I have spent all of today being a fucking idiot.
On Tuesday Steven Wells, my favourite rock writer, died after a three year battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Like most people, I only found out today and, with 99 per cent of the NME office being en route to Glastonbury, it’s been left to me to compile an obituary for next week’s issue. I’ve been a fucking disgrace. I’m thoroughly ashamed of myself; the sheer weight of articulating what his words meant to me, let alone at least two generations of NME readers, has almost ruined me. I’ve made cups of tea, I’ve smoked cigarettes, I’ve been for an obscenely long lunch. I’ve done anything I could do to avoid writing something on page. Even in death, the unique talent, spirit and flair of Steven Wells has left me questioning everything I’ve ever believed. Articulating the life and times of a character as big as Steven Wells is a job for a big man and I can’t help questioning whether I’ve got the girth for the job.
To paraphrase Steven’s article for the Philadelphia Weekly upon learning he had cancer: JAMES YOU FUCKING LOSER SHITRAG BIS FAN. Shut the fuck up and grow a pair.
Steven Wells is the reason I write for NME. As a teenager, devouring the paper in my hometown of Doncaster, a shitty town, in shitty South Yorkshire, his wit, passion and propensity for verbally shoeing the shit out of the pompous, privileged and idiotic was the best job advertisement for upping sticks, moving to London and making a career writing rude things about bands that IPC Media could ever circulate. And so I did. And that was the thing about Steven’s writing – I’ve read lots on the internet today about how funny he was, how vicious his tongue could be – but more so for me, he didn’t write record reviews, he wrote polemic. He wrote things – anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-racist, anti-stupid things – that could fuck up a 14-year-old boys stitched on career in banking and instead drag him into a career of shouting. Fuck. Steven Wells isn’t just the reason I write for NME – he’s the reason my parents didn’t like me until I was 25.
I never met the man, but I did get five emails from him. I know this because I printed them out and stuck them on my bedroom wall as a reminder that all the bands I’d made cry en route to trying to say something important had cried those tears for a reason. My favourite is the email he sent to my editor saying, “That James McMahon guy has brilliant taste in music...” and I feel a shred of pride today knowing he went to his grave being spared the embarrassment of knowing I’d written my university dissertation on Belle & Sebastian (a band he once brilliant described as “self-loving, knock-kneed, passive aggressive, dressed-up-in-kiddy-clothes, mock-pop-creepiness peddling, smug, underachieving, real-pop-hating no-talents celebrating their own inadequacy with music so white it’s translucent"). But what is that reason? Well, that rock’n’roll was more important than entertainment, that it was lifeblood, a conduit for ideas and passion, that it was glorious. And it always should be, regardless of whether Steven is alive or not.
See, writing about music in 2009 is war. The corporations own rock’n’roll. The careerists run the live scene. The Pigeon Detectives have been to play their music in Japan and I haven’t been there and that’s really not bloody fair. And what’s so ultimately sad about Swells passing is that the good guys and grrrls, the people that give a fuck about all of the above, have lost a key player in the fight of good against evil - Corporal Bloody Caps Lock, my hero, Sergeant Steven Wells.
Don’t be a fucking idiot.
Now. Pick up your pen. Write your bloody heart out. Make a fanzine, publish a blog, make a website, start a record label, form a band, fall in love, tell your mum you love her. Maybe even pack up your shit, move to London, make a career out of shouting...
For Swells. Rage in peace.
(What follows is a selection of my favourite Steven Wells witterings that I got a work experience kid to type up today. While I shouted at them. But first an amazing Manic Street Preachers video directed by Steven).
Banging on about … Racist, right-wing scum
By Steven Wells (2000)
The British, eh? Violent, pig-ignorant, xenophobic bastards.
Of course, when we say British we mean English, obviously. Drunken dog’s arse-faced morons. And when we say English, we actually mean the ones that follow the national football team, naturally. Shit-eating, racist skunk-fuckers. But when we speak of England fans, we actually only mean the ones who chant racist and anti-IRA songs, the ones who spit on Moroccan women, the ones who wipe their huge arses on foreign flags, the ones who song, “I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk.” Micro-cocked, sub-human slime.
Let’s get it straight. The problem isn’t the English. The problem isn’t football. The problem isn’t even English football fans. The problem is racists and – at their core – a few score Nazi vermin.
But what’s the solution? Well, it isn’t the introduction of birching. It isn’t manners being taught in schools instead of maths. Ant it isn’t banning England from all future international competitions. The solution is to take passports away from Nazis. And Sun readers. And Conservative voters. In fact, nobody right-wing should ever be allowed to travel abroad ever again. If they ‘love’ England so much, they should stay here and rot.
You see, it’s not an English problem. It’s not a football problem. It’s a right wing problem. So let’s hobble the bastards. Literally. Cut their fetlocks with a cut-throat razor, make bonfires of their passports and fit them with high-explosive collars that’ll blow their vile racist-shite-spewing heads off if they stray more than five miles from home.
“But what about their human rights? I hear you squeal. Fuck their human rights. Right wingers aren’t human. They are pond scum, microbes, mere filth. In fact, thinking about it, why don’t we just gas the bastards?
“But that would make us just as bad as them!”.
Shut it liberal! God! It’s just that sort of woolly-minded politically correct do-gooder thinking that led to the horrible scenes in the low countries a couple of weeks back. It’s time for action!
NME 21 September 1991 (p.45)
NINE INCH NAILS
DEAR MR Trent Reznor. There are pop music baddies and pop music goodies (make up your own list, scribble ‘em on your pencil case) and I really wanted NIN to be on my side. I sort of liked the records, their dumb negativity, their squeaky bleakness and flashes of metal. I’ll be best friends with any band that get so regularly lumped with The Revolting Cocks and their disgusting ilk. I came prepared to be awed.
Your band emerged from behind a barrage of eardrum-rupturing noise and grey fumes and…Oh my God! It’s Adam And The Ants! No the good Adam and the Ants with the funny jolly highwayman costumes and feathers in their hair, but the posy, posturing utterly, totally, definitively KER-RAP! pre-‘sell-out’ art-school version. I mean, you even do the Ants’ song ‘Physical’ and manage to make it sound crapper and even more ridiculous than the original.
OK, so looks aren’t everything, but they’re at least 50 per cent of a live show and, I’m sorry, but the sight of a pretentious little boy with a silly haircut crouched behind a microphone making “strange” gestures with his hands like some awesome rock-messiah always makes me want to laugh, at first. After about half an hour I felt bored and nauseated. Yes, I know the kids think you’re some sort of really cool gut-level intellectual cum poet, but they thought the same thing about Kirk Brandon. Doesn’t that worry you?
Mr Trent Reznor, I’m sure you’re a wonderful guy, I bet you love small children and dogs and are a warm and sensitive lover. But onstage you are about as much fun as Christmas in a genital cancer ward. An evening watching your band is about as pleasurable as three-way sex with Mr and Mrs Himmler.
And yes they sounded awful too. Almost every song plodded along, got good right at the end with some fancy metal guitar and then got crap again. I mean, I’ve seen some tedious gigs in my time, I’ve sat through some hideous hours of unlistenable, tuneless, dull shite – Spear Of Destiny, Theatre Of Hate, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, New Order, Fields Of The Nephilim, Man O’War, Big Country (AAAAGH! My head hurts just thinking about them) – but you really take the industrial disco biscuit.
If you choose to make a T-shirt out of this review you will be invoiced accordingly. Yours sincerely,
NME 21 September 1991 (p.36)
FEATURING THE heavenly singer out of Faith No More and produced by John ‘Some Kind Of Genius’ Zorn, one might expect ‘Mr Bungle’, freed from all the restrictions that apply to records made by ‘real’ rock bands, to be a crazy, off-the-wall slab of taboo-breaking fun.
It’s not. Remember when you and your mates got really stoned and made fart noises into a tape recorder and then played it back and giggled so much that you fell over? Funny at the time, right? That’s what this record is – a mess of unfunny and largely inaudible big-boys’ fun thrown together with some sketches for songs. It sucks the big one so hard that its head almost implodes.
Those idiots who find anything by Frank Zappa even remotely listenable might enjoy it, the rest of us would be well advised to steer clear of a stinkingly unfunny waste of vinyl that will be peppering the racks of second hand record shops for decades to come.