Swell Maps - Biography

Swell Maps are almost always categorized as a post-punk band, owing perhaps as much to the utter strangeness of their music as to their association with the Rough Trade label. However, it might be more accurate to characterize the band as pre-punk, since the band began in 1972 as the Krautrock-inspired home recording project of brothers Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks, then teenagers growing up in Solihull, England. Three decades after their breakup, Swell Maps’ adventurous records still sound as if they had been recorded yesterday.

Lois and Trevor Godfrey had two sons: Adrian Nicholas Godfrey, born July 19, 1956, and Kevin Paul Godfrey, born March 23, 1959. The family moved from South Croydon to Solihull in England’s West Midlands in the mid-60s. Nicholas acquired a guitar in 1971, and spurred by Kevin’s interest in new music, particularly that of Can and Faust, the brothers began playing together in 1972. Singer and guitarist Nicholas took the name Nikki Sudden and drummer and pianist Kevin became Epic Soundtracks; their collaborator David Barrington took the name Phones B. Sportsman. Bassist and singer Stephen Bird joined shortly thereafter, taking the name Jowe (rhymes with “plow”) Head. In different configurations, this group made recordings at Barrington’s house as Xerox, Mithril, the Black Riders, Sacred Mushroom, Odyssey and Cardboard Giant. Guitarists Richard Earl and John Cockrill joined in 1974, and when the Godfrey parents went away for a week that Easter, the band used the house to make hours of reel-to-reel recordings.

In a 2003 interview reproduced at his website, Sudden mentions seeing the Sex Pistols in 1976 and credits punk with the band’s realization “that anyone could book a studio. We thought that only ‘real’ bands on ‘real’ labels could do that.” Swell Maps recorded their first single “Read About Seymour” b/w “Ripped & Torn” / “Black Velvet” (1977 Rather) in Cambridge’s Spaceward Sound studio, also favored by the Soft Boys, in September 1977 and self-released it. From this point on, Sportsman and Cockrill remained studio members of the band, but in live performance Swell Maps were Sudden, Soundtracks, Earl and Head.

Taken with “Read About Seymour,” Geoff Travis of Rough Trade offered to finance the band’s releases, resulting in the singles “Dresden Style” b/w “Ammunition Train” / “Full Moon” (1978 Rather/Rough Trade), “Let’s Build A Car” b/w “Big Maz in the Country” / “…Then Poland” (1979 Rather/Rough Trade) and “Real Shocks” b/w “English Verse” / “Monologues” (1979 Rather/Rough Trade); Sudden and Sportsman had recorded the B-side of the latter in Phones’s bedroom in 1977. Swell Maps released their debut album, the art-punk masterpiece A Trip to Marineville (Rather/Rough Trade), in July 1979. 

Shortly after completing the sessions for their second album, Swell Maps broke up in April 1980 while on tour in Italy. Jowe Head said in a 2004 interview with trakMARX that “The reasons [for the break-up] are too varied to go into fully but I was still unwell after being beaten up by skinheads—I shouldn’t have toured really. I also felt that the band was becoming too loud and lacking any subtlety when we played live. We were at that time four assertive people with expanding horizons who were unwilling to compromise with each other as much as [we had] before. Also it was our first proper tour, and we discovered how obnoxious we all were!” After splitting up, the band returned to the studio to finish mixing the second album, ...in “Jane from Occupied Europe” (1980 Rather/Rough Trade).

Sudden released the solo single “Back to the Start” b/w “Ringing on My Train” (1980 Rather) and the solo album Waiting on Egypt (1982 Abstract Sounds), the first of his many post-Swell Maps solo releases. Sudden continued to record and perform by himself and with numerous distinguished backing bands for most of the next three decades, also playing with Dave Kusworth as the Jacobites. Jowe Head joined the Television Personalities before embarking on his own solo career. Soundtracks played in the Red Crayola from 1979 to 1981, and he, too, released a solo single, “Jelly Babies” (1981 Rough Trade), featuring vocals by Robert Wyatt and violin by the Raincoats’ Vicky Aspinall. Soundtracks and Earl began recording an album together that was never finished, though Soundtracks collaborated with Head on the 12-inch “Rain, Rain, Rain” (1982 Rough Trade). After Soundtracks drummed on the Jacobites’ two first albums, Mick Harvey and Rowland S. Howard, formerly of the Birthday Party, asked him to join Crime and the City Solution. In the 1990s, Soundtracks released several solo albums and collaborated with members of Sonic Youth.

Whatever Happens Next… (1981 Rather/Rough Trade), the first retrospective Swell Maps collection, is a double album consisting of home recordings from 1974 through 1980. “Collision Time” (1982 Rough Trade) is a concise best-of that collects singles tracks and such great Krautrockish album cuts as “Midget Submarines” and “Blenheim Shots.” ‘train out of it’ (1986 Antar) is a more expansive collection of singles cuts and home recordings, one of which was begun in 1973 and finished in 1984. “Collision Time Revisited” (1989 Restless) expands the original best-of to a double album and features a blurb by Thurston Moore.

Soundtracks was found dead in his London apartment on November 6, 1997. Early reports called his death an apparent suicide.

Sudden died in New York on March 26, 2006 after playing a show at the Knitting Factory. Apparently he died before finishing The Last Bandit, the autobiography he had been writing. Sudden’s autopsy revealed that he had an enlarged heart.

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