Swell Maps

TrackAlbum / Single
Read About SeymourRather Records: Gear One single
Dresden StyleRather Records: Gear Three single
H. S. ArtA Trip To Marineville
Another SongA Trip To Marineville
Spitfire ParadeA Trip To Marineville
Blam!!A Trip To Marineville
Big Empty Field ... in "Jane From Occupied Europe"
A Raincoat's Room ... in "Jane From Occupied Europe"
Secret Island ... in "Jane From Occupied Europe"
Robot Factory ... in "Jane From Occupied Europe"

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Contributor: Rick J Leach

 

Swell Maps photo

“SAY, THAT’S A SWELL MAP!”

When I was a small child I loved, really loved, the Thunderbirds TV series. I believed it all despite the wobbly puppetry and now clearly visible strings. I only had one of the toys – a plastic Thunderbird 1 rocket plane and was desperate for the undersea Thunderbird 4, which I think was yellow. As it was originally aired in the mid-sixties, I must have been about six or seven years old. I don’t know how I knew Thunderbird 4 was yellow as I am sure there was only a black and white television at home. I presume another, more privileged, child at school must have had Thunderbird 4. There was always one spoilt kid in every school who had the full set of toys, whatever the latest craze may have been – but they never had many friends. Maybe that was a lesson for us all, even back then.

What was it I loved about Thunderbirds? The battle of good vs evil, (there must have been some undercurrent re the Cold War I guess in there), the fact that when they called into base, the eyes on their portraits would light up and the cliffhanging narrative – would they get there in time etc. I recall vividly being six years old on literally the edge of my seat, hardly being able to watch. Even now I can well remember one episode with a train full of passengers teetering on a collapsing bridge, and watching in horror in case the Thunderbirds crew didn’t get there in time to save the day. (They did of course, they always did). I also remember another brilliant episode with a fantastic drilling machine on articulated tracks, emerging from the green Thunderbird 2, in order to bore through a rockfall to save some hapless civilians trapped perilously close to death.

Thunderbirds was my favourite. I never particularly liked Stingray, which was a slightly earlier effort by Gerry Anderson, largely because the evil fish people scared the shit out of me. By the time Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90 came around, I was too old and sophisticated for it all (I must have been nearly 8 years old by then), but Thunderbirds will always have a special place in my heart.

Apart from the summer holiday classics that were an intrinsic part of growing up in the 60s (Belle & Sebastian, The Flashing Blade, Robinson Crusoe and White Horses), my other special TV programme when I was growing up was the animated Boss Cat (it was only years later that I understood that it was really a re-write of Sgt Bilko), but I’d still watch it now and still enjoy it.

This brings me rather tenuously to Swell Maps. You’ll have to give it some time to see how this link develops.

 

“YOU CHOSE TO JOIN IN, I CHOSE ATTACK, I COULD HAVE GIVEN IN, BUT I’M NOT LIKE THAT.”

Despite being a “child of the punk revolution” (and how utterly daft that seems now), being 15 years old in 1976 and looking back on it all now, with the hindsight of time, “punk rock” was a totally overblown bucket of crap.

Don’t get me wrong, something had to change on the musical landscape, as 1975 was by and large a time of total tedium. There’s no point in rehashing all the true but well-worn tales of mid-70s rock excess. I suppose that punk is to be valued for changing things, even just for a little while. Punk did change my whole outlook on music and more. I suppose that I wouldn’t be writing this if it wasn’t for that “go ahead, just do it yourself” ethos. I should value punk for that alone, but when you look back at the music, most of it was rubbish. Weedy, tinny, London-based, big record company funded, sub r&b rubbish.

Despite all the poses, most of the artists of the time – and I include The Clash and Sex Pistols right in the centre of this – were more than happy to shed their 1974 pub-rock backgrounds, get their hair cut, stick on some skinny jeans and safety pins and pretend that they couldn’t actually play the expensive guitars that their record companies had paid for.

I have just grabbed a 5CD punk box set from the shelf and gone through all of the 100 or so tracks on it. About 10 of them are worth listening to now. The rest are embarrassing. And that is from a well-lauded and well-reviewed compilation as well. A couple of Ramones tracks, The Buzzcocks “Boredom”, The Adverts “One Chord Wonders” and “Don’t Dictate” by Penetration are all that are worth hearing again. The rest are disposable.

However – and there is always a however – the final CD does have more stuff of quality and interest on it than the rest.

Music that is more interesting, music that has stood the test of time, music that is still worth hearing, music that is less formulaic and ironically much more challenging than anything that Strummer or Rotten ever did.

And that’s the music at the end of punk, when it ran out of steam and turned into something truly experimental and different. Something unshackled from the big record companies and the London/NY axis; something that spoke more of the personal, something that was actually political, something that had the voice of the kids in the provinces, something that wasn’t overtly male and macho, something that you could really just go and do yourself, irrespective of whether you could play an instrument.

Undoubtedly, most of these artists sprung from punk and owed punk a debt (of sorts), but they made it their (and our) own.

The Mekons, Gang of Four, Kleenex, Wire, The Fall, Scritti Politti, The Au Pairs, and more, were different. It wasn’t just three chord thrashing; sometimes it was less than that, but it was all done with an intelligence and a true fierceness that punk only ever played lip service to. Above all, it shed punk’s hypocrisy and replaced it with honesty.

And Swell Maps (as quoted above from Spitfire Parade off their first album, A Trip To Marineville) summed it up precisely. It was too easy to be co-opted into the same mid 70s games; contract, label, tour, drugs, sexism etc.

It was time to do something different.

 

“DO YOU BELIEVE IN ART?”

Swell Maps did do something different.

Short, very short songs on Marineville; what at first listen may seem uber-punk, but weren’t and aren’t. These were songs about the personal; love songs, songs about art, about the weather, songs that meant something and songs that made you think. Underneath the buzz-saw guitar, ramshackle drumming, out of tune vocals on the first three tracks off Marineville; H. S. Art, Another Song and Vertical Slum had humour and vulnerability at their very core.

A Trip To Marineville is, quite possibly, one of the finest albums I have ever heard and certainly up there with the best. It’s been so hard to write anything about it without falling into clichéd rhapsodies, that the best way to approach it is sideways. Marineville was the name of the sea base in Stingray, and Swell Maps were the living embodiment of Top Cat’s gang – Benny, Chooch, Fancy-Fancy, Brain and Spook. I was 19 when the album was released back in 1979 and I loved it, really loved it. Still do, all these years later.

But after four tracks, eight minutes or so into Marineville, the atmosphere changes into something different with Harmony In Your Bathroom, something darker, slower, filled with dread and foreboding. Tinges of psychedelia, hints of Syd Barrett-era Floyd, insistent repetitive Krautrock piano hammering and the sound of running water. This experimental track could only have been made by people who had changed their names to Epic Soundtracks, Nikki Sudden, Jowe Head, Phones Sportsman, and who came from Solihull.

Swell Maps only released two albums. The second, The Swell Maps In “Jane From Occupied Europe” was issued in 1980 at the point of them breaking up. Jane From Occupied Europe was a much more abstract affair than Marineville; although two seven minutes plus tracks from the first album (Gunboats and Adventuring Into Basketry) had given a sign of what was to come. Jane From Occupied Europe has been criticised for being too experimental, too thrown together, too much the sign of a band falling apart. I’m not sure if that’s true or fair really, but for me, I like it just as much as the first album, but just in a different way.

Robot Factory opens Jane From Occupied Europe and sounds pretty much how you’d expect a robot factory to sound. Let’s Buy A Bridge (track two) seems to go back to being a Marineville-style two minute track but there’s saxophones and oddly mixed in-your-face vocals that remind me of mid-era Residents work. Big Empty Field, an instrumental, like many of the tracks off the album, has a ringing, gentle guitar chiming like thimble bells throughout and some great driving drum work powering it forward.

Secret Island and Collision With A Frogman vs The Mangrove Delta Plan (the latter being another eight minute workout with echoes of weirdly twisted surf rock i.e. not really punk) are standout tracks for me as well.

There were also a handful of singles; of special note are Read About Seymour (1977) and Dresden Style (1978).

For the purposes of this Toppermost, I could really pick any ten tracks from the two albums, any of the singles or B-sides, anything from the assorted compilations or from the Peel Sessions they recorded. Anything at random would do; any 10 tracks would give a fair summation of what they were about.

But I’ve decided to stick to four tracks from each of the albums and the aforementioned two singles.

However this is so arbitrary that it’s pretty ridiculous. If you’ve never heard them before, just get hold of A Trip To Marineville before anything else. I promise that you will be amazed.

 

A SORT OF POSTSCRIPT

After Swell Maps broke up, Nikki Sudden, Epic Soundtracks, Jowe Head & the rest went their separate ways. Nikki Sudden, ironically, given all I have mentioned above, became more and more “rock and roll” through his solo career and turned into a pale shadow of Keith Richards; long hair, scarves, guitars etc. Sadly, Nikki Sudden died in 2006 at the age of 49. His brother, Epic Soundtracks, following a stint drumming for Crime & the City Solution (amongst many other bands), died in 1997 at the age of 38.

 

The official Nikki Sudden website

Swell Maps – Peel Session 1978 full set

Interview with Epic Soundtracks (and Kevin Junior) 1997

Jowe Head interview on the early days of Swell Maps

Swell Maps discography

Nikki Sudden discography

The Jacobites discography

Epic Soundtracks discography

Jowe Head discography

Swell Maps biography (iTunes)

Read more about Swell Maps in Rick’s “Totally Shuffled – A Year of Listening to Music on a Broken iPod” available as a Kindle book here and in paperback here. He is also the author of a trilogy of books about going to the Glastonbury Festival: Turn Left at the Womble;Left Again at the Womble; Tea and Toast and Rock and Roll.

TopperPost #453

3 Comments

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Jun 19, 2015

    Nice job, I couldn’t argue with any of those. Some of us here remember Fireball XL5 and Four Feather Falls.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jun 20, 2015

    Rick, thanks for this fine list. Only discovered Nikki Sudden’s solo work recently through his collaboration with the great Australian guitarist. Rowland S. Howard. Have the box set The Boy From Nowhere Who Fell Out of The Sky which includes a few Swell Maps tracks. However, this list gives me a guide with which to explore their work further…

  3. Rick Leach
    Jun 20, 2015

    Thanks Keith! Fireball XL5; now that was a show!

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