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Friday, 14 January 2011

Review: Swell Maps - A Trip To Marineville (Released 1979 on Rather/Rough Trade)

First put online on the Head Heritage website in 2005


Epic Soundtracks (Kevin Paul Godfrey)
Nikki Sudden (Nicholas Godfrey)
Phones Sportsman (David Barrington)
Jowe Head (Stephen Bird)
Biggles (Richard Earl)
John 'Golden' Cockrill

To list all the instruments (and objects) that the above team of strangely monikered enthusiasts would get their hands on to make this excellent album, the roll call would probably fill a good size chunk of a paragraph alone.
The standard instrumentation list would see the late great Epic Soundtracks on drums and piano, whilst older brother Nikki Sudden, Jowe Head, Biggles, Phones and Golden (!) would form a formidable wall of cacophonous luxury with six-string and bass guitars, but not without the odd toy saxophone, vacuum cleaner and ...balloons! name just a few 'additives'.
Sudden and Head would alternate on the Lead Vocals with all of them adding the customary backing vocals.
From 1972 onwards, the U.K. West Midlands air somewhere in Solihull would be filled with the beginnings of what would become the legendary Swell Maps!

Being BIG fans of T.Rex and all things Glam, all things Can and Faust, not to mention Soft Machine, Beefheart, Van Der Graaf Generator and the Velvet Underground to name just a few, they would slowly piece together their influences and sussed attitudes, just in time for that 'big change' in 1976/7 and not without their sense of pure fun.

A healthy dose of interest with Gerry Anderson's TV creations was also in evidence.
In fact, I have somewhere, an old Stingray or TV 21 annual (okay, I had it for my 6th birthday in 1966), that has a small feature by one Barry Gray (he did the electronic sounds for the Doctor Who full length colour feature film -Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD- as well as the music for Anderson's creations), anyway, this feature was about how to make your own eerie music, then proceeded to instruct you about borrowing your parents' Tape Recorder, then record the lowest note on the family or school piano and further instructions on how to edit it and play it backwards, slow it down etc., not without the brilliant advice about making sure you ask to borrow the equipment and return it as you first received it.
Over a decade later, I certainly knew where Swell Maps were coming from, I mean, how could I resist an album with a title like this ??

When John Lydon said: "There should be more bands like us", it would seem that quite a few people missed the point, taking the "us" instead of the "like" as starting blocks as it were.

These mental troubadours however, were certainly going for it.
Their debut single- "Read About Seymour" -was recorded in september 1977 and later released totally by themselves (i.e. no management or pocket svengalis), under their label name 'Rather Records'.
'Seymour' was a rollicking skank which eventually derailed and flew out of your room in under one and a half minutes.

After the late John Peel had given this debut three tracker a more than decent plug, he also had them do a session in 1978.
They would then spend the first quarter of 1979 with studio wiz John Rivers (after another great single), to record the bulk of this debut album, which originally came with a free 4-track EP.

It kicks off with two very Buzzcock-esque (!) type tracks- "H.S. Art" and "Another Song", but because of their debut 'Seymour' 45, you knew that there was something really odd under the surface.
These opening raspers could be set out to lull the 'new wave audience' into a false sense of security, as by the third track- "Vertical Slum" - there is a mid-point of it's duration where things start to go slightly unhinged with all the Maps bellowing- 

"..the weather!...the leather!.....the weather!...the leather!..." 

-then it's back to the cut and thrust with "Spitfire Parade".

We start to see the layers peel off with- "Harmony In Your Bathroom", a very strange tale of parental guidance with their hapless offspring splashing about in the bath while she gets a "real charge from the radio" while a stabbing piano is entering the mix and bubbling water sounds add to the tale. The tracks now start to take on a more bizarre sound and shows that they were never afraid to push that boat right out.

"Don't Throw Ashtrays At Me"- is based around a plaintive piano solo from Epic, with bits of harmonica and tuned percussion flicked in, whilst other Maps engage in conversation in the background, which at one point leans towards some playful skit about John Peel.
The title was inspired by Duncan Fallowell's lyric's for Can's 'Dizzy Dizzy'.
This track was probably more in line with what the Maps were doing in their 'pre-punk' days, as it has a touch of 'The Faust Tapes' about it, or indeed Can's 'E.F.S.' series of tracks.
These type of Can tracks were to influence so many people who later went on to experiment in the mid to late 1970s, as they opened up so much scope and presented the fact that anyone could make a recording.

"Midget Submarines"- is steadily paced catchy pop with all manner of percussive whacks, water (!) and gloriously intertwined guitars and like all the album, is an absolute must for the headphones, especially when it drifts into- "Bridge Head (pt.9)"- a clanking, screaming thrall of guitar, drums and vocals which take a sudden halt (no pun intended) to a plonking glockenspiel and a voice that declares- "I promise not to move....much".

Ah, now to the absolute fire-in-the-veins blistering masterpiece that is the turn up the volume and ride the post-punk-krautrock train to oblivion that is "Full Moon In my Pocket / Blam!! / Full Moon (Reprise)". The bit with the choking vocals is a joy to hear.
In retrospect, the ending is quite telling as it has a piano hammering away and the sound of guitar strings being plucked at the 'tail-piece' wonder Thurston Moore said that these folks were a big part of his 'growing up'.
I wouldn't be at all suprised to learn that chief Butthole Surfers- Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary were partial to this bunch as well.......

"Gunboats"- opens with Jowe and Biggles polishing up some nice glissando guitars while Epic's drums tread a tribal path with some steady
riffage from the bass as balloons are rubbed and Epic overlays some high register drone organ. A great garage hypno-fest which slithers to...

"Adventuring Into Basketry"- After a skewed beginning with treated drums and fiddled guitars, it finds it's feet with Epic's marvellous rhythm (and 'damaged microphone'), Jowe's sub-prog bass and some wild panning of what sounds like cymbals attacked with a blow-torch.

"My Lil' Shoppes 'Round The Corner"- is an odd end, as in an odd forty seconds:
"My Lil' Shops 'round the corner, they sell everything from greens to cheese to clothes to T.V.s"
The free E.P. consisted of four tracks:

"Loin Of The Surf"- A belter of a track that sounds like a totally different group, in fact, it would be revealed on the booklet notes of the recent lush CD package of this album and EP (released by Secretly Canadian), that the Maps were indulging in one of their Mahavishnu Orchestra style pieces!

"Doctor At Cake"- is a side-winding pseudo-funk two minute stake out, while "Steven Does"- is a Viv Stanshall cum John Otoway style 12-bar hissed up broth, complete with wayward nylon-guitar solo while the lyrics are pure poetry as well as being hilarious.
"Bronze And Baby Shoes"- is a strange shuffle of altered state slowed-down tape reel and sub-crooned vocals, some great temple reverb backing vocals and a track that would fit the Residents 1970s repertoire with ease.

Anyone new to this album may find it a bit hard to take at first, as it's quite a journey from it's punk-pop beginnings to the more adventurous
leanings and I could babble on about the lyrics and vocals for hours.
I could also wax about the way their instruments interlock and seem
together but apart at the same time.
There really should be a bigger space for them in the 'post-punk' museum, especially when they virtually had the stance, attitude and vision well before 1976.

There have been a few compilations which comprise a good chunk of this album and their follow up- "...In Jane From Occupied Europe"- together with the singles and rare cuts.
There are (apparently) hours and hours of material which they recorded in the bedroom/garage years, but who knows whether or not that any of it will see the light of day.
For old and new listeners alike, the said CD re-package of this album is a must, with it's original artwork and track by track lowdown by the band members (a great booklet, they even mention Barry Gray!).
Praise be to Sudden and Rivers who did the remastering.
Epic would be really proud.

Swell Maps didn't have a long shelf life in their exposed days, but they sure left an unremovable stain in some folks' hearts.

Written by Tim Jones february 2005

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