Simon Wells Interview #2: Touring The Soviet Union with Snuff in the 1980s

Article by Sarah Williams.

Last year, I was lucky enough to share a pizza and a pint with Simon Wells. In Part One of this interview he gave us the full, colourful history of Southport, going on to explain how his experiences in that band shaped his more mellow solo album Crime Of The Scene.

Many things could be said about Simon, but no one can deny that he’s an exceptionally captivating storyteller. He had an endless heap of anecdotes and entertaining namedrops for us.

I remember meeting Fat Mike and telling him, “The Longest Line is my favourite song.” Mike said, “We were pretending to be Snuff in the studio when we wrote that song!” We both stepped back and I said, “This conversation has gone really weird – I kinda liked it when you were pretending to be me. This is quite bizarre.”

Simon is well known as a founding member of legendary British punks Snuff. Early on in our conversation, Simon realised that when I was born (in 1989) he was already well into his punk career. Snuff Said had just been released and he was touring Europe with the original incarnation of the band: Duncan Redmonds and Andrew Crighton. Here he tells us some genuinely fascinating tales about his experiences of touring the Soviet Union before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So, Simon… while I was being born, you were in Germany watching the Berlin Wall coming down?

Simon: Actually the story peters out quite badly after that initial ‘you were in Berlin when the wall was coming down’ part! We didn’t actually leave the bar we were in. We were just drinking all night with the US band Victim’s Family.

Were you aware that it was happening?

Yeah, the guy at the bar kept telling us people were going crazy outside. We went out when it was dawn, I believe, and just laid around in the road because we were so drunk.

I do remember touring the Eastern Bloc before the wall was torn down. It was before the EU –  tours in those days were 3 months with 3-5 days off. If you were going out on those tours you’d make lots of money in Germany, France, Holland, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden. The penance for making all that money was that the tour operator would make you go to the Eastern Bloc as a cultural thing. That was the biggest eye opener.

The first time we went to Poland there was a transit road that was just… two hours long? An hour and a half? It seemed really long. Dead straight road, pine trees about fifty yards back on either side, a big forest. There was nothing to see. Nothing on the road, it was just no man’s land road.

There was just nothing, and then you would see someone just standing there with five carrots, just holding them up while the traffic sped by at 100mph, just in case someone wanted to buy some carrots. You’d drive for another 40 minutes and there’d be another woman holding a skirt, just out on the side of the road. We stopped and bought a 100% acrylic blanket with a picture of a horse on for Duncan, because he’d forgotten his sleeping bag.

We’d get to where we were playing, go to a supermarket and every aisle was empty apart two things. The first time it was pasta and cabbage. They had an aisle full of pasta and an aisle full of cabbage. It was the only food they had, in every town we went to. Just pasta and cabbage. The second time we went it was black bread – you know, that really heavy rye bread – and butter beans. We had butter bean soup and black bread, butter bean pate and black bread.

We tried to get toilet paper and petrol but we had to get it on the black market, both times. We’d be in a weird council estate on the outskirts of town – someone would open up a garage door and there’d be a load of petrol. He’d sell you some, you’d fill the van up and carry on for the next hour.

We got stopped by the police a lot. We’d be driving the same speed as any other car and the police would pull you over and say we were speeding. We weren’t. “You’re going to have to pay a fine.” We’d say we didn’t have any money and they’d say, “Have you got any cigarettes? Have you got any chocolate? What have you got?”. They’d take any cigarettes we had and any chocolate we had – a Mars Bar or a Snickers. T-shirts, CDs, stuff like that.

I remember one time that the guy told us, “Our friends are about a mile down the road, so they’re going to pull you over as well.”

So are there loads of old Eastern Bloc border control guards around with copies of Snuff Said in their collections?

Yes, every single border!

On the other hand, back in those days I used to smoke really heavily, and at one gig a guy told me he would swap me some ‘trava’ (weed) for a t-shirt. So I said, “Yeah, that’s cool.”

He came back with a big bag, like a European-size packet of crisps and it was crammed with purple sinsemilla. It was about £600 worth in London and he gave me it for a t-shirt. I said, “What size do you want?” and that was that.

You also said you were touring in Yugoslavia the week that the war broke out.

That was bad. You could tell that stuff was about to kick off… You would drive through towns and there would be huddles of 30-40 men with someone in the middle talking, explaining stuff to them. It wasn’t just one street corner, it was loads. We were trying to work out what was going on.

So, what you’ve got to remember about the Eastern Bloc… Imagine the centre of town here with not a single sign, not a single shop front. It was communist, so all the shops were like offices. It would be like going into the Post Office to get bread. You’d get your allotted amount of bread, and then you’d queue up and get your butter beans or whatever. There would be queues outside of doorways, with a small sign above. There was no colour, it was just grey.

Add to that, there were no commercial cars. It was just Trabants, which they only made in three colours. You would see a car park of maybe 500 cars but there were on 3 colours. You think it’s bad losing your car now!

Your van must have stuck out like a sore thumb.

Every time you stopped in traffic there’d be a huddle of men come up to the car and just stare at you. All these 50 year old men, which is really intimidating when you’re a 18 year old punk rocker and they’re staring in at you.

As things got really bad before the war, we heard stories that skinheads would stop vans at the edges of towns (knowing you’ve got loads of guitars and gear), take out machine guns and tell you to get out of the van. They’d just take the van. It got really dangerous. The week after we left we heard an American band vanished, just lost their van and who knows what happened to them – we never heard. That’s what we were told anyway.

We had the option to get out of the country earlier, but we didn’t, we finished the tour. A week later, by the time we got back to the West, we heard that full-on war had broken out. People were killing each other.

We played to some Nazis. I made a big speech to some Nazi skinheads. I was making this really profound compleat speech to these Yugoslavian-speaking skinheads, and then two of them just yelled, “Fred Perry!”

I remember a madly crowded gig in Poland where we got stuck by the stage, we couldn’t get out. It was this massive hall, maybe 2,500 people… and this guy comes up and starts pulling on my jumper and [speaking in Yugoslavian]. He grabbed me and he took me all the way through this crowd – down the front of the hall, through the packed venue, down this grass verge, down a street, through another street, through a council estate, into a tower block, into a lift. We got up to the 14th floor, went into a flat, and I’m all the time going, “No, I can’t come with you.”

We got into this flat and there’s a guy on the phone and he says something I can’t understand. The guy in the flat says, “My friend wants to ask you a question.” He translates for him. “You came to Poland one year ago, correct…… Why did you come back?”

I didn’t know what to tell him. I didn’t want to tell him we were forced to by the tour operator. I just said, because you’re the only country in Europe that has black tea like we do in England.

Thank you so much to Simon for chatting to us. We hope you enjoyed his stories.

Make sure you check out his latest album Crime of The Scene, which you can pick up direct from Chopback Records.

While you’re here, make sure you check out Part One of our interview.

Article by Sarah Williams.

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