Last month, two significant slices of Sheffield’s musical heritage reappeared side by side. A lavishly reissued version of The Human League’s classic album ‘Dare’ was soon joined on record shop shelves by ‘The Original Sound Of Sheffield 78-82’, a new compilation containing tracks from Cabaret Voltaire’s pioneering early days on Rough Trade records.
Both of these bands are central to a new documentary which charts the evolution of the city’s music scene between 1977 and 1982. ‘Made In Sheffield’ attempts to piece together the events surrounding the music and artists of the time - from ABC and Heaven 17’s extraordinary international successes, to the rise and fall of bands such as Artery and The Extras. The film is also director Eve Wood’s first major work, and represents an opportunity to re-evaluate Sheffield’s place in pop history.
“I started working on ‘Made In Sheffield’ when the National Centre for Popular Music was being built”, Wood says. “I saw an article in a newspaper questioning why Sheffield had been chosen as its location – the article said no music had ever come out of Sheffield, but in reality, a lot did happen here at the end of the 1970’s. I did some research, and it seemed like a really cool time. It was the first scene to emerge after Punk, before the Manchester and Liverpool post-punk scenes, there was a much wider variety of music coming out of Sheffield than other cities at that time. I was surprised that nobody had made a film about it before, because it’s an amazing story.”
The documentary features interviews with some of the pivotal figures from the scene, including Phil Oakey of The Human League, Martyn Ware of Heaven 17, and Chris Watson, then one third of Cabaret Voltaire. It is Watson who recalls a school outing to a local steelworks, describing how he saw it as “a vision of hell”, a potentially bleak future which he vowed to avoid at all costs. Watson is one of several interviewees in the film who admit that Sheffield’s heavily industrialised environment - and the unappealing prospect of becoming part of it’s workforce - drove them to experiment with sound, as a means of escaping a soul-destroying existence.
Eve Wood is familiar with this theory. “I first visited Sheffield about 11 years ago, and I thought it was grim," she confesses. "Compared to my upbringing in Amsterdam, where people have quite a cushioned life, it was quite a shock. I didn’t think it was a pleasant place. But often places that are beautiful aren’t culturally great. You can have a situation where everything is lovely, and everybody is well off, but that doesn’t necessarily produce creative people, because they have nothing to kick against. That’s why the human side of the Sheffield scene is very interesting, the idea of “What can we do? Let’s go out and make some music, let’s just do something!”
This sentiment sums up the very ethos of Punk itself. As musicians in Sheffield began to realise that anything was possible, so record labels started to embrace ideas that had previously been regarded as too far out by the music industry in general. Given Sheffield’s growing reputation for unorthodox pop and weird electronic noise, the timing for this shift in attitudes could not have been better, says Wood; “The Sheffield scene was part of the Punk movement, but people here had their own take on it. Things that had been unacceptable became accepted because of punk, record companies took risks and took chances.”
“Manchester created their own kind of sound with bands like Joy Division in the late seventies, but everything in Manchester sounded similar - there was very much one type of sound, which you could easily identify. In Sheffield, you had the electronic sound, but you also had bands like Artery, The Comsat Angels, Def Leopard…there was a wide variety of bands that didn’t all sound alike. People in Sheffield had their own ideas and did their own things, and the electronic music was a big part of that.”
Wood only came to live in Sheffield five years ago from her native Holland, but her status as an ‘outsider’ proved useful in her approach to ‘Made In Sheffield’. “Because I didn’t grow up here, I was able to look at the film objectively”, she says. “I didn’t know the ins and outs when I started to make it, but I wanted to capture the feeling of what it was like to be part of the scene, with all the excitement of starting a band.”
One of the most striking things about the film is the way it conveys the sense of a musical community within the city. Few bands operated in isolation - as Martyn Ware observes in the film; “Everybody was interested in what everybody else was doing. That’s the essence of a scene.”
Wood claims a more fragmented setup exists today; “Back then, if something new happened you would always know about it, but that’s not the case in Sheffield at the moment.”
“People didn’t work in little pockets as much as they do now – there’s still a lot of great music happening in Sheffield today, but it’s not all in one place. Not as many people know each other, but people are still interested, and they need to be kept informed.”