Swell Maps earned a lot of dubious distinctions. They were arguably the first “post-punk” band formed (in 1972, by adolescent brothers Nicholas and Kevin Godfrey, who called themselves Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks, though it took the spirit of ’77 to get them out of their bedroom). They have a remarkably untidy catalogue for a band who made just two real studio albums. And they’re probably the least influential great band of their era — or, to put it another way, the most fondly remembered outfit that nobody else sounds anything like. The number of bands who’ve covered Swell Maps songs can be counted on the fingers of one hand (they include Boston’s Come, who stuck the instrumental “Loin of the Surf” onto a B-side). A friend of mine once heard Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich drunkenly mutter that “all we do is rip off Swell Maps,” but there’s not much supporting evidence.
The two full albums the Maps made in the late ’70s, A Trip to Marineville and Jane from Occupied Europe, have been out of print for years. Ditto for their post-break-up singles/odds-and-ends compilations Whatever Happens Next . . . , Collision Time, Collision Time Revisited, and Train out of It (they apparently recorded all the time for 10 years or so, mostly low-tech experiments that seeped out after it was all over). Until recently, their only album in print was International Rescue (Alive), which compiles most of their best-known songs, almost all cut from the same cloth: Sudden’s tuneless, nasal lisp drawling out unrhymed surreal quatrains, Soundtracks bashing away on drums in a desperate attempt to hold onto the beat, the band switching chords by rough consensus more than unanimous decision, maybe a simple piano break halfway through. It also includes a screwed-up remix of their greatest moment, “Vertical Slum,” 72 magnificent seconds of disaffected friction climaxing in a collective chant of “The weather! The leather!” The result: International Rescue makes Swell Maps sound like an inept punk band.
Which, it’s true, they were, but they were a lot more than that. On Marineville and Jane and most of the earlier compilations, the imagistic punk blasts are interspersed with weirder, headier stuff — extended instrumental jams with densely layered free-range noise overdubs that keep them off balance, and brief studio fragments with unidentifiable timbres, caught on tape seemingly by accident. At first, all this appears to be self-indulgent filler. On repeated listening, though, it emerges as the core of Swell Maps’ art — the more straightforward tunes are just bait. Frantic rockers like “Read About Seymour” and “Let’s Build a Car” may the instantly likable part of the band, but they barely suggest what made Swell Maps unique.
The new anthology Sweep the Desert (Alive) goes a long way toward rectifying that problem. It’s mostly made up of the more rewarding odd instrumentals from the old Swell Maps LPs: the junkyard quadrille of “Big Maz in the Country”; the what-key-are-we-in rock-scissors-paper game of “Collision with a Frogman vs. the Mangrove Delta Plan”; two versions of the 14/8-time shudder “Big Empty Field,” one chiming and willowy, one smeary and dissonant. As every layer of the mix resolves itself, a deeper, blurrier one becomes audible — there’s more going on than it’s possible to grasp at once.
A few vocal numbers are thrown in for pacing’s sake, but they’re also from the less doctrinaire end of the band’s catalogue. “Yo no tengo el serpiento del mar,” bassist Jowe Head whispers on “The Graveyard Shift,” over a sinister bass pulse — if my high-school Spanish serves, that translates as “I do not have the sea serpent.” “Full Moon in My Pocket,” a one-chord pogo with Head yelling until he falls into a coughing fit, abruptly merges into Sudden’s dada rant “BLAM!!” (“A sullen statue playing balloons/The phenomenon of the age/Oh why did you do it/You said you loved me”), then doubles back into “Full Moon.” Soundtracks called one little guitar loop “nevertoseeanyotherway,” after the endlessly repeating voice on the inner groove of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and what Swell Maps were doing was in the tradition of the anything-goes, good-humored experimentation of the Beatles records they’d grown up on — just without pop tunes or linear-thinking lyrics.
Then they gave it all up and went out of their way not to trade on their legacy. Head made some very goofy records on his own and with the Palookas; Soundtracks, who died a few years ago, abandoned his hyperkinetic minimalism for sensitive-piano-guy-who’s-loved-and-lost territory. Sudden made one vaguely Swell album, Waiting on Egypt, then reinvented himself as a romantic glam burnout — his new double-CD retrospective The Last Bandit (Alive) is one maudlin closing-time ballad after another. The other members vanished. But the records they made together haven’t dated — they don’t sound like products of their time, or of any particular time. They might even inspire someone else someday.