The rise and fall of Sheffield music (or how the Arctic Monkeys ruined everything)

This blogpost is adapted from a talk I gave to students from the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Social Sciences on 31 January 2017.

We’re here to talk about Sheffield music – but because you’re social scientists, I’d also like to invite you to think about it from a social perspective. Sheffield has been discussed recently as a divided city. Research has revealed a sharp division between a wealthier south and west of the city and a poorer north and east. So while we’re thinking about Sheffield’s music scene, let’s also think about social class.

Does social class matter in pop music? In the UK many professions are dominated by people from wealthier backgrounds. Only 7 per cent of the population attend independent, fee-paying schools, but the proportion is far higher among lawyers, politicians, surgeons, military officers. And this is also the case in pop music. This wasn’t always the case, but it’s changed over time. In 2011 The Word magazine looked at the top 40 that week and calculated that “at least 60 per cent of chart pop and rock acts are now former public-school pupils, compared with just 1 per cent 20 years ago”.

This matters because, like any art or cultural form, pop music ought to reflect the experiences of the whole society in which it’s located. If a sector of that society is not represented, the form loses its vitality – and much of the best and most urgent pop music has been made by people of the working class.

I’m talking to you because music is one of the reasons I came to live in Sheffield. There are other reasons – I like the quirky sense of humour, and I like the pubs and beer. But when I came here, in 2004, it was partly for the music.

It started with a synth

The idea I want to suggest to you is that synthpop, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, opened the way for a distinctively Sheffield sound in pop music for the first time ever. If you take the late 1950s as the beginning of pop music, that means we’re looking at about 25 years before we have this distinctively Sheffield sound. That’s not a bad thing. Lots of cities never have their own sound at all.

And it’s not that there was no popular music coming out of Sheffield before that time. There was. Popular artists before that time include people like Joe Cocker and Tony Christie. Tony Christie is best known for the song ‘Is This The Way to Amarillo?’. I’m not here to suggest that this is either a good or a bad song (it’s definitely catchy), but Amarillo is 7,565 kilometres from Sheffield. There’s not much here that expresses the city Tony Christie came from.

In the 1970s the synthesiser had been around for a few years, but for a long time it cost roughly the same as a small terraced house. So its use in pop music had been restricted to prog rock musicians who lived with their parents in small mansions in leafy villages in Buckinghamshire. By the end of the decade, though, technological advances mean you can buy one for not much more than the cost of an electric guitar. This means some working-class people from Sheffield could now afford them.

Synth music caught on in various cities – Liverpool was another with a strong early electronic scene – but particularly Sheffield. Bands associated with this scene in Sheffield included The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Heaven 17 and Clock DVA. Some were at the poppier end of the scale, while others were more experimental. What’s especially interesting here is that synth technology and electronic beats allowed musicians from northern manufacturing cities to create sounds that emulated the noises they would hear around them in that industrial environment. They could create music that sounds like a steelworks.

So for the first time you have a kind of music that reflects Sheffield’s identity as a city built on manual labour and heavy industry – in terms of both the people who are involved and what it actually sounds like.

But this was more than the sound of a place – it was also the sound of a time. Towards the end of the 1970s we find a long conversation about technology. Within it there’s a narrative about perfectibility and one about dysfunction. There’s a stark contrast between the potential of technology to improve or perfect society and the urban decay that young people were seeing in their immediate environment. As well as a time of technological advance, this was a time of mass unemployment, neglect, and violence on the streets.

Once Sheffield had established itself as a pioneer in electronic music, it became natural that the city would also play a leading role in the development of dance music and club culture through the 1980s and 1990s. Warp Records would become a highly influential electronica label and Gatecrasher an important venue in the dance scene. In the early 2000s bassline house, a sub-genre of garage, developed in Sheffield – it’s been called “Sheffield’s greatest contribution to UK dance culture, and a genre that subverted UK garage to give the North an electronic identity”.

You can still hear the echoes of this early synth music in the many sub-genres of electronica that Sheffield musicians work within today. One of the most interesting is ‘algo-rave’, where music is generated in real time by programmers coding live, there and then at the event.

So if synth gave us the first recognisably Sheffield contribution to pop music in the 1980s, what was the face of Sheffield pop in the 90s?

It peaked with Jarvis

It was Jarvis Cocker. Jarvis was born in 1963 in Sheffield and raised in the Intake area in the south-east of the city. Pulp became famous in the early 1990s (while I was an undergraduate) and were fêted by music critics alongside other ‘Britpop’ bands, although Pulp predated that movement by several years.

Jarvis is possibly a national treasure but certainly a Sheffield one. A poem he wrote is displayed prominently, in huge metal lettering, on the exterior wall of a Hallam University building. In 2016 for BBC Music Day he was asked to revoice the automatic announcements that are played on the city’s trams. His distinctive voice and persona are a source of great pride for Sheffield.

As a songwriter Jarvis is noted as one of our greatest commentators on social class. Take the Pulp song ‘Disco 2000’ and the lines “Your house was very small/with wood chip on the wall” – a few short words that paint a more vivid picture of social class than an entire sociology conference. Take ‘Common People’, which is probably the most penetrating and sustained commentary on social class in the UK of any pop song ever written. Perhaps it could only have been recorded by a Sheffield band, and perhaps it could only have been written by a Sheffielder, with a background that cut across social classes.

This is one of a number of tensions in the persona of Jarvis Cocker. While being noted for his insights into the minutiae of working-class life, his own background, although far from affluent, didn’t entirely fit the working-class mould. Even the name Jarvis, and his sister’s name Saskia, are more aspirational or middle-class in connotation, and his mum was briefly a city councillor for the Conservative party – in this least Conservative of cities. He’s thought of as very straight-talking, which is a quality we associate with Sheffield and Yorkshire more widely, but his body language and demeanour on stage are very much at odds with the stereotype of the macho Sheffield/Yorkshire working-class male. ‘Foppish’ is a word that was often used to describe it at the time.

Furthermore, Jarvis is quoted as having said: “I wasn’t very active in the miners’ strike, because miners were the people that beat me up every Saturday night.” The miners’ strike of 1984–85 – a formative moment in the social history of the South Yorkshire area (among many others), when working-class solidarity was absolutely imperative, to the point where communities and even families could be torn apart – and Jarvis doesn’t buy in.

And somehow he gets away with it all. These contradictions, or at least tensions, don’t undermine the persona. He’s still seen as authentic. Perhaps the contradictions are what confirm him as authentic.

Perhaps the episode at the 1996 Brit awards helped too, when Jarvis hijacked the performance of Michael Jackson. Jackson’s performance became notorious as one of the most pompous moments in the history of pop. Here is the great Michael Jackson at the height of his power, acting out his messiah complex, arms outstretched, robed like Jesus, bringing together the children of all nations to heal the world. And this scruffy bloke jumps on stage and wiggles his backside before getting bundled off by security. What could be more Sheffield than that?

(And who can imagine, in 2017, rival groups of fans of two pop artists confronting one another on the street?)

It ended at the Brits

In the last part of our talk we’re thinking about the Arctic Monkeys – who in some ways could be seen as the most Sheffield band ever. Early in their career the song ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’ was an attack on bands that deny their regional identity, who sacrifice authenticity to falsely associate themselves with other, more glamorous places. It’s a huge statement of identity, of local belonging, which absolutely nails their colours to Sheffield’s mast:

He talks of San Francisco
He’s from Hunter’s Bar
I don’t quite know the distance
But I’m sure that’s far

So if Tony Christie started us off in Amarillo, the Arctic Monkeys have now brought us all the way home from San Francisco to Hunter’s Bar. (That’s 8,413 kilometres.)

As well as name-checking a lot of Sheffield places and – most importantly of all, depicting recognisable scenes from working-class life in the city – the Arctic Monkeys were unusual in using a lot of Sheffield dialect and pronunciations in their vocals. The song ‘Mardy Bum’ is one example, which contains the phrase “it’s reight hard to remember”. There’s a great blogpost about this on the British Library website, which analyses the pronunciation in fine detail. It says: “His use of the intensifier right [= ‘very, really’] and his pronunciation (rhyming with ‘eight’) is typical of Sheffield dialect, but arguably extremely unusual for a commercial pop/rock singer.”

The same blogpost pulls out an extended section from the song ‘From The Ritz to The Rubble’:

Well last night these two bouncers and one of them’s all right the other one’s a scary one his way or no way totalitarian he’s got no time for you looking or breathing how he doesn’t want you to so step out the queue he makes examples of you and there’s nowt you can say behind they go through to the bit where you pay and you realise then that it’s finally the time to walk back past ten thousand eyes in the line and you can swap jumpers and make another move instilled in your brain you’ve got something to prove

The commentary on this is very detailed and informed by academic research:

In this opening verse, for instance, Turner rhymes totalitarian with scary one (pronounced ‘scary ’un’), reduces doesn’t to ‘dunt’ – a process, known as secondary contraction, that’s typical of negative marking in Sheffield – and sings you can swap jumpers and make (pronounced ‘meck’) another move. He also uses the northern dialect form nowt [= ‘nothing’] and, crucially, pronounces it to rhyme with ‘oat’ not ‘out’… research carried out in the 1950s established the northern pair owt [= ‘anything’] and nowt [= ‘nothing’] invariably rhymed with ‘oat’ in much of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire (despite a nationwide tendency to assume it rhymes with ‘out’). This recording clearly confirms this historic local pronunciation persists in present-day Sheffield dialect.

Early on in the career of the Arctic Monkeys, then, you could make a case for describing them as the most Sheffield band ever, from subject matter right through to pronunciation. But something seemed to change in the city around this time. The NME descended on Sheffield and created a scene they called “New Yorkshire”. This was not long after I came here. There were already stacks of great bands (Pink Grease, Long Blondes, Heart Yeah!, Ape Drape Escape, Monkey Swallows the Universe, Champion Kickboxer). But suddenly it seemed like all the quirkiness, all the inventiveness, all the gender-inclusiveness, all the androgyny and pretty outfits – everything that gave the scene its vibrancy – were out of style. All the new bands wanted to be the Arctic Monkeys as well – no-nonsense blokes singing in Sheffield accents about getting thrown out of nightclubs.

Here’s a take from the DJ and music writer Dan Dylan Wray, who moved to Sheffield in 2004 (the same year as me):

The music scene… was the antithesis of anything resembling lad culture… So when I came across the Arctic Monkeys, they felt like the opposite of it all… When the debut album finally dropped, there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere and music community in the city… The Monkeys had fans ranging from excited teenagers to re-energised old timers, but while some were impassioned and others overzealous, a really good chunk were just proper angry pissheads…

I was DJing a lot in various bars and clubs across the city at the time, and the shift in attitude was prevalent on nights out. Refusing to play the Arctic Monkeys when this album came out was treated like high treason – nevermind whether you were an indie night or a electronic night – and usually resulted in a fight or a flying drink. When interviewing Dorian Cox from the Long Blondes earlier this year, he told me of a time in 2006 when they supported the Monkeys at the Leadmill and were met with a chant of “Puffs! Puffs! Puffs!” from the moment they started playing until three songs in when they just sacked it off and walked.

When this piece was published, I thought it was absolutely bang on the money. I was relieved that it wasn’t just me who felt this way. Then another DJ and blogger who I admire (who isn’t from Sheffield, but is from the indiepop community) commented on the piece. He described it as a load of classist crap.

So who’s right? Were the Arctic Monkeys a throwback to the past? Was the image of Sheffield they presented one that excluded women and LGBT people? Or were they a vital voice in the city’s music and cultural scene for the everyday experience of working-class people? Or a bit of both? I’ll leave you to think about that.

I seem to be talking about the Arctic Monkeys in the past tense. They are still with us, of course – they’ve just come back from a hiatus and are now working on a sixth album. But it might be fair to say that they’re taken less seriously now than ten years ago – at least as an artist that represents Sheffield. Let’s watch Alex Turner’s acceptance speech when the band won the best album award at the 2014 Brits.

It’s probably fair to say this speech divided opinion. Some people thought it was stupid, others thought it was idiotic. Some did argue that it was the coolest thing ever. But there’s faking in there right from the start – did you notice how Turner pretended to be soundchecking the mic? “One two.” He already knows it’s working: he’s already said thankyou. He’s talking about rock and roll – he refers to the “cyclical nature of the universe in which it exists”. That’s fine but it’s not the sort of gritty Yorkshire straight-talking that first won the band their reputation.

Around the same time, I think, some fans were also alienated by the band’s alleged involvement in a tax avoidance scheme. But at least at that point Turner still spoke with a local accent. Ironically, given the message of ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’, they’ve moved to California and Turner now speaks with a dodgy half-Yorkshire/half-west coast accent. We’ve gone from Amarillo and San Francisco to Hunters Bar and then back to the USA all over again. The band that embodied Sheffield more than any other – right down to slang and vowel sounds – have taken us back where we started. So in 30 to 40 years we’ve experienced the rise and fall of Sheffield music. Where’s the city’s identity in pop music today?

So what’s left?

In fact, there’s still plenty to be happy about in terms of Sheffield’s music scene. It’s still an incredibly vibrant place, where people are trying things out every week of every year. Even while they’re complaining that it’s not as good as it used to be, nobody’s coming to watch, or there aren’t any good small venues left to play at, local musicians are still creating things to be ignored. And they won’t be ignored forever. Rock and roll is cyclical, as Alex Turner reminded us back there; music scenes are cyclical. Sheffield’s music scene regenerates itself over and over. New bands and venues emerge to replace those that are lost. And there’s the Tramlines festival – which isn’t all things to all people, but for a city-based festival it’s pretty unique in terms of size and reach.

A report commissioned by this university just over a year ago says Sheffield “has the potential to be the UK’s leading Music City with 788 organisations active in the music sector, 465 active bands, 70 rehearsal rooms and innovation across all music genres – including electronic, folk, free noise and rock”. These microscenes are really powerful but they exist in isolation. “Collaborative campaigns to promote all aspects of the city’s music scene” are one of three recommendations made in the report.

The best thing about Sheffield music is that it’s DIY, it’s participatory, it’s democratic, anyone can put a gig on. A couple of weeks after moving here I went to an incredible gig in the bowels of a derelict tool workshop off Bramall Lane. Once we actually found the gig room in the core of the building, it was an amazing experience. It was probably a health and safety nightmare, but that’s part of the fun. These gigs still happen every week.

Not all cities have that DIY culture. I lived in Birmingham for 12 years before coming here. In Birmingham you went along with whatever the professional promoters were doing. Perhaps there’s been a growth in DIY culture across the board in the time since I moved north, but certainly in the midlands at that time there was very little sense that you could find an abandoned room in a factory, or even just a function room in a pub, and put bands on or start up your own clubnight. That grassroots culture was already strongly established in Sheffield by the turn of the millennium – and it’s still thriving here, across a range of art forms.

So you can put a gig on yourself. Anyone can do it. Ask venues. Ask places that aren’t venues. It’s terrifying – but completely exhilarating. You’re in this city, you’re part of the life of this city, and if you care about music you can be part of its regeneration here. Put a gig on, pick up an instrument, sing something. There’s a lot of room to grow. We’ve looked at the rise and fall of Sheffield music, and if you want it to rise again, you can play a meaningful part.

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