Punk Rock Classics: Swell Maps

Swell Maps

Punk Rock Classics: Swell Maps – A Trip To Marineville

Personnel:

Epic Soundtracks
Nikki Sudden
Phones B Sportsman
Jowe Head
Biggles Book
John ‘Golden’ Cockeril
Swell Maps

Originally Released: Rather Records/Rough Trade -1979 – (Rough 2/Troy 1)

CD Reissue: Mute – (CD Maps 1) – www.mute.com

Tracklisting:

1. H. S. Art 
2. Another Song 
3. Vertical Slum 
4. Spitfire Parade 
5. Harmony In Your Bathroom
6. Don't Throw Ashtrays At Me! 
7. Midget Submarines  
8. Bridge Head (Pt.9) 
9. Full Moon In My Pocket 
10. Blam! - Swell Maps 	
11. Full Moon (Reprise) 
12. Gunboats - Swell Maps 
13. Adventuring Into Basketry 
14. My Little Shops 

Bonus Tracks:
15. Ripped And Torn 
16. International Rescue 
17. Loin Of The Surf 
18. Shoot The Angels 
19. Elephant Flowers (No.2) 
20. Turn Me On Dead Man 
21. Bronze And Baby Shoes 
22. Nevertoseeanyotherway

Along with our other brilliant local group - The Shapes - Swell Maps have always held a special place in my big Punk heart. They came from Solihull - place of my birth - but also had associations with Harbury & Leamington Spa. To an impressionable young lad from a nearby village – these things mean a lot.

Swell Maps were possibly the archetypal bedroom group. They’d been messing around with their collective influences: T-Rex, Mott, Dolls, 13th Floor Elevators, Can, Faust, Soft Machine, Van Der Graaf Generator, Velvet Underground, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet (blending 60s Garage Punk, Glam, Krautrock - & Gerry Anderson - why not?) – on & off since 1972 - & by the time the Great Punk Rock Explosion went off in 1976 – Swell Maps were probably way more Punky in essence than many silver surfers of that epochal first wave. Just a glance at those pseudonyms says it all: these boys weren’t avoiding dole sniffers – they were taking the piss!

Swell Maps made their vinyl debut in February of 1978 with the utterly clattersome & totally indispensable “Read About Seymour” on their own Rather Records. John Peel battered the record to death on his show, offering the Maps the first of many sessions.

Swell Maps duly spent a busy first 3-months of 1979 ensconced in Johnny Rivers’ Woodbine St Recording Studios in Leamington Spa – www.woodbinestreet.com - bashing out what would eventually become “A Trip To Marineville”. The singles – “Dresden Style” & “Real Shocks” – preceded the LP – in February & June of 1979, respectively.

Johnny Rivers on Swell Maps:

trakMARX - How did you originally hook up with Swell Maps?

Johnny Rivers - They'd heard something I'd recorded - I think The Shapes - and liked it.

trakMARX - Did they stand out from the other groups coming through the door of Woodbine St at the time?

Johnny Rivers - They were completely bonkers - their idea of a great guitar sound was a very cheap 'tranny' amp turned flat out. So loud, in fact, that they'd get screaming feedback when not playing – so they had to flick the amp volume up literally the second they started playing.

trakMARX - Did they stand out from the other groups coming through the door of Woodbine St at the time?

Johnny - Well there's the now (in)famous story of Epic using one of the overhead mikes as a cymbal beater in “Experiments In Basketry” - which is where that weird cymbal sound comes from.

trakMARX - How do you see Swell Maps legacy today - & particular, the influential shadow cast by "A Trip To Marineville"?

Johnny Rivers - Well, they were very innovative and showed just what could be done by not very good musicians who had a lot of 'front' and a lot of vision. It also helped that I was very much into what they were doing and interested in unusual (for the time) stereo recording methods: like the crossed pair - which we used a lot. For example, to record the whole band lying on the studio floor chanting!

trakMARX - Following the sad demise of both Epic & Nikki - what are your most endearing memories of each of them?

Johnny Rivers - Nikki always had faith in himself - that kept him going through thick and thin. Recently, that faith was rewarded with his increasing ability to convey the raw guts and lyrics of a song with what was fast becoming a new, much more mature voice. It is so, so sad he has left us as I truly believe the best may well have been to come.

Epic was a wonderful, sensitive guy. Also the only drummer I know who used a fire-bell as his snare drum damper! Again, his loss is so sad as he too had discovered how to find his voice and was poised to make some fine and moving music. If you listen to that very last LP Nikki and I mixed, (basically of his demos), you will get an idea of what was to come.

Seymour Bybuss (The Shapes) on Swell Maps:

trakMARX - When did you first discover Swell Maps?

Seymour Bybuss - When they pitched up at Woodbine Street, where I was living at the time. They were kind of shabby in that art-school punk manner, but nice chaps. They told me they were from Solihull. I listened to some of the stuff they’d recorded with John Rivers - to me it sounded out-of-tune and rambly. I could not make sense of the lyrics. When I heard they had been signed to Rough Trade I felt a pang of jealousy, as The Shapes had not managed to convince Geoff Travis (?) of our potential. I never saw them play live, which I now regret. Swell Maps and The Shapes never really crossed paths again. I heard about them anecdotally from John Rivers from time-to-time.

trakMARX - Were the Maps aware of The Shapes before you met?

Seymour Bybuss – Yes, if I remember correctly - but only in that fraternal ‘we're-all-from-the-Midlands’ kind of way. I always hoped that “Read About Seymour” was a homage to me – but sadly, I don't think so.

trakMARX - What are your memories of "A Trip To Marineville"?

Seymour Bybuss - Sadly for tmX, I have no memories of this record. I had their first two singles at the time, but that was it.

trakMARX - How do you see Swell Maps today in terms of legacy?

Seymour Bybuss - Having seen the reaction to Nikki Sudden's death, I understand that they were an important cog in the Punk Machine. They were brave in a musical sense in a way that is hard to understand in today's Cash-Worship society - they took risks with their music. 

 

“A Trip To Marineville” hit the racks in July of 1979. I can still remember arriving home from Discovery Records with my copy – excited at scoring the free 4-track EP nestled enticingly inside the sleeve. The record’s cover itself – designed by Epic Soundtracks - was incendiary: an average family home with flames leaping from the windows & front door – possibly signifying the effect of Punk Rock on the avenues of suburbia – possibly not.

The LP opens with the immortal words - intoned by a disembodied female voice with an American accent: “Say, that’s a Swell Map!” The full-on quartet of “H.S. Art”, “Another Song”, “Vertical Slum” & “Spitfire Parade” duly rattle by in quick succession. The sound is rough arsed Garage Punk with an intravenous injection of ART. “Another Song”, in particular, doffs its cap in the direction of Howard Devoto’s Buzzcocks. If there were two polar opposites at the heart of Punk Rock – Captain Sensible’s working class warrior faction - & Howard Devoto’s outsider art school brigade – there’s little doubt that Swell Maps had all 12-feet firmly in the latter camp.

With the listener safely lulled into a false sense of Punk Rock security, “Harmony In Your Bathroom” begins to weird things up a tad with a darkly humorous tale of parental control, a manically stabbing single piano note courtesy of Epic Soundtracks - & the sound of it all going down the drain at the song’s close. “Don’t Throw Ashtrays At Me” features Epic’s piano dusting off the kind ghostly melody he may well have entertained his nearest & dearest with for years while the rest of the Maps chatter & clatter – evoking “The Fuast Tapes” & Can’s “E.F.S”.

“Midget Submarines” rattles along dressed in the kind of perverse percussive clatter that would have been confronted with the words: “you’re not going out dressed like that” – as it left the studio - before dissolving into the rash of feedback that is “Bridge Head (pt9)”.

“Full Moon In My Pocket”/”BLAM!”/”Full Moon Reprise” is a tour de force – a 3-song Krautrock suite spread over 6 minutes 22 seconds – that (in places) appears to poke fun at Johnny Rotten & his cohorts for their failings. “Gunboats” is another spectacular success – at the height of the passion -fuelled fashion for brevity – 8:25 was decidedly un-Punk. Powered by Jowe’s genius bass line - & featuring some marvellous incidental balloon abuse – “Gunboats” builds to a crescendo before descending into chaos. Hypnotising.

“Adventuring Into Basketry” is another long work out – 7:28, to be precise – it starts of as a glorious cacophony before breaking out for the hills with Jowe Head’s bass around the 2-minute mark – helpfully pointing the way out of the Punk Rock cul de sac for Lydon & others.

“A Trip To Marineville” closes with the 44-second “My Little Shops” – a gently strummed croon that advises:

“My little shop’s round the corner – they sell everything from greens to cheese – to clothes to TVs”

The aforementioned bonus EP featured “Loin Of The Surf”, “Doctor At Cake”, “Steven Does” & “Bronze & Baby Shoes” – offering Swell Maps take on everything from the Bonzos to The Residents. Only “Loin Of The Surf” & “Bronze & Baby Shoes” make it onto the Mute CD reissue – alongside the rollicking 13th Floor Elevators stained “Ripped & Torn” & the utterly riff-tastic “International Rescue”.

“A Trip To Marineville” still sounds like the gateway to DIY/Lo-Fi 27-years after its original release. Listening to it today, its no surprise that Swell Maps subsequently became cartographers of note for any future left-field combo scratching around in the barren wasteland betwixt Punk Rock & Roll & Art:

Are you intent on making it?
Maybe even faking it?
The you’ll see the real me
Then you’ll see what we can do

Hope some day we’ll get it down
And make the talking linger on
Hoping it’ll lead us there
Then you’ll see what we can do

Do you believe in art? X 3

If you can see right through the chance
And never take the fun away
Keep on walking to the end
Then you’ll see what we can do

Do you believe in art? X 3

H.S. art (Sudden)
Jean Encoule – tMx 26 – 09/06
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