Steven Wells 1960-2009
The NME office in the mid-1980s was a curious place. Warring factions, essentially the indie kids versus the soul boys, furtively gathered in corners, attempting to scupper each others hopes of securing next weeks cover. The battle to get either a Shop Assistants B-side or a Steve Silk Hurley remix onto the turntable was nothing less than the journo equivalent of sticking a flag on top of a mountain.
Slicing through these often petty and pointless face-offs was Steven Wells, aka Swells, aka punk poet Seething Wells a fiery individual whose first pieces for the magazine were published under the by-line Susan Williams. He had little time for cliques; rather than nail his colours to any one musical mast, he was more likely to smash the masts into toothpicks.
If ranting and radicalism were Olympic sports, Swells would have been Steve Redgrave, but the near caricature of that image does him little justice as a writer, as a man. Yes, you might have found him waving a copy of the Socialist Worker at any one of a dozen protest rallies, but hed also take time to pore over the Smash Hits! crossword, or make jokes about musicians he clearly loved but realised were ripe for parody. He once suggested, in pitch-perfect Barking vowels, that Billy Bragg should release an album called More Songs About How I Neffer Git To Ave Any Sex.
Page Five was a valuable spot in the NME in those days, more often than not given over to a single, short feature covering a wider brief than the rest of the magazine; newsworthy and not always restricted to music. Swells instigated dozens of them, such as an aggressive grilling of anti-smut campaigner Mary Whitehouse, or the proliferation of skinheads in TV advertising (Persil, Weetabix, The Guardian), and the quality of his writing, the forcefulness and persuasiveness of his arguments, his sheer articulacy, left the rest of us gobsmacked and lamenting our own journalistic shortcomings.
The arrival of Alan Lewis as editor in 1987 signalled a change in NMEs editorial policy, but Alan was savvy enough to realise that Swells was one of the titles top writers and should be cherished. The notion of one-hit wonders TPau as cover stars raised a few eyebrows, but Swells delivered a brilliant and thought-provoking piece on the superficial nature of pop stardom that could have come from the pens of Greil Marcus or Lester Bangs.
Time in his company was time well spent. At the end of my first day at the NME he invited me for a drink in the West End, but not before wed dedicated the best part of an hour to scraping fascist posters off vacant shop windows. My favourite memories of Swells, though, might be the day IPCs health and safety officer made him blush by demanding to inspect the scuzzy sweatpants hed apparently worn to work every day for a month, or his incessant cheating during a late-night Scrabble session at my Muswell Hill flat which prompted fellow player David Quantick to remark if we leave him under a pillow, maybe the prat fairy will take him.
Musicians loved him, including many for whom he had few kind words. To be lambasted by Swells in print or, better still, face-to-face was seen as a badge of honour, as much a rite of passage as a Peel session or brief turn on Top Of The Pops. He made a handful of enemies along the way, but they were a sad minority compared to the thousands who ached to be his friend. Id like to think that I was his friend, and I have been aching terribly since his passing.
Terry Staunton (first published on theQuietus.com)
Of course Swells is special to R*E*P*E*A*T for many reasons, not just our regular fix in the NME. We enjoyed his early poetic work with Attila the Stockbroker and then, jumping forwards a few years, we appreciated the interest he took in us and our bands, his willingness for us to use any of his work in the anti Nazi cause (see here) and of course for his championing of the Manic Street Preachers - his review of the completely unavailable bedroom release 'Suicide Alley' vinyl (which he declared 'White Rock Rebel Boy Single Of The Week!') was instrumental in getting them noticed.
When I met him in a field in Manchester, he interestingly told me that he thought Richey had taken the band in an introverted Radiohead-ish lyrical direction, whereas he preferred the political slant of Nicky's lyrics. Perhaps he was just being controversial or perhaps this was why he made his directorial debut in the video to Little Baby Nothing, a project he amusingly describes here.
I for one will miss his pithy writing, bursting with anger, indignation and insight - oh how I wish he was around today to explain whether I'm right in feeling annoyed and slightly nauseous at all the sycophantic drivel being spoken about Michael Jackson as the saviour of Black Music.
Swells, wherever you are now, I hope you're still angry, opinionated and stroppy. And still right.
NME Review, 1989
MANIC STREET PREACHERS Suicide Alley (SBS)
White Rock Rebelboy Single Of The Week! Check the letter this band sent to me "We are the suicide of the Non Generation. We are as far away from anything in the 80s as possible (eg 80s pop automation, the long running saga of the whimsical pop essay and the intrinsic musical sculptures of post modernism)".
This records positively fizzes with Clash Mk I Juice. Eeeee! (pulls muffler tighter and clutches ferret feverishly) I remember a time long before Crass ruined everything when fresh faced little boys in gaudy T-shirts made exciting rock n roll which they were convinced would shame the world into improvement. Retrogressive, exciting and inspired. Youll probably hate it.
Steven Wells, 1960-2009, RIP