40. The Jangling Man – Martin Newell

Here at Three Hundred Songs we’re a big fan of local boy Martin Newell. Martin is many things: brilliant songwriter and musician, poet, pirate eyepatch-wearing general-purpose Victorian ringmaster, and adoptive son of Essex. In which we inexplicably find ourself these days.

It was kind of serendipitous timing, then, that just as your author here had finished reading another volume of Martin’s memoirs—an account of his earlier years, titled This Little Ziggy—and was casting around for another song to write about, Martin posted the lyrics to The Jangling Man somewhere on social media, along with a brief background to the song.

Cover of Martin Newell's album 'The Greatest Living Englishman'

The Jangling Man was written and recorded in 1990 against the backdrop of the poll tax riots, while Martin was scraping a living from casual gardening work. It was originally released on cassette only, and credited to The Cleaners from Venus—Martin’s long-time band named after another of his former careers.

They’re breaking glass and burning buildings
In the early greenhouse sun
The powers that be will blame extremists
And I may well be one

And I am just a jangling man
Been in the cold too long

In this particular case, “jangling” does not refer to the trademark Martin Newell jangly pop guitar sounds (although, if the cap fits…). Think more of icy teeth jangling in the cold, or perhaps a small amount of loose change jangling in a worn-out trouser pocket.

Either way, I think we all know who these lyrics are about:

When we dream—dream of a feeling
To wake one day and find that you are gone
And will we dance? Dance by the graveside
So glad, so glad, so glad that you are gone

As Martin writes, “I don’t often post lyrics…because I don’t always think lyrics work on the page like poetry can. However, 34 years after I wrote this song, most of the words herein apply more than ever to the world we live in.”

Indeed, it’s sad to note that here in the UK in 2024, with the benefit of decades of historical remove, we’re only now starting to feel the full extent of the damage that Thatcher did to this country: our industry, healthcare, education system, manufacturing, infrastructure and public services—the list goes on—having been mercilessly asset-stripped by a grim cavalcade of successive Tory governments. There is literally nothing left after decades of under-investment.

Perhaps even more insidious is the cultural shift towards uncaring selfishness and greed. Nobody does anything nice anymore. Nobody does anything at all unless there’s profit to be had.

So all you kids in Cardboard City
I hope you’re having fun
And all you voters everywhere
Remember what you’ve done
And wander dimly through the past
Of the England that you knew
These dispossessed and homeless children
They all belong to you

In classic Newell style, the rancour and odium are wrapped up in optimistic-sounding, singable and—yes—jangly melodies, all as if to lull you into a false sense of hazy security.

The Jangling Man was originally released in 1990 on the Cleaners’ Number Thirteen cassette, but I’ve plumped for the reworked 1993 version from The Greatest Living Englishman, credited to Martin Newell, and produced by XTC’s Andy Partridge. A fitting choice, Andy being a man not unfamiliar with the art of the jangle himself.

Both versions are on the playlist, of course, along with a bunch of other tenuously connected stuff that I thought you might like to hear.

Artist: Martin Newell/The Cleaners from Venus
Album: The Greatest Living Englishman
Writer: Martin Newell
Producer: Andy Partridge
Released: Humbug, 1993

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