the brilliant NME writer with no real interest in music...
It is, perhaps, fitting that in the week that the NME editor joined the BBC to develop the multi-platform brand of Top Gear magazine, the most political and confrontational NME writer of the late 1980s and early 1990s should die from cancer. Steven Wells, or Swells as we knew him, was the most impossible person to work with because he knew no form of compromise, had little true interest in music, was narrow-minded and his personal hygiene and dress sense left so much to be desired that the company nurse once appeared and ordered him to remove and burn his stain-covered tracksuit bottoms. Naturally all of this made him a provocative and popular NME writer.
Swells worked at the NME because it gave him a voice — he had joined at a time when it featured articles about Right To Work Marches and CND and he expected it to stay like that forever. If he had any connection with music, it was as a medium to express political comment and also occasionally to give him an adrenalin rush. If he ever did discover a new band he felt passionate about, it was usually after they'd already had a hit album.
He smuggled himself into the Live Reviews pages in the mid-80s posing as a woman, Susan Williams, covering the anarchist bands and punk poets of his hometown, Bradford. These were the same acts he was appearing with night by night as ranting poet Seething Wells. His poems were vitriolic rants against Tetley Bittermen, police dogs and leftwing new men. Pretty much anyone who had irritated him appeared in his poems, which appeared alongside others by Joolz Denby and Little Brother in his fanzine Molotov Comics, which was handwritten and illustrated by Jon Langford and Kevin Lycett of the Mekons.
It is to their credit that the NME didn't fire him when they discovered they'd been duped and the ranting firebrand championing bands like the Sid Presley Experience and Chumbawamba was, in fact, a man.
Swells had helped me start my fanzine and given me my first NME review to do. He also helped open the door for my staff job there as a 21-year-old. I repaid him by bringing in a generation of fanatical music obsessives and great writers like Steve Lamacq, Bob Stanley, Stuart Maconie and Barbara Ellen and giving them all the work. He welcomed the revolution but not the smaller pay cheques. As an NME writer, he was obsessed with class war, masturbation, dogs, cancer, Jello Biafra and the multiple use of the exclamation mark. His work was littered with it. Almost creating his own language. '(SUBS LEAVE THESE LAST THREE SENTENCES IN)' was a regular sentence in his copy.
Aside from the surreal comedy column he co-wrote with David Quantick, Swells was increasingly marginalised in a more-music, less–politics NME until he took up the offer of interviewing Phil Collins. Asking questions no one else would dare to, the end result was brilliantly funny and he realised that if he delivered a great interview it would piss the rest of the staff off, which seemed to be his main purpose in life.
There followed a series of superb interviews with mainstream rock acts, the terminally unhip, the forgotten and the ignored. Anything loud or unhip became his domain, writing cover stories on Def Leppard and T'Pau. He discussed dwarves with Ozzy Osbourne, played tennis with Mike Oldfield and went flying with Gary Numan. They were fantastic articles that kept his NME stock high and helped drive the sales over the 120,000 mark. The irony for this card-carrying SWP member was, the better the paper was, the more money the capitalist bosses made. But his political timing wasn't the greatest. On the day of the poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square he was boating in the Serpentine wondering what the smoke in the distance was.
You always knew when Swells was in the office, he was like a mad old man in the pub. I never heard him mention 'multi-platform brand development'. But mention Chumbawamba and he could go on for hours.
My own intake of Stephen's ranting verse came via the John Peel session in 1982 where I became captivated by his ranting verse and tales of Tetely Bittermen! I am indebted to a fellow enthusiast at the Fall Online forum for finding me this long-lost session and collection of seven poems that is so hard to find and I am thrilled to upload them all here.
SEETHING WELLS: PEEL SESSION (1982)
1. No Cadillacs In Bradford
2. Britain's National Sport
4. Tetley Bitter
5. Sniffer Dogs
6. Godzilla vs the Tetley Bittermen
7. My Idea Of Fun (Drop The Politics)