It is perhaps fitting that in the week the NME editor joined the BBC to develop the multi-platform brand of Top Gear magazine the most political and confrontational NME writer of the late 80’s and early 90’s should die from cancer. Stephen Wells, or Swells as we knew him, was the most impossible person to work with because he knew no form of compromise, had little true interest in music, was narrow minded and his personal hygiene and dress sense left so much to be desired that the company nurse once appeared and ordered him to remove and burn his stain covered tracksuit bottoms. Naturally all of this made him a provocative and popular NME writer. Swells worked at the NME because it gave him a voice, he had joined at a time when it featured articles about Right To Work Marches and CND and he expected it to stay like that forever. If he had any connection with music it was as a medium to express political comment and also to occasionally give him an adrenalin rush. If he ever did discover a new band he felt passionate about it was usually after they’d already had a hit album.
He smuggled himself into the Live Reviews pages in the mid-eighties posing as a woman, Susan Williams, covering the anarchist bands and punk poets of his hometown Bradford. These were the same acts he was appearing with night by night as ranting poet Seething Wells. His poems were vitriolic rants against Tetley Bittermen, Police Dogs and Left Wing new men. Pretty much anyone who had irritated him appeared in his poems which appeared alongside others by Joolz Denby and Little Brother in his fanzine Molotov Comics, which was handwritten and illustrated by Jon Langford and Kevin Lycett of the Mekons.
It is to their credit that the NME didn’t fire him when they discovered they’d been duped and the ranting firebrand championing bands like the Sid Presley Experience and Chumbawamba was in fact a man.
Swells had helped me start my fanzine and given me my first NME review to do. He also helped open the door for my staff job there, as 21 year old features editor I repaid him by bringing in a generation of fanatical music obsessives and great writers like Steve Lemacq, Bob Stanley, Stuart Maconie and Barbara Ellen and giving them all the work. He welcomed the revolution but not the smaller pay cheques. As an NME writer he was obsessed with class war, masturbation, dogs, cancer, Jello Biafra and the multiple use of the exclamation mark. His work was littered with it. Almost creating his own language. (SUBS LEAVE THESE LAST THREE SENTENCES IN) was a regular sentence in his copy.
Aside from the surreal comedy column he co-wrote with David Quantick, Swells was increasingly marginalised in a more-music less –politics NME until he took up the offer of interviewing Phil Collins. Asking questions no-one else would dare the end result was brilliantly funny and he realised that if he delivered a great interview it would piss the rest of the staff off, which seemed to be his main purpose in life.
There followed a series of superb interviews with mainstream rock acts, the terminally unhip, the forgotten and the ignored. Anything loud or unhip became his domain, writing cover stories on Def Leppard and T’Pau. He discussed dwarves with Ozzy Osbourne, played tennis with Mike Oldfield and went flying with Gary Numan. They were fantastic articles that kept his NME stock high and helped drive the sales over the 120,000 mark. The irony for this card carrying SWP member was the better the paper was, the more money the capitalist bosses made. But his political timing wasn’t the greatest. On the day of the Poll Tax Riots in Trafalgar Square he was boating in the Serpentine wondering what the smoke in the distance was. You always knew when Swells was in the office, he was like a mad old man in the pub. I never heard him mention ‘multi platform brand development.’ But mention Chumbwamaba and he could go on for hours.