SWELL MAPS: A Trip To Marineville (LP, Rough Trade/Rather ROUGH 2, 1979)

Swell Maps - A Trip To Marineville

This album is an insight into a strange set of minds. I bought it in around ’92 or so after hearing Swell Maps’ name dropped in the context of a variety of indie-pop and fanzine mentions of – very vaguely and very possibly wrongly – music that prefigured the Pastels and was ‘shambolic’ before the whole post-C86 world of shambolicism became a going concern. Just looking at the sleeve and artwork raises some immediate questions:

  • What/where is Marineville?
  • What’s the significance of the burning home on the front cover?
  • What are these songs all about – ‘Vertical Slum’, ‘Midget Submarines’, ‘Harmony In Your Bathroom’, etc… are they literal or some kind of bizarre set of metaphors?

I can’t answer any of these, but I like the fact that before even playing, this album has successfully generated a strange world of intrigue that seems both ramshackle (in the cut-and-paste styling of the inner sleeve collage, or the wide variety of recording sessions noted under each song’s liner notes) and oddly ‘complete’ (in the confidence to include a free 7″ containing four more songs, when the album itself already contains around seventeen). The band members have their performance names – Epic Soundtracks, Golden Cockrill, Phones B. Sportsman and so on – and the whole package suggests as much time sitting around devising plans and schemes as was spent creating the music. And that, of course, is how it should be – non-careerist music created by weirdo artists with a hidden, defined set of personal guidelines for doing so.

I wasn’t old enough to be interested at the time, but I wonder if other records were released in the late-1970s rush of invention that followed punk and led to so-called post-punk which share such a sense of invention, adventure and playfulness as this one? In a very small but somewhat significant way, I believe that this record and others like it paved the way for the entirety of the ‘indie’ scene that grew up in the ’80s and which is now, essentially, the mainstream. Naturally, this album’s on Rough Trade, who had a finger in pretty much every musical pie of note from the late ’70s through the mid ’80s. Respect.

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