Melody Maker October 23, 1982
Neutral territory for a provocative night out: Stephen Seething Wells had come from Leeds, I’d dashed from Manchester. We sit warily next to each other in Sheffield’s West Street Pub, delicately playing out the early jigsaw-fitting tedium of the “interview”.
Suddenly Wells drops his bottle of Pils on the table throws his cigarette in the ashtray and cuts through the curtain of predictable “petty chat”.
“What’s absolutely crucial,” he said, “is that you stress that what we’re after is doing for poetry what punk did for music – but making it stick.”
Two months earlier, I’d seen him ranting on stage and rather ungenerously dismissed him as a loud-mouthed bull, who was getting far too much medias exposure.
Offstage he still talks a lot – and fast – but also with articulate ease. Sometimes he is like a bull who’s seen red and can’t see that he might not be “right”, but generally he is admirably flexible – and refreshingly honest.
“Look, ‘poetry’ is a word like ‘art’: it doesn’t mean anything. What I am is an entertainer using the medium of rhyme. I’m not saying that some of the stuff traditionally classified as poetry isn’t worth reading – but 90 per cent of it is shit.
Wells shows me a copy of his Molotov Comics – a fiery assemblage of “rants” collected from “ranters” from all over Britain and produced by himself. “This is what it’s all about”, he gestures, proudly displaying pieces by Attila, Little Brother, himself and other new poets.
“It’s about getting poetry back to basics – simplifying it and making it more direct. Why write about ‘cosmic experiences’ when you can write about your own predicament – being on the dole and having no money spare, ever.
“For me, if something works and gets a reaction I don’t care what line-scheme it’s in: it’s worth doing. Then again, I reckon that one or two of my pieces would stand up to so-called ‘poetry’. And in terms of entertainment they would pan them!”
Stephen Wells became interested in the idea of “ranting” as opposed to “poetry reading” at the fag end of “punk”, when various punk bands that he’d tried to get off the ground had flopped with resounding regularity.
“Nineteen seventy seven was the time when, like a lot of other young people, I felt like reclaiming my culture. The idea of ‘honesty’ – so inherent within punk – appealed to me. Like it was no longer ‘hip’ to push hard drugs and music was the right of anyone – not just an elite group of ‘stars’.”
While he sips another bottle of Pils I get the inevitable next question out of the way. How big a help has John Cooper Clarke been in setting the ground for the “ranters”.
“I wouldn’t say that I was nothing like him,” he answers slowly. “But the fact that me and the others have appeared three years after him means that he wasn’t a direct influence. Personally, the Clash were my biggest influence.”
But didn’t he at least open the door for you?
“He was a catalyst, agreed, but his big failing was that he didn’t consolidate his groundwork and encourage others. He didn’t say ‘anybody can do this’ like the Pistols did for music.”
I suggest that Stephen Wells is perhaps a little too caught up in the idea of “the rebel” – that he himself is scoring off this dated theme.
“Shit! Rebellion is a complete waste of time! There’s just no point in being a rebel: you’ve got to become mainstream if you really want people to hear what you’ve got to say.
“But to become the mainstream you’ve got to make compromises. Talking to you is a compromise; bringing out a record is a compromise. The thing is to be honest about the compromises you so make.”
How honest are you, Stephen? Would you not accept that you’re “ranting” to make money?
“Course I’m doing it to make money – but I intend to use the money correctly – like by putting it back in the community/giving other ‘ranters’ a chance to voice their poems in print.”
Would “fame” be a cursory spin-off or necessary?
“Look, you can’t be pure, you know? If you’re pure you’re like Crass: you end up in a ghetto, isolated for the rest of your life. I’m not into ghetto politics – I’m into populism.”
He hasn’t yet added any musical accompaniment on stage, although his recent Peel session material did offer the occasional glimpse of what it could add/take away. “I don’t think it would be right at the moment but if it ever happens I’d like it to be nosiy.”
Most of the music he’s currently listening to is noisy – Newtown Neurotics, New Model Army, the Redskins – and, I tell him, depressingly mono-dimensional. “But it’s full of passion and relevancy,” he retorts. “It’s real music.”
He surprises me: “My favourite artist ever is Aretha Franklin – but my list wouldn’t include any of this white soul crap that’s so popular at the moment.
“I hate London’s attitude towards music,” he adds. “It’s soaked in the idea if ‘in’ one week, ‘out’ the next. But in terms of ‘new’ music, London’s way behind the rest of the country.
“The other week I was in London, ordering a pint in this pub. Next thing, there’s this bloke – ‘Where are you from, mate, I don’t recognise your accent?’ – ‘Bradford’, I tell him. ‘Where’s that?’ he asks. ‘Yorkshire’, I say.
“’Oh, is that north or south of the river?’”
When our laughter subsides, I suggest he’s set himself up as a political animal merely as an additional weapon of his “hard” image.
“No, I’m an active socialist. I believe that the state should be encouraging youth culture and that there should be things like public rehearsal rooms as encouragements.
“In what ways am I active? I go on picket lines. I was involved in the Bradford picket on the Day of Action. I get angry and protest through ranting.”
Is anger a big inspiration to your writing? “It’s the inspiration, yes. I’m bitter about many things. Undermining stereotypes is very important – DON’T be what The Sun tells you to be!”
Stephen talks topical for a few minutes: “I ain’t guilty about being white: I ain’t guilty about being male. Racism is only as important – no more, no less – as the class struggle.”
He considers the Falklands War: “Many people talked about it in the stereotype of ‘us versus the Argies’ – but shouldn’t we be talking about it in terms of life? Five thousand ordinary, working-class Argentinians got killed in that war, but that’s forgotten. It’s bloody sickening.”
How can you talk about destroying stereotypes, though, when you yourself are a walking stereotype: a “skinhead”?
“Look I shaved my hair off because it was wavy and looked crap and I wear combat trousers because I’ve got skinny legs and boots because I just can’t be bothered searching through a shop for shoes.”
So you’re a “skinhead” for convenience only? “No, I enjoy being one: I enjoy the aggression that you spark off and the attention you get when you walk into a place.
“But I’m not a stereo-typed skinhead who goes around council estates smashing things up. I mean, how many skinheads have got a father who is a managing director? How many skinheads read poetry on stage?”
Do you see yourself as a spokesman for a new generation? “NO, I’M NOT A SPOKESMAN FOR A NEW GENERATION! I’m just one part of a whole poetry movement, that’s here to stay.
“One of the reasons I’m in the SWP is to keep my feet on the ground. I’m seriously thinking of going back to work after a while because you can become distanced just writing poetry.”
So, at heart you’re only human? “Well, I wouldn’t say that at all . . .”