One of my favorite discoveries from last year was the unpredictable and hiss-filled joys of the Cleaners from Venus. On albums like Midnight Cleaners and Under Wartime Conditions, the eccentric and wonderful songs are full of jangly guitars and chattering percussions coupled with odd cacophonies of found sounds and catchy choruses. Beyond the music itself, part of the group’s charm, at least to my categorically driven ears, is the fact that the band kind of exists beyond the framework of most musical mappings.
Recording in the sleepy town of Wivenhoe in southeast England at the start of the tumultuous Thatcher years, the group usually consisted of Martin Newell and a revolving group of collaborators such as Lol Elliot, Giles Smith, and others. Starting with Blow Away your Troubles in 1981, the Cleaners issued albums on cassette to a small audience of fellow anarchists and musicians, usually through mail order, tape trading in fanzines, or word of mouth. Their sound is intimate, as if it were composed and performed in someone’s squat, illuminated by homemade candles, which it many times was.
Newell’s compositions owe a lot to the DIY aesthetic championed by the post-punk movement in the U.K., but instead of the atonal voyages into sound championed by groups like Throbbing Gristle or the dub-driven work of the Slits, the Cleaners from Venus flaunt an unabashed love of pop music and delivery on its releases. Some of the songs are brief and rough hewn, never progressing past an initial sketch of a tune, but they usually highlight Newell’s inventive songwriting, which is equal parts playful, lonesome, and sardonic. Even though the songs are frequently buried under a bed of slightly muddled sound, complete with various hums, clicks, and crackles, the outline of great pop songs sometimes emerges. At the height of its powers, this is pure dreamy pop in the tradition of the Kinks and other British pop masters, although with a nearly complete disdain for the carefully modulated studio effects and precision that characterized more widely known productions.
The Cleaners’s dislike and indifference toward professionalism and the commercialism of the music industry now doesn’t seem like so much like idiosyncrasy as inspiration for a new crop of successors. Artists such as Ariel Pink have taken up the lo-fi torch from the Cleaners from Venus and others (including the recently re-discovered R. Stevie Moore), favoring both the off-the-cuff home recording approach to production as well as the preference to release music on small editions of cassettes. The defiantly DIY quality of these releases gives the music an intimate and bespoke feel that is at odds with other currents of distribution, such as most obviously the easily downloadable and spreadable mp3.
Despite a short-lived CD release or two over the years, the Cleaners seem to have escaped notice in the larger rock cosmology of the time, except perhaps as a footnote, though a small but enthusiastic group of fans have kept the flame alive. Thanks in large part to the Internet, these erstwhile secret fruits of English anarchist musicians re-surfaced on sharity blogs on the Internet and in the setlists of current bands like MGMT.
Even better for converts like myself is the strange but welcome news that the Cleaners from Venus will get the deluxe reissue treatment from Brooklyn record label Captured Tracks. Never mind the irony of these lo-fi tape recordings being remastered in high quality for a vinyl reissue on a popular record label—the genius of Martin Newell is being finally being discussed outside the margins of fanzines and obscure music blogs. I can’t wait to re-visit Midnight Cleaners, a breathless collection of pop songs that gets more addictive and urgent with every listen. I wonder if listening to a clean version of the record will foreground the Cleaners’s songwriting bona fides or dissolve the illusion that the group is rehearsing a set in your living room on some Sunday afternoon.
Newell, for his part, has remained active since the 1980s, releasing a dozen or so Cleaners from Venus albums, a few productions under the Brotherhood of Lizards name, several solo records, and even a project with XTC’s Andy Partridge. He’s also a celebrated and well-published poet. More about Newell can be found here, as well as in a couple of interviews.
A nice bit of Angeleno history today from a scion of the Ahmanson family. Born and raised in Nebraska, Howard Ahmanson moved to Los Angeles and became a successful insurance underwriter before starting Home Savings and Loan, which soon became the country’s largest savings and loan, and the foundation that bears his name (and that donated money for the downtown performing arts building).
Even though the area is of the city’s most vibrant cultural and culinary districts, it’s easy to forget that the mid-Wilshire/Koreatown area’s profile was much larger half a century ago.
In mid-century Los Angeles, anything on Wilshire Boulevard was considered more prestigious than anything on the side streets. On the eastern end near Lafayette Park was the Bullocks Wilshire department store. Several miles west were the Miracle Mile department stores, which had beautiful shop windows facing the boulevard, even though most people entered the stores through portes-cochères in the rear. Many of the major liberal establishment churches—the PCUSA, the United Methodists, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Rabbi Magnin’s huge reform synagogue—lined the street. The Ambassador Hotel was one of the great hotels of the city. And then there was The Brown Derby Restaurant, which gave us the Cobb Salad.
Ahmanson, Jr. traces some of the neighborhood’s diminishment to an exodus of well-heeled whites to the OC following the tumult of the 1960s.
After the Watts Riots of 1965, and in the 10 or 15 years after that, the upper and upper-middle classes of Pasadena, San Marino, Arcadia, and Hancock Park relocated en masse to the Newport Beach area in what I call the secessio patriciorum, or the secession of the patricians. Los Angeles Magazine featured an article in 1977 called “The Ripening of Orange County: Is It Stealing the L.A. Dream?” Indeed, a lot of the life seemed to get sucked out of Los Angeles at that time. One consequence of the secession was that finance and retail and new construction tended to concentrate either downtown or west of central Beverly Hills.
And, as he rightly points out, thanks largely to the efforts of Asian and Latin American immigrants, the neighborhood has enjoyed a new life, though not as a great retail and financial corridor envisioned by Ahmanson père. But that’s a small price to pay for a good Korean food and affordable rents in one of the city’s most walkable neighborhoods.
Bill Keller, newly added to the opinion desk at the New York Times, adds his two cents to the growing mountain of 9/11 reflections, opinions, and posturing. (I’m really not looking forward to these exercises in filling column inches that will assault us in the coming days.) At least this one takes a somewhat critical view on those days when monumental decisions were given the rubber-stamp treatment.
On the post-9/11 fulminating that saw some prominent liberal voices become hawks or even outright shills for the Bush administration, Keller says, “I wanted to be on the side of doing something, and standing by was not enough.” In retrospect, the former executive editor of the New York Times describes Operation Iraqi Freedom as “a monumental blunder.” Should we be heartened by this admission? What is to encourage us that media has changed and won’t participate in lockstep with increasingly shrewd political propaganda?
A short article in the New York Times Magazine recounts the hopes of a would-be Arab Spring revolutionary in Beirut. The piece paints a darkly comic portrait of the city after a long civil war with this nugget:
At the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, in 1990, Beirut’s downtown was an apocalyptic scene of rubble and weeds, inhabited by squatters in skeletal buildings and bored soldiers moving among sewage-filled craters. The rare splash of color came from the blue advertisements for a billboard company that read: “What do our boards have in common with the C.I.A.? They’re both all over the place.” In the two decades since then, Beirut has become a monument to globalism, home to Louis Vuitton, Chanel and the priciest hotels, the power of capitalism concealing but never really healing the war’s scars.
Apparently, this illustration depicts the successful Mughal campaign to take Kandahar during the reign of Shah Jahan, 1628 to 1666 A.D. (1037-1076 H.). Assisted by brothers Kamran Khan and Malik Maghdood, the Mughal armies seized Kandahar in 1637. After the battle, the pair were made governors of the region. After the death of his brother, Malik Maghdood made a doomed attempt to usurp the governorship of Kabul, and his death was apparently noted with some sorrow by the Shah. These details are drawn from the Padshahnama, a 17th century illustrated history from the court of Shah Jahan chronicling the exploits of his reign. Most of the Padshahnama now resides in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, though other parts are at museums in Patna, India, and, for this particular painting, the Muisee Guimet in Paris. Here’s what the museum says about the painting:
This miniature depicts the surrender of Persian troops- seen on the right, on horseback or on foot-handing over the keys to the city to Kilij Khan whose haughty silhouette appears on the left, mounted on a white steed and wearing a black-plumed turban. The panoramic tableau- heightened by the plunging view over the city that creates an open-air atmosphere- is uncommon in Mughal painting. The painting is typical of the finest productions from the imperial workshop around 1640. The composition includes separate, symmetrical registers, skilfully rendered in a subdued vein. The upper background of this extremely well organized painting shows a citadel-probably Kandahar-treated in casually expert perspective. The surrender scene itself takes place in the foreground, and is inscribed in a virtual square, vertically subdivided into two parts.
Shah Jahan (1628-1658) was doubtless the most splendid of the Mughal emperors. The sovereign’s Official Chronicle, or Padshanama brimmed with illustrations by the greatest imperial artists. Certain miniatures (including this one) were in all likelihood removed from the manuscript in the 18th century. This page, depicting the surrender of a city- probably Kandahar- is one of the most interesting paintings in the chronicle. It provides a pictorial account of a key military event which took place in 1637-1638 under Shah Jahan’s reign. The great Afghan fortress of Kandahar, commanding a strategic position on the road to India and a hub of trade, was bitterly fought over by Safavid Persia and the Mughal Empire in 1595 and 1622. In 1638, Shah Jahan again forced Kandahar to surrender but the city was definitively re-annexed by the Persians in 1653. The manuscript of the Padshanama is today in the collections of the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.
Several years ago, Thames & Hudson published The King of the World: The Padshahnama: An Imperial Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle, which looks lovely and too expensive for my current means.