Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
I have a few gigs to do quite soon...not the least of which will be playing a gig with Hurricane... in the Grey, this Saturday if you happen to be around and fancy 'the full nudge'. Then I'm in St Andrews, Scotland for a while at the Stanza Poetry Festival then hot foot back to Essex for the Essex Literature Festival. While at the launch last Wednesday, numb with a post-birthday head I was approached by author and Guardian columnist Francis Wheen, who told me that he'd been listening recently to the Off White Album. That was a bit a surprise. Then he found out that the producer was the man whom I know as Louis but whom Francis knows as Philippe Auclair, cricket and real ale buff and honorary Englishman. Well, it's a small world isn't it? Though you wouldn't (as Steven Wright says) want to have to paint it.
Where was I ,anyway? Ah yes, those young Cleaners from Venus: By about spring of 1981, Lol and I had about forty different tracks finished. An added complication was that EMI had just signed me to the Liberty label, for my first solo single Young Jobless. That's another story which of course, eventually ended in acrimony and lackofmoney.
Lol and I now discussed how we might distribute our music. We hit upon sending a couple of copies of various tapes to the cassette page reviews (there were such things in those days) of the music papers. Soon, Sounds magazine had written an unexpectedly-favourable review and the orders started coming in on paper napkins, scraps of cloth and lined notebook paper with 50 p coins taped onto them. The appropriate lunatics were out there. Lol lumbered into action and began transferring various songs to various cassettes. Another deal was that you could actually send The Cleaners a blank cassette and we'd fill it up with music for you. Nobody quite got the same album because Lol and I used to put about 25 songs on each tape ...that was all you could fit on..and it depended which tracks we found in the drawer first. It was chaotic but very stupid.
Sooner or later Lol and I disagreed about how we would sell the music..now that the orders were coming at several a week. Lol thought we should give the stuff away. We were both poor as church mice though. Where would the cassettes come from? I asked. Lol took me into an upstairs room in his house, with shelves full of new cellophane-wrapped cassettes...probably about 200 of them. He'd been systematically liberating them from chainstores, ten at a time. It meant we now could give the music away, he reckoned. I was worried about this.
Sure enough, a week or two later, Lol failed to turn up for his afternoon cleaning-shift at the restaurant where we both skivvied. He'd been lifted, while nicking two cassettes. They found some dope on him that even he didn't know he had. While in the police station, the arresting officer left the room. Another policeman came in and said to Lol: "So you're the one, are you?" Lol said: " I suppose I must be." The officer then proceeded to fingerprint and photograph Lol a number of times. This took some time. Only when he began reading Lol out the Prevention of Terrorism Act stuff, did Lol realise that something had gone wrong. The arresting officer re-entered the room and said: " What are you doing with my prisoner? " The second officer said: "He's not the terrorist guy then?" It was explained that Lol was being done for the theft of two cassettes and possession of about a quarter of dope. "Why didn't you say something?" asked the rather peeved second officer. " You never asked." Lol replied.
They gave him a statement sheet and charged him. Lol was asked if he had anything to say. He wrote on the statement sheet. It's a fair cop. Society is to blame. Now they drove him to his house to search the place for more dope. They didn't find any. They saw all the drawers and shelves of box-fresh nicked cassettes and ignored them, failing to put two and two together. Lol went to court and was fined £25.00 on each charge. We started charging 50p for our Cleaners cassettes after that. ( To be continued)
Martin, Val and Elli at the Essex Book festival Launch
A short while ago, a doughty fellow called Ian Callender went above and beyond and burned me a whole load of copies of nearly everything The Cleaners From Venus ever recorded. Recordings included all the old d.i.y. tape stuff starting from the initial sound-on-sound recordings made in November of 1980. Some of these recordings came not from JARMusic CDs but from his own personal tapes, 2nd generation originals.
We are talking about a lot of songs here. Lol Elliott and I ran a pretty loose ship in those days. Recording usually took place on Monday from sometime after 10.a.m and were usually wrapped up by the time my bad-tempered girlfriend of the time got home from work. We usually aimed to get two songs written and recorded in this short time, which included a lunch-break in the pub, cups of tea, and smoke breaks. We usually succeeded. The recordings were in mono, clunkily-played, hissy, and often well into the red section of the VU meters.
The drum kit was miked with one cheap mic resting on a cushion inside the bass-drum itself and with a brick sitting on top of it it to stop it vibrating. The snare drum and hi-hat were miked by pushing a broom through the elliptical hole in a stolen science-lab stool, Sellotaping the mic to it, and then adjusting the angle of the broomstick until it sat under the hi-hat but above the snare. Overheads were miked by hanging a mic from a nail on a rafter above ...or from a light-fitting. The three mikes then went into three inputs of a 1970s WEM Copikat echo-unit. The home-made bass, originally made by Plod bass guitarist Carl Szymanski was plugged into the fourth WEM input. A No. 2 all purpose rock and roll slapback echo was then set up and we turned all the kit on and with the monitor speakers as high as we dared, started bashing something out till we found something we liked.
When we had two sets of patterns we liked, we kept them, picked up guitars, glockenspiels, Stylophones or whatever we'd managed to borrow that week and started building up tracks. The results were surprisingly good sometimes. It's a shame I don't have the original 7 inch reels. They lost a lot when they went to cassette. The quality was never brilliant but it had a certain depth and bite..mainly because even then, I knew that a good signal-to-noise ratio, flicking into overload would add a certain natural compression. The fact that I was nearly always hungover on Mondays and Lol was frequently stoned 24/7 probably helped a bit too. The songs were often funny and very often either political in nature or about the possibilities of taking an alien girlfriend home to meet your mum and dad.
One song Modern TV had lyrics which went. You can see it all night, you can watch it all day/ And believe in it, but you'll have to pay / If you watch too hard you can rot your brain/ But you may like this, it's a young man's game. You can see some films, you can watch the news/ It will bring you down but you'll know their views/ From the Open University to the Epilogue, it's for you and me.
This, then, is what we were dealing with. A track called Swinging London began with me yelling off-mic: "I'm roasting an ox in my closet!" We did a track called So This Is Modern Jazz , Is It? It consisted of a shuffly drum beat, me playing some diminished chords and scat-singing about having the d.t.s, an ever walking bass line and the masterstroke of Lol (who couldn't play the piano at all) playing the piano as he imagined a very modern jazz virtuoso might. His playing sounded very authentic, because his sheer ignorance made it sound so avant garde. Another day we decided to cover the University Challenge theme in our own inimitable way. After we'd done it . We got some friends in to be the student teams and I overdubbed myself imitating the quizmaster Bamber Gascoigne. At one point you can hear a stoned Lol, with his voice through a flanger repeatedly chanting Bamber Gascoigne over and over again. It's bloody hilarious.
One day Lol came round tripping. Although I was straight, his state seemed to transfer onto me. The day was a catalogue of accidents...especially mine. A cup of tea got knocked over some tapes. I later kicked over the paraffin heater, setting fire to the carpet in the process. Finally, I managed to erase the first 20 seconds of a track we'd just finished, writing it off in the process. But we were young and cheerful and we didn't care if no record companies ever came. Some of the visitors who came round in the evenings were entreated to our work at times. A few of them thought it was really good. More were simply baffled. One or two were actually appalled. It was the beginning of something that would end up taking me halfway round the world.
(To Be Continued)
The day they took possession of it, priest and worshippers had gathered on the small green in nearby St Helens Lane. It was the first religious service that the building had witnessed in 461 years. During this time, among many other things, St Helen's Chapel had been a private house, a shop and a workshop. When the small congregation entered and began to sing, “It sounded as if the walls themselves were singing back at us, asking us: 'Where have you been all this time?'”
It is very hard – even for a benighted heathen like myself – not to be moved by Father Alexander Haig's account of how in the year 2000, the Orthodox Church came back to the chapel in Maidenburgh Street, Colchester. The emotion is in his voice and in his eyes while he tells this story.
St Helen, or St Helena as many call her, was mother of Constantine the Great and of course, Patron Saint of Colchester. Depending upon which sources you believe, she was born nearby in Colchester Castle – then her father King Coel's castle. She is said to have built the chapel for her own worship. According to history though, she was actually born in Asia Minor – modern-day Turkey. Here, religious doctrine, local legend and and blurred historical account all conspire together to make what Hollywood film-makers would call 'a reality soup'.
One thing is for certain though. St Helen's Chapel is very, very old. Nobody knows exactly how old but it was here before the Normans arrived and even then its restoration was on their To Do list. Appearances can be deceptive. The chapel's walls, three of which are on the foundations of the ancient Roman Theatre, have seen much rebuilding over the centuries. The exterior, in a town rich in other historical treasures is a rather unspectacular Victorian one. It is the interior which is so interesting. The luminous red-golds of the saintly icons which line the chapel's walls– along with the candles which quietly hiss and sputter during my visit, combine to make the little church far more atmospheric than many much-grander places of worship.
Father Haig, does his erudite best to crash-course me through the basic history of Orthodox Christianity, which is fascinating. Eastern Orthodoxy was the earliest form of Christianity. Catholicism is a stripling by comparison. A schism then occurred between Eastern Christianity (Greek) and its rival Roman Catholicism (Latin) in the 11th century. The emergent Catholic Church in turn experienced its own dissenters a few centuries later and so Protestantism was born. Father Haig himself was an Anglican priest for three decades, but converted to Orthodox in the mid-Nineties. The matter of women vicars, he says, was one issue which prompted his decision. Looking around St Helen's now and absorbing something of its overwhelming mystique I can partly sympathise with this. If you'd been brought up with a theological package – one rich in ritual and reverence– and then woken one day to find that your place of worship was now full of people playing drum-kits, blasting saxophones and guitars and happily clapping along, all conducted by someone a bit like Dawn French in her Vicar of Dibley role, might you not yearn for a return to an older weightier wholemeal faith – one with no additives and nowt-taken-out so to speak? The matter is obviously more complex than this but it is the simplest explanation that a theological chowderhead such as I can muster.
Father Haig's flock comprises Greeks, Greek-Cypriots, Bulgarians, Serbs, Arab-Christians and others. There may be between thirty and fifty worshippers attending any one service One feature of an Orthodox service is that all music is chanted or sung. The Orthodox faith believes that the voice comes from the soul, whereas musical instruments are of the earth. Similarly, the Sanctuary of the church, which represents heaven, is curtained off from the Nave, the area where the congregation pray. The Sanctuary may be observed when the curtains are opened but only the priest has access to this area. “It is” adds Father Hague, using an Olympian analogy, “As if life were a race – and this were the stadium.” Here he points at the many icons of the saints. “And these, are our spectators who cheer us on, should we tire or falter.”
Perhaps it is the sheer antiquity of St Helen's Chapel, or maybe it's something to do with the candles, the icons and the quiet measured tone of the priest's voice. But time seems to dissolve while I listen to him and I suddenly find that an hour has slipped by in what seems like five minutes. As I walk out dazed into the cold drizzle of Maidenburgh Street, I pause to look back down the hill and north to the distant fields on the outkirts of town. Well over a thousand years ago – when the Riverside Estate to the east – was still marsh and water meadows, a St Helen's Chapel, in some form or other, existed here. At the top of Maidenburgh Street, the High Street bustles moodily about its midweek business. Two minutes walk away, nestling in quiet sidestreets, is this ancient, holy building that has somehow fallen back into the hands of the very faith that created it. St Helen's Chapel is Number 2 on Colchester's Heritage Trail. It's also on a rather older, more venerable trail – one which leads all the way back to Antioch.