Stuff I've written. All my opinions are my own, not those of any current or former employers.
Originally for Sandman Magazine.
Sheffield once ruled the world. The likes of Oakey, Ware, Fry and Kirk bestrode the world of popular music like synth-loving colossi, changing the course of musical history and putting the Steel City on the cultural map forever.
And who better to chronicle this story than the Sheffield Telegraph’s Martin Lilleker, a man who’s been writing pretty much non-stop about the city’s music scene for nearly quarter of a century?
His new book ‘Beats Working For A Living’ is the sequel to his last book ‘Not Like a Proper Job’, which was co-written with John Firminger, and picks up the story of Sheffield music from 1973 onwards.
“There’s a bit of an overlap between the two,” says Martin. “The first one mentions The Cabs and the Human League. The Cabs started in about 1973, so there was quite a big overlap.
“It’s totally different music, it was the end of the prog rock and the start of the punk era. That’s what’s essential to it, even though in Sheffield terms they hardly ever touched punk, there were hardly any punk bands, it was more Human League, and Clock DVA… so totally different music.”
Like the first book, it tells the story of how Sheffield’s always done things differently to the rest of the country.
“There’s a correlation with the first book and this one, in that the bands playing in the 60s didn’t sound like music from Manchester, it didn’t sound like music in London, it was more of a black R&B thing going on in Sheffield.
“Sheffield’s a bit isolated in terms of music. Other cities nearby looked for their music from elsewhere, like it Liverpool it was coming into the docks from America, but Sheffield, right in the middle of the country, has always done it’s own thing. So it was like that in the 60s, and in the late 70s, right up to the late 80s it was the same. They did electronic stuff that no-one else was doing, until Gary Numan came along.
And, as has been well documented, it was the Sheffield bands’ love of synths that made them stand out from the rest.
“It was the instrumentation, it wasn’t guitars any more, there were more drum machines. The first all-electronic band, I think Human League were doing it before Kraftwerk, even though they would say it was one of their main influences. They’ve been around as long.”
The book features a staggering amount of bands, featuring the early days of such famous acts as The Human League, ABC, Cabaret Voltaire and Def Leppard, as well as less known acts such as Comsat Angels, Artery, Clock DVA, I’m So Hollow and They Must Be Russians. There’s some forty five chapters in the book, and about thirty or so are dedicated to individual bands, with new interviews with most of the key players.
“Loads of bands, Like Comsat Angels [whose drummer, Mick, is Chicken Legs Weaver’s sticksman] got the critical acclaim, but never got the kudos they deserved,” says Martin. “But bands like Artery, it’s more difficult music. Human League were definitely a pop band, and Clock DVA certainly weren’t a pop band. Some just weren’t commercial enough.
“Peel would have picked up on all those people, though, he was walking round with an I’m So Hollow badge on his jacket after he’d done a session with them at Maida Vale. There was such a vast array of bands of every style.”
Not quite everyone was keen to talk, Clock DVA’s Adi Newton couldn’t be tracked down (although Martin got the story from eight other some-time Clock DVA members), and Def Leppard were less than co-operative.
“I did a review when they played the City Hall the first time and it was half full,” explains Martin, “and I made a comment in my review like is it half full or half empty. But either way the message was relayed back to me that I could never go to another Def Leppard concert in my life.
“I managed to get hold of an original drummer, who’d happened to move back to Sheffield about a year ago. He was able to fill in a very early Def Leppard. But I like focusing on the early years, once they became famous that’s in the public domain, so it’s the roots of it I’m always after, which is why the original drummer was so useful.”
The book also gives the readers a chance to listen to some of the bands mentioned, with a free 22-track CD Martin has lovingly compiled himself.
“There’s two tracks by Artery and two by I’m So Hollow, just because I like them so much I thought I’d get them in twice!
“There’s a Pulp track that’s never been released, it’s ‘Death Goes To Town’, recorded at FON. It’s later than the book, about 1987, but I wasn’t going to say no!”
So looking back at this time of chart stardom and cultural significance in Sheffield, was this a golden age for the city’s music scene?
“It’s definitely a golden age, but a golden age because there were so many bands that made it. This had never happened previously, the bands in the 60s you can only equate to Joe Cocker and Dave Berry, or somebody like that. But the in late 70s and early 80s so many were getting in the charts, including quite a few you forget about.
“People actually moved to Sheffield because of it, that’s why Chakk ended up forming aband in Sheffield specifically, because of the music. They’d heard the Cabs, and would would go to the city where that music was being played. Quite a lot of people came to Sheffield University for that very reason.”
So with Sheffield’s musical history chronicled up to 1984, is Martin about to start work on the next volume of the story? He doesn’t rule it out, but has reservations, mostly because of the dearth of any significant material from the city between the end of this book and the work done by people like FON force at the end of the 80s.
“I don’t know if it’s worth doing [the next book] at the moment, because it was that bad. It just became a post Spandau Ballet thing going on, I mean Human League were dressed like that at one point, it wasn’t my favourite era, and I think Phil would probably say the same thing. The were dressed up as a dog’s dinner, the lot of them!
“I packed in writing about it for a while, what was there to write about?”
But this wasn’t the end of Sheffield music, and Martin is as passionate about the local scene as he has ever been.
“At the moment I’d say it’s as healthy as it was in about ’78 or ’79, as healthy as that, it’s just the bands haven’t gone global in any shape or form. Pink Grease are about as near as anyone has got.
“But [the industry’s] definitely harder, because of the whole way the charts have been sidelined, sidetracked, whatever you want to call it, people aren’t aware of this sort of underground thing going on, and it’s a bloody big underground. How many bands do we go and see every night?”
So maybe one day Martin will pick up his pen and write a book about the current wave of Sheffield bands, in the meantime Beats Working For A Living will be out in January.