The Last Bandit: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Life

January 01, 1970

(Arcana)

 

www.arcanaedizioni.com

 

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.

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