Here’s Kelvin K.’s brief history of Swell Maps, whose two full-lengths were just reissued by Secretly Canadian.
“Do you believe in art?”
The year is 1979. Punk rock, as it came to be known largely due to The Ramones and Sex Pistols, was on the brink of becoming a parody of itself. The first wave of groups associated with the movement’s initial explosive debut inspired and continue to be cited as influential by hundreds of bands at home and overseas. Punk rock was appealing to youth for many reasons but above all it allowed one escape the tyranny of musicianship, virtuosity and theory. However, despite punk’s original ethos, bands apparently came to a unanimous decision regarding what exactly makes a song “punk”. And to an untrained ear, punk music was simply pop music, only louder and faster.
Enter brothers Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks. Along with Biggles Books, Phones Sportsman, John “Golden” Cockrill and Jowe Head, they formed Swell Maps, a band that recorded only a handful of singles and two albums, yet enough to influence nearly every spectrum of rock music. Taking cues from artists as disparate as glam rockers T. Rex and German progressive pioneers Can, Swell Maps were post-punk before punk was even arguably over. Metronomic drumming, deadpan vocals, witty lyrics, drone, sampling and scuzzy guitar riffs can best characterize Swell Maps but even so the brief description fails. Swell Maps were unlike any other band at the time: unafraid to be eccentric and eclectic to an almost incoherent fault.
Two chords (at most) propel songs like “Midget Submarines” and “Whatever Happens Next” forward, while intricate melodies lie beneath the omnipresent fuzz. Fidelity was not a priority for Sudden or Soundtracks and in recession-laden times, lo-fi music is as relevant as ever. What truly makes Swell Maps’ albums such worthwhile listens is how unfocused they are. Three-minute structured songs are followed by longer, free-form experiments in noise and discreet atmospherics, such as “Gunboats” or “Robot Factory”. Bear in mind, this was before Mr. Eno even coined the term “ambient music”. In an attention deficit culture obsessed with rediscovery, Swell Maps could easily pass as blog-hyped, critical darlings had they formed recently.
Most importantly, what separates Swell Maps from modern torchbearers like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. is that they genuinely sounded like they were having fun without taking themselves too seriously. Rarely do artists sound so confident in their amateurism and relish in their inabilities. In fact, A Trip to Marineville and Jane From Occupied Europe could have simply been brilliant accidents. However, the test of time begs otherwise and has proven that these kids were intellectually ahead of the curve. Both Swell Maps albums have been reissued and can be found at Sweat Records. Check out this video for “Midget Submarines”