Nikki Sudden

TrackAlbum
Channel SteamerWaiting on Egypt
Johnny Smiled SlowlyWaiting On Egypt
The Road Of Broken DreamsThe Bible Belt
Chelsea EmbankmentThe Bible Belt
Back To The CoastTexas
Jangle TownTexas
Death Is Hanging Over MeDead Men Tell No Tales
Great PharaohGroove
I Belong To YouThe Jewel Thief
Stay BruisedTreasure Island

Nikki Sudden photo 1

 

 

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Nikki Sudden playlist

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Few artists have worn their influences (which included Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Faces, T. Rex, Can, New York Dolls and especially Johnny Thunders) as much on their sleeve as did Nikki Sudden. At the same time, there were only a handful of artists who had as utterly distinctive a style as he had. Partly, this was because of the unique quality of Nikki’s voice; no one has ever sung in quite the same way. His music was also remarkable for its combination of differing styles, all held together by an over-arching world view which was very much his own.

As John C. Barry, his bandmate from his final backing band the Last Bandits put it, his imagination was filled with “the deep palate of unbelievable and fantastic Bible stories; the ‘short but sweet’ life of a pirate in the seventeen-hundreds, Napoleon and Wellington, Midget Submarines and Jane in Europe … [and] the Rock & Roll excesses of the Stones and T. Rex in the nineteen-seventies.” Other Sudden favourites were the Biggles books and the TV series, Stingray and Thunderbirds. It was from the latter that the name of his first band, Swell Maps, formed with his brother Epic Soundtracks, was derived. Sudden was born Adrian Godfrey in 1956.

He spent his early years in Croydon, but the family moved to Solihull in the English midlands when he was 8 years old. Along with his brother, Kevin (aka Epic Soundtracks), his first major musical enthusiasm was for T. Rex. Indeed, he remained a staunch Marc Bolan fan throughout his life. After going through a number of short-lived bands, the brothers eventually founded Swell Maps with other local musicians including Jowe Head, Richard Earl (aka Biggles Books), David Barrington (aka Phones Sportsman) and John Cockrill. Although they were founded before punk, the Maps have often – probably rightly – been described as being a ‘post-punk’ band. In a sense, this reflects the eclecticism of the group’s musical influences and Sudden’s own ambivalence about the punk movement in general. Although he admired several of the groups involved and was influenced by its ‘back to basics’ approach, he was far too much of a rock traditionalist ever to fully embrace it. For anyone who wants to find out more about Swell Maps’ history, I recommend Rick Leach’s excellent Toppermost.

After the demise of Swell Maps in 1980, Sudden embarked on a solo career. Waiting On Egypt, his first solo album, was released two years later in 1982. From it I have chosen the brilliantly ebullient Channel Steamer and the Johnny Thunders tribute, Johnny Smiled Slowly. ‘Steamer’ is one of those songs (like some of Jonathan Richman’s) that always improve my mood no matter what humour I am in in before hearing it

It also retains much of the spontaneity and rough and ready quality which made Swell Maps such a great band. By contrast, ‘Johnny’ paints a deft portrait of the ‘scene’ surrounding Thunders, who was one of Nikki’s favourite musicians of all times. Sudden also wrote two of the best pieces ever written about him. These can be read here and here.

Johnny Smiled Slowly contains this succinct but indelible portrait of Thunders after a gig:

Johnny hid by the amps, his head in his hands
Looking for powders and for his way home

 

Sudden’s second solo album, The Bible Belt, was his first to also feature the late great Dave Kusworth among the backing musicians. Their obvious musical kinship – based on a shared love of T. Rex and the Rolling Stones – went on to find its finest expression in the group, the Jacobites. Mike Scott of the Waterboys also played a big part on the record, contributing the brilliant riff on my first choice from it, The Road Of Broken Dreams. In my opinion, this is one of Nikki’s very best songs. It also features one of his best and most coherent lyrics. Generally, Nikki’s lyrics were far more about involving a mood rather than following a straightforward narrative.

The next choice, Chelsea Embankment, is one of the finest examples of Nikki’s ability to craft evocative word-pictures. He later described it as an attempt to write a song along the lines of the Stones’ Play With Fire. To be honest, I hear quite a bit of As Tears Go By in there as well. To complete that effect, Nikki also got the Australian backing singer Lizard (aka Max Edie) to take on what I see as the Marianne Faithfull role on the track. This is probably Nikki’s most beautiful melody and Lizard sings it superbly (she is perhaps best known today for singing backing vocals on the Waterboys’ The Whole Of The Moon).

As the song shows, ‘Englishness’ was very important to Nikki and he had a romantic attachment to many aspects of English history, especially to his own vision of the eighteenth century there. Indeed, his persona always seem to be partly modelled on that of an English bohemian dandy from that time. He also had a lasting fondness for folk-influenced music, even choosing Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief as one of his five desert island discs in an interview with AustralianRockReview.com.

 

Between 1982 and 1985, Sudden’s principal creative venture was the Jacobites (watch out for a future Toppermost on them). Later on, he sometimes used the Jacobite label for the various backing bands he used, but – for me at least – the name should only really be applied to the times when both he and Dave Kusworth were the creative forces behind it.

His next solo album was Texas, first released in 1986, which is possibly his finest ever record. It was made with a small group of trusted collaborators who included John Rivers on piano, his brother Epic on drums and the great Rowland S. Howard on acoustic guitar and electric slide. Epic also co-produced the album and it is one of the most professional sounding in Nikki’s career. The first choice from it, Jangle Town, lives up to its name with the beautifully layered guitar accompaniment:

Rowland himself described Back To The Coast, also from Texas, as “one of the ten best rock’n’roll records ever”. Whatever the truth of that description, the T. Rex style riff gives the song a real swagger and snarl:

 

In contrast, Nikki’s next album, Dead Men Tell No Tales, is a far darker and more sombre affair. My selection from it, Death Is Hanging Over Me, is one of the best of his acoustic songs. Nikki wrote it after watching the movie Amadeus at a cinema in Hamburg. There is a haunting quality to the song, which is only accentuated by the fact that this live performance of it was recorded not long before his own death.

Great Pharaoh, from 1989’s Groove, is another one of Sudden’s T-Rex style rockers (albeit with a Dylanesque vocal). It includes perhaps his best self–description (the boy from nowhere/ who fell out of the sky).

My last two selections come from two of Nikki’s late albums. His openness and friendliness – and the respect he won from his peers through both his solo work and his time with Swell Maps and the Jacobites – meant that in his later career he worked with many well-known collaborators. I Belong To You from his 1991 album The Jewel Thief is a fine example of this. His backing band on it is essentially R.E.M. (minus Michael Stipe). It is a much more country flavoured song than any Nikki had recorded up to that point.

Given his lifelong love of the Faces and the Stones it was also fitting that Ian McLagan and Mick Taylor both featured among the backing musicians on his 2004 album Treasure Island. My selection from it, Stay Bruised, is one of Nikki’s more reflective songs. Its stately and elegant melody also serves as a fitting epitaph to the career of this quirkily brilliant and utterly distinctive songwriter.

As John Rivers, his long-time musical associate put it, there was “no one else in the world who could EVER sound like Nikki. Impossible. You could never mistake him for anyone else, or anyone else for him. Which, when you think about it, is pretty cool.”

 

 

FOOTNOTE

Nikki Sudden was still completing his autobiography, “The Last Bandit: A Rock’n’Roll Life” at the time that he died. Although it was unfinished and probably not as coherent or structured as he would have liked, the published version is still a very good read. Unfortunately, copies are very hard to find. Some of Nikki’s other writings can be found on various websites, including this one at What A Nice Way To Turn Seventeen. I also found the sleeve notes to the reissues of his solo albums on the Secretly Canadian label and those to the superb box set The Boy From Nowhere Who Fell Out Of The Sky extremely informative and useful. It is also worth checking out the many interviews with Nikki which are available on the web (some of them here can be found here). Nikki was always a fine interviewee and was never less than interesting.

 

 

POSTSCRIPT

My two Toppermosts on Nikki Sudden and Rowland S. Howard have concentrated on their solo work. I would, though, like to draw attention to the excellent work they did together. The collaboration between the two men came about largely through Nikki’s brother, Epic Soundtracks. After Swell Maps split up, Epic spent some time as drummer with the Australian band, Crime & The City Solution. At the same time, Rowland S. and his brother Harry were also members of the group. It was through this connection that Nikki first met Rowland in May 1985. The two men – both of whom were totally unique characters in their very different ways – developed an almost immediate friendship. In the following year, Rowland played on several tracks on Nikki’s album, Texas. They also played several live dates together, which allowed them to further develop their musical partnership.

This eventually led to their recording of the joint album, Kiss You Kidnapped Charabanc, which was released in 1987. Unlike some similar partnerships between gifted musicians, Nikki and Rowland complemented each other’s strengths rather than negating them. In a sense, the album is different to much of the other work that they both did. There is a strong Lee Hazlewood influence throughout, for example, and there is more of a fractured blues feel on the album than in other recordings by the two men. At times, this is vaguely reminiscent of the music then being made by the great American band, the Gun Club. Among the outstanding tracks on the 2002 reissue of Kiss You Kidnapped Charabanc are the Gothic sounding ballad, Wedding Hotel and Rowland’s extraordinary rendition of the Billie Holiday classic Don’t Explain. There is also a superbly atmospheric spookiness to the excellent Girl Without A Name.

The Live In Augsburg bonus CD on the Secretly Canadian label’s reissue of Kiss also gives further evidence of what Rowland brought to Nikki’s music; he gave it an edginess and an avant-garde quality which arguably it had not had since the Swell Maps days. Some of Howard’s playing here is among the very finest in his career, as on When The Rain Comes Down. His playing on this version of Death Is Hanging Over Me also gives it an even more eerie quality than it had on the original recording.

Indeed, such is the high quality of their work together that is a pity they did not pursue the collaboration further. We are, however, left with some brilliant work which stands comparison with the best of the other classic work done by both men.

Nikki Sudden photo 2

Nikki Sudden, Epic Soundtracks, Rowland S. Howard

 

 

In 1989, Pat Fish (of The Jazz Butcher) interviewed Nikki Sudden for the indie TV show, Transmission.

 

“My brother Epic Soundtracks and I recorded our version of my favourite Television Personalities song during the sessions for the Texas album but I wasn’t able to sing it. When I tried a vocal track it seemed to be in the wrong key for me – so we left it unfinished. I always liked the backing track and always planned to complete it one day. When I saw Wally Salem was putting together a TVPs tribute set I thought that I should be able to sing it fine now, eighteen years on.” Nikki Sudden

 

“I got to know Nikki Sudden in 2005 in Berlin and did some videos of him while he was recording music to what was going to be his last album. Finally, I did a mix out of these tapes. This is NOT a music video. This is for Nikki Sudden. In memory.” Tom Ståle Engebretsen

 

Nikki Sudden (1956-2006)

 

Nikki Sudden official website
– featuring discography, bio, shop and gallery of the Jacobites/Swell Maps singer-songwriter and guitarist

Nikki Sudden discography (Wikipedia)

“The Boy Who Fell To Earth”
– Nikki Sudden 6CD set reviewed by Michael Toland for Blurt magazine

Toppermost #453 – Swell Maps

Nikki Sudden biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

TopperPost #923

3 Comments

  1. Wally Salem
    Dec 20, 2020

    What a wonderful post on such an incredible talent. THANKS Andrew!
    Nikki was such a great supporter of other musicians and a very generous soul, something I had experienced personally. When we were putting together our first Television Personalities tribute, on our tiny label he went out of his way to contact us (complete unknowns) and offered to finish recording his cover for our tribute. It wasn’t something that would help his career or even get him much exposure, but he loved Dan & the Television Personalities and just wanted to be part of it. He didn’t stop there, though, he often mentioned our tribute to others, even wrote about it on his website and included it as one of his best releases. He even chose one of the songs by my label partner from the tribute as one of his favorites. We were so pleased and very appreciative and I can’t even describe how happy we were to have him included, especially since I was a huge fan of his work and always will be.
    Thanks again!

  2. Dave Stephens
    Dec 22, 2020

    A fine Topper Andrew. I knew nowt about Nikki other than the name before I started reading & listening. I found an interesting artist whose oeuvre warrants exploration.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Dec 22, 2020

    Wally & Dave; thanks for the kind words.
    Dave – There is a wealth of work to explore out there. Nikki was always a prolific artist and worked with such a vast array of other artists (going all the way from Johnny Fean of Horslips to Jeff Tweedy).
    Wally – When researching this piece I came across so many references to Nikki’s generosity and graciousness. And should reiterate both his excellent version of ‘If I Could Write Poetry’ and your superb Television Personalities tribute albums.

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