Nikki Sudden, one of the last survivors of the pioneering do-it-yourself music mentality of 1976 who is still performing regularly today, isn't mentioned anywhere. Perhaps this is an oversight by the condescending, often pompous know-it-all snobs at Spin, maybe because Sudden never garnered the same recognition and accolades of his less talented peers, or possibly it's because he never considered himself or his influential bands, the Swell Maps and Jacobites, punk in any terms.
In any case, cult favorite Sudden (born Nicholas Godfrey) and his hotshot touring band the Last Bandits will appear in Tucson for the first time and play a rare live performance at Club Congress on Tuesday night. Consider it a special treat for all musical renegades who were there from the onset and who never stopped believing in punk's nihilistic fervor to destroy the world through random acts of chaos, three simple power chords and plenty of snarling, in-your-face attitude.
Only a handful of unrelenting first-wave punk-era artists like Sudden survive today, having never stopped believing in its indomitable spirit or grown tired of the grueling club tour circuit after nearly three decades. "It's better than working," a weary though cheerful Sudden said via cell phone from a much-needed sound check at a boisterous Bloomington, Ind., punk dive two weeks ago. "It's the only answer I can give, really. I can't think of anything else I could do, let alone want to do. And when you do a good gig, you get so much buzz from that, it's like nothing else in this world."
Sudden and his touring band had just driven over 2,000 miles in three days crammed together in a malodorous Jeep Cherokee; that speaks volumes about his love of and dedication to performing despite the commercial success that has escaped him all these years.
"We got our first sound check of the tour tonight, which is a real treat," he yelled above the indiscriminate club noise, quite pleased at this infinitesimal pre-gig preparation. "Because in Europe we usually get an hour or an hour and a half to sound check, and warm up a bit. Lately, we've just been jumping on stage, plugging in our guitars and playing with amps we've never used before. It's quite exciting, really."
Sudden formed the intellectual, daring and resourceful Swell Maps in 1972 with his brother Epic Soundtracks (who died in 1997, an alleged suicide). The legendary British art-punk band released its first noisy and experimental single in 1977, its debut album, A Trip To Marineville, in 1979, and disintegrated by 1980. The group's four singles and two proper studio albums reached No. 1 on the UK independent charts, and its unique experimental dynamism, a cross between T-Rex, the Rolling Stones, New York Dolls, Can and the Velvet Underground, paved the way for Sonic Youth, Pavement, the Lemonheads, Pussy Galore and Big Black.
"We keep on talking about doing a Swell Maps reunion tour if there's enough money in it," Sudden laughed. "I wouldn't want to do it unless I actually got something out of it, because it's a backward step for me."
After disbanding the Swell Maps, singer-guitarist Sudden released two solo albums, Waiting on Egypt and The Bible Belt (currently unavailable, but expected to be reissued later this year on the wholly independent, Bloomington-based Secretly Canadian label). Sudden then formed the Jacobites with Dave Kusworth (guitar and vocals) and Soundtracks (drums/keyboards) circa 1983.
"All my 1980s albums are being reissued," he said proudly. "We just finished most of the artwork and I've remastered about eight or nine albums since last November." Currently, Sudden is touring in support of The Last Bandit, a two-CD set released by the Bomp! Records-related Alive/Total Energy imprint, being touted as a "best of" collection featuring his handpicked favorites, rare, unreleased singles and a bonus disc of previously unreleased solo acoustic songs.
The Jacobites' records, not unlike the bulk of the selections from The Last Bandit, all possess a similarly haunting romantic arrangement: enticing strummed acoustic guitar; a crashing, clattered rhythm section; and Sudden's droning, Dylanesque vocals. Sudden's wheezing style was described by Trouser Press Record Guide, edited by Ira A. Robbins, as "a folky Johnny Thunders growing up in the English countryside and learning to play guitar by listening to 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' with a bottle by his side." The book's perfect description nails Sudden's woozy romantic-meets-vagabond-waif punk-like posturing and maudlin balladeering squarely on the head.
Sudden finds any comparisons to his good friend Thunders (the ex-Dolls guitarist who was found dead from an apparent drug overdose in New Orleans in 1991), especially their identical approach to tackling acoustic material, both flattering and funny. "Yeah, neither of us could play that well," he chuckled. "Johnny was a good friend of mine. I thought Johnny would outlive us all. It was really a tragedy what happened with him. I miss him quite a lot."
The unexpected death of Soundtracks affected Sudden on a more personal, emotional and artistic level, considering his younger sibling was his main collaborator over the years. But Sudden seems at peace with himself, having come to terms with his loss without being maudlin or overly dramatic about it. "With Epic," Sudden sighed, paused for a second, then answered matter-of-factly. "You have to think in these terms: 'Some people make it and some people don't.' That's the only way you can stay cool about it. We don't know why he died. I read things in Rolling Stone that it was a drug overdose or suicide, but we don't know. It could've been, but we have no idea."
Sudden also dismissed the unofficial punk martyrdom now attributed to his notoriously drug-addled pal Thunders. "Johnny was never punk rock," he snickered. "The Dolls and Heartbreakers were the last two good American rock'n'roll bands apart from the Black Crowes and the Kevin K Band. There're a few bands left, but not many. Johnny is no more of a punk than Chuck Berry is. He's probably having a good laugh as we speak."
Likewise, Sudden never considered his brand of music in terms of punk, alternative or modern rock. "I never thought of myself as indie--underground, maybe," he stated succinctly. "All of our contemporaries have gone back to delivering milk or become bank managers or dentists or something like that. ... That's one of the things that's changed," he continued. "All of these bands today that are the current flavor of the month, funk up all the music festivals and then they disappear because they don't have any talent or lasting ability."
The willfully tuneless Sudden calls his brand of high-octane acoustic music "English rock'n'roll like the Stones, Faces, T-Rex, et cetera. All the good people." His many influences range from Dylan and Jerry Lee Lewis to Charlie Feathers and Neil Young. That he is not recognized as being a great songwriter among his heroes clearly disturbs him. "I think if I was born 10 years earlier, I would've been as big as all those guys," he snickered with a genuine trace of frustration. "I always felt I deserved a wider audience. I don't know why this happens, but at least I don't have to work. I make a living from music. I have enough to pay my bills, and buy Stones bootlegs and electric guitars, so I have no problems with it."
So when everyone runs out to pick up the anniversary punk issue of Spin praising the likes of Mission of Burma, Sonic Youth and Nirvana, remember that unsung heroes like Nikki Sudden helped lay the groundwork for all those who embrace and thrive on the rebellious punk spirit of '76.
"We (Swell Maps) were probably more influential and important than we realize," reflected Sudden. "Apparently we've influenced all these bands like Sonic Youth and Pavement, but all I can say is you can't blame me for that."