Irony. It’s what the British do best.
Seething (Steven) Wells died a day ago. Then tonight, starting to write this, I find out that Michael Jackson has died. One of these two men owned a ranch called Neverland and had three children called Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., Paris Michael Katherine Jackson and Prince Michael Jackson II. The other one was the King of Pop.
Post-punk (those salad days between the gruesome letdown of Sid joining the Pistols and the horror of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet) was a vacuum filled by those clever enough to see that good music, good art, involved a knowledge of politics and a sense that the world was much bigger than Top of the Pops : Crass, the Specials, Elvis Costello, Robert Wyatt, Dead Kennedys. And so a new bunch of journalists came crawling out of the lefty woodwork to champion this music, slowly at first, but eventually picking up momentum—ex-fanzine writers, pushing and jabbing each other into saying something worthwhile in the national music papers.
Swells came along on that wave. I first heard about him through a couple of fanzines done by himself and a local Leeds lad called James Brown— Attack on Bzag and Molotov Comics. Swells wrote poems, polemic disguised as poems. Great, ranty, in-your-face poems. Along with people like Mekons’ Jon Langford, I contributed stuff to both zines, convinced that here in Leeds—in the doldrums of the early ’80s—there was something exciting and important coming out of the Rock Against Racism, Miner’s strike northern city culture.
Next I knew Swells was in the NME writing reviews. Scathing reviews. All the old guard—all your Phil Collins has-beens—were summarily shot by Swells. Come 1985 Chumbawamba released our first single and got our first proper live reviews in the music press. And who was there singing our praises, sticking up for this weird northern punk/cabaret hybrid? Seething Wells.
From that time on he stuck his neck out for us. In a world where the NME editors increasingly dictated copy according to what the advertisers/record companies wanted to see, Swells was the thorn in the side who refused to kowtow to the bland norm. Through the miners strike he was alone in championing the idea that music could be used for something important, that there were bigger issues here than whatever gold lame was being worn by Haircut 100 or ABC on Top of the Pops .
Swells stuck by Chumbawamba when we were ridiculed and lambasted by the journo hipsters who celebrated the return of bland, everyday and utterly non-political “indie” music that dominated the next decade. Politics was unfashionable (especially if you had a job writing record reviews for a music mag). Bands like us disappeared from the popular cultural radar, despite growing live audiences.
When “Tubthumping” was a worldwide hit in 1997, all the old magazines and writers suddenly had a change of heart and wanted to get back in touch with us again. Ha! How funny. Get lost.
We agreed to an interview with the NME only if Seething Wells was to do it. They agreed. (Bloody prostitutes.) Through all this time, our dialogues with Swells were peppered with anarchist versus Marxist arguments, disagreements on the merits of the Third International and debating the difference between the Redskins and Conflict. Him and us, we ranted and barked like wary dogs, snapped and snarled and probably dribbled at the mouth a bit, too.
But always Chumbawamba recognized what this Swells bloke was doing, how much he meant in a world where the same old groups made the same old charts and the same old magazine covers time after time after time.
And my goodness the rest of the journalists hated us. It seemed like Swells was the only one who “got” our sense of humor and our way of laughing at ourselves while doing something utterly serious.
Seething Wells. I can’t, even now, get used to the idea of calling him Steven Wells. Because by rights he was always seething. Really, he was. Not seething with undirected, Liam Gallagher-style dumb-ignorant fury, but with a righteous (yes, that’s the word! Righteous!) indignation that, bloody hell, while he was around, things could be better! Now!
Reading Seething Wells’ stories detailing his own illness is to read the powerful madness of someone wrestling with science and logic. It’s Swells telling himself that, if there’s very little beauty in cancer, at least there’s plenty to be got from the wrestling.
Seething Wells died having spent his short life writing stuff that was mainly designed to piss people off, and he probably succeeded. Because those people were the millionaire hypocrite know-nothings of the music world. And the answer to the question “Why?” would be, in Swells’ case, “because someone had to do it.” And on behalf of Chumbawamba, I’m glad someone was there to.
Seething Wells, if you were still writing, you’d probably have something to say about how Michael Jackson chased you into the grave. I won’t say it for you. But the irony, oh the irony. And for a northern English writer who lived his last years in America, I’m sure you’d understand. If anyone ever says to me, “Remember Michael Jackson, the King of Pop?” I’ll think of Swells. ■
He was a mentor, a storyteller, a fire-breather. He was more passionate than anyone we’ll likely come across again. Of course, you know this already. Because if you read his stuff, you know the man. Everything in his writing is everything he was in real flesh-and-blood life.
Letters to the Editor