BRITAIN'S NIKKI Sudden was born to be a rock 'n' roll dandy, a kind of latter-day Keith Richards (or proto-Ryan Adams, take your pick) whose demeanor was amphetamine strafed by '70s punk —Sudden and his brother, the late Epic Soundtracks, headed up the legendarily agitated, free-roving Swell Maps—then brought back down to cruising speed after discovering Dylan, T. Rex, Neil Young, Fairport Convention, and Mott the Hoople.
During the '80s, he was responsible for a string of albums that guaranteed he'd notch more than footnote status when the final volume in the Book of Rock 'n' Roll is completed and indulged his solo muse as well as a joint project called Jacobites with fellow traveler Dave Kusworth. Yet for years, those albums (10 in all were released between 1982 and 1989) have been out of print. The Mammoth label revived a handful of them on CD in the mid-'90s, but not until Indiana's Secretly Canadian (www.secretlycanadian.com) began an ambitious Sudden reissue project late last year had any label paid serious attention to the man's estimable back catalog.
The first set of freshly remastered reissues—released as two-fer double discs with bonus tracks—matched up Sudden's Waiting on Egypt with The Bible Belt (from '82 and '83) and Texas with Dead Men Tell No Tales ('86, '87). Given the time span, the four albums provide a fascinating glimpse at a musical personality in rapid evolution. But it's Secretly Canadian's recent second installment, which slots chronologically in between those reissues, that becomes the legend most.
1984's Jacobites finds Sudden, having hooked up with ex-Subterranean Hawks guitarist Kusworth after successfully busking, boozing, and bonding together, in a folkie, Dylan-ish state of mind. The tunes are acoustic based—lots of massed six- and 12-string strum-alongs with some percussion and occasional electric guitar thrown in for good measure. Key tracks include Sudden's ethereal ballad "Kissed You Twice" and a tender, tearful breakup song, "Angels in My Arms"; Kusworth's jangly "Kings and Queens" brings an Alex Chilton vibe to the table. Speaking of Chilton, the bonus tracks (originally gracing an '84 EP) ramp Jacobites up into full-band mode, with the "All Along the Watchtower"-esque "Shame for the Angels" conjuring dark, echo-drenched memories of Big Star's Sister Lovers.
With 1985's Robespierre's Velvet Basement, Sudden and Kusworth firmly hit their stride. The duo's Exile on Main Street, the two-disc, 24-song album kicks off with arguably the best-known number neither wrote, a rousing Stones-style cover of Stephen "Tintin" Duffy's "Big Store." From there the high points are diverse and many, ranging from the shivery-giddy romp "Country Girl" and equally spangly garage-power pop of "Pin Your Heart to Me" to the blooze-stomp, harp-hoot cruncher "Fortune of Fame" and the cynical, overtly Dylan-esque "Son of a French Nobleman." While each man possesses a distinct style, both songwriters fully complement one another here—think Big Star's Chilton and Chris Bell or the dB's Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey— making Basement an underrated pop/folk-rock classic more closely aligned with the American guitar bands of the era than the silly electronic/dance outfits then littering the U.K. scene.
All the releases in the series boast impressively fat booklets containing original LP artwork, lyrics, and engaging liner notes penned by Sudden himself. The sets stand up alongside other recent reissue projects (Rhino's ongoing Elvis Costello overhaul, for example) as astute, sensitive handlings of what to many represents a key and influential artist. (The third and final installment, featuring Sudden's and ex-Birthday Party ax slinger Roland S. Howard's legendary '87 collaboration Kissed You Kidnapped Charabanc, is set for release later this summer.)
EVERYONE WHO'S HUNG around the underground-indie rock scene long enough seems to have a Nikki Sudden yarn, in particular the man's predilection for booze and powder (when Sudden hooked up with the ad-hoc Rolling Thunder-style revue that Kevn Kinney and Pete Buck assembled in the late '80s, things attained new heights of debauchery—fortunately Sudden wasn't called to testify at Buck's air-rage trial!). Not to mention Sudden's rambling onstage monologues mumbled in a distinctive Cockney yowlp, followed by explosions of pure rock theater as thrilling and visceral as Johnny Thunders at his peak. I have one, too, from North Carolina, circa '88 or '89. It involves, variously, a bottle of Jack Daniels and one of Southern Comfort, a robust Sudden groupie known locally as "The Dragon Lady" (alas, my Southern-gentleman upbringing, and maybe a few statutes, dictate that portion of the story remain undisclosed), and an interview which, while initially conducted in the relatively safe confines of a dressing room, got relocated on a Sudden whim to the unused railroad tracks running behind the concert venue.
There we were: one teetering rock dandy yipping maniacally about "the fookin' British press" and how "nobody cares about real rock music anymore, it's all daaance craaap" plus one bleary, besotted journalist whose sole interview fallback strategy was to get the veddy-British Sudden laughing by "talking Southern" and bringing him back to earth. Somewhere in between a "y'all" and a "gawt dang it," there came the unmistakable whine of an approaching train, and Sudden, either oblivious (quite possible) or smitten by the poetic potential of a rock 'n' roll suicide by locomotive (equally possible), decided right then to go into the lotus position in the center of the tracks.
What happened? Well, while Sudden did title one of his records Dead Men Tell No Tales, suffice to say that he lived to spin a few more: from 1990's Back to the Coast to 1997's tellingly titled Seven Lives Later and numerous others. In the meantime, his inspired '80s output awaits some much-deserved investigation. It's some of the most authentic stuff out there, proof that at that point in time, somebody actually did care about real rock 'n' roll.