Origin: Birmingham, England
Genre: Post punk
Years active: 1972–1980
Biggles Books (Richard Earl)
Phones Sportsman (David Barrington)
Golden Cockrill (John Cockrill)
A Trip to Marineville (July 1979)
Jane From Occupied Europe (1980)
Whatever Happens Next… (1981)
Collision Time (1981)
Train Out of It (1986)
Collision Time Revisited (1989)
International Rescue (1999)
Sweep The Desert (2000)
Wastrels and Whippersnappers (2006)
“Read About Seymour” (1977)
“Dresden Style” (1978)
“Real Shocks” (1979)
“Let’s Build a Car” (1979)
Swell Maps were an experimental DIY rock group of the 1970s from Birmingham, England, that foreshadowed the birth of post-punk.
Influenced by the disparate likes of T. Rex and the German krautrock outfit Can, they created a new soundscape that would be heavily mined by others in the post-punk era. Despite existing in various forms since 1972, Swell Maps only really came together as a musical entity after the birth of British punk.
Consisting of brothers Epic Soundtracks (real name Kevin Paul Godfrey) and Nikki Sudden (real name Adrian Nicholas Godfrey) two Solihull based teenagers, plus Biggles Books (Richard Earl), Phones Sportsman (David Barrington), John “Golden” Cockrill and Jowe Head (Stephen Bird), the band cut the single “Read About Seymour” as their debut in 1977, soon after the brothers left Solihull School (also home of Spizzenergi). It is widely considered one of the classic punk era singles, and is name-checked in the song “Part Time Punks” by Television Personalities. Epic’s drumming mixed with Nikki’s unique melodies crafted over the assorted threads cast by the six musicians set the band apart from others.
After recording their first John Peel session Swell Maps went into WMRS studio to record their first album A Trip to Marineville, which was released in 1979. With hard rocking punk numbers like “H.S. Art” interspersed by ambient instrumentals and other experimental interludes like “Gunboats”, the album marked the band out as innovative musicians. The album went No. 1 on the new Independent chart.
The band cut one more album, The Swell Maps in ‘Jane From Occupied Europe’, in 1980, which pushed further into post-punk territory. They displayed their ingenuity for creating everything from industrial surf instrumentals like the opener “Robot Factory” to perverse ballads like “Cake Shop Girl”. Even while they were falling apart during these sessions they were pushing the musical boundaries beyond what punk originally had to offer. They sought to release much of their early forays in lo-fi experimenation in the compilation Whatever Happens Next…, before splitting up.
An EP of experimental tracks was released under the name of the Phones Sportsman Band in 1980. This was played on radio by John Peel and Anne Nightingale, although “Get down & get with it” was later considered by ShitFi as one of the worst covers of all time.
Individual members of the band (especially Nikki Sudden, Epic Soundtracks and Jowe Head) went on to solo careers. The band’s catalogue has been remastered and reissued, and several compilations of archive recordings released. Epic Soundtracks died of unknown causes at the age of 38 in 1997, and Nikki Sudden died at the age of 49 in March 2006.
Swell Maps have been cited as an influence by bands including Dinosaur Jr., R.E.M. and Pavement. Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth acknowledged the influence of the Swell Maps in 1981, writing “As soon as that Nikki Sudden guitar comes slicing slabbing and all out fuzzifying off that crackling vinyl groove you know you’re gonna rock. It’s the best of both whirls: fist-in-the-heart guitar burnin’ rock and ahead-of-its-time songsmith awareness … The Swell Maps had a lot to do with my upbringing”. Scott Kannberg of Pavement acknowledged “Swell Maps was a big influence on our early records … they had these songs they fucked up somehow to make sound really dirty and low frequency, but they had these great songs underneath all this mess”. Tim Gane of Stereolab recalled “When I first bought A Trip to Marineville I must have played it a hundred times or more, just to listen to every single second of it”.