Nicholas Godfrey (Nikki Sudden), singer and guitarist: born London 19 July 1956; died New York 26 March 2006.
Swell Maps were one of many British garage bands who followed the DIY route pioneered by punk groups like Buzzcocks and Desperate Bicycles and issued records on their own label, Rather Records.
Led by the singer and guitarist Nikki Sudden and the drummer, pianist and vocalist Epic Soundtracks, Swell Maps released their début single, "Read About Seymour", on Rather in 1977. In the post-punk era, they secured a distribution deal with Rough Trade and issued a further four singles - "Dresden Style", "Real Shocks", "Let's Build a Car" and "Forest Fire" - which all topped the independent charts, as well as two critically acclaimed albums, A Trip to Marineville (1979) and Swell Maps in Jane from Occupied Europe (1980).
Mixing the pop sensibility of T-Rex with the soundscape experiments of German art-rockers Can and Faust, Swell Maps became darlings of the UK alternative scene and recorded three John Peel sessions (later included on the Whatever Happens Next compilation) before imploding in 1980.
Sudden went solo, fronting the Jacobites, the French Revolution and the Mermaids as well as collaborating with Mike Scott of the Waterboys, Rowland S. Howard, the former guitarist with the Birthday Party, and Boz Boorer, Morrissey's long-standing guitarist. Sudden's heroes were Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, and he emulated their rock'n'roll attitude and outlaw mystique.
Nikki Sudden was born Nicholas Godfrey in London in 1956, moving with his family to Solihull in the mid-Sixties. After seeing Marc Bolan on television in 1971, Godfrey and his friend David Barrington bought their first guitars and in 1972 formed Swell Maps - the name came from an episode of the television serial Stingray. Godfrey became Nikki Sudden, Barrington took the name Phones Sportsman and Godfrey's younger brother Kevin, now called Epic Soundtracks, "drummed on anything that would make a noise, cardboard boxes, telephone books", recalled Sudden:
Epic only got a snare drum the following year. Gradually he built up his drum-kit but he also played piano very well.
The Swell Maps line-up changed constantly around the Godfrey brothers but, by the time they made their live début as a trio at Barbarella's in Birmingham on Boxing Day 1977, Jowe Head was playing bass. "Read About Seymour" featured Richard Earl on guitar. Swell Maps packed a lot of recording and gigging into the next three years until they fell apart on a tour of Italy in 1980.
Two years after the band split, Nikki Sudden recorded Waiting on Egypt, his first solo album. In 1984, he joined forces with Epic Soundtracks and the guitarist Dave Kusworth to form the Jacobites, a group modelled on the Faces and the Rolling Stones and also heavily influenced by Bob Dylan and Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls and Heartbreakers fame.
Alan McGee signed the Jacobites to his label Creation and issued the 1986 album Texas, as well as the follow-up, Dead Men Tell No Tales (1987), and Back to the Coast, a compilation of Sudden recordings, in 1990 but, despite releasing a further 20 albums, including the excellent Treasure Island with the Last Bandits in 2004, the guitarist and singer never made the transition from cult figure to the mainstream.
Always popular with continental Europe's rock'n'roll cognoscenti, Sudden moved to Berlin in the mid-Nineties. At the time of his death, he was working on a biography of the Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood as well as an album entitled The Truth Doesn't Matter and had been due to return from New York to play UK dates next month. Epic Soundtracks was found dead in his flat in London in November 1997, and Sudden compiled a posthumous album, Good Things (2005), from demos of his brother's work.
Asked about the influence Swell Maps had on the DIY bands that followed, Sudden once said,
You're always creating for yourself and for the moment and that's what we were doing. But one also thinks of how one's work will be seen, to some degree or another, even if it's just in the back of your mind. I've always wanted to make records that are timeless, in the same way that Beggars Banquet [the Rolling Stones album] is timeless. Whether I've succeeded is another matter. I think that sometimes, many times, I have. I'm pretty proud of most things I've done. Just wish that I'd done more.
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