THE LAST BANDIT Nikki Sudden

With his autobiography finally widely available and a
fresh trove of unreleased material in stores, the beloved late British rocker
is due a reappraisal.

 

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

There
are cult acts and then there’s Nikki Sudden. Though spread across the globe,
his audience likely includes no one you know. Unless, of course, you’re on
personal terms with any of his famous friends and fans – Peter Buck, Ryan
Adams, Ian McLagen, Mick Taylor, Evan Dando, Jeff Tweedy, Nick Cave, Primal
Scream, Thurston Moore and Johnny Thunders have all worked with him, sung his
praises or just hung out. But even the most hip of your hipster friends is
likely to give you a blank stare if you mention his name.

 

If
we’re to be honest, Sudden’s lack of fame has as much to do with the
limitations of his talents as it does the shifting tides of show business. His
musical vision essentially begins and ends with T. Rex (the band that inspired
him to take up the guitar) and the Rolling Stones (his favorite band). Though
also deeply affected by Bob Dylan, the Faces, Johnny Thunders, the blues,
country, Motown and punk, his work tends to be a blend of rootsy rock drive and
glam rock swagger, proudly stuck in the ‘70s. It’s a blunt, honest sound that
often as not produced some sublimely soulful rock & roll – but even in the ‘80s
when Sudden hung out his shingle it was a style neither hip nor marketable.
(Even less so now, sadly.) The ramshackle quality of his voice, which often
couldn’t find the right key, let alone the note, has never helped, either – a
limitation of which Sudden was always perfectly aware.

 

But
that doesn’t mean his art isn’t worth exploring or celebrating. It merely
indicates that his is not a career begging for discovery by the masses through
a biographical tome. But here it is: the product of two years of writing and a
lifetime of diligent diary-keeping, The
Last Bandit: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Life
(Arcana Books; www.arcanaedizioni.com) tells the
Sudden story in the words of the man himself. It’s a tale likely to be familiar
to regular readers of rock bios, with all the sex, drugs, jams, showstoppers,
bombs, daring adventures and narrow escapes you’d expect or want. Though the
book (originally released only in Italy before finally securing a
release in the country of his birth) begins with a short chapter about Sudden’s
first band, the pioneering experimental postpunk band Swell Maps, he quickly
turns the clock back 30 years, detailing his parents’ marriage and his
subsequent birth. Moving through a childhood spent burying himself in British
historical fiction, the former Adrian Godfrey kicks his story into gear with
the introduction of Marc Bolan and T. Rex, his obsession with whom leads him to
the guitar, his personal style (Sudden never met a scarf he didn’t like) and
the decision to make music his life. With various friends and his brother
Kevin, soon to be better known as Epic Soundtracks, Sudden begins home
recording, developing his songwriting and musicianship and inciting the
creation of Swell Maps.

 

The
Maps years are likely the best-known of Sudden’s career, even though they
encompass the shortest period. Sudden goes over these years in fairly close
detail, at least as far as the vagaries of the band’s lifespan, and hipsters
who worship this seminal band will likely find these pages the most compelling.
But the Maps, like so many acts of its era, were too volatile to last, and it’s
not long before Sudden embarks on a music odyssey of his own. It’s here that
the formula kicks in: Nikki writes some songs, makes a record for a spurious
indie label owner, plays some gigs, meets and falls in love with a girl
(usually with connections to wealth or power) and travels around Europe getting
high (usually on heroin) and lying in bed with his paramour. And on and on, damn near to the point of boredom. It’s
almost preposterous in its single-mindedness – for Sudden, this is how a rocker
lives life, and the tedium never seems to occur to him. (It doesn’t help that
it’s apparent neither an editor nor a proofreader ever came within miles of the
manuscript – a lot of the redundancies would’ve been easily adjusted during
that process.) Given the constant references to drugs throughout most of the
book, it begins to read uncomfortably like the confessions of a junkie – worse,
a junkie who doesn’t realize how hooked he really is. When he stops mentioning
any drug intake – not coincidentally in the late ‘90s/early ‘aughts, when he
was at his most musically productive – it comes as such a relief that we never
question why there’s been a shift.

 

Fortunately,
there are enough nuggets between the constant bouts of drinking, drugging and
fucking beautiful women to maintain interest. The chapters immediately
following the Maps breakup paint a fascinating portrait of the early ‘80s
Birmingham rock scene, from the nascent beginnings of Duran Duran, whose Nick
Rhodes ran in the same circles as Sudden, to the sadly underrecorded
Subterranean Hawks and TV Eye, both of which featured Sudden’s likeminded
friend and off-and-on again partner Dave Kusworth and Lilac Time leader and
original Duran singer Stephen Duffy. (All concerned make a convincing claim
that TV Eye’s “Stevie’s Radio Station” is the basis for Duran’s “Rio.”) This is followed by Sudden’s first solo records,
the formation of the Jacobites with Kusworth, a dalliance with Creation Records
(whose Alan McGee meant well but never seemed to know what do with a Nikki
Sudden LP), frequent travels to America and Germany (where he would eventually
end up living) and numerous friendships and collaborations along the way.

 

While
Sudden easily waxes rhapsodic about this or that romance, he’s at his most
animated when talking about music. Whether singing the praises of Kusworth or
his brother, who gets a loving, honest elegy late in the book, gushing about
meeting Robert Plant or Ron Wood, detailing the making of 2004’sTreasure Island, the last LP released
during his lifetime and easily one of his finest, or talking about his favorite
books and records, Sudden’s prose takes on a passionate tone familiar to anyone
with more than a casual interest in music. And it’s these passages that
underscore the reasons why he does what he does: it’s not (just) the cocaine,
name-dropping and promiscuous groupies, but a pure love of picking up a guitar
and making a righteous noise. “Even though it’s unfashionable these days,” he
writes near the end, “I still believe in music, I still believe in rock ‘n’
roll.” Follow Sudden on his journey and you will too.

 

One
of the maddening mantras of The Last
Bandit
is that Sudden will mention the recording of a particular track, and
then follow it with the phrase “Maybe it’ll come out someday.” The prose
indicates enough unreleased material to fill up a box set, something venerable
British label Easy Action promises for later in the year. Fortunately, Sudden’s
old bassist John C. Barry has compiled Playing
With Fire
(Troubadour/Easy Action), a collection of outtakes that at least
covers the period of recording his final (and best) LPs Treasure Island and 2006’s The
Truth Doesn’t Matter
(completed shortly before his death in March of that
year). Amazingly, there’s barely a bummer in the bunch – as explained in
Barry’s liner notes, most of these songs were left off the records for reasons
other than quality control. “I Know You,” “Don’t Look Back” (the obligatory,
ahem, homage to T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong [Get It On]” that appears on nearly every
Sudden record) and “Hanoi Jane” represent Sudden at his rocking zenith,
channeling very spark of inspiration he ever gleaned from the Rolling Stones,
the Faces and Marc Bolan into slices of transcendent rock & roll.
(Bizarrely, Sudden wasn’t happy with this version of “Hanoi Jane.”) His ballads
channel the same spirit, resulting in the lovely but still gritty “Pirate
Girls,” “The Ballad of the Bellman Bar” and “The Last Flash of the Cavalier
Nation,” a tribute to his beloved Bernard Cornwell novels co-written by
Norwegian musician/Sudden disciple Einar Stenseng.

 

Also
included is “Happy Birthday,” a tune intended for Treasure Island that Sudden talks about at length in his book, due
to the presence of his father Trevor Godfrey on piano – the only time father
and son played together. Things start to get silly near the end, with a loose
duet with Captain Sensible on Iggy Pop’s “Kill City”
and a brief improvised boogie called “Kamikaze Karaoke.” But the gorgeous,
contemplative “A Thousand Years Ago” brings everything back home, taking one of
the most fertile periods of Sudden’s career gently into the good night. Despite
being an odds ‘n’ sods collection, Playing
With Fire
is a near-perfect way to introduce friends and rock & roll
fans to the Sudden mystique.

 

Also
released in conjunction with the bio is the solo acoustic LP Tel Aviv Blues (Earsay). Recorded in a
studio in the titular city during a brief tour of Israel in 2002, the album presents
Sudden running through new songs, a couple of older tunes and some favorite
covers. Obviously meant to be a demo session, some songs include false starts
and post-performance mumbling, but that adds to the you-are-there informality
of the album. Version of Johnny Thunders’ “Diary of a Lover” and the Stones’
“As Tears Go By” come off well, as does a piano-based version of Sudden’s
rocker “Liquor, Guns & Ammo.” Some of the fresh material is a bit gimmicky,
particularly the obviously improvised “The Girls Are So Pretty in Tel Aviv
City” and “Tel Aviv
Blues.” But other new tunes like “Out of My Dreams, “Edge of Autumn” and
“Cathy” reveal sturdy melodies and superior craft. A recording this stripped
down, not to mention well recorded, doesn’t favor an artist of Sudden’s uneven
vocal talents, but he acquits himself decently, though his wobbly performance
gives his version of eternal inspiration “Get It On” a strange lilt. More of
interest to diehards than casual fans, Tel
Aviv Blues
shows a side of Sudden often mentioned in the book but rarely
heard on record.

 

All
of this is a bonanza for Sudden fans, who will find the autobiography
fascinating reading. Skeptics should dip their toes into the waters of Playing With Fire first, before deciding
to dive into the wider, deeper ocean represented by The Last Bandit.

 

Leave a Reply