[xrr rating=4.0/5]The UK in the late ’70s and early ’80s was a time of musical upheaval, sparked of course by the punk movement that crossed the Atlantic in the mid-’70s and took root shortly thereafter. It was a time much like our current era, defined by global economic distress and hidden terrors, by swiftly advancing technology and similarly retreating attention spans and its music was no different. But for years it has been an era musically spoken about with terms like post-punk and New Wave, synth pop and New Romanticism, the burgeoning indie subculture of the time mostly relegated to footnotes about the pioneering efforts of the Buzzcocks and their Spiral Scratch EP or early appearances by later true blue pop juggernauts like Cabaret Voltaire and Scritti Politti. Yet in the past decade or so the conversation has shifted to the bedroom tape culture that was secretly growing and would sort of have its coming out party with the vastly influential C86 compilation tape, and Captured Tracks’ Cleaners from Venus reissues are another excellent addition to the continuously expanding archival efforts of this time period.

Where other bedroom recording projects like Swell Maps had a long, nebulous gestation that solidified in the wake of punk, Martin Newell’s Cleaners from Venus arguably formed as a reaction to the songwriter’s eclectic professional music career. Pre-punk, Newell was associated with most of the UK’s major musical scenes of the ’70s, with stints in an extremely short lived glam rock band and a prog outfit, as well as a missed opportunity as frontman of the London SS, the pub rock outfit that would help spawn both the Clash and the Damned. The only thing these projects had in common was that they wound up falling apart, which in turn pushed Newell away from more traditional methods of recording and distributing music.

That immediately sets Newell apart from many of his tape op peers, most of whom utilized cheap home recording because they had no other options and were simply looking for a way to get themselves out there. Newell by contrast went about making cassette releases because he needed to withdraw from the big production values and ambitious label contracts that had filled his career up to that point. Newell’s first effort under the Cleaners from Venus moniker came in the form of Blow Away Your Troubles, an album that hides significant pop hooks and expert songcraft behind the wall of tape hiss that would later be the hallmark of the lo-fi movement. The songs Newell offers on Blow Away Your Troubles are deceptively simple, with the sublime “Modern TV” even taking on the form and style of a commercial jingle, albeit one seemingly beamed in from outer space. That spaciness runs throughout Blow Away Your Troubles, whether it’s the phaser affected guitars of “Blue Wave” or the heavily reverberated piano of “Winter in the Country,” which otherwise sounds like the kind of snappy ballad Joe Jackson might cover.

The album’s follow-up, Midnight Cleaners, relegated the spaciness to the background, particularly in the keyboard sounds and drum production, favoring instead a jangly guitar tone that would later be an important component of Newell’s solo success in the early ’90s. “A Girl with Cars in Her Eyes” is perhaps the best mixture of these two facets of the early albums, with its twinkling guitar lines and dubby drums sidling up to a synth hook that may as well have come direct from NASA. “Living on Nerve Ends” finds Newell even working in elements of the dark Manchester sound, with its monotone verse vocals, and the growing guitar driven power pop end of New Wave making for one of the more immediately engaging moments on the album. Newell comes across as incredibly forward thinking on the album, seemingly predicting quite a few future pop developments, even going so far as to integrate sampling on the self-explanatory rhythm experiment “Be an Idiot Popstar.”

By the time of Midnight Cleaners, Newell appeared to have become more serious, the recording quality more developed, the songs themselves closer to what was occurring amongst Newell’s peers. “Only a Shadow” specifically shows Newell embracing his power pop instincts, unleashing the guitars to bite at the front of the mix, the drums and Newell’s vocals both more self-assured and confident. Newell by this point was working in more dominant keyboards, as is especially evident on “This Rainy Decade,” a song that has more in common with early Human League than the Fall, or “Factory Boy,” which manages to recall Adam and the Ants’ “Car Trouble” as much as it does Newell’s own work. Midnight Cleaners was originally split into a “Pop Side” and an “Art Side,” though, which means that the more eccentric sonic experiments that Newell liked to sprinkle throughout the previous two albums are by no means gone, but merely concentrated and quarantined.

Between the adventurous eclecticism of these Cleaners from Venus reissues and the recording quality, it’s obvious that Newell’s project is unlikely to suddenly gain crossover popularity. But Captured Tracks have done a great service by making this era of Newell’s career more widely available, and in the process make a strong case for the importance of Newell’s mid-period songwriting. Cleaners from Venus may have unfortunately gone unheard for quite some time, but it’s unlikely that their influence will continue to be minimized now.

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