Classic Albums Revisited: The Greatest Living Englishman

I’m sure 99.999% have never heard of Martin Newell and The Cleaners From Venus.  They’re not household names.  Newell formed The Cleaners in 1980 and put out a couple of really fantastic, old-school 1960’s-esque British pop albums.  They were all released on cassette and put out via a West German label.  Here in the States, the Cleaners two RCA albums have been re-released on CD a few times, but with little fanfare.  I strongly urge you to seek out GOING TO ENGLAND, it’s a fantastic album.   England, that dreariest of islands, has an incredible ability to churn out super-talented songwriters.  Mr. Martin Newell is such a songwriter.  Though the Cleaners albums were all shoddily recorded,  I’m always amazed at how his songs pop and rise above the limitations of their production.

Ah! Just look at that healthy, British complexion.

It wasn’t very cool to like The Beatles in the 1980s, especially in England.  Punk and New Wave were all about going forward, not looking back.   I suspect that this is part of the reason Newell & The Cleaners From Venus were never able to hit it big.  Steeped heavily in 60’s pop, Newell worships at the alter of Lennon which is  evident the first time you hear his songs.  And just like Lennon, Newell is big on melody, wit, and cynicism.

By 1993 Newell had given up on The Cleaners of Venus and decided to start a solo career.  His solo debut, THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN, got a major boost when XTC frontman Andy Partridge agreed to produce the record (and play drums).  Like Newell, Partridge was a Beatle-fan at a time when being Beatle-fan wasn’t in vogue, the two were musical blood-brothers. And while XTC was by no means the world’s most popular band, they’d had enough success worldwide that Partridge’s involvement in THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN helped boost interest in the album get heard over here in the U.S.

THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN is a fantastic record, dripping with catchy hooks.  The music is very Beatle-esque with a Kinks-like lyrical slant.  This is a very, very British record.  The album opener, the sublime “Goodbye Dreaming Fields,” recalls Ray Davies waxing nostalgic for the village green—although for Newell it’s a dancehall that he mourns.  The snappy “She Rings The Changes” feels like a long lost single from 1969, as one listens to THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN the sense of musical déjà vu can become overwhelming.  These songs are so good and seem so catchy you’ll swear you’ve heard them before.

And  though it’s a very upbeat, fun album, I really appreciate the way Newell snarkily attacks aspects of the socio-economic inequality in England.  This is particularly evident on “We’ll Build A House” which addresses poverty and the inability for many young people to have something so basic as a home.  In a similar vein, “A Street Called Prospect” paints an incredibly detailed sound-picture of life on a very shabby English street called Prospect.  The first time I heard this song I laughed because there’s a street called Prospect in the town where I’m from…and it’s a piece of shit too.  “The Jangling Man,” like “We’ll Build A House” describes the gulf between the wealthy older class and the “poor starving children.” It’s a terribly bitter, angry song, and yet Newell’s pop sensibilities manage to keep the track from sounding bitter or angry.

“Before The Hurricane” tackles British country life, specifically the head-in-the-sand attitude of those living in rural British communities.  Bombs and hurricanes can come, but nothing really changes anything for them.   “Home Counties Boy” offers a glimpse into Newell’s country upbringing and disdain for working in the city.  Both songs remind me of the Kink’s in both their quaintness and  in the interesting duality of both their yearning and disdain for rural life.

I’ve always loved British fatalism and Newell has it in spades.  My favorite track on the record, “Tribute To The Greatest Living Englishman” is about falling from the good graces of the public—and how much we like to see a public figure fall.  I like Newell’s song because the song’s narrator (it can’t be about him, he never rose high enough to fall) attitude towards the loss of his champagne wishes is a shrug and “it would have been mad not to try.”  I can certainly see how this sort of music would not be for everyone, but it’s like catnip for a pop-fan like me.  THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN is the best Martin Newell record (solo or otherwise) and thankfully, it’s the easiest to come by these days.  I heartily recommend this album if you like cheeky, catchy pop.

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