Punk's Pioneer Cartographers
Swell Maps released only two albums before disbanding in 1980, but the English group did not go unnoticed by a subsequent generation of musicians, particularly in the United States. Members of bands like Dinosaur Jr., Pavement and R.E.M. have all cited Swell Maps as a formative influence and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore has even remarked: “The Swell Maps had a lot to do with my upbringing”.
But despite such big-name recognition, the band formed by brothers Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks remains relatively unknown today beyond the standard constituency of enthusiasts, archivists and first-generation fans.
Since Swell Maps’ original releases are hard to come by these days (here in the US at least), this latest repackaging of some of the band’s material by Alive is a welcome release. Nevertheless, the uninitiated should bear in mind that Sweep the Desert only tells half of the Swell Maps story. With its tracks running from brief minimal noise interludes to extended instrumentals, this album focuses largely on the experimental side of the band’s music, as opposed to the more directly punk-flavoured singles and other material collected on Alive’s 1999 compilation, International Rescue. To get a fully representative picture of the band, it’s worth investing in the previous collection also.
While Swell Maps are often described as a post-punk band, that designation is perhaps a little misleading. Although they didn’t release a record until punk was well underway, Swell Maps had been in existence—albeit in an embryonic form—for quite some time. In 1972, a 16-year-old Sudden and a 12-year-old Soundtracks began playing at home under the influence of Can and Marc Bolan on makeshift instruments (e.g. telephone books and boxes instead of drums), thereby prefiguring the D.I.Y. ethos of punk by several years. By 1976, the line-up had expanded as Sudden (guitar/vocals) and Soundtracks (drums/piano) were joined by bassist Jowe Head and guitarist Richard Earl.
Swell Maps played their first gig in 1977 in Birmingham and soon put out an appropriately punk-length first single on their own Rather Records label—the one-minute-27-second “Read about Seymour”. (This was 18 seconds shorter than the Buzzcocks’ “Love You More” and may well hold the record as the shortest single of the era.) The band was subsequently picked up by the fledgling Rough Trade label and in 1979 released its debut album, A Trip to Marineville. Following the now-legendary single “Let’s Build a Car” and a second album, Jane from Occupied Europe, Swell Maps split and its members explored other musical avenues.
Jowe Head joined the Television Personalities. Nikki Sudden continued to record and perform both as a solo artist and with the Jacobites and the French Revolution. Epic Soundtracks worked with the Jacobites, the Red Krayola, Crime and the City Solution and Those Immortal Souls and then released three critically acclaimed solo albums, Rise Above (1992)—with contributions from Rowland S. Howard, Lee Ranaldo, J. Mascis and Kim Gordon—Sleeping Star (1994) and Change My Life (1996). He died in 1997.
Much of the material gathered on Sweep the Desert underscores Swell Maps’ Krautrock leanings, combining the repetitive, driving rhythmic patterns and the less structured, experimental dimension of early-‘70s German avant-garde rock music.
The first of these tendencies can be heard on some of the instrumental numbers that are included here. For instance, “Big Maz in the Desert” (from Jane from Occupied Europe) and “Big Maz in the Country” (the b-side of “Let’s Build a Car”) center on propulsive bass and drums (a la Czukay and Liebezeit) that give the tracks an irresistible forward movement, littered with squalls of dissonance. A similarly pronounced rhythm section powers “Big Empty Field” and “Big Empty Field (no. 2)” (both from Jane), while thin, Michael Karoli-esque guitar patterns thread in and out.
On several tracks, Swell Maps put their Germanic influences to the service of more compressed, identifiably punk numbers. This can be best heard on two cuts from A Trip to Marineville, “Full Moon in My Pocket” (which distinguishes itself by featuring a very punk coughing fit) and “BLAM!!” (a cautionary tale for young poisoners). More fluid and hypnotic is the minor classic, “Midget Submarines” (also originally on the band’s first album), whose insistent, weaving guitar patterns and tight beat give the track a distinctive Pere Ubu feel.
The looser, experimental interludes collected on Sweep the Desert are no less compelling. The fragmented “...Then Poland” could be Wire having one of their turns on Document and Eyewitness. “Cave Mines” incorporates what sounds like someone hammering a brick and a fleeting pneumatic-drill-like burst that provides the missing link between Neu!‘s “Negativland” and Einstürzende Neubauten and Digital Hardcore. In stark contrast, the mild and ambient “Raining Room” features Epic Soundtracks’ simple, affecting piano melody.
Like International Rescue, Sweep the Desert keeps the memory of Swell Maps alive. While the material gathered here might not be fully representative of the band’s sound, it does an excellent job of underscoring Swell Maps’ significance alongside such illustrious contemporaries as the Pop Group, the Fall and PiL.
(A minor quibble: the CD includes no information about the band or the origins of these songs. The “liner notes” reveal that Sudden, Earl and Head were apparently involved in compiling the tracks for this release but, beyond that, listeners are left in the dark. To accompany a retrospective of such an important band, more information would be in order.)