Swell Maps

They'll get you where you need to go!

(if you're trying to get to Tiresome Racketville, that is!)

*special introductory paragraph!
*A Trip To Marineville
*Jane From Occupied Europe
*Train Out Of It
*Collision Time Revisited
*International Rescue

In a low-key way, The Swell Maps' short and chaotic career epitomized the experimental vigour of the post-punk era. Early incarnations of the group, centering on brothers Nikki Sudden (guitar/vocals) and Epic Soundtracks (drums/piano), had existed as early as 1972, but it was punk's `do-it- yourself' culture that has continued to sell bucketloads of records. In the 90s he has shown a glimmer of his old self on Vagabond Heart (1991) and the energetic reunion with Ron Wood on the live MTV special Unplugged, perhaps spurred by the accolades for the excellent retrospective StoryTeller (1990). But it is only rarely these days (on record, at least), that Stewart puts that great white soul voice to work on a song that merits his attention.


A Trip To Marineville - Rough Trade 1979
Rating 8

The main adjective that comes to mind every time I think about the Swell Maps is "self-indulgent." Favoured nouns might include "disappointment," "letdown" and "bunch of boring noise." Sadly (or happily, depending on how one looks up my pants), this is only one side of the band. The other side sounds like a killer cross (hee hee - little Jesus humor for you Christians out there) between the strong reverbed chainsaw guitar buzz din and doped-up-sounding non-singing of Crass, the `60s Beatlesy modness of The Jam and the catchy punk riffagery of The Clash. But weirder.

On first listen, A Trip to Marineville sounds like skewed sideways garage punk, frashin' ou' at yer with a dazed sleepy look on its voice and a distinctive "wall of noise" trebly reverbed wash of guitars. I know there are a lot of young people out there tonight who may not understand musical terminology like "reverb" and "terminology," so let me pause for a brief moment to explain that "reverb" is the effect that makes the remnants of a sound remain after the hard hit has finished. For example, if a guitar goes "JANK!" and stops immediately when the player mutes the strings with his hands, that means there is no reverb. If it goes "JANK!," the player mutes the strings with his hands, and instead of stopping, a little, quieter "LYYYY" continues and fades away, there's reverb. It tends to muck up sound in a very trebly way - have you ever heard music piped through a large auditorium or gymnasium? Big spaces like that create lots of reverb. That's why it's so hard to tell what a song sounds like over the speakers of your gym - all the sounds are reverberating horribly even as the NEXT actual real-time sounds come in and continue.

That's what a good deal of this album sounds like. They purposely chose to drown the guitars, the cymbals and even some of the vocals with reverb, as well as delay (another word for "repeat" or "echo"). And mister, you ain't gonna find more out-of-tune vocals than those of Mr. Nikki "Sixx" Sudden. So there's all these great punkers "Spitfire Parade," "Vertical Slum" and the AWESOME FUCKING AWESOME AWESOME AWESOME FUCKING AWESOME octave-leaper "Full Moon In My Pocket," as well as more midtempo-style rockers as the dizzy, loping "Harmony In Your Bathroom" (about a little girl who loves to sing along with the radio when she takes a bath) and the tough, mean classic rocker "Midget Submarines," which should have been a HUGE ROCK HIT goddamn the world. but...





HA HA! A little Pros And Cons Of Hitch-Hiking humor for all you Roger Waters fans out there. And who isn't really? The one thing a lot of people don't know about the dreamy Amused To Death creator is that he was actually playing in a band LONG before his platinum-selling debut Music From "The Body" (or simply 'Body, as the youngsters call it). But I'm getting off the subject. It's so hard to stay on ANY subject when the topic of R.W. comes up.

But my point is that there's all this "experimental" crap on here (the likes of which a focused hitmaker like Roger Water would sneeze his nose at) that drives tedium into the heart of society. Let's take a look at "Gunboats." Dark, suspenseful, almost evilly so - until about three minutes in, when it turns into a bunch of balloon noises for five goddamn minutes. Or how about "Adventuring Into Basketry" - seven and a half minutes of improv noise so directionless and irritating that it makes Larks Tongue In Aspic sound like Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones by comparison? Or "Bronze & Baby Shoes," which takes a rock band, adds violin, piano and saxophone, then slows it down to quarter-speed and turns the reverb up to 50 billion so the finished product sounds the least listenable that it could possibly be? These aren't the choices of wise men! What is going on here?

I couldn't tell you. Maybe it's just the simple fact that they were a great punk rock band that wanted to be an art band. Heck, it worked for Wire! Swell Maps took it a bit further and unfortunately, in MY opinion, didn't have the caution or good taste to pull it off.

Now if they'd added in a little Seger-style boogie woogie, awww now THAT would be avant-gardism that you could dance with your baby to!

POST-SCRIPT: I'm told that the last 8 tracks on the cassette version I reviewed were bonus tracks. So it's slightly less self-indulgent than I thought. Nevertheless, "Adventures In Basketry" is still on here and that one's a no-go. Otherwise, forget all that I said about everything else.

Reader Comments

Definitely a cool band, but one which has the capacity to annoy. Not because any of the stuff they do is especially unpleasant in and (out) of itself (my but-tocks). Just because they occasionally ruin a SUPERTASTIC SONG with too much dicking around.

Real life example? You got it: I was making a mixed CD (by special request) for a friend who wanted a compilation of catchy garage-y songs. My mind said, "Hey, Swell Maps. That'll grab 'im!", and my ears said, "Hang on, Skeezix, you sure about this?" and my stomach said, "GRROROORORWWWWLLL" cause I hadn't eaten yet. Any which way but loose, I threw on "Harmony in Your Bathroom". Listening back to the mixed CD (an important part of my Quality Assurance Guarantee) the next day, I was pumped to hear the song charge into it's FANTUBULAR riff (utilizing, according to Jowe Head's liner notes, a "whole tone scale"... right, ok Jowe, we get it, you're a musical stud on the order of Scriabin. Tell me, didn't "Adventures into Basketry" incorporate a twelve-tone scheme? Please tell me it wasn't just a bunch of random noise). But after about 3 minutes, it just turned into a bunch of repetitive noise that took forever (2 and a half minutes to be exact) to end. Not a good thing to have happen on a short-n-snappy garage mix right after "High School" by the MC5.

You know, screw me anyway. I like this band. I should be focusing on the good points (and there are many). And dammit, I like noise. I just don't want it muddying up the waters of what shoulda/coulda been a cool 3 minute song to please my friends. Leave that noisy stuff in the Basketry/Gunboats section, and I'm a happy guy. I'll listen to that later when my lame friends have left the room.

I can't believe you didn't mention Steven Does. Hilarious accent, great catchphrase "I guess they don't know what Steven DEW!!", absurd lyrics, wonderful guitar solo.

Indeed, though, too much boring noise. Worth listening to though, as a whole. My Lil' Shoppes Around the Corner is gorgeous. The Full Moon suite is rocking. I've yet to really care much about the first side.

And as far as I know, the bonus is only 4 tracks: Loin on the Surf, Doctor at Cake, Steven Does, and Bronze and Baby Shoes. It came as a 7" vynil with copies of the 12". The cover art is funny (Jowe Head's parents being ball busters).

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Jane From Occupied Europe - Rough Trade 1980
Rating 8

I've always thought of this one as that one with too much "Alan Thicke-ing around," but now that I know the truth about these so-called "bonus tracks," I see the truth and the truth is FILTHY. That truth is that it's STILL chockfull of songs that aren't really songs, and I don't give a good goddamned what Brandan Kearney or anybody the hell else has to say about it, good dogdamn! On the upside, lots of these sound cool -- "Robot Factory" is a really nice chimy noise with a drumbeat and both "Big Maz In The Desert" and "Big Empty Field" are great noise experiments (the second of which even has an odd time signature! Like a jazz artist might play!), introducing the ceaselessly high-pitched ringing, clanging guitar tones that make it clear that I had my head up me arse when I thought that Sonic Youth had created their own sound on Confusion Is Sex. That sound is this sound. Difference being that Sonic Youth actually bothered to write melodies with it, instead of just churning away as the drums played. On the bad unfinished side, there's "Collision With A Frogman Vs. The Mangrove Delta Plan," which NOBODY can tell me isn't a so-so rock instrumental that turns into a 5-minute slop of clicking and clanging at the end. And "Mining Villages" is just a floppity distorted noise!

All this wide-eyed psychedelic racket is forgivable, since some of it is mesmerizingly strange, and only the friggin' "Mangrove Delta Plan" is completely worthless from beginning to end. But what is slightly disappointing to MY ears is that most of the actual *songs* aren't anywhere near as screwily, excitingly jumparoundable-inducing as "Full Moon," "Midget Submarines" and my other favorites from the debut. Plus they've turned the reverb down and they sing actual correct notes on occasion, making the tunes sound more like normal `70s pop-punk rock than Tha New Style, Bitch that they had created and thrown at the frightened listener the previous year. But hey, "Secret Island," she's a classic, you know. With one chord. And "Whatever Happens Next." is a wicked-cool pounding rocker.

I mean, it's still a really good album. But instead of being split between awesome rockers and weak noise experiments, it's split between some great noise and rockers - and some bland rockers and noise. That's all. Don't condemn the messenger. I am speaking completely objectively here, with only the facts in mind. The facts are that this album gets an 8. Not on MY scale - my opinion doesn't enter into it at all. I'm talking about the WORLD's scale.

As the All Music Guide would put it, A Trip To Marineville might be the definitive Swell Maps album, but Jane In Occupied Europe is as definitive as Swell Maps gets. Therefore I give one of the albums 5 stars and the other one 2 stars, without explaining why.

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Train Out Of It - Antar 1986
Rating 6

This album (and I use the term "this" loosely) contains hit singles, b-sides, compilation cuts, offshoots and outtakes. Highlights include the catchy Pavement influencer "Let's Build A Car," the ska-esque "Read About Seymour" (first Swell Maps song I ever heard! And it made no impression at all!), a version of "Full Moon" that is JUST the heavily-delayed (repeating, as we discussed above) vocal track backed by nothing (and it STILL sounds great!) and the great punk rocker "Dresden Style."

Unfortunately, too much of this compilation is noisy homemade garbage ("Texas"), pointless noise ("Stitch," "Big Maz In The Country," ".Then Poland") and underwritten rock ("Black Velvet," "Real Shocks"). There's apparently yet ANOTHER Swell Maps release that is even more self-indulgent and leftovery than this one - a double-album called Whatever Happens Next. You may be better best leaving yourself to the two "official" albums.

One thing I gotta hand to these fellows - they DO like to try out different noises! Let's see what they fiddle around with on this one (including the even-shittier-bonus-tracks): Balalaika? Whistling? Metronome? Car Horn? Radio? Guillotine??? Bodhran? Jews Harp??? Machinery?? Violin?? Bowed guitar?? Water?? Saxophone??? Volkswagen???? Bass??

What the hell is a "bass"??????

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Collision Time Revisited - Mute 1989
Rating 7

Kudos to the wise folks over at Mute, who managed to put together a Swell Maps double-album compilation that is actually INFERIOR to the original two albums!!!! For this, you have to thank Train Out Of It and additional shittyass experiments that I assume are probably on Whatever Happens Next. Let's look here - Okay, there appear to be six songs from the first album (but not "Harmony In Your Bathroom" -- :7( ), 8 from the second album (and NO "Collision Mangrove"!!! :7) ), 7 from Train (but no "Dresden Style"?!?!?!?) and six other pieces of crap that I'm assuming were probably on the other one. Don't waste your time on this - just buy the REAL two albums and save yourself the pain of sitting through "Blues No. 2: Beatle Bonfire," which is so much less interesting than its title, it was singlehandedly responsible for the deaths of John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

Oooh! Actually this "Fashion Cult" song is a catchy fuckin' sped-up version of the "I Can See For Miles" chord sequence.

I take it all back! Pay $30 for this double-album just so you can hear "Fashion Cult"! It ROCKS!

On the uppers side, MOST of their best songs are on here - "Let's Build A Car," "Midget Submarines," the real-life "Full Moon In My Pocket," the beautiful piano instrumental "Raining In my Room," "Gunboats," "Blenheim Shots," "Secret Island" and the classic smash-n-rub of "Big Maz In The Desert." So way back when it was really hard to find Swell Maps albums, I suppose this seemed like a worthwhile substitute. Not anymore though, when you can find copies of the first two albums on sale for a nickel apiece behind the counter in every adult bookstore in America.

Reader Comments

the swell maps albums reviews suck

Nikki Sudden
Fashion Cult is a three chord bash.

I recorded a studio version on my fiorst solo album, Waiting On Egypt. The best way to hear the song is the Maps' one or the remixed rendition on the Secretly Canadian reissue of WOE!

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International Rescue - Alive 1999.
Rating 7

Some guy sent me an email this week telling me that my Swell Maps reviews suck. This makes me feel bad, of course (especially since I got several other pieces of hatemail this week, from fans of Quarashi, Weezer and old Misfits), so I'm going to go out of my way to direct this review to that person who was kind enough to point out my shortcomings without actually giving me any indication of what those shortcomings might be.

This brand new compilation does something zany -- it deletes all the weird experimental crap to present Swell Maps as a normal early punk rock band like the UK Subs, YOU FUCKING PRICK! Awesome punk rockers like the title track, "Ripped & Torn," "Secret Island" and "Spitfire Parade," YOU COCK-SUCKING DOUCHEBAG, tear up your post-punk CD deck, SISSY ASS-FUCkING COCK-TWIDDLER. Unfortunately, YOU CUM-GUZZLING FAGGOT, in an attempt to present us with lost-to-the-world unreleased Swell Maps gems, RIMJOB CHAMPION, they have clogged down a perfectly nice FUCK OFF AND DIE! compilation with boring one-chord rants that are ABOUT AS WORTHLESS AS YOU, YOU SHIT-FOR-BRAINS BALL-SNIFFING ASS DILDO ADDICT. So-called "rock songs" like "Off The Beach," "One Of The Crowd" and "Winter Rainbow" don't do anything at all, MUCH LIKE YOU, RANCID VAGRANT WITH YOUR HALF-INCH PECKER DANGLING OUT SO PRETTY GIRLS CAN POINT AT YOU AND LAUGH, and several of the others rely on nothing but a catchy bass line, 45-YEAR OLD VIRGIN, UNLESS YOU COUNT JACKING OFF ALL OVER YOUR MOM WHILE SHE SLEEPS. Interesting idea, UNLIKE YOUR BIRTH, but in the end, this bit of historical revisionism doesn't quite work out, YOU MISERABLE EPITOME OF MEDIOCRITY WITH YOUR FINGER SHOVED PERMANENTLY UP YOUR ASS.

Reader Comments

hygienewithadrian@telus.net (adrian xxx)
Very sensitive appraisal of subject. Kudos!

living_for_kicks@yahoo.com (Marco Pervo)
If you take all of the up-tempo punkish/drony/new wavy songs off of each album, as well as a few of the noisy self-indulgent Kraut rock influenced stuff, and put it on one release, you would have something really special. For years, this stuff sounded pretty straight ahead punky new wave to me, but after passing along burned CD's to my friends and hearing their reactions, I know this stuff is a bit weirder than that. But gosh darn it if these are not some of the catchiest songs of the era, even if it is all lyrically surreal to match the odd time signatures. I dig it, but yes, their is some experimental oddness in their to throw off the weak of heart. I highly recommend this band to anybody the least bit adventurous.

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Other Swell Maps Web Sites

*Wouldn't it be SWELL to own a MAP? Click here to purchase some SWELL MAPS

*Years ago, Nikki Sudden emailed me and asked if I could add a link to The Official Nikki Sudden Web Page. I did so and forgot about it until I just ran across the link today. As you likely know, Nikki has since passed away. :7( His site is still online though, so click here out of tribute and respect.

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