Sunday, September 19, 2010

Only about 30 years or so too late, I’ve recently made a startling musical discovery: the Swell Maps. This has brought with it a second revelation, although this was something I had already slightly suspected on occasion: that Sonic Youth were more or less superfluous.

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with smug, bohemian arty-farty types, and experimental rockers are no exception. In the past I’ve enjoyed horrifying the Impostume by announcing my preference for the Rolling Stones over the Velvet Underground. This isn’t a pose, I’m not trying to be iconoclastic here, I simply admire the former’s ability to rock out so effortlessly, and whilst I acknowledge the greatness of the latter, at times I find their too-clever-by-half knowingness a bit difficult to stomach, along with the obvious fact of them being tainted by their association with that vile charlatan Andy Warhol.

This is not intended to be an anti-intellectual polemic, some kind of musical Toryism, I acknowledge that there is a need for avant-gardism and I’m fully prepared to embrace it, within reason. Neither is it meant to be a patriotic or anti-American rant in elevating the Stones over the VU or the Swell Maps above Sonic Youth (or even – deep breath, Carl – Stiff Little Fingers over Pere Ubu!!) – in the late 80s in particular it was hairy US rock bands like Dinosaur Jr. or Mudhoney (admittedly helped along a little by Sonic Youth) who gave us a welcome antidote to the nerdy sterility of what had become of some British post-punk. Still, I’ve always found Sonic Youth somewhat tricky. Although it seems a gross exaggeration to me to claim, as some have done, that they “reinvented the guitar”, they have probably been fairly influential, but compared to some of their contemporaries there seems to be an odd lack of engagement about them, their music coming across as more of an intellectual exercise which at its worst is utterly joyless. There’s none of the punishing intensity of extreme noise terrorists like Swans or Einstürzende Neubauten, and at the other end of the spectrum, in contrast with other masterful guitar pioneers such as Hüsker Dü, they had a chronic inability, with very few exceptions, to write a decent song.

As a result I’ve tended to see Sonic Youth as one of those bands who were necessary or at least useful, without actually liking them that much. Now I’ve finally heard the Swell Maps I’m not sure even about that, since they clearly taught Sonic Youth everything they know. Finding them on youtube was an epiphany of Adverts-like proportions, and again I wondered why I’d never paid any attention to them before. Ironically, like TV Smith, Nikki Sudden is one of the few relatively big, international names I've seen play here in Olomouc, though this was many years ago. I’d seen his name mentioned in the music press once or twice before and heard he’d got some kind of vague association with the Birthday Party, so for him to be playing here of all places was most definitely an event. Nevertheless, by that time he was very much in Keith Richards/Johnny Thunders trad-rock mode, and whilst you can probably guess from the above that I have absolutely nothing against that sort of thing, the performance wasn’t hugely memorable and really gave no clue as to his previous, extraordinarily innovative work, which, since this was back in the days long before youtube existed, I continued to neglect. What I do remember from the evening is chatting to him afterwards and finding him a very amiable chap, god rest his soul.

So belated apologies to Nikki, because the Swell Maps have quite blown me away. Certainly not shy of noisy guitar experimentation, they managed to combine this with a genuine rock n roll thrill that Sonic Youth, to my ears, never provided. To be fair, Thurston Moore was entirely candid about his debt to the Swell Maps, even putting out a tune called “Eric’s Trip” in obvious homage to “Epic’s Trip”, but I now find myself wondering why he bothered picking up the guitar at all: after all, it had already been done so much better by a band who, unlike Moore and co., instinctively knew how to rock, producing belters like "Let's Build A Car" and "Helicopter Spies" and influencing not only Sonic Youth but surely also those awesome rockin' behemoths the Jesus and Mary Chain amongst others. It’s all about finding the right balance between the cerebral and the visceral, innit? Swell Maps do it for me, Sonic Youth don’t.

As the great David St. Hubbins once said, “it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever”.


Anonymous REO Spudwagon said...

I like your blog Mr. Spleen, but cannot fathom whether you are a Czech/Slovak guy in England or an English guy in Czech Republic/Slovakia, or if you're a strange hybrid that crosses the two/three.

But anyway, SY are a load of old toss that nicked riffs/attitude from countless waaaaay better bands such as Ruts, Chrome, MX-80 Sound (especially), Pop Group, Honeymoon Killers (Belgian variety), Mission Of Burma, Gang Of Four and Live Skull.

i.e. all the bands they sound like but don't actually credit (cos they affect to be more "influenced" by The Monkees and The Carpenters).

This would be enough to annoy any sane person, but then I hold to the unfashionable pov that post-punk was invented by The Stranglers with "Black & White", and everything between 1978 and 1982 was a shite replica of their original work, so Sonic Youth piling on at the very end was a comparatively minor crime.

2:42 AM  
Blogger ASHDAV said...

Thanks Mr/Ms Spudwagon - to satisfy your curiosity I'm English, living in CZ for the lat 15 years, so you could say I'm slowly becoming a hybrid Anglo-Czech.

I have to admit I've never even heard of MX-80 Sound or Honeymoon Killers, and never heard the Stranglers album you mention, so now I'll have to go off and satisfy my own curiosity.

Thanks for the heads up.

9:30 AM  

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