Monday, June 14, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #70

Since 1972, Nikki Sudden, Epic Soundtracks, Jowe Head, Phones Sportsman and Biggles Books had been making music in one aggregation or another.  In a musical landscape becoming evermore dominated by drawn-out ennui-inducing "progressive art bands" and paint-by-numbers pop disco, their sharp, stabbing guitars, disjointed drumming and occasional found-sound cacophony found precious few welcoming outlets.  Like so many other bands, they had to wait just a few years, until Punk Rock broke in the UK and suddenly those musicians who were trying something a bit askew finally found a receptive audience.

And so it was that in The Year of Punk, 1977, these art school chums released their first single under the name Swell Maps, "Read About Seymour." Bouncy, herky-jerky, and muddily recorded, "Seymour" was almost jazz-like, but with a hard edge and an urgency that fit right in with the safety-pin crowd.  Clocking in at just under two minutes and concluding in one of the great sonic collisions of all time, the single remains one of the classics of the era.

When their first album, A Trip to Marineville, appeared the following year, however, the safety-pin set didn't know what to make of it.  This wasn't a Punk Rock album! Sure, there were some slam/bang cuts, but there were also instrumentals and sonic collages.  The punks stopped listening - but another audience was hugely won over. Marineville went to the top of the UK's Independent charts, and became a hugely influential album for almost every band that would come out of the UK under the Post-Punk banner. Bands like Wire and The Fall simply wouldn't have existed without Swell Maps paving the way, as cuts like "Midget Submarines" attest.

A few non-album tracks would surface as singles around this time, most notably "Let's Build A Car," which Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore has cited as one of the earliest records he bought that heavily influenced his musical direction. The harshly shredded guitar that stabs through the melody line of "Car" would be a style nicked by Moore for nearly everything Sonic Youth ever recorded.

A second album, Jane from Occupied Europe, would follow in 1980 and kept much the same experimental format going.  Perhaps a bit noisier than its predecessor, but not without merit. Cuts like "Cake Shop Girl" and "The Helicopter Spies" are among the finest things the band recorded.

After Jane, though, the band split up, with key members going on to successful post-Maps careers: Nikki Sudden would form The Jacobites, Epic Soundtracks joined up with Crime & The City Solution, and Jowe Head did a stint with Television Personalities, not to mention each doing a few solo recordings as well.  Soundtracks and Sudden have both passed on, but the legacy they left behind is enormous.  Their two studio LPs and assorted singles are constantly being rediscovered by new generations of fans, and the bands who have followed the path they initially carved out of the landscape are innumerable.

This week's NW4NW entry celebrates Swell Maps with two clips.  First, the band's clip for "Let's Build A Car," and then a video recently made by a fan for their wonderful debut single, "Read About Seymour." Enjoy!

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