This weekend I’ll mostly be listening to… Swell Maps, Jane from Occupied Europe March 31, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
Once upon a the in the mid-1980s I bought a Nikki Sudden album having heard at one or two removes that the Swell Maps were top. That the album was a rather drab affair, to my ears , and fixated on what seemed to be country music, is not Sudden’s fault but instead an indication of my lack of a broader musical education.
When not that long after I finally got around to listening to Swell Maps, and in particular Jane from Occupied Europe – which was released in 1980, I have to admit I was sort of puzzled as to what the musical lineage between Sudden’s later output and them actually was.
But long after it began to make some sort of sense. The music was the product of two brothers, Epic Soundtracks and the aforementioned Nikki Sudden, along with Biggles Books, Phones Sportsman, John Cockerill and Jowe Head. Sudden and Soundtracks are both dead, and perhaps that accounts for their relative lack of profile – though that said they are hugely respected. But here’s yet another band that deserved more recognition than they received. Their first album, A Trip to Marineville is well worth a listen, not least because they too had their influences and it’s fun to parse them out listening to the album, and many will know their debut single ‘Read About Seymour’ (which although released in 1978 and has all the usual punk tropes also has a spirit of inventiveness and eccentricity which sets it apart from the mainstream of that movement) – and as an aside, it’s worth noting that they had been formed as early as 1972, albeit in nascent form, and like a lot of groups of that period punk wasn’t exactly Year Zero, but more a sort of push that propelled them forward. But Jane from Occupied Europe, or The Swell Maps in ‘Jane From Occupied Europe’ as it is sometimes known was special.
In a way this is textural music. It’s not that there aren’t melodies, they’re here in abundance – ‘Secret Island’ has a fine ascending guitar line – albeit monotonal, but rather like Sonic Youth [who admit to their influence] the sounds are as important, if not more so, than the melodies. And perhaps in that respect this is a perfect example of the more/most experimental side of post-punk, at least where that strand eschewed keyboards. So you get drones, you get guitars, you get some keyboard sounds and you get a sense of each song slightly or seriously falling apart.
Jane from Occupied Europe was the album where they moved fully, or more or less fully, into post-punk. And yet while this wasn’t punk, though it would hardly have sounded like it did without punk opening the door for this sort of frantic experimentation, yet it was punk.
Listen to ‘Let’s Buy A Bridge’ and it’s frantic pacing. And then compare and contrast with ‘Robot Factory’. The latter is a perfect example of their experimentation. Joy Division style beats that fade in and out set against an hissing series of tones before returning. That it opens the album is perfect, a statement of intent. Cake Shop Girl is a song that Bowie could, perhaps should have written.
The jagged thrust of tracks like ‘Border Country’ are inflected with an energy that is belied by the almost spoken vocals of the verse. But listen then to the almost atonal keyboard at 1.10 or so which arrives to change the dynamic of the song entirely. And everything is so detailed from drum fills to sounds.
So, while as noted above, while it may sound like it’s falling apart it really isn’t.
‘The Helicopter Spies’ arrives in a rush. And even though many of the songs are a little faster than mid-paced there’s an energy to them that is quite distinctive. And the hand-claps. Extra points, as always, for hand-claps.
In passing reflect on the song titles which are in and of themselves fantastic a mish mash of cultural influences from the 1950s onwards… ‘The Helicopter Spies’, ‘Let’s Buy A Bridge’, ‘Secret Island’…
The Helicopter Spies
Let’s Buy A Bridge
Blenheim Shots/A Raincoat’s Room [best listened to in full to get a sense of how the two tracks blend into each other]
Read about Seymour (1978)
Cake Shop Girl