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.