Article by Sarah Williams.
Simon Wells is a man with a colourful musical history, but he was particularly busy in 2017. He released his first solo album on July 1st, celebrating by playing a release show at Wonkfest. Crime of The Scene is a real divergence to much of his previous material. It’s mostly acoustic with piano throughout, allowing his voice and his lyrics to really shine. It’s gentler and more soulful but there’s still plenty for old punks to enjoy.
Simon’s better known for being a founding member of British punk legends Snuff, recording Snuff Said and Reach with them in 1989 and 1992 respectively, and touring the world with them in their early heyday. After a break, he went on to form Southport: the renowned mod/punk/soul act who’ve had a revolving door of members from different 90s punk bands over the years. Nowadays he’s based down in Hastings, but often pops up playing acoustic sets around the country.
Last year, I met Simon over vegan pizza and a couple of pints. I hadn’t really planned to interview him, so I went in without an agenda apart from wanting to find out more about how his solo album had come to be created. Crime of The Scene, although very different to Simon’s other material, will definitely appeal to old Southport and Snuff fans. There are a handful of reworked songs from both bands, plus new tracks like All At Sea.
In talking to Simon it quickly became clear that Southport’s history was essential to understanding how Crime of The Scene came into being. So when he asked me this, I leapt at the chance to hear more:
“Have I ever told you the story of how Southport started?”
Simon: There was this local pub where I was living in Headstone Lane. It was an Irish pub called O’Flaherty’s in North Harrow – it was an old converted shop. There was a fella who used to sit next to me called Pat. And he had two mates, both called Pat – it was that sort of bar. I sat next to Pat drinking probably every other night for a year; we’d sit there in silence, drink four or five pints each and go home. As you went home you’d acknowledge each other, and that would be it.
After literally a year of drinking next to each other in the pub, Pat said to me, “Did you used to play in a band? Did you used to play in Snuff?” I said yeah. He says, “My nephew plays the drums. You should have a jam with him one day.”
So about three weeks later this 16 year old kid covered in acne, really tall, really thin, wearing a Nirvana t-shirt that was 15 times too big for him walks into O’Flaherty’s. “Are you Simon? I’m Dom. Pat’s my uncle. He said you wanted to have a jam.”
I said, “Yeah, meet me at this studio in Willesden at such-and-such a time and we’ll play.” I’ve been going there since I was 14. It’s the place where Snuff rehearsed, where Motorhead rehearsed, The Police owned it… Old Sting. Boney M rehearsed there, so we got to know them all. Dom turns up at the studio but we’ve got no bass player, so the guy who sets up the mics and takes the money – Nick, I’ve known him for years – came in and played some bass with us.
We made up a few songs. Dom’s got two beats and one roll, so we’re writing songs to go around that… and then all of the new Snuff walked in and started rehearsing in the room next door. I hadn’t played in a band for 7 or 8 years, so Duncan was like, “Oh, you’re in a new band! We’re looking for supports. Do you lot want to do a gig with us at The Garage in Islington?”
The drummer’s shaking – he’s 16 years old and he’s got to get over his acne yet, but clearly excited, so I says, “Go on then, we’ll do that.”
We did this gig and off that we got three or four others. We did those gigs and I started thinking that I didn’t want to get into this band situation again, it was ridiculous. We decided to record what we’d got and then quit it.
I booked two days in a recording studio and we recorded all the songs on the first album, and I wrote three more songs while we were recording, so that made Nothing is Easy. On Sunday we mixed them. I had one cassette which I gave to Ian Armstrong, who had Greg from Go Kart Records in New York staying on his couch that weekend. He played the cassette when he got home and Greg rang me up and said, “I’ll give you $15,000 for the cassette.” I said ‘yes’ and we split it – £5k for me and £5k for each of the boys. That’s a weekend’s work. He said, “You’ve got to go out and tour it, though.”
So we booked a European tour, but the day before the tour Dom said to me, “My girlfriend says I’m not allowed to go. She said it’s me or the band. I love her so I can’t go.” By the time we got back from the tour he’d split up with her.
I rang up Duncan Thompson [Dogpiss’ drummer] instead. I said, “Dunc, can you do us a favour? We’re going on tour around Europe and we’ve got no drummer, and we’re leaving in about 4 hours!” And he said ‘yes’. I put the cassette on in the car on the way to Paris and he learned it that way. He played it spot on first go. We did the tour, then another tour with No Means No. We just toured for a couple of years, then we broke up for a bit.
Later on, I ran into Declan Kelly [drummer from Midway Still] who was doing one of those middle-aged man, drunk, talking about being in a punk band things. Declan came and said to me, “The only thing I regret is that I never went to Japan.”
I said, “You never went to Japan? I’ve been seven times! You never went to Japan?!” So, I said, “Declan, if you play drums in Southport we’ll tour and, we’ll go to Japan.”
That’s how we wrote Armchair Supporters! We had Lloyd Chambers [most recently of Bear Trade] playing bass on it. We booked a Japanese tour, took Declan out there.
Now, in Japan a woman’s bits are called manko. In the first bar we went to Lloyd and I ordered three pints of shochu. It’s plum wine; it just tastes like plum juice but it’s about 8% proof. Declan loves it and he asks me what it’s called – I tell him it’s called ‘manko’ juice.
For the next two weeks of the tour he’d go to the bar and order, “Three pints of manko juice please, mate!” Lloyd and I would say something like kudasai shochu and get it right, so we would get the right drink. This all lasted until the last night of the tour when someone taught Declan how to say ‘I love’. He stood up and, in perfect Japanese, said, “I love manko juice!” The whole place was just… you could hear a pin drop silence. Lloyd and I just didn’t know where to look.
After the Japanese tour we split up. The only reason we split up that time was because Lloyd got transferred from where he was working in South London up to York. He had to move.
Nothing happened for ages. The first album had been recorded in a weekend and Armchair Supporters had some problems with production – some files were lost and we had some issues re-recording the drums. So, I really felt like Southern Soul really needed to happen. We needed to record one album that was better than this.
So we got Dan Goatham [now of Spoilers], who was really keen. Declan came back. And we had Dick Trolley playing keyboard, although he couldn’t play keyboard at all but he drak really well and was great to have in the band. Southern Soul is the Southport album. It’s the best album.
So how did Crime of The Scene come about as a solo album? It’s very different to your previous material.
Southport ended up with Wes Wasley [Consumed, Milloy, etc.] on bass who lived in Leeds, Skruff Owen [Leatherface, HDQ, Abrasive Wheels] who lived in York and doesn’t drive, and me living somewhere on the South Coast. We would book gigs, but it got to the point where the day before or on the day the boys would say they hadn’t got the money to make it, or Wes could make it but didn’t have time to pick up Skruff before the gig etc etc.
It would end up with me going along to the gig and having to cancel, but there were already people there so I started going up and doing a few songs acoustically. The first Wonkfest where I played solo – that was the first time I ever did an acoustic thing because the boys didn’t turn up. That happened three or four times and people started saying, “You know what? I’m really liking the acoustic thing!”
I’d seen a few people doing the acoustic thing, and they would tend to still put on their Hot Water Music voice and go full-bash on their guitar. When I do Snuff songs live, I transpose them so the voice sounds normal against what I’m doing. I don’t think it’s becoming of a 50 year old man to be straining like that in public.
I was also going through the real trauma of losing my kids and divorce; knowing where they were but having lost them… I’d gotten in really bad health in that time. I was envisaging my legacy and I didn’t know whether I was going to see them again.
I wanted to make an album that was a bit different to the other things I’ve recorded, just in case they grew up and they didn’t like punk. I wanted something for them to be proud of; I wanted them to still have something they could love. It was a necessary thing I had to do at the time.
How did you go about recording the album?
We recorded the songs pretty much in the order they are on the album. Matt Cade set up two mics – one on the vocal, one on the guitar – and then I ran through all the songs I knew at the time. And Martin, but we dropped that. I left Somehow on though. I just got carried away, started playing with other instruments and stuff. I just enjoyed myself.
When I used to write songs, I’d write either using an acoustic guitar or a piano. Optimism was written on piano, so it’s much better now that it’s back on piano. I think a lot of the songs on there were forced to be punk songs, and they sound better in this format.
You’ve released it on Chopback Records, which seems to be created purposefully for the album?
Chopback is Carol Hodge’s label; we started it up just for this album. We have no distribution, Southern Soul had no distribution, the only place you could get any of that stuff was from the back of my car. If you haven’t got it from one of our envelopes or from the boot of our car, you ain’t got it.
If you found that interesting, you will love Part Two of our interview, which will be available next week. Simon tells us all about touring the Eastern Bloc with Snuff in the late 80s, before the Berlin Wall was torn down. Can you imagine what life would be like as a skinny, snotty British punk travelling in a van round the Soviet Union? Stay tuned for the rest of Simon’s story.
I strongly recommend that you lend your ears to Crime of the The Scene. It’s a beautifully crafted album that will appeal to fans of lighter acoustic folk and veteran punks alike. You can buy it direct from Chopback Records.
Article by Sarah Williams.