Billy Bragg Remembers Steven Wells

By Billy Bragg 

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Steven Wells and Billy Bragg

I don’t even know where Swells came from. He just appeared, like a force of nature, sometime in early 1980s, ranting his splenetic poems on-stage with the likes of the Mekons and the Fall. He was part of the generation whose creative urges were ignited by punk rock and he retained that frenetic in-your-face attitude to the end. Shaving his head at a time when the only people who did so were skinheads, he chose an image that he knew would be confrontational and proceeded to subvert it.

The antithesis of the bonehead racist, he was in fact an articulate left-winger. And unlike the bullyboy, who only picks on those weaker than him, Swells chose to target the powerful, the popular, the hip and the cool. There was a time in the mid-’80s when the Smiths could do no wrong in the New Musical Express (NME). There were voices prepared to challenge this state of affairs, but only Swells could be relied upon to indulge in the merciless piss-taking of Morrissey, week after week. It comes as no surprise to learn that one of his last online columns for was a marvellous pin-pricking of the pomposity of Radiohead.

However, anyone who really knew him would tell you that, no matter how hard he tried to come across as the cynical hard-man, his love of humanity in all its shitty glory would always shine through. He was possessed of a self-effacing sense of humor that would often overcome him at the apex of some raging tirade, leaving him and anyone within earshot laughing at his overwrought hysteria.

His writing style was a kind of amphetamine steam-of-
consciousness that threatened to storm off the page and grab you by the throat. In his hands, metaphor took on a life of its own. The last graph of his Radiohead piss-take consists of a single, 100-word sentence that takes a bog-standard music journalist cliche—the rock ’n’ roll rollercoaster—and forces its head down the toilet continuously until it begs for mercy.

His writing was a kind of performance art, a skill he picked up from his years as a ranting poet. They were a rum lot, the ranters, more wind-up merchants than poets, if truth be told, taking on audiences with a bit of humor and a lot of balls. Swells excelled at the job. He was provocative, polemical and laugh out loud funny.

Seething Wells was his poetic pseudonym and the name under which his first journalism appeared in the NME in 1981. Later on in his time at the paper, he also wrote reviews under the name of Susan Williams, seeking to subvert the ladish world of rock journalism. Politics were important to Swells. A supporter of the Socialist Workers Party, his critique of bands and colleagues was often couched in class war rhetoric, but he had too much of a sense of humor to be a real Trotskyite.

He was at heart an iconoclast. Put anything on pedestal and Swells couldn’t resist taking a pot-shot at it. Nobody was spared. He was one of my earliest supporters in the music press, shared my idealism, yet continually referred to me in print as “Bilious Braggart,” even when he was praising my output.

In later years, he surprised everybody by moving to Philadelphia, becoming a sports writer and columnist and getting married. He’d turn up backstage whenever I was playing in the city and often sent me links to his articles from the Philadelphia Weekly . A story he wrote detailing his battle with cancer was classic Swells—full of cock, arse, shit and piss references, except this time, horrifyingly first-person. It was as if the graphic genital metaphors that he had liberally sprinkled through his writings had all come back to torment him.

Yet he still had the strength to fire a few back. In hospital, waiting to undergo another painful procedure, denied food for 24 hours, he writes, “I’m so hungry I could eat a nun’s arse through some rusty railings.” I laughed out loud when I read that. Clearly his spirit was undimmed, even if he didn’t believe in such airy-fairy concepts.

“You don’t get cancer,” Ian Dury once said. “Cancer gets you.” It got Swells in the prime of his life, just as he’d bought a new house with his beloved Katharine. He seemed to have found his niche, firing off gonzo-punk columns for websites and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. It has become clear in the past few days that there are a generation of music journalists out there who were inspired by his writing and touched by the generosity he showed toward them when they sought to follow in his footsteps.

If there is anyone out there who wishes to take up his mantle, they’ll need more than just a snarky sense of humor and a potty mouth. The comment sections of every website are full of posts from cynical jerk-offs who get their kicks from upsetting people. Swells could be hurtful in what he wrote, but his contrarian stance was never mere posturing. It was underpinned with an unswerving belief that things could be better—culturally, politically and globally. He just wanted people to feel like he did at the paucity of talent on display—outraged to the point of engagement. To that end, he was willing to take it further than many of us are prepared to go—in your face, down your trousers and up your arse like a shit-eating rabbit on speed. ■

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1. Izzy said... on Jul 8, 2009 at 07:12AM

“What sad news. Swells was there in the early 80s, about the neighbourhood in Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford, supporting the marchers on the Peoples March for Jobs. He was part of the left-wing skinhead phenomenon, passing on news of friends and generally cheering everyone up in those intense, dark days when Thatcherism was really taking hold. He was very rude, exhilaratingly bold and threateningly shaven, but he was also that truly virtuous human being; someone who acts on their principles. He once showed up quite unexpectedly with fellow ranting poets Mark Miwurdz and Little Brother to solve a problem I was having with an aggressive man. My tormenter hammered on the door as usual but took off like a blue-arsed fly when it opened to reveal me mob-handed. Swells was a staunch feminist, a true comrade and a kind, decent, lovely person. Sincere respects to his family. I keep thinking I see him round town. Go well, bonny boy.”


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