For someone who has said that "pop music should be done quickly, cheaply and imperfectly," English pop-rocker, poet, and columnist Martin Newell certainly doesn't sound it. His 1993 gem of a release, The Greatest Living Englishman, is lyrically as good as anything written by Muswell hillbilly Ray Davies (The Kinks) or The Who's Pete Townsend, both artists who served as models for Newell, and musically it is a pop dream --- delicious hooks, diverse tempos, gorgeous melodies, and a touch of psychedelia --- that is worth playing over and over for its sheer excellence and sunny satire (if that sounds like an oxymoron, you'll just have to listen). No doubt this release is helped greatly by the production work of the talented Andy Partridge (XTC), but its Newell's songs that shine through.
Newell, now in his mid-50s, is a bit of an iconoclast, a sort of mature teenage rebel. He started his musical career in the Seventies glam-rock band, The Mighty Plods, honing his craft in bars and clubs, some of them (like one in describes in the port city of Ipswich, East Anglia) bringing to mind the kind of places the early Beatles played in Hamburg, Germany. Dangerous, that is. From The Mighty Plods he formed Cleaners from Venus, independently releasing his music on cassettes before finally signing with a label and making proper records. What I have heard of Cleaners from Venus is much in the vein of The Greatest Living Englishman, without the serious production that could have made for stellar releases. Same goes for his 1989 band formed with his friend Nelson, The Brotherhood of Lizards. It's all preface to his best work, a record which even Newell says is "the one I'd stand or fall by." He's right.
Some of Newell's attitude, his love of spontaneity, and his dislike of record companies and marketing comes through in this response to an interviewer: "I might make another album this year. But I'm going to do it in a really bad, cheap studio. And I'm probably going to play all the instruments, which means it'll definitely be crappy. But I maintain that our real fans actually like that quality in us. Record companies and musicians, for 15 years now, have tried to make me so good. And I've considered it to a mission to fight them." And yet, despite what he says, Newell has in his own way continued to work with the dreaded record companies on and off over the years, consistently maintaining his distance, his independence, and yet allowing them to market his music. We can be thankful that he did, otherwise none of us may ever have heard of him.
Throughout it all, this Englishman has maintaned his sense of humor, making wry observations on English character, like the English dismissal of fame like the following that I particularly enjoyed:
"Have you ever had a thing sitting on a
train...You're sitting in a station, there's a train sitting on the
opposite going the other way. The train opposite you, one of the
trains starts to move very slowly out. And you're not sure
it's your train or their train. But you notice it's not your
your train's still standing still, but the other train's
a feeling of disappointment, isn't there? That's what it's like
people in England when you become successful. You are starting to
slowly move, and it emphasizes their own status. And they feel
and so they react usually with some kind of jaundice. Or they try
and comfort themselves--well it's probably only a flash in the
It'll probably be back to normal tomorrow. Success is not seen as
a normal condition in England. It's seen as an aberration, and
there to be really watched and made sure the person doesn't get above
The fact of the matter is that talent
very fragile. It's like Tinkerbell, the fairy in Peter Pan. A lot
of people go back to the office job. People say, "You still
music?" Like it's some venereal disease. I dare say, a
situation happens in America, though. It's double-plus here."
But despite his sarcasm and mildly anarchic tendencies, Newell is, deep down, a kind of English Wendell Berry (well, a bit earthier than Berry), with a deep love of the English countryside and village (particularly the town of Wivenhoe, in northeastern Essex, in the east of England) and an irrepressibly sunny disposition despite all he says. Rather than being the rebel, or being political, he seems to prefer just being local, being home.
The Greatest Living Englishman kicks off with ""Goodbye Dreaming Fields," a nostalgic look back at a town that is not the same, with the narrator confessing that "I'm a ghost in my hometown, since they knocked that dance-hall down," observing that he once knew some girls there, but "they are married with kids now." Musically, it's pure joy, with a kick-off guitar riff out of The Beatles' "Rain" or "Paperback Writer."
"Before the Hurricane" is completely different, a quaint, jaunty number that looks at a country town after the storm, where despite the event, "nothing much has changed." The trailer at the end gives us a preview of what's in store for us throughout the record --- we hear a bell ring as someone enters a country store, children playing, and small talk --- all of which root the album in a particular place and time. Normally, this kind of intrusion might be annoying, but not here.
"We'll Build a House" reflects a longing for home and family, for roots, while the title cut may be referring to the bygone days of the British Empire. It ends with the sounds of revelry, a drinking party perhaps. "Home Counties Boy" starts in the midst of a bubbling brook, ducks quacking, and dogs barking, a folksy ode to the rural life, where the boy "has a spade in my hands, and mud on my knees, I am a boy from the home counties." In the end, we hear the narrator quipping that "he started to lose it toward the end, started seeing astrologists every day, got in trouble selling up those nuclear subs. . . ." You can almost hear two country gentlemen discussing the plight of one of their own gone mad over their fence.
Musically, "A Street Called Prospect" is classic Kinks, a tune that might have walked right off Village Green Preservation Society, a bit of bite in Newell's social commentary as he critiques the promise of success offered by liberal society: "The poor get angry, and the rich make hay, and your youth is like a dog-rose, only blossoms for a day." A endearing sarcasm pervades "Christmas in Suburbia," and yet it's offered up with a jangle-pop groove that makes it very listenable. In the end, you're sad that Christmas in suburbia is not more, yet you don't have the sense that it's all bad.
But the best is saved for last, a testimony to good sequencing. "The Jangling Man" is a beautiful pop tune, Newell engaging in a bit of wry autobiography:
So wander dimly through the past
Of the England that you knew
These dispossessed and homeless children
They all belong to you
They all belong to you
And I am just a jangling man
Been in the cold to long-along-along
And I live with a Raggedy-Ann
We never had any money, is it really so wrong?
My favorite bit of monologue by Newell comes at the end of "The Jangling Man," Newell wittily taking a shot at the music industry: "We were #1 in the album charts in the States, for like most of 1968. He pushed us, and he pushed us, and he pushed us. It was a tripper out. It was a bloody hamster wheel. The pressure got too much for Dave, Steve. . . . He used to say Steve was the son he never had. Clever, oh yeah he was clever, so clever, so clever that one of us went mad, almost died. We got our money, didn't we? Didn't we? Cheers" Ouch. It's funny, particularly heard in that British voice, and yet there's some truth in it.
The final cut, "The Green-Gold Girl of Summer," mirrors the brillant opening track. It starts with a lone acoustic guitar that sounds like the opening of The Kinks' "Shangri-La" (another bow to Ray Davies), but morphs into a rock sound similar to The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" (off Abbey Road), ending in an increasingly dissonant bit of psychedelia which is marvelous. Finally, the album closes with a trailer instrumental, "An Englishman's Home," which sounds like a organ dirge, overlayed with an old gentleman talking about how someone (Newell?) who "when the Sixties were over, had moved on, was just not as happy," and so on. Newell is undoubtedly poking a bit of fun at himself, now an old geezer.
The Greatest Living Englishman is a classic rock album, a 1993 release which sounds like a breath of fresh air out of the late Sixties. Martin Newell is, for all his quirkiness, an intelligent writer who continues to delight in poetry, column, and song. Though none of his releases quite approach what he realized magically in his collaboration with Andy Partridge, he continues to work and produce quality songs.
On the back of the CD booklet, Newell quotes a bit of George Orwell that seems to express the uniqueness he senses about England: "When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air." In an era of mass marketing and homogenization of the market, it's a pleasure to re-discover a musician like Martin Newell, a man who knows his place, so to speak, with all its peril and pleasure --- even more, to find that he's still at it, after all these years.
[Listen to Martin Newell's "Goodbye Dreaming Fields" here: Goodbye Dreaming Fields.]