The Swell Maps were arguably one of the most vital acts of the post-punk era, yet one of the least appreciated at the same time. Despite some reasonably well-known singles (“Read About Seymour,” “Let’s Build a Car”), the British group seems to have faded into obscurity, as out-of-print albums and a less-immediate accessibility than peers like The Buzzcocks and The Clash have doomed them to become a (gasp) “cult” band. Despite having the likes of John Peel and Thurston Moore as fans, Nikki Sudden, Epic Soundtracks and David Barrington never quite achieved the status of some of the better known acts of the day. But, hey, it’s never too late to discover something new and Trip to Marineville, the group’s debut, is a great place to start.
How fortunate we are that Secretly Canadian has reissued Swell Maps’ first two albums, packed with all those bonus goodies like extra tracks and liner notes written by the band. Trip to Marineville, the first of the two, is the sloppier and more rambunctious of the two, but also astoundingly fun and catchy. In merely eight days, the Maps captured all their youthful, artsy rambunctiousness on to tape, and this is the result. Simultaneously discordant and accessible, the spontaneous result shows how, sometimes, over-rehearsing can only ruin a truly fiery performance. Boasting song titles like “Harmony in Your Bathroom,” “Don’t Throw Ashtrays at Me” and “Adventuring into Basketry,” the group’s sonic pranksterism is in full-effect, paving the way for indie’s obsession with marrying irony and art. Half punk rockers and half oddball instrumentals, Marineville is remarkably natural sounding and well-structured for a recording session that lasted just longer than a week. And might I also mention that two singles were also recorded in that time?
There is a plethora of awesome tunes on Marineville, combining dirty guitars, catchy melodies and Nikki Sudden’s unmistakable atonal delivery. This was the sound of punk rock challenging itself, moving beyond the boundaries of three-chord pop song played at double speed into strikingly ambitious territory. Sudden, himself, says in the liner notes that he always considered the Maps a cross between T. Rex and Can, which isn’t too far from the truth. But he also admits a slight Buzzcocks and Beach Boys influence on some tracks. The clashing of sounds that results is truly amazing.
“H.S. Art” and “Another Song” are quick and pogo-friendly rockers that begin the album with the right amount of energy, while “Harmony in Your Bathroom” and “Midget Submarines” are slower, noisier tracks that almost paint a direct line to Sonic Youth’s experimentation just five years later. The Bolan/Suzuki combination is never more obvious than on the medley of “Full Moon in My Pocket” and “Blam!!” The absurd lyrics, near-motorik grooves and full-blast energy could easily be called GlamKraut, though it isn’t.
The list of high points goes on and on, including the four bonus tracks, and anyone who truly loves music will find plenty to love on this disc. Not only that, but the liner notes give a nice history lesson, as well. The Swell Maps may not have gotten the recognition that The Clash and The Pistols have, but a listen to Marineville makes it obvious that they’re no less important.
Wire – Pink Flag
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.