I’m not sure enough people are realizing how great and distinctive Birmingham, England’s Swell Maps were. Their ramshackle, exploratory post-punk songs have influenced hundreds of musicians since their dissolution in 1980, yet they still seem under-recognized in the grand scheme of things.
On their two studio albums—1979’s A Trip To Marineville and 1980’s Jane From Occupied Europe—Swell Maps fused unschooled musique-concrète strategies with garage-rock energy, krautrock hypnosis, and the occasional poppy melody. Although they emerged from Great Britain’s fecund post-punk scene, Swell Maps often had more in common with German improvisational geniuses Can and America’s home of willfully weird unrock, Ralph Records.
Jane From Occupied Europe‘s tracks were recorded from 1977-1980 and they display the idiosyncratic aesthetics of members Nikki Sudden, Epic Soundtracks, Jowe Head, Biggles Books, Phones Sportsman, and Golden Cockrill. (Those aliases are as quirky as the music.) The album starts oddly with “Robot Factory,” which features eerie, radiant keyboard drone, wind-up toys, and rudimentary, quasi-funky beats that sometimes slip out of time. It sounds like a post-punk Joe Meek production, endearingly lo-fi and otherworldly. “Let’s Buy A Bridge” is definitive hurly-burly post-punk pop, bolstered by chaotic drum clatter and Jowe’s ultra-wonky sax solo. Sudden’s imploring, whiny vocals full of youthful discontent here became one of post-punk’s most recognizable sounds.
“Border Country”’s tight, torqued rock comes off like a sloppier, less funky Gang Of Four or early Mekons while “Cake Shop Girl”’s weirdly morose pop recalls a less refined version of Ralph acts such as Snakefinger and Renaldo & The Loaf. The mutedly euphoric “The Helicopter Spies” proved Swell Maps could write a catchy melody, even if they festooned it with janky squalls that rival Velvet Underground’s on “I Heard Her Call My Name.” The pell-mell, enigmatic jam “Big Maz In The Desert” aspires to Can’s metronomic mesmerism, but Swell Maps don’t have that German group’s skill level. Still, it’s a weird and wired epic.
On Jane From Occupied Europe, Swell Maps generated such great guitar and keyboard sounds—clangorous, radiant, cyclical—and they spilled over the raw clatter of Epic Soundtracks’ drums, finding new ways to make rock surprise, to make sloppiness a virtue, to scramble the DNA of pop melodiousness. They conclusively proved you didn’t need technical prowess to create great, enduring music—just a surplus of interesting, unconventional ideas.
[The big indie label Secretly Canadian reissued Jane on vinyl in 2012 and on CD in 2015 (with bonus tracks). Those are likely the easiest and most affordable ways to score physical copies of this classic LP.] -Buckley Mayfield