Garry Bushell demands poetic justice for S.Wells, Little Brother and Garry Johnson
First part of a Sounds 2 page feature.
Sounds, Jan 29th, 1983
If the sadly stagnating music scene is threatening to get duller than a loop-tape of David Hepworth’s TV highlights, then one totally unexpected area of culture is getting the proverbial DM up the jacksie – poetry.
You don’t need a crystal gonad or Signor Spencer’s second-hand seer to know that you won’t be able to move this year without getting yer bent by poets. TV, radio, magazines and live gigs will be ringing in the reign of the new radical rhymsters – not yer usual privileged prima donnas poncing through the posies to cosy pensions and establishment praises, but passionate pogrom-packing word warriors penning mocking prole rock’n’roll polemics.
It’s the punk ethic taken to it’s logical conclusion – total d-I-y, the ultimate easy access protest. And so the year of the street-credible sonneteer is here. After months of percolating in the pop pages the ranting ranks of witty word-wrigglers like the perpetually pissed Attila are being swelled (poetry pun) by an inveighing invasion of pen-handed upstarts.
Verily, even the trio of vivid versificators showcased herein – socialist skinhead Seething Wells, voice of Oi Garry Johnson, and the consummate clown prince of carnal comedy Little Brother – are just the titillating tip of an invigorating iceberg of ingenuity and invective.
There’s radical rasta Ben Zephaniah, Scouse skin Alan Turner, The Tube’s only real find Mark My Words, Harlow’s Little Dave, Ginger John (The Doomsday Commando), London’s Belinda Blanchard, Bradford’s Joolz Denby, Lewisham’s black Beverley, guaranteed non-SDP fan, The Comrade, Jamaica’s Michael Smith and hosts more.
All these fire-breathing fun-slingers stand accused of conspiring to take a mainly middle class medium and haul it down to the streets. . .and real people.
You and I know it’s sonnet rock’n’roll but I like it, like it, yes I do…
Steven Wells, aka Seething, prime exponent of prole poetry as punk’s upstart off-shoot, believes firmly in giving the Betjemins and Horrorwitzs of this world the old roll over Beethoven treatment and bringing poetry down not merely to earth but into bed with the movement for real social change. In a (hard)-nut shell he’s in the business of rabbiting for socialism.
But although I’m not averse to the odd Joe Ashton column myself, I’ve always found myself disagreeing violently with the Swells vision in the past. Which in itself, is no bad thing, though I’d wager our previous political flare-ups had blinded me to the man behind the image.
After a few hours tear-arsing with him round the pubs, curry houses and dole offices of Bradford I came to see the cropped commando less as a hardline SWP hack rhetoric-robot, less as a cliché, and more as an intelligent, articulate, penetrating and personable chap.
As his best poems suggest Swells can be scathingly relevant, combining cynical insight with ruthless bite and a strong line in rib-tickling. Well would you settle for a ready way with groans…
“Why don’t they give Sounds journalists tea-breaks?” the scruffy urchin enquires when I meet him quite by chance on the Bradford train at Leeds station.
“Because it takes too long to retrain ’em! Hear about the bloke who got a job circumcising elephants? Not much pay but the tips are enormous…”
AAARGHHHHH!!! What did I ever do to deserve this? If I were you, blue, I’d stick to the records of which there are two, both on Radical Wallpaper, the first with Attila ‘Rough Raw And Ranting’, the more recent one with Little Brother called ‘The Rising Son Of Ranting Verse’. I prefer the former which features three of Swells finest: ‘Aggro Britain’, ‘Cadillacs in Bradford’ and ‘Godzilla Vs The Tetley Bittermen’.
But before we get to them let’s dilly-dally in the bald Bolshevik’s history book. Now 22, Swells hails from Leeds, via Bradford, and a solid Labour background, joining the Party at 15 and leaving school soon after to get a job cleaning toilets. After a few years alternatively frying Kentucky chicken in Bradford, working on the buses, and posing nude for Leeds art students (the mind boggles) he did his first gig as a poet at the fag-end of ’79.
Then flat-mate Little Brother was the inspiration. “I though to meself I’m more intelligent than him, I can do it better,” Swells quips. A series of guerrilla raids on New Order and Gang Of Four gigs followed. Like Little Brother, Swells started out just turning up at venues, and gigging for free with or without being asked; although his first national fame came via a string of caustic letters written to Sounds, one particularly vivid one coming out strongly in favour of the Nolan Sisters.
“Eventually I made contact with real poets,” he says, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “You can tell ’em – they’ve all got beards and glasses. They’re real middle class elitists. They made us realise we were more or less on our own.
“I’ve got very little time for the left over-sixties ‘radical’ poets. They still regard themselves as ‘underground’, to me the underground is the tube. You’ve got to be popular. You’ve got to make number one. That whole idea of alternative culture is out the window, communication is the key-word. That’s the difference between for example ‘YMCA’ and ‘Glad To Be Gay’. That’s why the Specials at number one with ‘Ghost Town’ during the riots, or the Jam at number one with ‘Town Called Malice’ was a million times more effective than Crass, there’s more ways of dealing with a situation than nutting it to death!”
By the age of 17 Swells had left the Labour Party and joined the Socialist Workers Party which to me at least contradicts the exemplary logic of that last statement, but we let that pass.
“I don’t support the SWP 100 0/0”, Swells explains, “but they’re the only party you’ll find on the picket line or getting involved in the Anti-Nazi League or the Right To Work Campaign. But when I’m up on stage I’m not trying to preach SWP politics, I’m trying to get ’em to THINK. I want to challenge people’s pre-conceptions, trendy leftie pre-conceptions as well.”
Hence the wet radical-ribbing ‘He/She’s Perfect’ on his current EP, and, deeper than that, the challenge to media prejudice of even being a socialist skinhead.
“The thing about all skinheads being Nazis is just crap.” Swells is adamant. “Look at all the skinheads on Right To Work Marches or at ANL Carnivals. You take ten skins from different parts of the country and you’d have ten different opinions and probably ten different tastes in music.”
Swells also points out, quite rightly, that skinhead culture originated in West Indian culture, not only just (just?) the music, but even the haircut! The standard media image of skins is pilloried in ‘Aggro Britain’ with The Sun in particular getting a good kicking. (‘The Sun’s so-called journalists, quack sociologists and fascist hacks’) although Swellsy admits he’s fascinated by it. “The poetry I write is more to do with tabloid journalism than standard poetry. The language is pretty similar. I like inventing mock Sun headlines like ‘Was The Ripper An Argy?’, or ‘Gland-Handed randy Andy Hankie Pankies In The sand Dune’ better known as ‘Koo – Wot A Stonker!'”
I pulled him over his Tetley Bittermen poems cos to me they seemed just to ne taking the piss out of working class people.
“It’s not an attack on the working class, it’s attacking the middle class stereotype idea that being working class means being thick! A lot of ’em can’t see past the next pint.
“That’s what I’ve got against Oi – it’s not enough just to be working class. Listen to Garry Johnson and all he’s saying is ‘Well, I’m working class’ and you say ‘And?’ And he says, ‘Well my dad was a miner’ And? ‘We used to live in a hole in the road. . .’ It’s not enough to be working class, it’s conceding politics to the middle class.
“I’d like Garry to do more. Attila’s a lot more show-biz than him, Garry was Oi – the poet. But he’s got a right to be paranoid about the Nazis.
“People say to me why are you anti-Nazi and I say why don’t you eat shit? I’ve never hid it, but I’ve been lucky in a sense. After the Leeds carnival this fucking massive skin in a union jack t-shirt came up to me and I thought ‘this is it’, but he gave me the thumbs up and said ‘You were great’.” (Personally I find the Left’s insistence on conceding the union jack to the right-wing worse than Gal’s thought crime but that’s another five page argument). “I’m very hard to beat up cos I smile a lot.” He smiles. “It’s called cowardice through friendliness. But it’s important always to challenge.”
Would you compromise your beliefs for a mass audience?
“You’ve got to compromise! But you’ve got to be honest about it. The Clash weren’t, the Jam were. . . Punk at the start was great, it was making really big political statements without preaching. Johnny Rotten should have done poems in between songs – he should have challenged pre-conceptions more. I hate the way punk is packaged now, which is why it’s great that Attila gets up with his mandolin. The Anti Nowhere League should bring in violins and finger cymbals!
“Punk just ended up in little factions. Some bands are class conscious and little else, Crass bands are anarchist in theory but little else, futurists dress up and little else . . . Why can’t there be an anarchist streetwise futurist band?”
As you can see Swells can be a compelling talker, and if you’re feeling compelled you can check out more of his ranting via Molotov Comics (30p plus large SAE from Flat 3, Belle Vue House, Belle Vue Rd, Leeds) his punkpoetry zine which he brings out whenever he can find £260 and which now sells over 2,000 per issue. Al Turner’s Another Day Another Word is it’s only rival.