British singer Nikki Sudden never performed in large stadiums or reached Billboard's album charts. But his music, as a solo artist and as a member of both the Swell Maps during the 1970s and the Jacobites during the 1980s, influenced everyone from the Replacements to Sonic Youth. Sudden recorded an album with the members of R.E.M. in the early 1990s, and both the Lemonheads and Mercury Rev recorded his songs. When not involved with performing, Sudden wrote about music for Mojo and other music magazines, and was in the process of writing his own biography as well as a biography of singer-guitarist Ron Wood, when he died in 2006. "Nikki Sudden is hands-down one of the most important figures in the underground rock subculture," wrote New York Night Train, "and this would have remained true had he died twenty years ago as well."
Nikki Sudden was born Nicholas Godfrey on the outskirts of London on July 19, 1956. He grew up in Solihull, and his father, a public relations agent, played the organ in church. Sudden was drawn to glam rockers like Marc Bolan and T. Rex in the early 1970s, leading him and his brother, Kevin (a.k.a. Epic Soundtracks), to form a band. In 1977 the brothers recruited bassist Jowe Head and guitarist Richard Earle. Sudden and his bandmates adapted the do-it-yourself punk ethic of the day, founding and recording on Rather, their own record label. In 1978 the Swell Maps issued their first single, "Read About Seymour," a rough track that lasted only one minute, 27 seconds. After a second single, "Dresden Style," the band issued a full-length album, A Trip to Marineville, in 1979. A second album, Jane From Occupied Europe, was issued the following year. While both albums proved too experimental to sell widely, they would prove influential to a number of emerging New Wave bands.
Following the dissolution of the Swell Maps, Sudden issued two solo albums, Waiting on Egypt in 1982 and The Bible Belt in 1983, both similar to the former band's style. In 1982 Sudden, along with his brother, Epic Soundtracks, formed the Jacobites with guitarist Dave Kusworth and bassist Mark Lemon. Unlike the Swell Maps, the Jacobites were a straightforward rock band, reminding listeners of the Velvet Underground. In 1984 the band released its self-titled album. "This is the stuff—it's what rock fans dream about and live for—and it seems, in retrospect, the most ardent of rock musicians, whose only goal is getting at the pearl, do too," wrote Thom Jurek in All Music Guide. The album was followed by Robespierre's Velvet Basement in 1985, the album, some fans believed, that found Sudden hitting his stride. "Robespierre's Velvet Basement … is a masterpiece of freewheeling songwriting, loose arrangements, tossed-off vocals, and right-to-the-gut emotional expression," wrote Jurek. The Jacobites would issue an incredible four albums and two EPs over the next three years, after which Kusworth left the group.
Beginning with the release of Texas in 1986, Sudden began a fruitful collaboration with blues guitarist Rowland Howard. The duo followed with Dead Men Tell No Tales in 1987, an album credited to the Jacobites, and then Kiss You Kidnapped Charabanc, an album on which they split the songwriting credits. Sudden issued a steady stream of sometimes obscure releases in the mid-to-late 1980s, including the EP Live in Augsburg (1987), Crown of Thorns, an album released exclusively in Italy (1988), and Groove (1989). "A big, swaggering, barnburner of a record," wrote J. Edward Keyes in All Music Guide, "Groove pits toothy chords against thundering drums, making for what could best be described as post-punk designed to fill Madison Square Garden."
Sudden began the 1990s by recording The Jewel Thief, with the backing of Peter Buck, Bill Berry, and Mike Mills of R.E.M. Sudden, shortly before his death, recalled how the sessions had come about. He had been invited by Buck to stay at his home in Athens. "One night Pete and I were talking over a bottle of Jack Daniels," he told Athens Music. "Peter says, 'We should go in the studio and record some of your new songs. I know them, you know them. We just have to find a drummer and a bassist.'" Buck proceeded to call his band mates, Berry and Mills, and the recording session was hatched. "We did the whole thing in—I don't know—I think it was three days," Buck recalled in Athens Music.
On November 5, 1997, Sudden's brother and sometime musical partner, Epic Soundtrack, died. "Every time I saw my brother he always wanted to turn me on to some new band he'd discovered … and I did the same with him," Sudden told Donny Kutzbach of Art Voices. "His death obviously had a big effect on me…. When I was writing the songs for Red Brocade I started using some of Epic's chord changes." Sudden issued Red Brocade in 1999, an album that Jurek called "one of those forgotten Nikki Sudden records, one that stands as Robespierre's Velvet Basement in his catalog. It's a ragged rock school masterpiece." Sudden followed five years later with Treasure Island, an album that allowed him to collaborate with ex-Faces' keyboardist Ian McLagan and guitarist Mick Taylor. "What it adds up to is a rock & roll album of truly brilliant proportions," wrote Jurek. "You know, the kind people just don't make anymore."
Treasure Island also served to highlight a new interest in Sudden's music. One problem that had always plagued him was that he frequently recorded for small labels and his albums did not remain in print. Beginning in 2001, however, the Secretly Canadian label began reissuing Sudden's albums from the 1980s, adding a number of bonus cuts and previously hard-to-find material. "It's some of the most authentic stuff out there," Fred Mills wrote in Seattle Weekly, "proof that at that point in time, somebody actually did care about real rock 'n' roll."
On March 26, 2006, Sudden died at the age of 49, following a show at the Knitting Factory in New York City. No cause of death has been made public. Just prior to his death, Sudden had finished a new album and had even planned a Jacobites gig on March 29 in Denmark. "Nikki Sudden believed in rock 'n' roll," Dave Kusworth told Blog Spot, "and how hard was that in this cold new millenium!!??"
(With Swell Maps) A Trip to Marineville, Rough Trade, 1979.
(With Swell Maps) Jane From Occupied Europe, Rough Trade, 1980.
Waiting on Egypt, Abstract, 1982.
The Bible Belt Flicknife, 1983.
(With the Jacobites) The Jacobites, Mammoth, 1984.
(With the Jacobites) Robespierre's Velvet Basement, Glass, 1985.
Texas, Creation, 1986.
Dead Men Tell No Tales, Creation, 1987.
Crown of Thorns, Crazy Mannequin, 1988.
Groove, Creation, 1989.
The Jewel Thief, UFO, 1991.
Red Brocade, Total Energy, 1999.
Treasure Island, Secretly Canadian, 2004.
For the Record …
Born Nicholas Godfrey on July 19, 1956, in London, England; died on March 26, 2006, in New York City.
Formed Swell Maps with his brother, Kevin (a.k.a. Epic Soundtracks), bassist Jowe Head, and guitarist Richard Earle, 1977; recorded two solo albums, Waiting on Egypt, 1982, and The Bible Belt, 1983; formed Jacobites with drummer Epic Soundtracks, guitarist Dave Kusworth, and bassist Mark Lemon, 1982; collaborated with guitarist Rowland Howard on Texas, 1986, and Dead Men Tell No Tales, 1987; issued EP Live in Augsburg, 1987, Crown of Thorns, 1988, and Groove, 1989; collaborated with members of R.E.M. on The Jewel Thief, 1991; released Red Brocade, 1999, and Treasure Island, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Secretly Canadian, 1499 West 2nd, Bloomington, IN 47403, e-mail: info[\]0ommat;secretlycanadiancom.
"Fortune of Fame," Seattle Weekly, http://www.seattleweekly.com/ (June 10, 2006).
"Nikki Sudden," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusicguide.com/ (June 10, 2006).
"Nikki Sudden (1956–2006)," New York Night Train, http://www.newyorknighttrain.com/ (June 10, 2006).
"Nikki Sudden Talks About Athens & More," Athens Music, http://www.athensmusic.com/ (June 10, 2006).
"Peter Buck (R.E.M.) Discusses Nikki Sudden," Athens Music, http://www.athensmusic.com/ (June 10, 2006).
"Reverie of the Last Bandit: Nikki Sudden," Art Voice, http://www.artvoice.com/ (June 10, 2006).
"Rockobit: Nikki Sudden," Blogger, http://www.xrrf.blogspot.com.com/ (June 10, 2006).
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