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Steven Wells RIP

By Phil Thornton


Steven Wells aka Seething Wells aka Swells aka Susan Williams was perhaps the finest music journalist/ranting poet/female impersonator of the past 20 years.  Sadly he died of cancer last month at the age of 49 in his adopted home of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Swells didn’t have much brotherly love to give to those he despised; the massed ranks of self-serving careerists, wishy washy mediocrities and venal egotists and hypocrites that populate modern pop music and culture. Swells has an angry, frustrated man but his scabrous style of journalism was extremely funny and took no prisoners.


Like Lester Bangs, Swells understood that the critic had to work apart from their subjects, even or especially the ones they actually admired. To cosy up to musicians was a betrayal of their role and a dilution of their talent. At the NME he enjoyed an extensive period of high profile coverage that saw him attack (his email address was swellsattack!) anyone and everyone he suspected of moral or intellectual sloppiness or cowardice. His always provocative, sometimes self-mythologising, often sanctimonious stance most famously lead him to wallow in the righteous anger generated by his interview with the Happy Mondays in the early 90s.


Swells allowed Shaun and Bez to rant about ‘faggots’ and, so the story goes, destroyed their career in the process. Whilst there may have been some indignation amongst the typical  ‘Right On’ NME readership at the time, the fact was that it was smack, crack and a lack of decent tunes really fucked the Mondays, not Swells’s self-righteous ‘outing’ of the Mondays as homophobes.


I took him to task for this and a few other issues, in an extensive interview for a zine I did called ‘Semtex.’ Swells was gracious enough to answer my questions in a typically bullish and humorous manner. He later agreed to take part in a debate I organised called ‘Wake Up NME You’re Dead!’ back in 2002. The idea was to get some (then) current NME journalists to defend their rag against my charge that it had become little more than a music industry advertorial. Tony Naylor played his part too but it was Swells who stole the show. With no notes or prior briefing, Swells launched into a relentless yet highly amusing defence of not only the NME but pop music in general. I didn’t believe him for a minute but still, he was value for the few bob in expenses we paid him. Yet after the debate, he sloped off into the dark Liverpool night. He always went his own way, never wanted to be anyone’s pretend pal.


By this time Swells was a peripheral figure at the NME as the paper ditched ‘serious’ or at least contentious journalism for student and label friendly pap.  It’s a tragedy that Swells ended up writing for a range of titles that didn’t deserve him whilst many of his less talented but more career focused peers (yer Maconies and yer Cosgroves and yer Collins’s and yer Quanticks) have somehow managed to become mainstream Radio 2 fodder. Punk rock to the end, Swells even in the grip of his disease, managed to write a typically fantastic account of his cancer treatment in an essay called ‘The English Patient.’ It is by turns terrifying, hilarious, passionate, angry, uncomfortable, upsetting, triumphant. It is Swells’s death note, his eulogy, his final indictment of an economic system and an obedient society that has failed not only him, but millions of others too. He was not yet 50.  The Last Of The Mohicans has laid down his tomahawk. RIP.   




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