While at NME Steven’s biggest rival at Melody Maker became one-time colleague Everett True, who would later go on to write the heavily lauded and thick-as-a-brick biography of Nirvana. Here, True writes about the loss of the tastemaking critic.
You write to make an impact.
Engage, argue, inform, irritate, but above all entertain.
In the early ’80s I’d seen Seething Wells winding up audiences from on-stage—in squats and at colleges—with his own home-brewed brand of “ranting poetry.” It was hilarious. It was rapid-fire. It was male and brash and SHOUTED IN CAPITAL LETTERS. I was intimidated.
Swells was funny and opinionated and smart enough to realize his limitations and work within them. He did it for himself. He was from the fanzine world. He was a tastemaker critic, for sure. People took notice of his opinions, and acted upon them. He challenged people’s opinions, led them, changed them—most of this by default, by sheer force of his personality and peerless ability to entertain. If something was wrong, it was wrong. Didn’t matter what anyone else thought. Of course, Swells might then change his mind the next day.
And let’s stop this whole “brilliant music writer with no real interest in music” line before it gets too out of hand, shall we? Swells loved music, he just didn’t think responsibility should begin and end in the studio, knew that everything exists within a much broader context.
It’s been written since his death that Swells is best known for his writings at NME during the ’80s. Not true. During the ’80s, as brilliant and inspirational as he often was, he was operating at a paper that actively championed writers of his ilk. It wasn’t until most of the tastemakers fucked off towards the end of the decade that Swells really shined: as the NME ’s one truly opinionated voice, he stood alone—whatever readers thought of his taste in music. He was unafraid because he didn’t know how else to behave.
Tastemaker critics are like gods. Believe in us, and we have the power to change worlds. Stop believing in us, and we cease to exist. Do the public really require—or even want—a faceless “meta” critic, the lowest common denominator of countless opinions, where all opinion is reduced to a mean average mark? Isn’t that taking all the fun away? Perhaps we could reduce all literature to a math primer while we’re at it, and make sure rock bands all sound like Coldplay.
All the outpouring of grief surrounding Steven’s death have something in common: 1) We’ll never see his like again. 2) We would like to see his like again, but we won’t. 3) We miss those days of the tastemaker critic and isn’t the NME (etc.) a weaker publication for the passing of them?
Obviously, we’re talking a certain demographic—specifically, the people who read Steven Wells—but there’s a hell of a consensus going down. ■
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.
Savage Love: Sondheim is solace