It's a music journalist's time to stand up and be counted: the biggest pop icon of your time has died, and all of your colleagues are watching a secret East 17 set at Glastonbury. That's how, exactly 10 years ago, then-features editor James McMahon found himself being interviewed alongside Uri Geller, splitting his trousers before an ITV News appearance and dreaming about Bubbles
This weekend marks ten-years since the passing of a true legend of pop. I talk, of course, about the death of hyper acerbic, none-more-iconoclastic, legendary NME journalist Steven Wells. Swells, as he was better known, was the NME writer that made me want to write for the NME. When he championed Asian Dub Foundation, Napalm Death, even Daphne And Celeste, I listened, I cowered, I laughed my chin off. He died on June 24 2009, aged 49, after a couple of years fighting Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Throughout his illness he blogged about it, with breathtaking verve, for the Philadelphia Weekly, the periodical of the city he’d adopted as his home.
Bizarrely, for reasons that will soon become clear, Swells signs off the last entry of his blog, “don’t blame it on the moonlight, don’t blame it on good times, blame it on the boogie…”
Ten-years-ago this weekend, I’m in the NME office, where I worked as Features Editor. It’s approaching 11pm. I’m working on an obituary for Swells. I’m waiting for some rockstars to call me with memories of him giving them a terrible review. The Manic Street Preachers have already done so; Swells directed the video for their 1992 single, ‘Little Baby Nothing’. Now I’m waiting for Billy Bragg, a peer of Swells in the days when he was a ‘punk poet’ performing as ‘Seething Wells’. Just after 11, Billy calls. Tells me some funny stories about Swells. Tells me a few things I’m not sure we can print. Then he tells me that it might be a good idea to turn on the telly.
“Because Michael Jackson’s only gone and died…”
And then everything went fucking bananas.
When someone like Michael Jackson dies, someone you never smoked a cigarette with backstage at Glastonbury, someone you only knew via the posters on your wall as a child and the songs on the radio – and yet who you grew up knowing their name like you knew the names Coca Cola or Nike – the first thing you think as a music journalist isn’t, “Oh, that’s very sad. Let’s bang ‘Thriller’ on…” It’s, “bloody hell, I need to write about this – somehow I need to find the words and emotions to articulate the genius of a pop icon as omnipresent as oxygen – and I need to write about it really well”. Especially when you write for NME. A sense of duty kicks in.
With hindsight, it was awfully inconvenient for Michael Jackson to die the weekend he did. Glastonbury, when every music journalist was stood in a field in Pilton – watching a reformed East 17 I believe – and only I – as a lifelong Glastonbury buzzkill who always, always offered to work NME’s weekend office shift in the warm and the dry – remained in London.
My phone starts ringing. I think it must be Billy calling to add something to his reminiscing about Swells.
It’s not Billy, it’s the BBC. They want me to go talk about Michael Jackson on the telly. They’re sending a taxi.
On the way to the studio I’m on Twitter. I’ve only just got an account a few months prior. It’s weird to think what Twitter was then. There are no Nazis yet, or if there are, they all have the decency to keep their rotten thoughts to themselves. But the night Michael Jackson died? Maybe that’s the night Twitter changed. The moment it crossed an invisible line. As a breaking news service, its potential suddenly made sense. It also suddenly became a place where people wanted to call each other ‘nonce’. It was like wasps suddenly attacking a picnic.
It’s 1am and I’m sat in a chair at Television Centre with a BBC logo behind me and cameras in front. Uri Geller is being interviewed too, by satellite link. He’s saying loads of typical Uri Geller shit, about how Michael Jackson was the second coming or whatever. How his music healed people. I feel uncomfortable with the way the conversation is going. “Well, I don’t know about that Uri, but ‘Black And White’ was a helluva tune…”
It’s 2am and I’m being interviewed by Sky News. The make-up artist looks disgusted by my music journo Spar-Meal-Deal-and-20-Richmond skin. They go to work. By the time I’m on screen I look like Louis XVI. I think I do pretty well in capturing the essence of what made Michael Jackson’s music so special. I later learn that, at the exact same time, an NME colleague is being interviewed about Michael Jackson on site at Glastonbury. He’s off his head. He keeps doing this thing with his neck where he twitches like an itchy chicken. At one point he says, “if you’ve got the funk, you’re into Michael Jackson…”. When I find out about this I feel even better about my showing.
It’s 3am and I’m at ITV. Somewhere between Sky and ITV centre I’ve split my trousers. I spend the interview with my legs crossed and I think I get away with it. In the studio, on the screen behind me, there is video footage of teenagers in Russia crying. One of them is dressed like Michael Jackson. After 9/11, I think this is the most significant news event of my lifetime. I’m very tired. Back to the office, to the crappy pleather sofa autographed by various indie bands where I sometimes sleep.
On the Saturday, a skeleton staff – some sub editors, some designers, me – begin work on creating a tribute issue. We’ve got 48-hours to do it. I spend at least half of that time trying to convince Danny Baker, formally of NME’s parish, to write a piece about the time he interviewed Jackson for the paper. I have no luck. We’ll just make the photos bigger.
Those involved in making the tribute issue have a conversation about the child-abuse allegations that, at that point, have followed Jackson for almost 20 years. It gets quite heated. We decide to celebrate the music, the cultural icon, the pioneer. In many ways, it’s an early take on the sort of conversations we’ve all been having in recent years. How to treat a problematic genius, if the word problematic could go any way to summing up the magnitude of things we’ve heard this year. Were we dropped into the same situation in 2019, post-Leaving Neverland, I think we’d approach things differently. I’d like to think we would.
I don’t sleep in the NME office the night we send the issue to the printers. I go home to bed and I have a dream about Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s pet chimp. I know that sounds like I’m making it up, but I did. Fucking Bubbles. Running around, screeching in my brain.