I first learned about Martin Newell nearly 14 years ago to the day, not too long after my wife and I had moved to Hungary for a year. A Townsman sent me a cassette with Newell’s The Greatest Living Englishman on one side and Crowded House’s Together Alone on the other. The latter was advertised as a “good stoner album” from a band both of us had previously been lukewarm on (thanks, in large part to the productions of Mitchell Froom). This Newell guy’s album was produced by XTC’s Andy Partridge, and my friend touted the album as an extension of The Dukes of Stratosphear. This was music to my ears. I’d felt XTC’s proper studio albums had been getting too clinical.
Today I’m having particularly strong associations with this time because our move way back when coincided with the day before my beloved Phillies team ended a typically long drought of winning baseball by clinching the division and heading to the playoffs. I would miss the entire playoff and World Series drama, staying up ’til all hours in Budapest, trying in vain to tune in the game on some army radio station on shortwave radio. I was loving our new adventure overseas but a part of me missed home more than ever. In short time, The Greatest Living Englishman would somehow speak to this longing for home. Although the songs had nothing to do with missing life in a large, East Coast, American city, they had everything to do with a personal sense of place. My wife and I listened to this album constantly, and Martin Newell would soon become one of “my” special artists, alongside The dBs, The 101ers, Roy Wood, Big Dipper, and countless others. The guy’s been on my radar, although you’ll see that the radar of a busy middle-aged man fails now and then.
A few weeks ago I picked up Newell’s latest release, A Summer Tamarind, and it was like pulling on a favorite brand of jeans. He has a way with jangly tunes that never strikes this hard-ass ’60s music fan as cloying. It’s jangly music the way it was meant to sound. His lyrics are typically funny and down-to-earth; my delicate sensibilities are not distracted by songs about the genetalia of fishes and keeeeeeraaaaaazzzzzy diamonds, no matter how sincere and tuneful the singer of such numbers might be. Newell’s best songs strike me as the best songs I hear by any of my music-making friends who are found in the Halls of Rock, be it The Unknown Mysterious 60’s Group, The Trolleyvox, Photon Band, The Dead Milkmen, our man Hrrundi, and so on. There’s something about hearing a great song from a person I’m friends with; I get this added knownledge about my friend that is especially touching. Of course, I don’t know Martin Newell from a hill of beans, but his songs sound to me like they’re coming directly from a CD or cassette handed to me from an old friend. Here’s a new one from A Summer Tamarind that’s been sticking in my head:
With that song in mind – and the knowledge that Martin’s new album as well as The Greatest Living Englishman are available through eMusic (what better way to try our trial offer, found on the right side of this page?) – let’s move onto our chat with rock’s finest gardener!
RTH: I did something I’ve only begun to do more often in the last year, download your new album – legally [cue eMusic plug], of course! The first half dozen times I listened to it I kept thinking how good it sounds and how much more your voice is given room. I went back and listened to The Greatest Living Englishman, and your new album sounded even richer. This is a long way of saying at least two things. First, in lieu of liner notes for this middle-aged rock fan to study while on the john, who produced and played on A Summer Tamarind?
MN: I played nearly all the guitars. I consider myself not a bad bass player, but Carl, the engineer/producer, turned out to be much better and quicker. I therefore only played bass on, “Mulberry Harbour” and “Stella and Charlie Got Married”. Drums were all Carl. Keyboards, tambourines, and percussion were me. And I did all the vocals. It really was a solo album in old-fashioned terms. It took only 20 days (and short days) recording time. A lot of the stuff was one or two take performances, especially vocals. That’s why it sounds so fresh and uncontrived.
RTH: As someone who once managed to get his music out through the grassroots style of home-produced cassettes, what’s been your experiences with and impressions of the digital download era?
MN: I was ahead of my time. This though, is perfectly as useless as being behind my time. So it wasn’t a virtue. I forsaw it happening. On the other hand I always tell young musicians: “As long as young people with dreams make music, businessmen will find ways of hijacking the music and taking a big skim.”
I think there is almost too much music about. On reflection, I was much happier as a 16 year old, with only three albums and ten singles, which I played over and over. Now I have a room full of CDs and tapes, I have never had such access to music and yet I can’t think what to play.
RTH: As an artist you seem very comfortable in your skin. “Wow! Look at That Old Man”, from your new album, makes me laugh and seems to sum you up pretty well. From what I’ve gathered dating back to your Cleaners from Venus days, you’ve managed to sidestep every popular music trend that was there for the following. How far back did you know who you were as an artist? How far back did you accept and commit to your voice?
MN: I tell you, it was mostly ineptitude and isolation, rather than a stance. I just couldn’t seem to get things right and I ended up with my own thing. Kind of like Reggae came out of Jamaican calypso musicians picking up R&B records from American stations, and this skewed music with its bass drum on the third beat of the bar came out. Someone said to me, “You’ve never sold out Martin.” And I’m like, “Nobody ever ASKED me to!” I’d have gone like a shot. You think I wouldn’t have LIKED all that Jack Daniels, assorted bags of drugs, and naughty foreign ladies impaling themselves on me? The problem with me is that I didn’t even know how to be corrupt!
RTH: When punk hit, did you ever cut your hair, ditch your flares, and backdate yourself a bit in hopes of fitting in with the new scene, the way the members of XTC, The Damned, Joe Strummer, Nick Lowe, and other pub rockers and glam-rockers of your generation would do?
MN: While I’d been waiting to ditch the flares for a long time – they kept getting tangled in my bicycle chain – I just couldn’t find the skinny jeans in the shops. As for the haircut, I never really did get around to having short hair. I’ve never liked it. But I often had it razored in strange ways. More glam than punk. Oh and I stayed in a heavy prog-rock band all through the punk period. I only left it in 1979 cos I wanted to do 3-minute songs again.
RTH: Does the glam part of your musical background ever play a role in the songs you write these days? What did Bowie and glam rock mean for you coming out of the Swinging ‘60s of your teen years? I ask because, although Bowie was also huge in America, the whole glam scene was experienced at arm’s length in the US.
MN: I retain a huge affection for its fun, it’s showiness, and it’s sheer light-hearted songs. 1972 and 1973, particularly, were just two of pop’s greatest years for me, in the UK at least. Bowie, Bolan, Slade, and Roy Wood made brilliant pop music, much of it still unsurpassed.
RTH: Are there any bands and out-of-print albums from that era that are worth us shockingly ignorant American rock snobs seeking and plunking down wads of dollars to buy? Should we track down the last remaining copy of Stray albums? All we tend to know about are the heavy hitters: Bowie, T Rex, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, Sweet, and maybe Slade, thanks to ‘80s hair metal bands covering their songs.
MN: Some which spring to mind are Suicide, by Stray, and Neverneverland, by Pink Fairies, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, by Mick Ronson (which I loved), and the recently released Boulders, by Roy Wood. Personally, one of my faves of the entire period was your very own Steely Dan with Countdown to Ectasy.
RTH: Your memoir of your formative rock years, This Little Ziggy, should be required reading for aspiring rock musicians. Did you hope to pass on anything special in writing the book? Do you feel you might have captured something in music-making literature and mythology that is rarely captured?
MN: I wish someone would re-print the thing and publish it. I haven’t got the machinery in place to service it really, but if any publishers are interested, call now, I do actually own it again. I wrote it in an insane burst of work to give it its continuity and flow. Yes, I’m sort of proud of it. It’s horribly honest.
RTH: Do you have any favorite music memoirs or biographies? Did I read correctly that you have another book on in the works?
Next: Martin answers this question and, later, participates in some Dugout Chatter!
MN: The best Beatles book is Ian Macdonald’s Revolution in the Head. Tony Fletcher’s biog of Keith Moon is pretty good. Nick Kent’s The Dark Stuff is as fine a collection of rock essays as you could wish to read. Oh and it’s worth reading Age and Guile by your very own PJ O’Rourke. There’s some good stuff in there about disillsuionment with the counter-culture.
I was going to start Ziggy‘s sequel memoir this year, but got sidetracked, firstly by the new album and then a new book, coming out soon about my town. It’s called A Prospect of Wivenhoe–Snapshots of an English Town. It’s out in a month or so. There’ll be stuff on the website about it.
RTH: As described in This Little Ziggy, your glam-era band, The Mighty Plod, was centered around the typical notion of success that most aspiring rock stars aim to achieve. What was the value of that small taste of success you had as a young man? What do you think lasted for you long after the last bit of glitter fell off?
MN: I think the biggest single thing that happened for me, was leaving the drug-scene behind aged 19 and within a few short months, joining a proper gigging band in The Mighty Plod. That was a huge personal success for me. I have never looked back. The glitter never really did fall off.
RTH: If you’ll have a seat on my couch for a minute…As an army brat who moved frequently, you project a wholly “English” musical perspective. Is this something that developed naturally, out of your tastes, or did the young Martin ever identify more strongly with your country’s pop music as a way of feeling connected? Is there an American rock ‘n roll pastiche in your back catalog, a “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” that would shock us?
MN: I LOVE American music. But I became obsessed with my own roots and what constituted Englishness…as a cultural thing. I think that it was exactly because I moved around such a lot as a kid that, I developed this strong identity of Englishness to carry around in my heart. I’m convinced of it. Much of The Light Programme, though (my last album), was very American sounding (I thought), and “Wow! Look At That Old Man” is chock-full of Americana. I even sing it in a New Yawk-(ish) accent. [At this point, your reliable follows a big Duh! regarding “Wow!…” with a rare instance of ignorance about the release of The Light Programme. “Must seek out this album…”]
RTH: As a writer of songs, poems, books, and newspaper columns, is there ever a point when you need to assign an idea to one medium or another? Do you ever get a “2-for-1” idea, which ends up being expressed, say, through both song and newsprint?
MN: There’s more of a crossover between my poetry and prose. In the new book, many of the expanded essays began as poems. But yes, more rarely an idea will stretch (or condense) to another medium.
RTH: Like many American fans, I would imagine, I first learned of you thanks to your collaboration with Andy Partridge on The Greatest Living Englishman. Had he been a fan of your music? Were you aware of his work? Was there a feeling of having been twins separated at birth?
MN: I was aware of him because Lol of the Cleaners From Venus, kept playing me his records. And then Giles, later on did as well. I didn’t actually like XTC when I first heard them. I didn’t like the singing. I thought it was overmannered. Then round about Black Sea I really got to like the band.
Lol, when he moved to Bath, played Andy some early Cleaners stuff, which I gather Andy thought entertaining. But when I was introduced to Andy as a solo artist, much later, I don’t think he made a connection between those early tapes and the songwriter who was being presented to him.
I did get on with Andy extremely well, yes. Giles Smith said we were very similar to each other. Although I was amazed to find that Andy wasn’t actually a ruralist. I thought maybe, because of his songs, that he’d been brought up on a farm or something. Whereas, I really was an outdoor worker. I’d been a gardener and had worked on farms.
RTH: What did Andy contribute as a producer? Were there songs he helped reshape in any substantial way? I know you had previously recorded some of that album’s songs on your own.
MN: No, he didn’t really reshape songs. They were already fully formed. He was surprised. He thought the songs were of a standard that he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t already more famous, why he hadn’t heard of me before. That’s what he said. Andy was very meticulous. He really did a producer’s job. Loads of double-tracking and stuff like that. He’s a really clever old stick you know. People told me he was autocratic. I could see why they would say that, but I never had any problems with him at all. We got on really well. He was the producer. I let him get on with that job.
RTH: Has your home in Wivenhoe been added to the XTC fanboy tour of Swindon? Do strange people like myself wander up to your place clutching first-generation Cleaners cassettes for your signature and blessing?
MN: They do from time to time, yes. It’s been like that since before the XTC connection though. There’s the literary thing too. I see people pointing up at my window sometimes, when I’m working.
RTH: Did The Off White Album meet your hopes, at least in musical terms? The album has a punchier, more American ‘60s pop production than I typically associate with your music. Some of the songs sound like they could have come off that psychedelic album by The Four Seasons, The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette (and I mean this in a complimentary way).
MN: The Off White Album…or the making of it for me was marred by admin. problems with the record company. Getting musicians (and me) paid, for instance. We made it in 23 working days. The company took 14 months(!) to get it out. That really hacked me off. The producer, Louis Phillipe, was was great fun, very European…almost classical sensibilities. Wonderful string arranger. I prefer the vocals on the Englishman album, in retrospect.
RTH: A number of us at Rock Town Hall find sport in spotting the influence of an artist’s works. You’re probably familiar with this sort. For instance, we’re likely to get all excited when we spot the “Whiter Shade of Pale” reference at the end of your new song, “You Made It Rain”.
MN: That was semi-deliberate. I share with Captain Sensible a love of ’60s organ sounds.
RTH: As a musician who works within certain stylistic parameters, whether intentional or not, do you ever feel the need to distinguish your work in any way from that of an artist who might be happy to simply ape and plunder an earlier style of music, such as a rockabilly revivalist?
No. I don’t. So far as I’m concerned, I make traditional English pop music as it used to be made in the ’60s, a time when it was still moving forward. I think we’ve come down the wrong road. I’ve gone back to where I was and am starting out from that point again. I’m not exactly a revivalist…no more than say James Hunter or Amy Winehouse anyway. But I have shall we say, returned to certain values. Good songs, done spontaneously, not overworked or overproduced. It’s what I do. I had to go away and do some jazzy stuff to learn what it was that I was really good at. All art is stealing. Nothing is new under the sun. I’m not much different from a rockabilly revivalist, really, but it’s a somewhat bigger palette to use….oh and more psychedelic.
RTH: Again, along these “spot the influence” lines, is the download-only song from A Summer Tamarind, “Ain’t That What the Cowgirls All Do?” intentionally styled after Elton John’s classic era? If I’m reading too much into this, can we still be friends?
MN: No. Not at all. Not that I have anything against Elton. I wrote it hoping that someone would cover it, preferably an American. I wanted Paul Carrack to do it, but a publisher told me that it was no good and didn’t have a chorus. I replied, “They said that about Maggie May too.”
At the end of our chat, Martin Newell took a seat on the bench and chimed on some Classic Dugout Chatter, Rock Town Hall style! No copouts from this guy; he takes on the tough questions and fires off decisive answers that are spot on! BRAVO! Before I sign off and let the Chatter take us out, the Hall thanks Martin for his time, his music, his writing, and his all-around great spirit!
Steppenwolf or MC5?
Steppenwolf (more melodic…but only marginally)
Who had the best hair in rock history?
Keith Richards 1968-1972 and 1979.
Your old bandmate Giles Smith’s Lost in Music or High Fidelity?
Lost in Music hands down.
What multi-platter release from the ‘70s would have most benefitted from a reduction to an EP?
The Hollies or The Byrds?
The Hollies! (Although the Byrds were pretty good.)
What artist or album do people most often assume you like that you do not, in fact, get?
Bob Dylan (I prefer Manfred Mann’s versions of his songs). Oh, and Van Morrison, the miserable sod.
Is there any long-held belief on the state of rock ‘n roll that you feel the need to get on your soapbox and shout about?
There are too many Lists (Best Year Ever, Top 50 Albums, Greatest This, Wildest That). It’s Boys Club stuff.
People spend too long in the studio too. There should be a 6-week limit and $10,000/£5,000 budget on each album made. By law! It would give them all a cage to be brilliant in.