The booklet that accompanies the new vinyl reissue of Martin Newell’s 1993 album The Greatest Living Englishman is adorned with photographs of British icons such as Winston Churchill, Laurence Olivier, Noël Coward, and the Kray brothers. It’s a slight misdirect as to what’s actually inside the album: a bucolic collection of whimsy-tinged pop songs that are much more modest than the grandiosity those photos suggest. The album does, of course, bask in the intrinsic qualities of Englishness, but Elgarian pomp and circumstance is the furthest thing from Newell’s mind. For instance, in the rustic, mandolin-plucked “Home Counties Boy,” he could easily be singing with a blade of hay between his teeth: “There was no way I’d dress in gray/And go up to London to earn my pay... Now I’m as free as the times let me be/And no-one’s the guv’nor apart from me.”
This wonderful new vinyl version of The Greatest Living Englishman comes by way of Captured Tracks, the American label that’s re-released the discography of the Cleaners from Venus, the lo-fi recording project Newell fronted in the 1980s (and has returned to in years since). This album was an attempt, of sorts, to shape Newell’s prolific songbook into something slightly more conventional than the endless home-recorded cassettes he’d made with the Cleaners. To that end, he was paired with XTC’s Andy Partridge—himself quite the documentarian of the eccentricities of English life—who produced and played drums. But the homespun quality remains, and the pair recorded its 12 tunes mostly by themselves in Partridge’s shed on a digital eight-track recorder. If it is more polished-sounding than much of Newell’s output, it is still a winningly raw and unfussy recording.
Partridge and Newell had never met prior to recording together, and Newell’s liner notes for the reissue hilariously recount their first meetings. “As I was playing him yet more new songs one day,” he writes, “he’d peered over his spectacles at me and remarked, ‘These are bloody good, Martin. How come I haven’t heard of you before?’” The two got on like a house on fire, and the album bursts with their obvious joy in making music together. Newell’s village-green pop proclivity would have fit in seamlessly on any number of XTC albums, and the two shared influences in British psychedelia from the ’60s—as in the layered guitars that chime like the Beatles’ Revolver, or the molten-lava meltdown of “The Green-Gold Girl of the Summer,” which transforms from a pastoral folk ballad into an electric shred-fest that evokes both Albion pagan ritual and the aerial bombardments of World War II.
But it’s Newell’s ability to craft perfect little toffee-sweets of pop that makes The Greatest Living Englishman such a joy. “She Rings the Changes” effortlessly carries a melody that any Paisley Underground band would trade their rose-tinted glasses for, and “Christmas in Suburbia”—complete with Newell crisply pronouncing each “t” in the middle of each “Christmas”—is both ridiculously catchy and a wry tweak of the nose to the very idea of a Christmas song. The album is charming as all get-out, and record buyers seem to know it: The reissue already sold out solely through pre-orders through Captured Tracks’ website, although it is available through other retailers and a second pressing is on the way.