Thursday, February 15, 2007

Nikki Sudden, Dave Kusworth: Jacobites, The Ragged School, 1986

Nikki Sudden & Dave Kusworth: Jacobites
The Ragged School


Last Sunday evening I tortured myself by watching the Grammys. Mainstream rock and roll must really be dead if the best they could do is wheel out the Red Hot Chili Peppers who stumbled through some excruciating and dated sounding rap rock. And it would have been bad enough to sit through The Eagles playing Eagles songs, but when I had to sit through Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts doing Eagles songs badly and watch Smokey Robinson perform in women’s lingerie—well, let’s just say I was cleaning up the vomit for days.

Anyway, that’s all neither here nor there. I do, however macabre as it may sound, enjoy the In Memoriam segment, and as I was watching on Sunday night I had forgotten that the gods were cruel enough to take both Arthur Lee and Syd Barrett away in the same year. It brought to mind also the strange death of an Englishman born Adrian Nicolas Godley, known to a scant few music fans as Nikki Sudden. I stood there mesmerized, inexplicably waiting to see Nikki Sudden’s tousled Ron Wood-esque mop of hair, but of course he did not show up on the screen—an obvious credit to Sudden’s wonderfully strange legacy.

Ostensibly, Sudden died from complications having to do with drugs after playing a show in New York (he was only 49), though the cause of death is still not known. He left in his wake one of the most maddeningly diverse discographies, made up of both his bands—the seminal noisy and precocious post-punk combo, The Swell Maps and the leather and lace Dylanesque troubadours, The Jacobites—and his many disparate solo albums.

The Ragged School is not a proper album, in that it was put together for American audiences by Peter Jesperson’s Twin/Tone label, a la the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today. Ragged School is made up mainly of the Jacobites first album, which was self-titled, and the subsequent Robespierre’s Velvet Basement, both of which were reissued with reams of bonus tracks by Secretly Canadian (as is Ragged School, but I am reviewing the original twelve track album on Twin/Tone; the Secretly Canadian reissue has 22 tracks).

The only songs which do not appear on either of those first two albums are “Bethlehem Castle,” which was a holdover from Nikki Sudden’s solo album, The Bible Belt, and Nikki Sudden’s brief instrumental dalliance “Cheapside,” which appears solely on The Ragged School.

After the Swell Maps disbanded in the early eighties, Nikki Sudden went on to record two solo albums: Waiting on Egypt (1982) and The Bible Belt (1983). I remember when I was younger, I had asked someone whose opinion I respected what he thought of Nikki Sudden and he replied that he only liked his first two solo albums. Of course those were the hardest to find before they were reissued, and I naturally assumed that they were like the two matching pieces of the Nikki Sudden Holy Grail.

Well I bought the reissues and they’re fine, but they don’t match the work Sudden did with Dave Kusworth, his delicate foil and fellow Jacobite. The Jacobites albums mark the creative zenith of both Kusworth and Sudden’s (post-Swell Maps) careers.

The one misstep on the album is unfortunately its opener, the overlong “Big Store,” which sounds like “Cortez the Killer” without the guitar histrionics, which means it is languid, slow, and for the most part, a little bit boring. The good news is, once you’re through with it, the rest of the album is nigh flawless.

The second track is one of Kusworth’s and if they were competing song for song, Kusworth would have the early lead. “It’ll All End up Tears” perfectly fits one of the Jacobites’ templates: fragile and delicately intertwining acoustic guitars, reverb, and subtly distributed Casio keyboards. The next song, “Hurt me More,” which they share the songwriting credit on, is more of the same—though they add a slide guitar solo, salt and sugar harmonies and a lonely marching snare beat.

Side One closes with the epic “Son of a French Nobleman,” which introduces another musical theme that Sudden and Kusworth are fond of—the slow build. Though the Jacobites were not the first to do this, it is still odd to hear rock music built on the same repeating four-chord verse in perpetuity in lieu of the typical verse chorus verse structure. Instead of changing the chords, they slowly add more instrumentation as the song lazily moves, a little chord organ, then synthesizer, drums, tambourine, maracas, backing vocals, etc.

Speaking of themes, if you are wondering why this unabashedly Byronic duo chose to name their band after bloodthirsty French Libertarians, you are not alone. I have no idea. My guess is though—and one look at them will prove this—they both look to varying degrees like Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and by extension, Rod Stewart. So it stands to reason that they probably romanticized that Rolling Stones tax-exile period when they recorded Exile on Main Street in the South of France.

They sound not totally unlike the Rolling Stones too, though not quite as accomplished as musicians, and only if the Rolling Stones lasted from Beggars Banquet through Goats Head Soup—their best period. The Jacobites’ influences aren’t hewn totally to that Stones mentality. Though they are surely fans of The Faces and T. Rex, there is obvious threads of Dylan, Neil Young, Gene Clark, The Velvet Underground, American Country and Western and a heavy indebtedness to traditional British Folk.

Side Two of Ragged School starts with one of the two best songs on the album, “Ambulance Station,” another four-chord, sad and delicate slow burn, highlighted by Sudden’s sadly wistful lyrics: “so you pull your shoes apart, make a bridge across your heart, she threw it all, threw it all away.” Three tracks later is probably the best song the duo ever recorded, and one of the only few songs on the album to feature an electric guitar—“Pin Your Heart To Me.” With it’s Nikki-sung verse, and Dave-sung chorus it is their decidedly less sophisticated and certainly more fun version of “A Day in the Life.”

Sadly the Jacobites broke up the same year that Ragged School appeared stateside. Nikki Sudden put out many solo albums, the best of which were the phenomenal Texas, and the severely depressing dulcimer-inflected Dead Men Tell No Tales, which is not about pirates. Dave Kusworth also put out his fair share of albums; the only one I can attest for is The Bounty Hunters, which is also the name of his band. It is pretty good. They reformed earlier in the decade with uneven results. Dave Kusworth is still with us. Nikki died on March 26, 2006 in New York after playing a show with Evan Dando. He will be missed.

Nikki is the one on the left. R.I.P.



Blogger David said...

nice post georgie.

everywhere i read comments 'bout nikki, kusworth and the jacobites, they are filled with beautiful sentiment. and considering these days of music, the contrast gets bigger and bigger.

i don't know why but the jacobites get to me espiacally during the winter..

besides buying their records online. is there a possibility to trade some online? i have some rare material myself i guess.

greetings, david.

11:29 AM  

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