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The Cleaners From Venus
BOX SET VOLUME 2 Aug Stone , June 17th, 2013 07:03

Why weren’t these chart-topping hits in the 80s? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that they were home recordings only ever released on self-distributed cassettes. Or because Martin Newell never bothered to approach record companies or the mainstream music press. Or that the ones these somehow reached didn’t think the public was ready for this winning combination of high quality songwriting and lo-fi production. But the songs are all here, waiting to be discovered. And for Newell it’s all about the songs.

This second box set (Volume 1, containing the first three Cleaners albums, was released for Record Store Day 2012) contains the records In The Golden Autumn (1983), Under Wartime Conditions (1984), Songs For A Fallow Land (1985) and a collection of astounding rarities on the bonus disc A Dawn Chorus – Early Cleaners And Beyond. Detailed liner notes offer a glimpse into Newell’s hectic life at the time, making it all the more impressive that he kept up his prolific album-a-year pace. Once again Captured Tracks has released these gems for the first time ever on vinyl and CD.

Newell’s never been shy about his love of 60s jangle-pop, but a lot of what’s on here fits right in with what was going on in the 80s – the white funk of ‘Summer In A Small Town’ or the echo-y chiming guitars of ‘Krugerrand Gladiators’ to name but two. Along with these, the big pop numbers are ‘Renee’, ‘Ghosts In Doorways’, ‘Golden Age Saturday’ and the first version of ‘Julie Profumo’ (one of Martin’s favourites, later given a more electric treatment for the Going To England album). The standout track on this collection is ‘Drowning Butterflies’, this box set’s ‘Marilyn On A Train’ (which also shows its face again here on In The Golden Autumn), a brilliant pop classic appearing in its original and ‘Big Expensive’ versions. Awash in shimmering melancholy, Newell captures life and love in a small town, with all its brittle hopes and narrowing futures.

In The Golden Autumn picks up where the perfection of 1982’s Midnight Cleaners left off. Heavy on the pop but also featuring Martin’s love of stylistic exploration with the punky blues of ‘A Holloway Person’ and more traditional ‘Please Don’t Step On My Rainbow’, instrumentals atmospheric (‘The Autumn Cornfield’) and dreampop (‘Balloon Drop Shadow’), and, with ‘A Fool Like You’, dipping a toe into the jazz standards he would immerse himself in much later on with The Light Programme. Under Wartime Conditions is a moodier offering, its title referring to the Miners Strike moving to Newell’s front door step in Wivenhoe. You can hear the turmoil in the record, especially on rocker ‘Fracas On West Street’.

Original Cleaner Lol Elliott is back on drums for a few songs, including a rehashing of the first record’s ‘A Blue Wave’. Between these two is the melodic ‘Lukewarm Lovesong’ lightening things up a little. The excellent ‘Song For Syd Barrett’ and closer ‘Winter Palace’ herald the next album, which will contain a cover of Barrett’s ‘Late Night’, the possibly Madcap-melded title ‘Golden Lane’, as well as the more fleshed out ‘Winter Palace 2’. Songs For A Fallow Land kicks off with mid-tempo pop-rocker ‘Sun Comes To The Wood’ into ‘Julie Profumo’. Aside from stomper ‘Heroin Clones’, the rest of the album is pervaded by a mellow grey-blue feel. Perfectly good songs, but the album title proved to be more prophetic than anyone could have realised at the time. The Cleaners' next outing, the pop masterpiece Living With Victoria Grey, would reap the benefits of having continued to plow these particular fields but letting them regain their fertility.

The true highlight of this box set is the bonus disc of rarities. It begins with an unearthed garage jam session from 1967 between Martin, his brother and a friend. Then four out of the five killer pop tunes from The Stray Trolleys’ Secret Dreams Of A Kitchen Porter EP (the fifth, ‘Teenage Gunmen’, is also well worth seeking out, another song in this incredibly catchy fuzzed-out vein). Both sides of Martin’s first solo single from 1980, written to order for a youth vocational organisation, appear – the infectious ‘Sylvie In Toytown’ and ‘Young Jobless’, which, through the usual music business mix-ups, became the A-side and actually got played on Radio 1. There’s lovely renditions of George McRae’s ‘It’s Been So Long’, a favourite of Martin’s, recorded to try out some new equipment, and Richard Whiting’s ‘Beyond The Blue Horizon’, which Martin’s mother and aunt once sang on a radio talent show in 1949. Martin’s fondness of inserting comical speech and noises into his songs continues here as the song is introduced with "Mrs. Newell please go over to the acid casualty tent, the acid casualty tent, where her son Martin is having a bit of trouble with his mind". Although not intended as a cohesive whole, A Dawn Chorus is just as strong as the other records here, and that’s very strong indeed.