As evidenced on a new six-CD box set, the late British songwriter was, if not a superstar, still a major contender in the world of underground rock & roll.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
As anybody who’s read his autobiography The Last Bandit knows, Nikki Sudden recorded a lot – for more often than his officially released catalog would suggest. “I’m saving it for the box set” seemed to be a mantra for him for the last decade or so of his life. Seven years after his untimely passing, The Boy From Nowhere, Who Fell Out of the Sky has finally appeared via the Easy Action label. But while the six-disk set has plenty of rarities – nearly four disks’ worth, in fact – it’s not so much a roundup of his hidden sessions as it is a career retrospective, giving force to the argument that the British songwriter was, if not a superstar, still a major contender in the world of underground rock & roll.
The first two disks collect, as they’re titled, Singles and Classic Album Tracks. Disk one covers 1977-1989, the years in which Sudden established himself as an international underground bon vivant. As with any collection of this stripe, diehards may find glaring omissions – where’s “Death is Hanging Over Me,” “Gold Painted Nails” or “The Last Bandit?” Grumbling aside, though, the disk gives a fair overview of the first half of Sudden’s career. Appropriately enough, the disk kicks off with three cuts from Swell Maps, the experimental postpunk outfit that put Sudden on the musical map. The noisy, catchy singles “Read About Seymour” and “Let’s Build a Car” show why the Maps sustain a cult following to this day. As good as they are, though, the Maps tracks are essentially baby pictures – the full-blown photographic exhibit begins with “Back to the Start,” Sudden’s first single. Though not a million miles away conceptually from the Maps, it does show incipient rock & roll swagger, as Sudden begins working his teenage obsessions with T. Rex and the Rolling Stones into the postpunk he would soon leave behind.
Sudden’s penchant for what we’d now call classic rock fully rears its head on “All the Gold,” a brooding folk rocker from his debut Waiting For Egypt. Precedent set, the singer/songwriter rarely strayed from the midpoint where Marc Bolan, the Stones, Dylan and Neil Young meet, and the rest of the disk gives a good overview of his vision. He easily and confidently veers between the shimmering jangle of the epic “Where the Rivers End” (one of his greatest tunes with pal Dave Kusworth in the Jacobites), “When the Rains Come” (ditto) and the succinct “Jangle Town” to the roiling grunge of “Great Pharaoh,” “Back to the Coast” and “Big Store (Orig.).” When he varies the formula, it’s usually in the form of resigned balladry, with the lovely “Ratcliffe Highway” (another Jacobites triumph), “Gallery Wharf” and “Chelsea Embankment,” plus the sublime and low-fi “Winter” (from the obscure Last Bandits in the World LP) and the darkly beautiful “Wedding Hotel,” guest-starring Rowland S. Howard. The Jacobites’ “Pin Your Heart” represents one of Sudden’s rare but rewarding forays into pop anthems, while “Missionary Boy” shows that he wasn’t quite done with quirky postpunk just yet. Even with the absence of key favorites, this first disk really lays out Sudden’s vision with conceptual clarity.
Disk two continues the theme of hits and classic cuts, taking the years 1991-2005. Country music a la Gram Parsons makes its way into the Sudden world via the wonderful “I Belong to You,” though the single’s equally worthy B-sides are absent. In fact, much of this disk revolves around acoustic guitars and folky melodies. “Golden Dawn,” “Farewell My Darling” (a duet with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy), the loud “Cloak of Virtue” (a collaboration with fellow traveler Phil Shoenfelt) and especially the Jacobites tunes “When Angels Die,” “Chelsea Springtime” and “Liquor, Guns & and Ammo” represent Sudden’s dramatic outlaw folk rock, a style difficult to pull off successfully. The Jacobites also salute Sudden’s late brother Epic Soundtracks, covering his “Wishing Well” in the same style. Sudden doesn’t abandon le rock, however, setting amps on fire with “Love Nest,” the ridiculously catchy “Don’t You Ever Leave Me” (one of the Jacobites’ greatest singles) and the particularly grungy “Whiskey Priest.” Sudden was at the peak of his powers when he died in 2006, leaving behind Treasure Island and The Truth Doesn’t Matter, his two best LPs. This disk ends, appropriately enough, with a rocker and ballad from each: Island’s tender “Stay Bruised” and blazing “House of Cards” (which features Mick Taylor and Ian McLagan) and Truth’s mature, lovely “Green Shield Stamps” and rollicking “Empire Blues.” The only significant omissions from disk two are “God Save Us” and “Teenage Christmas,” lively rock & roll tunes from the Jacobites’ final LP God Save Us Poor Sinners.
The hits out of the way, the next two CDs concentrate on the many, many rarities and unreleased songs in the Sudden archives. Disk three, subtitled Old, New, Lonesome and Blue, leans towards collaborations. Recorded in 2003 and opening the disk, “Out of My Dreams” and “Pistol in My Pocket” feature Kansas City’s likeminded Joey Skidmore, while 1996’s “Laudanum Blues” finds Sudden backed by German garage punks DM Bob & the Deficits and 1986’s “In Your Life” by the same country’s Creeping Candies. A highlight of both artists’ catalogs, “Family Bible” comes from a 2006 single on which Sudden collaborated with Athens, Georgia rock band Southern Bitch, while a “Big Store” recorded in 2003 features backing from Hanover’s psychedelic space rock troop Mandra Gora Lightshow Society. Stripped-down remakes of “Something About You” and “Liquor Guns and Ammo” come from a recording session with Sudden’s pal Max Decharné, formerly of Gallon Drunk and currently leading the Flaming Stars. There’s also an early version of “Chelsea Embankment” retrieved from a Swell Maps B-side and an alternate take of “The Bagman and the Twangman” backed by Peter Buck and members of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. A handful of Sudden-headlined tracks round out the disk nicely, including “Nothing Left” and “Pockets Full of Silver,” solo acoustic cuts of unknown date and origin, a tender take on Fairport Convention’s “Meet On the Ledge” and the efficiently rocking “I Can’t Stand Up” and “Little Venice,” recorded in Georgia in 2005. Most significant are recordings old and new: the pretty “Mr. Fox,” recorded in 1983 with Waterboys leader Mike Scott for a fanzine, and “The Way Things Used to Be,” a gorgeously shimmering ballad enigmatically listed as “The Last Recording.”
As indicated by the subtitle Beau Geste, Lost Souls and Bedroom Concertos, disk four digs deep under Sudden’s mountain of rarities, outtakes, home demos and unreleased recordings. More of a grab bag than an organized collection, the disk nevertheless contains some gems: the blazing “Sea Dog Blues,” recorded live in Tokyo in 1990; the Crazy Horse rock of “The Jewellery Quarter,” from a 1996 session in the Czech Republic; an alternate folk rocking version of Sudden’s classic “All My Sinking Ships” done in France in 1996; the hazy “Behind These Walls” from 1986, with contributions from Rowland S. Howard; the exceptionally strong “Wake Me Up,” a duet with Midnight Choir leader Al DeLoner in 2006; a nice but mysterious cover of the Boys Next Door’s “Shivers,” with no accreditation. About half the tracks come from the obscure cassette-only odds ‘n’ sods compilation Beau Geste. The wildly varying fidelity of these tracks may be an impediment to easy enjoyment, but there are rewards to be had, specifically the “country” version of the Jacobites’ “Hurt Me More,” particularly rocking takes on “Gold Painted Nails” and “Waiting For the Siege,” the odd “England’s Under Cover,” on which Sudden is accompanied by a tape, and a stark, badly recorded solo acoustic version of “The Only Boy in Heaven” with a surprisingly strong vocal. A handful of home-recorded demos from unknown time periods pop up throughout as well, highlighted by “School For Scandal” and “Girls You Fall in Love With.”
Disks five and six collect live cuts, mostly recorded for radio. Disk five, AKA The Dark Ends and the Dives, interweaves three different performances from Germany in 1999 and 2000 into one seamless show. Sudden is in full-blown rock & roll mode, fronting a four-piece electric band that knows just how to treat “Looking at You,” “Stay Bruised” and “Wooden Floor.” The blues shuffle of “High and Lonesome” becomes tedious (the blues never being Sudden’s strong suit, frankly), but the extended workout of “Take Me Back Home” rolls just fine. Subtitled Across the Airwaves, disk six naturally covers various radio sessions spanning at least 15 years (possibly more – many cuts hail from unknown sources). Barring the opening pair of 1984 Jacobites cuts, the performances here feature only Sudden, his guitar and songs from throughout his career, from “French Revolution Blues,” “Teenage Christmas” and “Death is Hanging Over Me” to “When Angels Die,” “Hanging Out the Banners” and “One More String of Pearls.” As might be expected, one-of-a-kind moments abound. He gives Groove’s “Murder Valley” and “Sea Dog Blues” their first public airing in 1988 on Hamburg radio, a mere two days after he wrote the latter. He plays covers of T. Rex (“Jewel”), the Rolling Stones (“Memory Motel”) and his own Swell Maps (“Marcella”). He performs an exceptionally strong version of “When Angels Die” on U.S. college radio, only to reveal afterward that it’s “a bit strange in the middle” when he messed up the chord sequence. He also tosses off a ridiculous 30-second piece called “The National Elf.” Outside the lack of electricity, it’s as solid a cross-section of Sudden’s musical mind as one could wish for.
If there’s one major gripe we have with The Boy From Nowhere, it’s about the lack of detailed annotation. The booklet contains a great essay from Max Decharné and an interview with Peter Buck that gives some insight into what it was like working with Nikki, but no details on the tracks. The individual sleeves list years and album titles, but little else – there’s nothing to indicate, for example, that the single “Wedding Hotel” on disk one comes from a collaborative album with Rowland S. Howard, who sings it. Likewise it’s not noted that Sudden’s friend Lizard croons “Chelsea Embankment” and “Missionary Boy,” or that “Gallery Wharf” is sung by Jeremy Gluck, with whom Sudden worked closely on the Barracudas frontman’s solo record I Knew Buffalo Bill. Thankfully, the notes get more granular on the disks of unreleased and rare recordings, and one could argue that particular annotation is more important anyway, given the previous releases of the “classic” tracks – and this box isn’t aimed at the neophyte in any case. But any lack of information on a set that attempts to give a comprehensive overview of an artist as prolific as Sudden is a detriment. Not enough of one to keep this set from being worth every penny, mind you.
Still Full of Shocks is a separate disk, originally available with early pre-orders of the box set, but subsequently released separately in a limited edition run. It features more solo Sudden, though this time in a studio with crystal clear sound, if an unknown recording date. Sounding both focused and relaxed, Sudden flips through his back pages, avoiding many of his obvious “hits” and instead digging deep into his catalog, throwing in a few new tunes along the way. With beautiful fidelity and an air of Nikki-as-folksinger, there’s nothing revelatory here, just strong, soulful performances of some of his best numbers, including “Angels in My Arms,” “Bed Woman Blues,” “In Your Life,” “We Had It All” and “One More String of Pearls.” Ending with a cover of Marc Bolan’s “One Inch Rock,” Sudden brings his vision full circle, back to the artist who inspired his long, rewarding lifepath in the first place.
Below, check out our video-audio tribute to Sudden in all his myriad guises….
Jacobites – “Don’t Ever Leave Me”
Swell Maps – “The Himalayas”
Sudden & Rowland S. Howard – “Don’t Explain”
Sudden + Dave Kusworth – “Shame for the Angels”
Sudden – Interview + Live ‘97
Sudden – “Death Is Hanging Over Me” Live ‘06