THE SWELL MAPS:
"YER SLAVISH LITTLE CONSCIENCE GONE UNDERGROUND"
by Richard Mason (July 1999)"In existence for most of the 1970's... Swell Maps proved that a group of intelligent, fearless, versatile people can record five LP's and produce little of any lasting value. Though promising at the outset, Swell Maps... succumbed to preciousness and self-indulgence with depressing speed."
Mark Fleischmann & Ira Robbins, those nice people at Trouser Press
"As far as I'm concerned, our LP is definitely the best thing to come out this year."
Epic Soundtracks, shortly after the release of A Trip To Marineville.
Are you one of those poor twisted individuals who spend a good deal of their lives trying to 'get one over' on someone? I am! Worse still, I've spent ages trying to 'get one over' on folk I've never even fucking met! Mad, eh? One person I always wanted to 'get one over' (look, if this constant repetition of that phrase gets on your nerves a bit - tough) was that lanky git out of Sonic Youth who calls himself 'Thurston Moore' (a likely story) who I never met and probably never will. If I did, we'd probably get on OK. Well, maybe. Thing is, he's one of the people who can't help but bang on about what a shite hot record collection he's got. And he has, of course, the bastard - he's got all the Boredoms records, including the ones Eye cut himself probably, plus shitloads of Sun Ra, millions of Television bootlegs and fuck knows what else. (ED NOTE: actually, he sells off a lot of stuff) The more I think about it, the more he pisses me off. Plus he has lots of nice guitars and amps and stuff. Plus his band stink. But the other day I found out I finally managed to 'get one over' that Thurston Moore; what's more, I did it years ago before I even knew that he existed! How did I do it? I saw Swell Maps live, that's how.
The other day I stumbled across an ad online via the Alive/Total Energy label for the new Maps compilation called International Rescue; the following blurb from Mr. Moore adorned its left side:
"The first Swell Maps single I bought ("Let's Build A Car") still to this day gives me a soul scorched buzz'n'rush. As soon as Nikki Sudden's guitar comes slicing slabbing and all out fuzzifying off that crackling vinyl groove you know yr gonna rock. The Swell Maps had a lot to do with my upbringing... I wish I saw them." (1987).
Ha ha ha, wish on, yer lanky streak of piss! I saw them in London (University of London Student hall in Malet Street in early1979, to be precise) before you were even a twinkle in your pappy's eye! Gratuitous vitriol aimed at famous folk far more talented, far better looking and, more to the point, with far, far better record collections than me notwithstanding, the man has a point. Yep, they were fab and gear and all those other words. But sideswiping aside, the Swell Maps had a fair portion to do with my humble upbringing too (I actually met Epic and Nikki once, so chew on that, Moore - sorry, just couldn't resist it). When floundering around for categories into which to put them, most folk would have the Maps down as 'post-punk', which seems a bit odd as even their most die-hard supporters at Trouser Press were prepared to acknowledge that they were about 'for most of the 1970s'; they had actually formed in 1972 but never got beyond each other's bedrooms till punk rock, er, happened. So to have them down as tagging along on punk's coat-tails seems unfair. But the real point for me is that Swell Maps epitomize punk rock as I see it, which goes something like this; do it yourself, do it cheap, do it your way, do it anyway and screw what other people think. Main thing is, do it. And they did. And how.
First record-wise was a 45; "Read About Seymour" came out on the group's own Rather label (distributed by Rough Trade) and featured the ever-flexible line-up that was to serve the group so well. Brothers Epic Soundtracks aka Kevin Paul Godfrey (drums, piano) and Nikki Mattress aka Sudden aka Nicholas Godfrey (guitar, lead vocals) had formed the backbone of the Maps since the bedroom days; here they were joined by schoolmates Richard Earl aka Dikki Mint aka Biggles Books on guitar and Jowe Head (that might even be his real name) on bass and decidedly strange vocals. There was also the small matter of the contributions made by part-time Maps Gordon (or was it Golden) Cockrill (guitar, bass) and the enigmatic Phones B. Sportsman on anything lying around within reach to consider. All of these chaps featured on "Seymour" and the two flip tracks "Ripped & Torn" and "Black Velvet" to a greater or lesser extent.
Despite the reputation this debut has earned over the years, to these ears at least it seems the weakest of the Maps 45s; still a potent force, but almost too orthodox and run-of-the-mill punk sounding in comparison to subsequent glories. The A side though set the pace in terms of certain key factors in the Maps' perverse make-up; the chorus lyric of "Don't look out," the 1' 27" of your time it took up, the gleefully frenetic coda that heralded its ending. Still, the vocals sounded suspiciously in tune and the riff to "Ripped & Torn" sounded almost Status Quo-like; a fine record to be sure, and one that warranted the attention it got at the time, but, well, just another punk rock group, surely? Er, not quite, as we were soon to find out.
"Dresden Style" (aka "City Boys") begins with the rest of the group trying to persuade Epic to resume his drum stool in order that recording may commence. This done, a snare smash, then a wall of ferocious guitar swamps the ears as Nikki's supremely tuneless vocal relates the story of... who knows?
"Red & white witch, second to noneThere's them as would dismiss the above as prime doggerel-pseudo-stream-of-what-have-you-meaningless-it's-all-your-fault-Robert-Zimmerman-style rock music lyrics. Not me; too much like hard work for starters. Throughout their short illustrious career Swell Maps blessed their tunes with lyrics the like of which have not been seen before or since. Sentences and phrases stand out as having meaning, relevance and other realistic aspects; references to model aeroplanes, kids' TV shows, comics and the like otherwise abound. They sound great, which surely is the main criterion, not least because of Nikki's inimitable delivery. Sung/spoken out of tune with a pronounced and utterly undisguised inability to pronounce the letter 'r' properly and delivered in a tone verging between sardonic intensity and scarcely feigned apathy, he remains one of rock'n'roll's finest and most distinctive vocalists. One of his finest moments both as lyricist and chanteur was on the third Maps single, the superlative "Real Shocks":
Little city lady looking for fun
She said 'Come on over, I know yer name
Just tried sucking city boys again'
This is something, this is fame
Another year, change the name
Get it all, just talk too much
I'm only sucking city boys again"
"So you seek to destroy - this has all been plannedThe intense saturation of guitar that characterised the group's sound on "Dresden Style" was replaced by a thinner, more vocal-friendly mix that highlighted the 'harmony' between Nikki's lead and Biggles' more orthodox backing vocal brilliantly. The song was rounded off by what was to become something of a Maps trademark; the Epic piano break. Consisting of simple yet melodically fascinating chords reminiscent of nothing so much as the piano music of Satie or Cowell, played on a wonderfully out-of-tune and archaic sounding upright, it immediately set the record apart from its peers. A quite different aspect of the Maps' sound appeared on the flip, which featured two duets by Nikki and Phones recorded in the latter's bedroom. "English Verse" and "Monologues" are as much part of what the Maps were about as the A-side; nonsensical songs with half-baked chords, absurd words and whistling and knee-slapping as accompaniment. Call them too quirky, too eccentric, too pretentious, even too English if you like - just keep those compliments rolling in...
Can you help us? Can you understand?
So you are yourself; so that is something
Everything I see - I wouldn't change a thing"
And so we come to the single that inspired those immortal words "you know yr gonna rock". Now who am I to question one of the most revered alternative guitar gods of recent years when he would have you believe that the guitar intro is both (a) by Nikki rather than Biggles and (b) as he so deftly puts it "slicing slabbing and all out fuzzifying" in its inherent nature? What he doesn't say is to miss of the point of the whole thing... IT'S ALL ONE FUCKING NOTE! To fully appreciate the glory of it try picturing the guitarist in the studio all plugged into whatever gizmos he used ('cheap' is the operative word here, I should imagine) and then just letting rip secure in the knowledge he doesn't need to arse about with moving about on the fretboard AT ALL! What a life! Your man can really concentrate on looking cool and pulling the right faces and STILL make the mother of all rackets! Why use two notes when one has so much more impact? THAT'S the point, Thurston old chap! Didn't that Branca bloke teach you ANYTHING? I digress.
Another colossal single with a chorus that ate Manhattan ("Whatever you are saving for/At least know what you're waiting for!") and a piano break the like of which had not been heard since, well, "Real Shocks" actually. Turn the fucker over and then you really get going; Both "Big Maz In The Country" and "...then Poland" reveal the identity of at least two people who bought Can and Neu! LPs whilst eschewing complex digital musical technology in favour of stuff you get in kid's toy departments with a few contact mikes strapped on, all with a massive, even Epic backbeat to boot. Glorious. But even now they were only warming up for the real deal.
A breathless child's voice tells you what you already know; "Say! THAT'S a swell map..." then Epic sweeps his hand from right to left along the piano keyboard in true Jerry Lee Debussy style and we're off and running on A Trip To Marineville, the debut Swell Maps LP and a cultural artifact to cherish forever. See it, buy it; that's all that really needs to be said, but I've started, so I'll finish. "H.S. Art" asks if you really DO believe in art in the lyric but gives plenty of clues as to the chaps' intentions:
"If you can see right through the chanceBy contrast, "Another Song" is more personal; "I'd love to spend my life with you/Not really - just sounds good" sums up something or other perfectly. The ferocious tempo of the LP is upped if anything with the gigantic "Vertical Slum" where Nikki goes all Bolan on us: "Got a Rolls Royce/It's drivin' me wild - I/Never thought about it!" The song ends with a massed chant of "The Weather! The Leather!", pretty much what one might expect. The first change in tempo comes with Jowe's composition "Harmony In Your Bathroom," a sordid shuffle over which a gruesome tale of incompetent parenting unfolds, a bizzaro version of "She's Leaving Home" with all the false sickly sentiment replaced by daft noises and absurd vocals. "Spitfire Parade" ups the tempo and blows the whistle on the UK punk scene's obsession with squalor: "Having nothing isn't much of a pose" nails that one tersely and efficiently. Then everything changes; over a gradually unfolding, largely inaudible background conversation (though you can hear John Peel described as old and smelly at one point) Epic plays some of the most beautiful piano you'll ever hear. They called it "Don't throw ashtrays at me!"
And never take the fun away
Hoping that you'll meet us there
Then you'll see what we can do"
Side 1 of the LP concludes with a Maps classic. "Midget Submarines" utilizes a killer dual guitar riff over a driving relentless beat and a sublime Sudden vocal; the way he leans in and intones "Midget subma-wines," DARING you not to notice his speech impediment, glorying in it, must be heard to be believed; one of the great vocal moments of rock. Another unfathomable yet beauteous lyric over and they get down to serious business, bubble blowing, bashing percussion, carrying on the seemingly interminable background conversations that seem to exist on all Maps recordings; a gradual descent from superb punk rock into total experimentation and all in the course of one track, which eventually resolves itself as "Bridge Head (part 9)," a gleeful and splendid mess of noise and studio banter. What now? You turn it over; guess what, another classic.
Jowe takes the basic rhythm figure from Can's "Mother Sky" for his own fiendish devices on "Full Moon In My Pocket." Allow me at this stage in proceedings to quote the lyrics to this little beauty for you in their entirety:
"I got a full moon in my port sightIt's what he does with them that counts. He screeches, gibbers and growls his way through this mantra to fuck knows what, even turning an impromptu coughing session into part of the vocal performance. That's punk rock for you, if you like! But as this virtuoso performance nears its end, listeners should steel themselves, for just over the horizon is one of music's, nay the universe's moments of crowning glory and splendour, a moment in history that makes the wonders that have come before on this long playing record pale into comparative insignificance. As Jowe's demented vocal comes to an end Epic hits the snare twice with a sound that echoes right round the world and back and we're off and running into "BLAM!" with the most incendiary rock music since "Big Eyed Beans From Venus." Over Jowe's unearthly backing vocals, searing guitar, apoplectic bass and huge cavernous drumming (producer John Rivers deserves a brief mention here; his contribution to the Maps' oeuvre was considerable and should not be overlooked) comes perhaps Nikki's finest lyric and delivery of all, a tale of betrayal, spite, apathy, guilt and arsenic:
I got a full moon in my tail light"
"Crawl across the shelf from your hiding placeThese lyrics are worth quoting. No doubt there are those among you who think inserting lyrics into reviews is a dead giveaway for showing that your poor sad journo's nothing more than a frustrated academic who'd deep down rather be quoting legendary rockers like Chris Marlowe or Ronnie Stu Thomas than some pop deadbeat. The only polite response I can think of to such folk is to tell them to go fuck themselves. Fact is, Nikki Sudden's lyrics are more than a match for those of any of his contemporaries (Lydon? Costello? Strummer? Bring 'em on!) and are an integral part of what makes Swell Maps the big deal they were/are/will be. Back to business; "BLAM!" thunders on through verse and chorus until Epic's subtle prompting brings us back to "Full Moon In My Pocket" and the runaway vehicle eventually shudders to a halt, ethereal piano ringing through the fadeout. One of the definitive musical statements of the twentieth century: I intend to brook no argument about this inalienable fact.
Try to look me in the face
I tried to poison you but you poisoned me
Why did you do it - YOU SAID YOU LOVED ME
Playing games is all you can do
But I've played out my role for you
Your slavish little conscience gone underground
Why did you do it - YOU SAID YOU LOVED ME
But then I DON'T CARE - I GUESS I'M NEARLY DEAD
I DON'T CARE - I GUESS I'M NEARLY DEAD"
Then it's time for "Gunboats." And now, friends, it's confession time. I always used to make the tea/read/do something other than listen when "Gunboats" came on the speakers. I could never handle it. I was like one of those creeps Lester Bangs chastised for having a copy of White Light/White Heat (and being pretty fucking vocal to all their mates about the fact) but never actually PLAYING the fucker, like it was some museum piece to be cherished but not sullied with base usage. (Not bad, eh? Maybe I should go down that academic route after all - I hear it pays better than THIS) So not long ago I decided it was time to put things right. I sat down with headphones and listened to "Gunboats," gave it my full attention. And wouldn't you just know it - it's a feast for the ears, swirling other-worldly noise over a monotonous backbeat that never lets up, full of tension and mystery, degenerating into an aural orgy of insane slide guitar and other sounds less readily identifiable. Not to mention a Sudden vocal dripping with sinister gloom and world-weariness that's soon out of the way in order that instrumental dementia should take over.
You get eight minutes plus of this and you're left wanting more; what you get instead is "Adventuring Into Basketry" where things get more extreme, pure rock improvisation, guitars, percussion and electronics fused into something alien yet still tangible, identifiable as the work of real people. These two tracks are the Maps at their most experimental, in some ways a million miles from, say, "H.S. Art" or "Vertical Slum" but at the same time so obviously the same group.
Oh yes, nearly forgot - (a) the final track on the LP proper is entitled "My little shoppes just around the corner" and is a touching ballad written and sung by Phones that takes up all of one minute and a bit of your time - (b) if you were hip as hell and bought the LP soon after release you got a free EP with it which contained instrumental gems such as "Loin Of The Surf" where Jowe shows he's technically a much better guitarist than Nikki or Biggles, the big show-off, and the wonderful "Doctor At Cake," all spastic funk and atonal pre-No Wave guitar stabs. And there you have it. One of the greatest records ever made. Great sleeve, lyrics enclosed, a big thick chunk of vinyl... a complete package. This was what 'indie' music was all about, or what it should have been all about - a group doing itself total justice.
Looking back at Epic's deadpan assessment of the LP that I quote at the beginning of this piece it's plain to see that a quiet self-confidence and crystal clear awareness of what they were about pervaded the Maps' thinking; these were no happy accidents perpetrated by a bunch of wacky amateurs. This was a real group with concrete ideas and the wherewithal to realise them on their own terms. Experimentation? Of course. But far, far more than just that. This was fun but this was also deadly serious.
As for the second Maps LP Jane From Occupied Europe ... yep, that's great too. But you'll have to wait to hear what I have to say about that one, and more besides. Part 2 will hopefully follow in the not too distant future. For now you'd do well to remember that A Trip To Marineville is one of the greatest records ever made. It's great that people like Alive/Total Energy still have the desire to put their stuff out again, especially as Mute's CD reissues seem to have fallen by the wayside now. I can even forgive a reprobate like Thurston Moore for his many transgressions against humanity seeing as how he loves the Maps so much. But then, to know them is to love them - once heard, never forgotten - they didn't just have a lot to with my upbringing, they were an integral part of my life. Come to think of it, they still are.
Thanks to Pete Momtchiloff, without whom you wouldn't be reading this.
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