80s pop hits like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” filtered through the home recording techniques and sonic creativity of R. Stevie Moore. Newell’s vocals often have a slight resemblance to Robert Pollard or Syd Barrett depending on the song. Just like Robert Pollard in the ‘90s, Newell believed in recording pop songs right as they were being created on a four-track “searching in the dark for a happy accident” to bring the songs to life and give them character. He was also an extremely prolific songwriter. Understandably, most musicians and the music industry at large didn’t understand Newell’s aesthetic at the time, and he was often forced to record the music himself with a drum machine. Luckily, Newell was quite adept at writing melodies and the scrappy, home recording aesthetic only adds to the charm of these songs. The Cleaners from Venus, Vol. 2 is a four-disc set of three Cleaners From Venus albums and one B-sides album. Most of the songs on Vol. 2 were written in a difficult period of Newell’s life where he was broke and working menial jobs, overlooked for his talent both as a musician and a writer.
In the Golden Autumn from 1983 kicks off with “Renee”, a driving pop song anchored by a drum machine and shimmering guitar jangle that recalls a rougher version of the Police at their peppiest. Having released several cassette albums prior to this one, Newell was working as a kitchen porter at this point, depressed and broke after a book deal gone bad. If Newell was in a dark place at this point in his life, he was still writing insanely catchy earworm pop songs. From the triumphant acoustic bounce of “A Halloway Person” to the Beatles Revolver-era stomp of “Please Don’t Step on My Rainbow” to the delightfully demented dance rock of “Marilyn on a Train”, In the Golden Autumn is stacked to the brim with hit songs from an alternate universe. Newell sounds genuinely hopeful throughout this album with only “Ghosts in Doorways” and the eerie sonic experiment “The Autumn Cornfield” providing moments of darkness. Newell brings a huge amount of sonic experimentation in to the pop song templates of In the Golden Autumn resulting in some of his most interesting work. “Sandstorm in Paradise” is a maelstrom of guitar meltdowns and vocal freak-outs over an eerie synth line that never takes away from the song’s underlying groove.
Under Wartime Conditions was recorded in 1984 while Newell was living in the sleepy little port town of Wivenhoe, only to be interrupted when a political battle between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Miners Union literally came to his doorstep and turned violent. This album is more distraught than In the Golden Autumn as Newell sees his world deteriorating around him, feeling at the time as though he’d been wasting his life and squandering any opportunities that had come his way. The album opens with him repeating “I’m not going mad” before breaking in to “Summer In A Small Town” with verses that describe a dystopia in a disillusioned tone and recall Blondie’s new wave hit “Rapture”. “Drowning Butterflies”, the most wonderfully heart wrenching song Newell ever wrote, says it all with lines like “You know this used to be a boom town / Now they’re closing all the factories down / Well, no wonder: we’re all drowning butterflies.” The song is achingly beautiful and although Newell isn’t a confessional songwriter, you can hear the depth of his despair during this trying period in his life. The album isn’t all sadness, however, as “Song for Syd Barrett” uses idol worship to propel a catchy dance song with a bouncy synth line and funky groove. This song could’ve been a massive hit in a kinder world than this one.
Songs for a Fallow Land followed in 1985 self-released on cassette and Newell planned it to be his very last foray in to music. The production quality is a bit shoddier than that of the first two discs in this collection. The album’s highlights include the acoustic groove of “Julie Profumo” and the blissful, hazy solitude of “Soul Monday”. Songs for a Fallow Land has its moments but overall is not as strong as In the Golden Autumn and Under Wartime Conditions. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad album, it’s actually quite good, but compared to the unbridled genius of the first two discs, it just doesn’t hold up as well. A Dawn Chorus is a B-sides collection with a smattering of songs written from 1980 to 1986, both solo and full band. It’s interesting but not essential.
Newell was so dedicated to his vision of music that he walked away from the chance at being signed to a five album record deal twice during this period because the label insisted on recording his songs “properly”. Under Wartime Conditions ended up being released on vinyl by a German label toward the end of 1985 where it received rave reviews and started selling pretty well. Newell, still working as a restaurant porter, broke and disillusioned passed the point of caring, was shocked at the development. In many ways this recognition served as validation for his chosen aesthetic. Hordes of bands would follow in Newell’s footsteps in the ‘90s, taking up lo-fi as an ideal and opening up all kinds of sonic possibilities. Unfortunately, like most innovators, the Cleaners from Venus have largely gone overlooked and underappreciated. If you have a penchant for lo-fi guitar pop, this collection is an enthralling look at a prolific artist with a real gift for melody. In the Golden Autumn and Under Wartime Conditions are essential albums for any indie rock fan. It’s about time the music of Martin Newell as the Cleaners from Venus get the recognition it deserves.