Thursday, March 30, 2006

GEE, THAT'S A SWELL MAP



Saddened to hear that Nikki Sudden, formerly of art noise-punk-post punk group Swell Maps, died in NYC last Sunday. He was 49. Cause of death has not been announced yet. Swell Maps were born in the early 1970s in Solihull, a rather drab middle class suburb of Birmingham in the West Midlands of England. At the time, I lived a few miles away in Walsall. I lost track of Sudden's music many years ago, but still have Swell Maps' first single from 1977 on their own label Rather, which was distributed by Rough Trade records. 'Read about Seymour' is only 1 minute and 27 seconds long, and exemplifies the economy and DIY ethos of the punk aesthetic. It clatters and clangs and like many of the group's songs it threatens to collapse into chaos any moment but just manages to keep on trucking with the smell of an oily rag. I actually liked one of the two tracks on the B-side just as much: 'Ripped and Torn' (only 1 minute 45 secs) had this guitar sound which sounded like Status Quo. The lyrics were better than Quo though. I think a fanzine took the title as its name. It sounds soooo punk now. I think the nearest I got to dressing like a punk was ripping and tearing a sweater slightly on my way to a Stiff Little Fingers gig in Bradford. Anyhow, I remember my friend James Clubb buying the Maps' albums A Trip To Marineville and Jane From Occupied Europe. So I must have been listening to this stuff when I was about 15-16-17 years old. There were punkish tracks though at a more leisurely pace than your pogo type stuff. Some of them had great short guitar riffs, fatter sounding than The Buzzcocks, more like the Beatles on the White Album and that medley on Abbey Road. I've since read that Sudden, his brother Epic Soundtracks (great name), and Jowe Head were into the Stones and T. Rex. What's the aural equivalent of hindsight? They now also sound a bit like the psychedelic pastiche of The Soft Boys, the group that spawned Robyn Hitchock and Kimberley Rew who wrote 'Walking On Sunshine' and 'Going Down to Liverpool' for Katrina and the Waves & The Bangles respectively. I had a few Swell Maps singles which I must have sold at some time or other--Let's Build A Car & Real Shocks, for definite. The latter was covered effectively inna electrodiscodub stylee by The Soft Pink Truth AKA Drew Daniel from Matmos on his hommage to New Wave a couple of years ago. But Swell Maps also had another side to their character that consisted of long repetitive lo-fi instrumentals with few if any lyrics, especially on Jane From Occupied Europe. These were more difficult to listen to back then. They didn't have the shape and familiar guitar of the two or even three minute song. They just bashed along with the drummer getting quite sweaty. Some of them were quite droney, and tinny with lots of echo; other tracks sounded like hammers and saws in a muted Einsturzende Neubauten sorta way. I've only just read that the group were also into Can. I had no clue who Can were at that time and am still pretty ignorant of their work though I'm keen to investigate this group since I've read a lot about their influence. In my narrow teenage knowledge of Sounds more than the NME, I wasn't prepared for this more arty stuff yet. It wasn't until PiL came along with Metal Box in 1979 (or was it 1980?) that I began to appreciate the loosening of musical structure. I should have been more responsive to these alternatives since the ambient music in the house was my parents' Indian classical music, including the odd live act that would play all night in the living room. But that was background music. It took Metal Box, mushrooms and Gavin Smith lending me Greensleeves albums and 12" Discos with their reggae spatials to really open me up. Later when I was writing about music for the Michigan Daily in the late 80s, I snapped up a promo copy of a compilation album of Swell Maps work called Collision Time Revisited, released by Mute and Restless. Thurston Moore provided brief sleeve notes and recounted how he heard 'Read About Seymour' as 'this weird and foreign thing'. Moore also says that the band were 'a part of his upbringing' and he wished that he'd seen them. Alas, I also failed to witness them live. I remember from the descriptions of the varying personnel on their singles and album sleeves, and the snaps of them in what looked like a domestic bedroom studio, that I felt something of the aura of a bunch of musicians just hanging out, messing about, experimenting and having a lot of fun as they discovered the pleasure of creative collaboration and recorded it all. They probably took that vibe with them to the stage. Check out their albums which have been recently released. 'Midget Submarine' would make a great children's singalong standard. These days I seem to be writing a lot about musicians passing away.

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