Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
I'm in Kortrijk in Belgium, which upon arrival I instantly loved. Just off the main square, is a job centre. After gazing, baffled by the job titles on offer in the window, it occurred to me that if I could speak Flemish, I might retrain, for instance, as a Stikster Beddennafdeling and relocate here. I'm still not entirely sure what a Stickster Beddenafdeling does, though I now believe that it may have something to do with the machine-sewing of bedding materials. Never condemn a thing till you've tried it, though: “Where's Newell?” “Oh, after a brief illness, he retrained as a Stikster Beddenafdeling and moved to West Flanders.”
At 11.30 on a Saturday morning, I'm watching a wonderful Dixieland jazz band limbering up for their lunchtime concert. The Belgians like their jazz. In an almost empty city square, a couple are dancing on the cobbles in front of the stage. The spectacle seems impossibly romantic, in a very continental way. It's as if I've accidentally wandered onto the set of one of those difficult foreign films; the type which only gets shown in the UK by special film societies whose members like sitting on uncomfortable chairs once a month in order to watch stuff with titles like: Monsieur Poupou Goes To Poperinge ( 1957/ dir. Miroslav Muntjac).
Kotrijk, as the crow flies, is only about 150 miles south-east of Colchester and does seem terrifically foreign for being such a short distance away. A wealthy Belgian city of some 75,000 people, Kortrijk in the ancient County of Flanders is famous for cloth manufacture and design.
Colchester, being itself an old cloth town, has a relationship with Flanders, which spans back to the 13th century, probably, beyond. Evidence of the two regions' long kinship is still to be seen in the style of older Colchester buildings, as well in the Flemish roof styles of certain farm cottages which straggle along the coast roads to Harwich and Clacton.
A few years ago, in Arras, just next door in French Flanders, I noticed this roofing style and made the connection immediately. Then I saw another, older Flemish style, an almost Mexican mission-church look, to certain buildings. It was pointed out to me that this was the inheritance of 250 years of Spanish occupation of Flanders. Then as I began to study the rooflines more closely, it dawned upon me that the Spanish had themselves been occupied by the Moors for over 700 years. Could it be, I now asked myself, that in these lines of north Essex's old Flemish roofs there might also be the faintest traces of Moorish influence? 'Architecture soup' is where I'll have to leave it for now
I wandered deeper into the Kortrijk streets until I came to the gateway of what looked like a private square with a stately acer tree at its centre. Since nobody stopped me, I kept walking, discovering that leading off the main square were several other small streets and alleyways. The place appeared to be a tiny town within a town. It was extraordinary. At first I took it to be a monastery, half-expecting an angry monk to appear and order me out. Yet, still nobody came and so I padded curiously down its empty cobbled lanes, like a cat, all the time noticing the strange old buildings.
The place was, I soon discovered,an old Beguinage: a place once housing a community of people called 'Beguynes' or 'Beguines'. The Beguines were a religious sect, often widows who chose to live together in semi-monastic circumstances, but without any formal order. For instance, a Beguine, after a time, might return to the outside world, or even re-marry if she chose to. The Beguines were mystics, and beguinages such as the one which I describe were once common in what used to be known as the Low Countries.
I found the beguinage, extremely tranquil, open to my exploration but possessed of such an atmosphere, that I instinctively kept a respectful demeanour whilst I remained there.
I returned to the previously-deserted city square which was by now crowded with locals, all having lunch outside cafes. So this was the fabled continental cafe culture, which our last government vainly hoped that we would all adopt after the smoking ban? How touching.
Continental cafe culture, of course, works brilliantly here. Because it's the continent. It doesn't work in Britain. Why ever would it? The shirts-off, be-shorted, tattooed, smoking, beer-chugging belching English with their knowing eyes and lewd raucous laughter are fine. In a pub garden.
In a British High Street street or town square it just doesn't work.
One thing about the Belgians,however, at least the ones whom I met, is that in many ways, they do seem rather like us. They tend to be slimmer of figure on the whole and yet, in their faces and the way they quietly are – forget the seemingly impenetrable language – you could almost be in any market town on a sunny Saturday morning in East Anglia. In many ways, this is unsurprising because of the to-ing and fro-ing between our respective regions over the centuries. As for their language: if you have a little knowledge of German and you begin to understand the pronunciation, then Flemish (Dutch) comes across as sort of cross between English and German. “Belgium is Europe's hidden jewel.” a friend told me. Too true.
The freezing, snowy early days of 1985 began for Martin Newell with sad news of the death of his grandfather, whom he'd partly been brought up by and who had been such a calm and steadying influence upon his childhood. For Newell, who was now numb, anyway it was just another blow during an unlucky period of his life. He continued his caretaking duties at the house and returned to his part time job as a restaurant porter in the nearby town of Colchester. Although there'd been silence from Charisma records, for many weeks, one day a letter arrived asking Newell to reconsider his 'career'.
A third version of Drowning Butterflies recorded only a few weeks earlier by him had been produced by former Gang of Four bass player Dave 'Wolfman' Woolfson. Nobody, however, including its writer or producer, seemed very convinced that there'd been much improvement upon Newell's original version. In the early New Year there were yet more meetings in London with Charisma Records but nothing seemed to be moving forward.
Upon returning to Essex, he began recording new songs for what would eventually become the Songs For A Fallow Land collection. In early March of 1985 having just turned 32, Martin Newell walked away for the last time from any possibilities of a deal with Charisma Records. As far as he was concerned, although he and the label's founder Tony Stratton-Smith had got on well with each other, to the Cleaner, the music business seemed slow, unwieldy and reluctant to deal with him on his own lo-fi terms. More relieved than upset about matters at this time, Newell almost missed the next break.
An offer arrived by post from a German indie record company, Modell Records, to release his Under Wartime Conditions album in Europe. Typically, Newell left the matter for some days before replying, to them, “The Cleaners from Venus don't deal with record companies.”
He then forgot about it all and travelled to a little village near Whitby in North Yokshire to help some friends to paint a house. When he returned, some days later, another letter had arrived from Germany. More amused than annoyed, now, he wrote back to the company offering to send them some master tapes if they first sent him the cash for postage.
Newell by this time was past caring. He was going to leave music and writing, along with all its lies, corporate interference, corruption and disappointments and after the next cassette album –which he intended to be his last – he would going to become a gardener.
He was in a very light-hearted mood when he despatched the Under Wartime Conditions master tapes to Germany. Realising that he still had some money left over, he went straight from the post office to the pub to buy himself a congratulatory drink.
Dreams of signing to Charisma Records, and a writing career all behind him now, Martin Newell spent the warm spring of 1985, finishing his Fallow Land project. He'd made friends by this time with a friend of Martin Chapman, the pianist who'd helped him write Victorian Society for In The Golden Autumn. Chapman's friend, Giles Smith – about 8 years Newell's junior – was a witty Cambridge University graduate. He was also fine keyboard player who'd played with Newell on one of the ill-fated Drowning Butterfly sessions. He was destined, too, to become a Cleaner from Venus, before becoming a distinguished journalist. For now, however, he began helping Newell out with some recording sesssions in a studio in rural Suffolk, Essex's neighbouring county.
Newell's former bandmates from his late 1970s band Gypp, had recently lost their main songwriter and with a US album deal still valid and vhardly any material they desperately needed new songs. They'd contacted Newell, a well-known 'studio rat', who'd been only too pleased to help out.
For a few weeks, Newell, Giles Smith and another friend, Paddy Morris, travelled up to Suffolk each Friday to help make demoes of the songs which Newell had written for his old band. One of these was A Mercury Girl which, for some reason was never used, whilst another was an early version of Living With Victoria Grey.
Earlier that summer, the Songs For a Fallow Land cassette had been self-released by Newell to a usual lack of fanfare. He'd made fanzines aware of it, sold a few copies to people whom he'd met and waited for a slow trickle of orders, mainly from abroad, to come in – which they gradually did. He wouldn't have dreamt of sending a copy to the mainstream music press, the national press or any media outlets. “If people want it, they'll find it.” he yawned at the time, to an incredulous journalist.
At the beginning of the autumn, Martin Newell went north again, for a few days holiday at the North Yorkshire cottage which he'd helped to paint earlier that year.
When he returned to Essex, days later, he planned to finish the songs he was now working on with Giles Smith. This material eventually became the Living With Victoria Grey cassette, which, in turn would form the bare bones of the Cleaners from Venus vinyl album Going To England .
Meanwhile, however, another shock awaited Newell, as he opened his post. A large box had arrived from Germany. The German label which he'd casually sent his master tapes to, some months earlier, had now mailed him 25 copies of his first vinyl album. Also in the package was a sheaf of press reviews, mostly in German, all of them praising Under Wartime Conditions as a masterpiece. The album seemed to be selling extremely well too and now the record company was offering the Cleaners from Venus a small budget to make a promotional video.
An amazed Newell could scarcely take in what had happened. The gushing press reviews continued to arrive for many weeks and then, just before Christmas, a good review came in from Sounds an important British rock magazine, which had received their copy of Newell's album as an import. At the very moment he'd decided to turn his back on the music industry forever, it had come back to him. This was not the end of The Cleaners from Venus. In fact it was nowhere near the end of the story – as the events of 1986 would soon demonstrate...
At the beginning of 1984, Martin Newell had no idea that the political battle, which was then building up between Britain's Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and the Miners Union was about to explode on his doorstep. At the end of that winter, former Cleaner, Lol Elliott had been persuaded by Newell, to travel over from Bath for a few days, in order to lay down some drum tracks.
Newell, sick of the limitations of a cheap drum machine and home made percussion, even paid his friend's coach fare. That February, at the request of fellow DIY musicians, Falling A, the Cleaners laid down a couple of songs in a small studio in nearby Jaywick. Newell doesn't know where the master tapes of these sessions are but believes they may still be in the possession of Falling A.
Back in Wivenhoe, Newell managed to get Lol to lay down a few useable drum tracks. One of these became a rehash of one of their earliest songs A Blue Wave. A further two songs, Fracas On West Street and Hand Of Stone, ended up on Under Wartime Conditions created by Newell around two of Elliott's other drum parts.
At one point, Newell even bought a cheap drum kit and tried to teach himself drums. As he has always admitted, however, he was in his own words, “Drum-stupid.” and abandoned the project after a few weeks. The new album, which eventually became Under Wartime Conditions was rudely interrupted when the rapidly escalating national Miners Strike, came to Wivenhoe. Suddenly the sleepy little port became the front-line of the dispute. With Polish and later, South African coal then being imported into the UK, the miners' pickets descended upon Wivenhoe in great numbers – as did the police. At the peak of the dispute, there were estimated to be 1000 miners and twice as many police occupying Wivenhoe.
At the port gates, only 200 yards or so away from Newell's house, during early May, events became violent. There were fights, daily arrests, many injuries and acts of sabotage. The media pack arrived and Wivenhoe woke up to find itself featured on the national front pages and in television news. Newell, up until then, not naturally a political creature, became motivated by the dispute, taking the side of the miners. He cleared his studio floor so that several pickets could sleep up there. For much of the spring and early summer, therefore, he could now only record at weekends, since his recording gear was put away to make space for his guests.
It was against this unexpectedly tumultuous background that Under Wartime Conditions was written and eventually recorded. Martin Newell, was reaching the peak of his ability as a DIY four-track producer and was now helping other bands to record themselves.
During that summer, as a result of a mutual friendship, one of Newell's songs, Drowning Butterflies came to the attention of a music business mandarin – Charisma Record boss and Genesis manager, Tony Stratton-Smith. The song, had earlier caught the attention of another producer, Newell's old friend Dave Hoser who'd helped master Under Wartime Conditions and now had access to a large 24-track studio at the time. During sesssions, however, there was a major argument over the song's production, however; a thing which to this day, Newell still says he regrets. He walked away from the project. The incident was swiftly forgotten though since now, Charisma Records boss Stratton-Smith and Martin Newell, were having meetings about signing a five album deal. Newell, who liked and respected Tony Stratton-Smith immensely, was almost swayed and yet, a few months later, walked away again. Stratton Smith, who'd loved the song Drowning Butterflies said that when he heard Under Wartime Conditions he felt he was listening to 'a sketchbook' .He wanted to hear it recorded 'properly'. Newell who always preferred a lo-fi approach, refused. Around about this time, too, quite coincidentally, a good friend of his died suddenly, a thing which profoundly shocked Newell. Partly as a result of this he still regards the song Drowning Butterflies as cursed and will rarely, if ever play it. During that painful and often drama-ridden summer of 1984, one other significant event occurred.
In late July Martin Newell, who'd kept a detailed diary of events in his town during the battles between the miners and the police, suddenly found that his 2,000 word account of events had been published in The Guardian, the UK's most salient left-wing broadsheet. No one was more surprised than Newell himself, who'd previously only been published in music papers, fanzines and obscure counter-culture magazines. Shortly afterwards he was invited for a drink by a distinguished Wivenhoe resident Peregrine Worsthorne, then an associate editor of the right-wing broadsheet The Daily Telegraph. The speculation by mutual associates was that the musician was about to be offered writing work. After the disappointments of the previous year, the matter of writing was not one of his chief priorities, however. Nor was he ready to go honobbing with a Patrician tory, even such a famous one. Typically, Newell refused the invitation, thereby turning his back on being published nationally for almost another six years. “I'm a musician, not a writer.” he said.
With the fall-out and ill-feeling still hanging heavy in the air from a now- floundering Miners strike, 1984 ended badly for Martin Newell. Broke, frustrated and tired of fighting what he was beginning to believe were unwinnable battles with the mainstream music biz, he felt that he'd got nowhere and blown any chances of success which he might have once had.
He now knew that in Under Wartime Cnditions he'd made an outstanding album and yet had no reliable way of distributing it, or publicising it. He'd been published nationally but had walked away from the idea of becoming a writer. He was still washing dishes in a restaurant and acting as caretaker for the rambling old student boarding house. Having given up smoking for almost a year by that time, days before Christmas, he went out, got drunk and deliberately began smoking again. The resolutions for the coming year which he later made were to stop wasting his time on music. become a gardener. Fate, had other plans...