The Swell Maps

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“Wastrels and Whippersnappers” CD (UK Overground 108)

by Michel Bastarache


Remember those fleeting moments of magic when you first tried to play an electric guitar? Of course you weren’t “good” in the traditional sense, but there is a certain joy in creating noise, and just maybe, if you could hold your untrained fingers just right, you could produce a glorious harmony of distortion and ringing sustain. Through your naïveté, you could transcend your musical limitations and reach a place beyond the rigid rules of chords and melody. And then, for a brief moment, you too might visit the territory enthusiastically explored by the Swell Maps.

Long before the six school mates that would become the Swell Maps entered a recording studio for their first record, the “Read About Seymour” 7" EP in September of 1977, they recorded most of their earliest attempts at songs at home, on cassette or reel-to-reel tape. Many of these early home recordings were featured on the “Whatever Happens Next” double LP released in 1981, but this collection is long out of print and was never released on CD. Compiled by Swell Maps' bass player, Jowe Head, the new “Wastrels and Whippersnappers” CD is a time machine back to the earliest beginnings of the band.

At the time these twenty-three tracks were recorded (from 1974–1977), the Swell Maps had yet to exist as a performing band. Instead, various combinations of the six members (usually two, three, or four at a time) would come together to record their latest song ideas and their improvised doodlings on cassette tape in their bedrooms. The CD includes a few very early versions of well-known Swell Maps tunes including “Dresden Style,” “Full Moon/Blam/Full Moon,” “Harmony in Your Bathroom,” and “Vertical Slum’ (titled “Vertical Slumber” on this compilation). Hearing these raw recordings is interesting, but they don’t hold up to the later studio versions that appear on the Swell Maps' records.

Much more intriguing are the tracks that the Swell Maps never deemed worth releasing. Some of these aren't much more than unfinished instrumental fragments, but they provide a powerful insight into the band. The range of ideas across this CD is especially impressive - from punk rock, to prog-rock, to jazz fusion jams, and then onto ambient noise experiments—the Swell Maps bravely try anything. Two of the tracks that sound least like the Swell Maps are my favorites. “Pets’ Corner” is a Black Sabbath-style dirge with spoken word lyrics and wah-wah guitar throughout. “Below Number One” is a trance-inducing ambient piece that eventually gets ruined by some awkward flute playing, but the sincere enthusiasm that the band has for exploring these sounds really knocks me out.

This CD may be best appreciated by hardcore Swell Maps fans, but there are many rewards for students of the creative process. The Maps demonstrate an overwhelming sense of adventure in these tracks that could never be found on a finished studio album. Once again the Swell Maps celebrate rock’s imperfections—and do it perfectly.