Organised Chaos: Swell Maps Interviewed

With a flurry of recent activity, including reissues and the promise of a book, Duncan Seaman talks to Jowe Head, Biggles Books and Phones Sportsman, as well as Geoff Travis of Rough Trade about the cult DIY band. Home page band portrait by Caroline Kraabel

Swell Maps portrait by Caroline Kraabel

Of all the bands to have emerged in the wake of punk, Swell Maps were always the odd ones out. As excited by Gong and Faust as Buzzcocks and Desperate Bicycles, they were as likely to break into eight-minute experimental jams complete with vacuum cleaner, balloons and xylophone as they were to hurtle through ninety seconds of adrenalised rock & roll.

Early adopters of a do-it-yourself aesthetic, their suburban playfulness extended to nicknames and pseudonyms – Nikki Sudden (born Adrian Godfrey), Epic Soundtracks (Adrian’s younger brother, Kevin), Jowe Head (Stephen Bird), Biggles Books (Richard Scaldwell), Phones Sportsman (David Barrington) and Golden Cockrill (John Cockrill). But at the heart of the band lay a musical tension, and a common sense of purpose could only last so long. After four singles and two albums they broke up.

Still, forty years on, their influence endures. Luke Haines, of The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder, has hailed Swell Maps “the British Velvet Underground”; Cornershop are also fans, with guitarist Ben Ayres citing the Maps’ ‘Let’s Build A Car’ as one of his “favourite singles of all time”. As well as being namechecked by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, Pavement’s Scott Kannberg, and Tim Gane of Stereolab, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth declared: “The Swell Maps had a lot to do with my upbringing.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck last year, Jowe Head had intended to mark the 40th anniversary of band’s final album, Jane From Occupied Europe, with two gigs at London’s Cafe Oto. Due to join him were Cockrill, Haines, Gina Birch of The Raincoats, Terry Edwards of Gallon Drunk and PJ Harvey, and Lee McFadden of Television Personalities. Instead Head has spent the ensuing months working on two Swell Maps archive albums – Mayday Signals, a compilation of B-sides, rarities and previously unreleased material, and a collection of the band’s three sessions for John Peel’s radio show – plus a memoir on the Maps which will also come with a seven-inch single featuring newly discovered tracks.

Attempting to untangle the band’s legacy, he tells tQ, has produced “a really complicated piece of work”, adding: “I’ve tried to organise things in a way which I hope will be enjoyable and illuminating. There are sections which do deal with certain issues in a chronological way, but I’ve organised it in a way which deals with topics and episodes, rather than purely chronological. Due to the nature of the people and the way our activities happened, things ran in parallel sometimes.”

Since the deaths of Soundtracks in 1997 and Sudden in 2006, Head has become the band’s archivist. “It’s difficult and sometimes even uncomfortable and slightly painful because two of my ex-comrades are no longer with us,” he says. “Nikki and Epic were very important members of the band. Well, we all had an important part to play. There were no passengers, we were all very vocal, all very creative.”

The band’s origins are clouded but Barrington remembers first meeting the Godfreys at Sunday school in 1969, shortly after the family moved from London to Solihull. Avid music fans, Sudden and Barrington formed a duo called Sacred Mushroom circa 1970. “Adrian was 13 years old, three and a half years older than Kevin. Probably Adrian and I were sort of closer in maturity, so we ganged up as a duo but then it drifted in and out. As Adrian’s musical tastes changed and he got into Tyrannosaurus Rex and David Bowie, Kevin and I got more into things that we had in common like the early Gong stuff and the more Krautrock side of it. Sometimes I would go round to their place and muck around with Kevin and then other weekends I would play drums and guitars with Adrian, but Adrian was the catalyst because he was the one with the cassette recorder.”

They were joined in 1972 by Head, a friend of Sudden’s from Solihull School. “They both stood out as being arty, flamboyant, they both dressed in an interesting way,” Barrington recalls.

“Kevin and I would probably be the quiet, shy ones who would dress conservatively, the same as everybody else around us.” Head says he and Sudden were “misfits” at school. “We gravitated to each other empathetically.”

Over the next four years, musical experiments in bedrooms and garages would involve different combinations of friends, with fantasy band names such as Xerox, Calico And The Black Riders. The introduction of Barrington’s friend Richard Scaldwell added a new dynamic, as did occasional player, John Cockrill, a schoolmate of Soundtracks. Yet their extent of their scene remained distinctively Solihull, outside of the urban influences of Birmingham.

Scaldwell became close to Soundtracks. “It was he who introduced me to Can and I brought him Soft Machine, the Velvets, Iggy and the Stooges and Bowie… pretty soon we were going to most of the available gigs in Birmingham, all across the taste range – Slade, Quo, Sabbath, Alex Harvey, Genesis, Dr Feelgood.” While other members of the group dallied with home recordings, he says: “Mostly the stuff that Kevin and I were doing didn’t get recorded at all: I was always pushing the idea of temporality (basic anti-permanence), like I eventually spent my time at art school making giant sculptures out of corrugated cardboard so they had no long-life implications and slowly collapsed as part of the art.”

Sudden’s “insane” fascination with Marc Bolan was mocked by the others, Scaldwell remembers. “He was much more into the three-chord twelve-bar blues than any of us (but) he was already coming up with good songs which were great fun to play like ‘Fashion Cult’ and ‘One Of The Crowd’.” Head and Soundtracks meanwhile liked the cerebral prog rock of Van der Graaf Generator and King Crimson, and the innovative sounds of German group Faust. “The Faust Tapes sounded like a bootleg,” says Head. “It was roughly edited together chunks of sound which formed a kind of collage. I’d studied things like Dada at art college and I could see the link between people like (Kurt) Schwitters and Hannah Höch and what Faust were doing with a collage using sound.”

The arrival of punk, however, in 1976 proved pivotal. “Adrian went off to London and hooked up with The Damned,” Scaldwell remembers. “They called him ‘the spy’ but still let him hang out. That’s when he came back as Nikki and started talking seriously about us forming a band.”

Jowe Head and Biggles Books on stage at The Factory, Manchester, 1979 (photo by Julie)

Hearing John Peel play Desperate Bicycles on his Top Gear radio show convinced them they could make a record themselves. “That was the real tipping point,” Scaldwell says. “There was no ‘punk ethic’ involved, just a basic urge to record something new instead of nonsense cassette tapes.” Taking their cues from Desperate Bicycles and Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP, they pooled their funds for a session in a recording studio. Head says: “We always thought that we needed to make a record but they provided a kind of catalyst, an inspiration to go down that road and actually seize the moment.”

If principal songwriter Sudden’s tunes veered towards “more traditional rock & roll”, they were skewed by the rest of the band’s more experimental instincts. “What we were trying to achieve was to make a sort of collage of all of our interests,” Head explains. “We did some music as Swell Maps which had a recognisably rock & roll shape. Nikki’s songs are the best example of that, but he was open-minded enough to accept that me and Epic and Richard and David would offer ideas for arranging them which kind of twisted that and made it something a bit different, more exciting and original.”

With a limited budget, they chose Spaceward Sound in Cambridge for their debut recording session, which took place on 14 September 1977. Scaldwell suggests Soundtracks coined the name Swell Maps “just before that first studio adventure and it quickly became real”, borrowing it from Gerry Anderson’s puppet TV series Thunderbirds. The session yielded five songs, including the jagged ninety-second thrill-ride ‘Read About Seymour’.

Scaldwell remembers the song being written “virtually overnight” by Sudden, and that he “always hated it. Comic pop was really not my thing. Yes, the punk/ new wave thing was really vital, but certainly Kevin and I had ideas of going in a very different direction; we had much more emphasis on the rhythm and feedback.” Nonetheless its urgency made it the obvious choice for their first A-side.

Other tracks, however, allowed the band to play around with the possibilities offered by a sixteen-track studio. “We were experimenting as we went along,” says Head. “We weren’t used to multi-track recording, we were used to turning a cassette machine on and then doing everything off the cuff. But in this case, it was kind of a different level. We had the opportunity to add things or subtract things and use the studio as a kind of tool.”

To the band’s delight, the self-pressed and self-distributed single was championed by Radio 1 DJ John Peel. Soon afterwards Peel’s producer John Walters invited them to record what would be the first of three sessions. “That was kind of mind-blowing,” says Head, “because there were all these people who had been there before us. It was like going to Buckingham Palace or something, the establishment on one hand, but on the other hand John Peel’s show was an oasis of alternative sounds with the British Broadcasting Corporation which was otherwise very conservative.”

A foray by Sudden to the Rough Trade store in London with a batch of singles brought the band to the attention of Geoff Travis, who was then founding a record label. For Travis, the appeal of Swell Maps was that “they were just brilliant”. “They were very early adopters of the Desperate Bicycles’ you-can-do-it, make-your-own-record credo, and they were really amongst the first, them and Scritti Politti and Buzzcocks.”

“Geoff immediately wanted to get involved,” says Scaldwell, “but he was amazed when Nikki said we’d probably already got enough ideas together to do an album. We knew we were determined to maintain complete artistic control, so we agreed a distribution/ production deal with a straight 50/50 split of any profits. We did literally just shake hands on the deal and Geoff always honoured it completely. He was fantastically supportive all the way through. That straightforward, open, honest agreement always made me very proud, and it felt like we were really changing how things had always worked in the music scene. New music and new methods across the board.”

Swell Maps live at The Factory Club, Hulme, Manchester by Julie

Head remembers being surprised by the deal clinched at a cafe near Rough Trade’s HQ in Notting Hill. “It was a partnership between our label, which we called Rather Records, and Rough Trade, it was a co-production, and they let us have absolute creative freedom and they did all the practical aspects for us which was unbelievably liberating for us, and Geoff Travis deserves a lot of credit for helping us.”

Following the release of a second single, ‘Dresden Style’, Swell Maps began work on their debut album, A Trip To Marineville, at John Rivers’ WMRS Studio in Leamington Spa in December 1978. Travis believes the choice of studio, away from the “glare” of London, was important. “We liked the fact that they had a studio in Leamington with John Rivers,” he says. “They obviously had a really good relationship and that’s important for a band to find the right technician to work with. I think he gave them the freedom to do what they wanted and that in turn gave them the freedom to experiment.”

For Scaldwell, the sessions, which lasted until April 1979, were “the best times we had in the studio”. The band’s love of noisy, unconventional arrangements came to the fore in songs such as ‘’, ‘Don’t Throw Ashtrays At Me’ and ‘Harmony In Your Bathroom’. On ‘Midget Submarines’ Head swapped his bass guitar for a vacuum cleaner, while the eight-minute ‘Gunboats’ features balloons and ‘glissando’. Soundtracks’ credit for "microphone damage" in ‘Adventuring Into Basketry’, stemmed from a studio accident which, Barrington says, momentarily peeved the normally hard to ruffle engineer Rivers.

Scaldwell recalls: “Most of the songs we’d not really worked out at all so the process was usually me and Nikki working out some sort of guitar parts, me coming up with an alternative higher twiddly version over his chords, and then we’d run through as a band, working out rhythms and atmosphere. All four completely involved, making it up as we went along and trying to get John Rivers to co-operate and grab the bits we liked. Mostly the longer atmospheric jams are just one take, pretty much made up on the spot and played.”

Although he regrets the limitations of Rivers’ four-track recording set-up – “The lack of any technical sophistication was a shame as we lost so much sound definition by bouncing down a first mix of three tracks down onto one, then recording alongside that first mix with no ability to modify it” – the emphasis on “very direct” takes gave the recordings a vitality. “It was all very basic and served to keep everyone on their toes,” Scaldwell says.

“Epic and I did a lot of the original mixing with Baz (even John Rivers had to have a silly name!) but I think everyone was usually vociferously involved. Poor Baz did have to be pretty tolerant.”

Part-time participant Barrington, who was by now working as a geologist and involved in a light-hearted side project called The Independent Piggies, has fond memories of dropping into recording sessions at WMRS. “Unfortunately I missed out on some of the good things on the album because I’d probably been smoking a bit too much weed but some of the tracks I would join in kind of moaning in the background. We were all such friends for a long time they put up with my minor mistakes. I didn’t like discipline so I found it very difficult playing the chords that I was supposed to play, I was usually going a bit off piste.”

Recording a Swell Maps demo, by John Cockrill

Sudden and Head drew lyrical inspiration from a variety of sources, including sci-fi and comic books. “Me and Nikki were both avid readers and we both read a lot of strange things by some people’s standards,” Head says. “I was reading some Burroughs, a bit of Philip K Dick and some Vonnegut and JG Ballard. Nikki read a bit of Tolkien and Captain W E Johns, who wrote the Biggles books, and a lot of military history he was obsessed by. He was into making models and re-enacting battles before I met him. All these things get jumbled up and with our overheated imaginations fragments of these kind of things would come to mind when writing songs.”

Four decades later, A Trip To Marineville sounds playfully innocent yet far ahead of its time. Head sees it as the band’s “crowning achievement”, yet he remembers it being greeted by some of reviewers with bewilderment, with the longer tracks lazily compared to Pink Floyd. “Some of those reviewers were probably a bit simple-minded in their tastes and didn’t understand that it could be quite stimulating to have a number of different styles on one album,” he says. “Okay, we did a long, slow song with sound effects on it, that doesn’t make us Pink Floyd.”

Gigs might have been few and far between – involving only Sudden, Soundtracks, Head and Scaldwell because Barrington and Cockrill declined to play live – yet they did venture out on a tour of Belgium and Holland in 1979 with Scritti Politti. Geoff Travis, meanwhile, recalls a “magic night” at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead, in March 1980, as among the best shows he has ever attended. “They would turn their limitations into strengths, I think that’s really how they fitted into punk,” he says. “You couldn’t really say Nikki was a good singer, his voice somehow made it work within the context of what they were doing, and it was kind of brittle, it wasn’t macho at all, that was very unusual for men.”

A tour of Italy in April 1980, though, would prove Swell Maps’ undoing. “The Italy tour was not easy,” says Scaldwell. “We were the first ‘new wave’ band to go over there and their expectations were generally a bit misguided and often disappointed.

"Fundamentally Nikki was really getting into the idea of success and I was getting more and more disenchanted with the same process, the tilt toward being a ‘rock band’. I had absolutely no desire to be a pop star. After we’d done the last gig, I told Epic and Jowe that I’d had enough, and they agreed they didn’t want to go on if I didn’t. Nikki, however, was devastated.”

From a more distant vantage point, Barrington could observe the band fraying. “They were so generally good-natured, I can’t remember many arguments when we were younger at all, but it seemed that it was getting more serious, perhaps they cared more about it in different ways. It was more serious because it was their job, it was their life, and I was still going along to the studio thinking, ‘This is a laugh,’ and the others were thinking, ‘We’ve got to make a good album and do the live stuff,’ so it definitely felt like there was a bit of abrasion, if you like, between the other four.”

The tone of the band’s final album, Jane From Occupied Europe, reflects a sense of fragmentation, nonetheless it remains an astonishing work. Head, who remembers some material being carried over from the Marineville sessions, reflects: “You could say there is a difference in mood with Jane From Occupied Europe. I think it’s less of a barrage. On some tracks the guitars are turned down a bit, so there’s clean sound coming off the guitars on tracks like ‘Secret Island’ and ‘Big Empty Field’.

“On the first album, apart from Epic’s piano interlude, all the guitars are really distorted or feeding back, but on the second album there’s more restraint and there’s more light and shade. There are still some violent tracks, ‘Whatever Happens Next…’ is a very heavy track, with gloomy imagery and very distorted guitars, but there are also some tracks like ‘Secret Island’ which were a bit brighter, ‘Cake Shop’ as well – on the surface it seems to have quite a jaunty pop melody, but it’s got a dark edge to it lyrically.”

Jowe Head and Nikki Sudden on stage at ULU, 1980, by Nick Evans

Scaldwell attributes the “different atmosphere” on Jane to the fact that “Nikki was a bit too cross and hurt and I think that made us allow him to pull the sound more towards his rock & roll groove”, but, he says: “We did still record those fabulous jams which, to my mind, are some of the best things we did. We definitely all stayed friends and I think we really enjoyed those sessions.”

Although the band formally ended after the album’s release in July 1980, members would criss-cross on individual projects for several years afterwards. Sudden amassed a considerable catalogue of solo releases and forged a partnership with fellow Stones enthusiast Dave Kusworth in The Jacobites; he died of a heart attack in New York in 2006. In later years Soundtracks became renowned as a balladeer; his death from unexplained causes in 1997 shocked his former bandmates. Head has made numerous solo records and for ten years was a member of the Television Personalities. Barrington released an album with the Phones Sportsman Band before quitting music altogether, as did Cockrill and Scaldwell, who is now better known for restoring vintage cars and motorcycles. “That’s when Jowe likes to say I ‘disappeared’. I like to think of it as maybe a pale shadow of James Williamson but without the talent,” he says.

Swell Maps’ albums have been re-released by Mute and Secretly Canadian. Subsequent archive releases include International Rescue, Sweep The Desert and Wastrels And Whippersnappers.

Today, Head looks at the band legacy with pride, recounting his surprise at encountering a 21st century generation of Swell Maps’ fans. “I remember a lot of fun and a lot of excitement and a lot of appreciation from people as well, despite the fact that we were criticised,” he adds. “We came to accept the fact that was a necessary part of what we had to expect, we didn’t mind being divisive, in fact we kind of relished it. As a bunch of people, we were a bit perverse in that respect. But we had a shared aesthetic which was important, and we supported each other to try to achieve something, which is often difficult.”

Scaldwell’s assessment is more frank. “Naturally I think it’s cool that we are now considered to have been a very influential band and I’m very proud of some of the stuff and things we did, but I also like to remember it was a brief, messy, happy confluence of very youthful creativity,” he says. “The four of us at that time really made a little bit of magic together, and, as is so often the case, I don’t think anyone in the band went on to do any more brilliant music later on.”

Barrington says he cares more about the band’s legacy now. “I could only see the fun side of it then,” he says. “I was actually surprised myself when it got beyond Peel sessions or him playing the records on his programme, when it went to touring and well-known people started talking about it. When Gorillaz put the Swell Maps T-shirt on I thought, ‘Wow.’ I never knew that it would come through the cracks because it was so, if you like, amateur to begin with, DIY, and so different, not deliberately tuneful or not deliberately trying to follow any genre.”

Travis regrets losing the rights to the Maps’ albums amid his label’s financial difficulties in the 1990s, but, he says: “I do think they were quite unusual, the kind of energy they had and the musicianship and the mixture of naivety and the sheer chutzpah of them, their enjoyment, which I think is really good, I think they’re really unconventional. I feel proud to have been involved in helping them along their way.”

Mayday Signals is out now on Easy Action; The Peel Sessions is due out later this year on Mute, along with Jowe Head’s book on Swell Maps

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