Swell Maps and the “Solihull Vibe”
It all started back in 1972. I was shy teenage schoolboy science-fiction addict, constantly bullied by insane teachers and crazed boys in a madhouse called Solihull School. I met a kindred spirit called Adrian, who was also into music. He had started to play with a fellow called David and his younger brother Kevin. Later we got to know John and Richard. I got hold of an old acoustic guitar and a Russian balalaika, and proceeded to join in. The idea seemed perfectly natural and intuitive; we would met at least once every week in various permutations and make a peculiar noise together, while recording what we had played – in order to listen back and marvel at the results.
There were various names, such as Cardboard Giant (Adrian and myself), Myrowe Fall (Adrian and David), Sheep Police (Kevin, John and myself), and Incredible Hulk (David and myself). The sounds varied from abstract electronic noise to peculiar songs and whimsical tunes. We had little money, so we bought second-hand guitars and we used radio sets rewired to accept the signal from an electric guitar as amplifiers. There were also electronic devices made by friends, and percussion fashioned from furniture, kitchen utensils, etcetera. We’d record onto a cheap portable mono cassette machine and lean towards the built-in microphone when we felt the need to chant or attempt to “sing”. We did not attempt to cover other peoples’ songs at all; that was not the point. We did not want to copy other bands, or to sound like anybody else at all!
As the years progressed, we gradually acquired more recognizably professional-type gear, such as elements of a drum-kit and cheap amplifiers from junk shops. It started to sound louder and more like some monstrous mutation of rock music. We had a wide range of influences to make our sound unique: Nikki was into T.Rex, New York Dolls and The Rolling Stones. Epic loved Gong and Can. I was into Bowie, Soft Machine, King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator and Captain Beefheart. David was digging Faust, Roxy Music and Stockhausen, John liked Henry Cow and some jazz, and so on.
During 1976, Adrian was mainly in London, busking and reporting back every month on the music scene happening there. Meanwhile, Kevin and myself were at Solihull Technical College doing the Art Foundation course. We met up with my old school-mate Kenneth Spiers (aka Spizz), who fancied himself as a singer. We briefly had a sort of garage band together, and rehearsed together at my local church hall; I remember lugging my amp down to that place in a wheel-barrow from my parents garden! We started playing Mott The Hoople and Bowie songs. We later met Spizz again on the Rough Trade label, and he made some great records with his band Spizzernergi.
Adrian was habitually writing loads of clever, catchy songs by this time, and he was developing confidence as a singer. To a certain extent, the rest of us became inclined towards developing his material with hm, but when he wasn’t around, things were noticeably more experimental, non-vocal, and sometimes down-right weird. By 1977 we were aware of the punk scene in London, and of Buzzcocks in Manchester, who had released their own single on their own label, which was original and inspiring. We decided to give it a try as well. We called our label “Rather”, an abbreviation of “rather rude”, which was a reference to an amusing quote from the droll lips of Robert Fripp, I recall. We recorded three tracks in a cheap studio, found an affordable printer and a pressing plant who gave us a good price on a small run of seven inch singles. Unbelievably exciting! Even more thrilling was our first play on John Peel’s radio One show, and our first review in a music paper.
Adrian called himself Nikki, Kevin became Epic, David was dubbed Phones, after a character in Stingray – a puppet show on TV. I became Jowe, after a Brummie expression for “fool”. It was all very self-effacing, like a satire on more aggressive “punk” names. We also encouraged others to record with us for the label. Steve Treatment was a busking pal of Adrian, and we backed him on his 5 songs for an EP. Gary and Jonathan were two more art students who had a great song called “Zip Nolan”, but no band, so we backed them on two wild tracks for a single.
Soon, remarkably, we were offered a manufacturing and distribution deal with Rough Trade, and by 1978 we had released four singles and an album out, containing highlights from the hours of material that we had recorded. Rather than keeping Nikki’s more conventional songs and the more experimental side separated, we decided to integrate it all. This approach confused a lot of people, and some found the diversity too much to take in. Others found our style too messy. However, many people enjoyed what we did and we cultivated a growing number of admirers, thankfully. We played live in London and around the UK on a regular basis, and even played over the sea in the Netherlands, and lastly made a tour of Italy. Alas! We were growing apart, and we were starting to have arguments; the alliance was cracking. Despite a visit to the USA being planned, we decided to call a halt to it. Perhaps operating live as an approximation of a “rock band” was not true to our nature, and we all needed to try different styles of expression. The band collectively bought the 4-track TEAC reel-to-reel recorder that we’d recorded most of our records on, from John Rivers at WMRS studio, so we could experiment with our various projects.
We continued to work together, as we had at first, in various pairs and trios. I recorded a project with Epic, including the Rough Trade single “Rain, Rain, Rain” featuring my friend from Manchester, Carmel McCourt, but the album was never released, the finished tracks being released under my name and that of Swell Maps. Epic started a separate project with Richard, and also played drums from time to time with Nikki. David contributed to my recordings, and those of Nikki. In 1980 I inhabited a house in Londesborough Road, Stoke Newington, opposite Richard and Epic, so we were actually neighbours for a while!
Richard made a remarkable album, “The Egg Store Ilk” upstairs at Londesborough Road on our 4-track recorder. Epic made a memorable single with one of his idols, Robert Wyatt. He then played drums with ex-Birthday party men Mick Harvey and Rowland Howard in Crime and the City Solution, and again with Roland in These Immortal Souls. Epic cultivated the haunting, distinctive piano style that he had displayed with Swell Maps, and later developed his fine singing voice and song-writing with a series of solo albums, which are well worth seeking out.
Epic died in 1997; I must admit that I had not met with him for a few years. Sadly, we had lost contact with each other. Nikki and I played a set of Swell Maps songs together as a tribute to him in Berlin. The same week, we recorded a version of one his songs, “She Sleeps Alone”, with a great Berlin duo called Vermooste Vloten, which ended up on their excellent second album “Ngongo”.
At this point, Nikki and I managed to stay contact each other more regularly, and make plans together. We had planned a concert together in Berlin but, alas, he died in New York City in March 2006, only a few days before we were due to meet in Berlin. Nikki led a number of bands, notably The Jacobites, The Last Bandits and The French Revolution, pursuing a prolific recording career, and touring regularly right up to his premature demise.
I played a set of Swell Maps songs at tribute concerts for him in London and in Berlin, with Lee McFadden on guitar and Max Descharnes on drums; we even had the pleasure of Richard joining us on guitar for the London show. This was a bitter-sweet experience, of course; it was a desperately sad occasion, but it was such a thrill playing those brilliant songs once last time.