A Trip to Marineville;
Jane from Occupied Europe
Thirty years ago, the Godfrey brothers entered their parents' garage with no expectations. They came out with two albums and a punk style all its own.
Sometimes creativity thrives best when nobody's looking. Such is the case with Swell Maps, an English rock band that, during its short life, combined punk's driving energy with avant-garde improvisation and a healthy helping of the absurd.
Formed in 1972 in a small town outside of Birmingham, Swell Maps was the project of teenage brothers Nicholas and Kevin Godfrey. Adopting the names Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks, the Godfreys recruited some school friends and started banging away in their parents' garage. The group augmented their traditional guitar-drums setup with tins, boxes and typewriters, adopting sounds as strange and disparate as Captain Beefheart's psychedelic blues, cartoon soundtracks and krautrock.
But it wasn't until punk broke in 1977 that Swell Maps really became a band. Empowered by the movement's do-it-yourself ethic, the Maps set out to do what had previously seemed out of reach: record an album. The results are collected on their first LP, A Trip to Marineville, which, along with their second and final album, has just been reissued by Midwestern indie label Secretly Canadian. As Sudden explains in the newly expanded liner notes, "Until the advent of punk, we hadn't realized that you could book a studio and make a record--we thought this was solely the preserve of bands on labels. We had been playing for over five years before we made our first single."
The result of this isolated incubation period was the unique musical language that pervades Marineville. The songs are catchy and energetic, combining stream-of-consciousness lyrics with frenzied beats and three-chord guitar. But where most punk bands focused on the faster and louder, the Maps filled their universe with excess energy spilled over into abstraction, bizarre sounds and surrealist humor. The propulsive "Vertical Slum" disintegrates into bizarre dada chant ("The weather/ The weather/ The weather...") while "Harmony in Your Bathroom" gives way to a chorus of gurgling aquatic noises.
This tendency towards experimentation is even more evident on the band's second and final album, Jane from Occupied Europe, originally released in 1980. Recorded after Swell Maps had already decided to break up, the album is moody, atmospheric and largely instrumental, casting the few vocal punk numbers into stark relief. Of these, "Let's Build a Car" ranks among the band's best. In it, Sudden reels off his lines in a lazy Dylan-esque drawl over warm organ breaks, bouncy funk bass and a wild free-jazz sax solo. Other tracks, like the instrumental "Big Maz in the Desert," are centered on a repetitive groove, while the rest of the band takes turns improvising on instruments and roaming the studio banging metallic objects or whatever else they can find.
Taken together, these albums represent one of the most brilliant and unique musical statements to come out of the late-'70s English punk scene. Thankfully, the current reissues are mindful of this legacy without falling to prey to ceremonious pomp. There are no worshipful essays by celebrity rock critics here, just interviews with the band and fuzzy pictures of skinny young men in dingy clubs. The interviews, with contributions from just about everyone involved (including Epic Soundtracks, who passed away in 1997) are surprisingly informative and often funny. And the recordings themselves were remastered at the same studio where they were originally recorded, by the same engineer, with Sudden himself assisting. Considering Swell Maps weren't well-known outside of a few circles, these reissues feel as though they are more a labor of love than anything else. Sort of like the band itself.