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.
This is like a dream I may have had.
Oh yeah, that guy made this, the best record I ever bought for fifty cents.
Super excited to check out the new Shin Joong Hyun compilation coming soon from the turned-on heads at Light in the Attic. I’ve been a big fan since hearing the “It’s a Lie” album several years back, one of the few opportunities to hear the godfather of Korean rock in proper psychedelic glory.
The reissue reminds of a profile I read about Shin in 2006 in the New York Times.
Mr. Shin played jazz in the officers’ club, sang country for the sergeants and rock ’n’ roll for the troops. He mimicked an American accent so well that the soldiers — who would shout, “We want Jackie!” — mistakenly believed he was fluent in English. At the base, he ate fried chicken and drank Dr Pepper. He met his future wife, Myeong Jeong-gang, who was Korea’s first female rock ’n’ roll drummer in a band called Blue Ribbons.
“The music we played shouldn’t taste like kimchi,” Mr. Shin said of the spicy pickled vegetable that is the Korean national dish, “but it should ooze butter.”
Shin’s recollections illuminate a strange intersection of music, politics, and culture in Korea in the early 1970s, particularly his unfortunate interaction with the Nixon-like government of the military dictator Park Chung Hee.
But at his peak, one morning in 1972, a fateful phone call would derail his career. A caller identifying himself as an official in the presidential Blue House asked Mr. Shin — in a “tone that was not unpleasant” — to write a song for Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s military ruler from 1961 to 1979. Mr. Shin declined “in a nice way,” he said. But 10 minutes later, another caller, this time from Mr. Park’s political party, gave him an order. Again, he refused. Politics had never interested him, he said, and he simply hated the military dictatorship.
His refusal, he believed, eventually led to his imprisonment for drug possession. American hippies protesting South Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War had introduced Mr. Shin to marijuana and LSD, which he said he took for a while, but quit because it interfered with his work. The hippies went back to the United States, Mr. Shin said, but left a huge quantity of marijuana at his home. South Korean musicians, interested in experimenting, came to him.
Later this week, Los Angeles gets a visit from one of music criticism’s leading lights, Cuba scholar Ned Sublette. Sublette arrives in town as part of a panel discussion with photographer Virginia Beahan and Cuban specialist Lillian Guerra for the Getty’s current photography exhibition, “A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now.” Sublette authored the magisterial Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, which I’ve often described to friends in evangelical terms because of its expansive yet carefully researched depiction of the history of Cuban music, tracing its path from transatlantic origins to modernity.
When I first heard that Sublette was coming through L.A., I was reminded of his fantastic article, “The Kingsmen and the Cha-Cha-Chá,” which appeared in a 2007 Duke University collection of essays, Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music. In that piece, Sublette describes the influential role of Cuban music in the development of American music (and especially rock n roll) before political events sabotaged a fruitful musical exchange. As he persuasively argues, bands like Beatles and the Rolling Stones all took cues from Cuban music, sometimes through the use of maracas, as the Rolling Stones did in a number of songs, and other times through the direct incorporation of Cuban styles (either consciously or unconsciously) like the Beatles did with the bolero-reminiscent “And I Love Her” and the mambo-esque guitar licks of “Day Tripper.”
A couple Los Angeles references pop up in the Kingsmen piece, despite the Cuban context (which is more often felt in this country in places like New York, Florida, and even New Orleans). Particularly interesting for me was the discovery that Richard Berry, an African-American singer who gigged with Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers in Los Angeles (a band led by two Filipino brothers who performed for a primarily Mexican audience), wrote the words and music to “Louie, Louie” using a cha-cha-cha beat popularized by Cuban-born Los Angeles bandleader Rene Touzet. Later, the song migrated north, to Portland, where it was recorded by The Kinsgmen. Of course, the Kingsmen’s version became a Billboard-topping early milestone of rock n roll, though few knew of its origins as a cha-cha-cha cover or the way its Cuban rhythms would secretly spread into American pop music.
Here‘s a great interview with Sublette, this one concerning his equally wonderful tome about the history of music and race in New Orleans, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.