It’s a little strange writing an obituary, of sorts, knowing that you’re going to fill it, at least in part, with abuse. I suspect, though, that Steven Wells – who died from cancer last week - would not have wanted it, probably, any other way.
It’s a little strange writing an obituary, of sorts, knowing that you’re going to fill it, at least in part, with abuse. I suspect, though, that Steven Wells – who died from cancer last week – would not have wanted it, probably, any other way.
Swells was one of the best, most ridiculous and infuriating journalists that I worked with at NME through the 1990s. Every conversation would turn into an argument. Every commission would be delivered as a means to bait the paper’s long-suffering readers. Most pieces, whatever their notional subject, would degenerate into the same old jokes and rants. Anything roughly approaching artrock – or, and this is a critical distinction, what Swells thought was artrock – would be wrIttEn AbOUt lIkE thIs. More or less anything that didn’t sound like Atari Teenage Riot, or Daphne & Celeste, would be dismissed as Jingly-Jangly Indie Wank, made by Indie Saddoes – who of course would flood NME’s mailbag with wounded, indignant missives.
He was, however, a genius, as his old sparring partner David Quantick articulates beautifully in today’s Guardian. It’s interesting how hard it is to remember the music that Swells championed over the years, not least because so much of it was, by most high-minded critical standards, rubbish. What’s much more memorable is the demented vim, intelligence and peculiarly elegant prose which he used. I always think that music writers who create a cult of themselves at the expense of writing about music tend, in general, to be a bit tedious, but Swells was one of those gleaming, brilliant exceptions to the rule.
It strikes me, today, that given some of the music writers whose work has been anthologised, it’s somewhat scandalous that a Swells primer doesn’t exist; a document which proves him to be a kind of British Lester Bangs; unfettered by good taste, driven by wild idiosyncracies, an enduring belief in the transient and explosive pleasures of pop, fierce political convictions and a strong moral compass.
Perhaps it would work best as a document of one man’s intolerances rather than his enthusiasms. For perhaps Swells’ greatest work was his war on the music and culture that he perceived as spineless, fey, joyously easy to rip to shreds. His legacy, perhaps, is not the great weight of Fun-Da-Mental interviews, or that strange and brief period in the 1980s when he made the Bradford 1 In 12 Club sound like the most exciting cultural hotspot in Britain.
Instead, it’ll be the pathological hounding of Belle And Sebastian, Morrissey and their like, tireless screes of invective that in some cases lasted for decades. Every singles column he filed – hilarious, unfailingly – would degenerate in this way, magnificently. And every year or two, he would stumble upon new victims; like Bis, say, one of whom once apparently nudged him slightly, allowing him to interpret it as a kind of fey assault and turn the whole thing into an even more hysterical, indignant vendetta.
Hours would go by arguing with the man, who never of course changed his opinions, though he was a much better listener than some of his splenetic prose would suggest. Arguing with Swells was a fine sport, in fact, and one of his many amusing secrets was that he was a much nicer and more tolerant man than his theatrical persona would suggest; happily and enthusiastically aware of his own preposterousness. Which is probably another reason why we allowed him to insult our readers for so long – even they, or at least the sane ones, didn’t take his rage to heart. He made a rich and comic artform of it, where most anyone else would have just come across as snide.
Talking of his secrets, another, I seem to remember, was his musical taste. Once, exasperated after another long argument (we disagreed about almost everything to do with music, happily enough, and agreed with a lot of things to do with politics, though still found plenty of time to argue about those, too), I asked him what he really listened to, in quiet moments – if there were any. Surely it couldn’t be Extreme Noise Terror all the time? If memory serves, he told me The Beatles and classical music. Though that could’ve been another joke I guess.
Whatever, a good man: rEst In pEAcE.