Home Counties Boy
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.
Martin Newell, “She Rings the Changes”
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:
Martin Newell, “Cinnamon Blonde”
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.
Note to self…
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!
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