Saturday, 26 March 2011

Nikki Sudden - Mental Punk Rock Diaries

Photo: Diptychon:XVI Face A Nikki Sudden Untitled by Robert Maria Quickborn

"Went to bed after finishing at least one bottle of port. Fell asleep to the strangest dreams possible. One of them involved my friend, Dave Burns, who died a few months or so back. He was standing there - wherever it was it wasn't on earth - wearing a beautiful suit from some material I gave him years ago. He told me that he was really enjoying myself. I asked if I could see my brother - to be told that he was busy. I was asked if I'd like to stay, but I said I couldn't. I've had these kind of dreams a few times since Epic died - with him asking me to come with him. I told my mother of this and she said, 'Don't go...' Sometimes it seems that it would be so easy to slip over. But then you leave despair behind... "

This was Nikki in his journal for May 2004. The Dave Burns to whom he refers is none other than Desperate Dave, and it is he I have to thank for this piece (and its title) by Nikki. He'd persuaded him to record some thoughts on the early days of punk for "some kind of posterity". Though initially hesitant to do so, what he came up with ended up appearing in "Gobbing Pogoing And Gratuitous Bad Language", an anthology of punk stories published in 1996 by Spare Change Books, run by Robert Dellar. The collection largely consisted of punk related fiction (contributors also included Mark Perry, Poppy Z Brite and Robert Wyatt) though Nikki's, obviously, was factual.

Thanks to Robert Dellar for letting us reprint.

Before we get to the article, we should add that there is also, of course, the recently published "The Last Bandit - A Rock'n'Roll Life", Nikki's autobiography, available from You might not be surprised to hear that it is a mighty fine and pretty exhaustive memoir from the prolific late 20th century wandering minstrel that was Mr. Adrian Nicholas Godfrey.

Nikki Sudden - Mental Punk Rock Diaries

The first “punk” gig I went to was one of the early Sex Pistols shows – this one being at the Nashville Rooms in West Kensington where they were supporting the 101ers. I remember thinking at the time how old Joe Strummer looked (with his big bushy sideboards) and how dated the 101ers sounded in contrast to the fresher sounds of the Pistols. One thing I remember from the show is thinking of the Pistols; “they sound just the same a we do”. “We” being the nascent Swell Maps who in early 1976 were still in the process of rehearsing in each other's houses much to the chagrin of our respective parents. We had various songs in place by that time which would become staples of the Maps live and recorded set – including “Winter Rainbow”, “Forest Fire” and “City Boys” (later retitled “Dresden Style”).

 At the time I was living in London – in Wimbledon – and working at the Vintage Magazine Shop in Earlham Street. Customers in those days ranged from Nik Turner (Hawkwind) to Don Letts (in pre-”Punk Rock Movie” and B.A.D. Days), from Michael Palin (researching for “Ripping Yarns”) to John Thaw (still in his “Sweeney” role), and from Jesse Hector (then in the Hammersmith Gorillas and on the lookout for 60's Beatles magazines) to Stewart Grainger and Denis Norden (though I'm sure the latter would rather not be reminded of his purchases).

 It was a heady time in 1975 and '76 and I remember one time after having just seen the film “Cabaret”, wandering up Oxford Street and saying to my friend Frank Posner (son of the Vintage Magazine Shop owner Danny Posner) that I could feel the times were becoming as decadent, in London at the very least, as they were in 1930's Berlin. And so began my fantasy love of Berlin, later to develop into a full term romance in the mid '80's when I visited, and later lived in, the most brilliant city on the world's face. But that's another story.

 Anyway, my first Pistols gig (which I'd gone to after reading a review of the band in the New Musical Express) was to open my eyes to the real decadence going down in early 1976. And this was the gig that ended up on the cover of Melody Maker a week later, with Jordan and Vivienne Westwood getting involved in a fracas in front of the stage (I met Vivienne at a Sticky Fingers party in the early '90's and spent much of the evening berating her for Malcolm McLaren's treatment of Johnny Thunders in the mid to late '70's – she insisted it wasn't her fault or indeed her problem, but I was doubly tenacious and refused to give her an inch – still, a very nice lady, when all is said and done). I even took a photo of the band at the Nashville – it being my fashion in those days to - whenever possible – take at least one photo of very band I saw – something that became more and more de rigeur as punk days went on.

 So I was left with very distinct impressions of the Sex Pistols from that one show – I later saw another two shows by the band, both at the 100 Club on Oxford Street. So, returning home to the Swell Maps then base of Solihull in Warwickshire, I proceeded to tell my fellow band members of this great influential group I'd seen. To further emphasise the point I arranged a version of Chuck Berry's “Almost Grown” which I proceeded to sing in a Johnny Rotten style for the band. This was the only way I could think of getting across his particular vocal style – meshed-cockney as it was. Though he later disowned the statement, I remember my brother Epic being singularly unimpressed when we first heard “Anarchy In The U.K.” on Radio One's John Peel programme – the first airing it received in Great Britain. He complained it just wasn't powerful enough – or at least not as powerful as he'd been led to believe.

Swell Maps Live in Rotterdam 1979

Swell Maps went on to play their first ever gig on Boxing day 1977 at the so-called “24 Hour Punk All Dayer” at Barbarellas in Birmingham – partially due to the Sex Pistols influence but also due to the example provided by the Desperate Bicycles who showed how anybody could go into a studio to record and release a single. Before being appraised of this we didn't realise that a band could book a studio by themselves and that studio recording wasn't the impenetrable business it had seemed to be. Had we known we would have recorded earlier than September 14th 1977 when we went into Spaceward Studio in Cambridge to record our first single “Read About Seymour”, which was pressed up just before Christmas 1977 for release in January 1978 – this still though made it one of the first independent singles to be released. Though not early enough to guarantee it the sales in excess of 5,000 that those very first independent singles amassed. At least it went on to sell over 10,000 copies over the next few years, largely due to our first John Peel session (the first of three over the next two years).

Swell Maps - "Read About Seymour"

John Peel had played “Read About Seymour” about 14 times on his Radio One show so I had approached him about a possible session. The answer came back that we should submit a reel to reel ¼ inch tape to the BBC (they had no cassette machines at Radio One in those days). This I managed to do in the days following the reply – I dropped the tape off at Broadcasting House reception – and received a phone call a couple of days later asking us to go into the BBC's Maida Vale Studios to record a session. It was that easy. We recorded the session – it was broadcast and a few days later I walking into the Rough Trade shop on Kensington Park Road, and was asked if I had any further copies of “Read About Seymour” that they could have. We'd managed to shift about 1,000 of the 2,200 we'd had pressed by this date (around end October 1978). Rough Trade asked if they could take the balance to sell. And sell them they did.

"Midget Submarines" - Video compiled by my little brother Nik Coleman

We used the money from our Peel session to record the first half of our first album “A Trip To Marineville” which in due course I played to Geoff Travis from Rough Trade Records, who insisted they be allowed to put up the money for us to complete the album, and for them to be able to release it on their label. This being despite the fact that their first album release, Stiff Little Fingers' “Inflammable Material” had not yet come out and they were in severe financial straits.

The album was duly finished and released in July 1979, preceded by the single “Dresden Style” in March, and met with rave reviews, including “Album Of The Year” in Smash Hits magazine. It went on to sell in excess of 20,000 copies and reach the top of the newly instigated Independent Charts.

All, in a way, due to seeing the Sex Pistols at the Nashville Rooms in May of 1976.

Nikki Sudden
28th February 1995

Nikki Sudden 19th July 1956 - 26th March 2006
Never Forgotten, Always Missed.

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