Made in Sheffield

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Having discussed British television in my last two entries, I figured I might as well continue the trend by telling you about something else I watched recently thanks to Netflix: a documentary called Made in Sheffield about the music that developed there in the 70s and early 80s.

As I mentioned last week, one of the things I did while visiting my family was watch youtube videos with my siblings. I insisted that both my brother and sister show their children the video to the 1984 version of Do They Know It's Christmas? and tell them about its historical and musical significance, because as I mentioned in my Christmas meme, it's one of my very favorite Christmas songs.... Anyway, my brother and I wanted to figure out who one particular singer was, and in order to do that, we had to do some internet research.

Turns out the guy in question was Paul Weller of The Jam and Style Council.... I own CDs by each band but I didn't recognize him because he looks nothing like that now, hasn't looked like that for a very long time. Anyway, in the process of finding that out, I came across a reference to said documentary.

Now, Sheffield is a place I've actually been. I doubt it's much of a tourist destination but I spent a week visiting friends there in 1984. So before I read about this documentary, I knew that Sheffield had been a steel manufacturing town, and that it supposedly produced good flatware. I knew it was the home of Def Leppard, which I tried not to hold against the place, as well as the home of Heaven 17, a band I quite enjoy.

What I didn't know until I started reading about this documentary was that two of the members of Heaven 17 (Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh) were also founding members of the Human League. This horrified me because I HATE and have always HATED the Human League, ever since the first miserable moment when I heard that dreadful single "Don't You Want Me Baby." (No. I don't. Go away.) Nor did I know that another band I really love, ABC, was from Sheffield also.

So my personal connection to the place, my interest in discovering how founding members of a band I loathed could go on to found a band I loved, and my interest in learning more about the history of ABC, meant that I had to watch the thing.

Now, as I have mentioned, I don't love punk. I don't hate it--I can be perfectly happy when a song by the Clash or the Ramones comes on the radio, but I've never felt the need to buy their albums. I can admire things about the punk aesthetic, its democratic and anti-establishment spirit, but as far as deriving pleasure from sounds and rhythms, in general I still prefer the complexity they were reacting against--Pink Floyd and Alan Parsons Project and so forth.

This documentary gave me a new perspective on the whole issue. To paraphrase one music critic interviewed in the film, a lot of people of the time were inspired by the Clash and the Sex Pistols--to go out and buy guitars, learn three chords and imitate what was already being done. But in Sheffield, they were inspired to apply the attitude of punk to the electronic music by the likes of Kraftwerk and make stuff that was "weird."

Chris Watson, of Caberet Voltaire, talks about early performances by "The Cabs" (as all the hip people in the film called the band): he and his friends would record these strange sounds, then drive around town in a van listening to the recordings they made. Eventually they decided to share it with the people of Sheffield, so they opened the doors of the van, turned the volume up, and drove around very slowly. For them, it wasn't just about music, but about an approach to all the arts--visual, auditory and written.

I was surprised to learn that at one point (long before anyone in the US had ever heard of them), the Human League was actually a very interesting band. Phil Oakey, the iconically coiffed singer for the Human League, discussed the fact that he and his band mates "thought we were the punkiest band in Sheffield. You know we were laughing at the bands that learned to play guitars ‘cause they bothered to learn their three chords. We used one finger" to play a keyboard. He also talked about how he and the record company decided to expel the two guys who founded the band and replace them with two women chosen for their looks and their dance moves--the women had never even sung when they were asked to go on tour with the Human League--so that he could create "the next Abba." (Which is how it turned into the band I so despise.)

I was also intrigued to learn that the vocalist for ABC, Martin Fry, didn't start out as a musician--he published a fanzine and was asked by Stephen Singleton and Mark White to join Vice Versa in order to play some electronic something or other he had no experience with. But then one day Stephen and Mark heard Martin sing, realized he had a better voice than Mark, their current vocalist, and reshaped the band and its material to suit Martin. The result was ABC's first album, The Lexicon of Love, the very first album in my alphabetized CD collection and one of my top favorite albums of all time.

I dig electronic music--I have for a very long time--but I admit that one thing I always liked best about ABC and Heaven 17 was their use of instruments I really like: brass and saxophone and so forth. So it was fascinating to learn about their roots in this scene where a group of people who considered themselves "sonic terrorists" and who thought they "were killing off rock and roll" were exploring how to "make music without musical instruments."

The documentary itself is only 52 minutes long, but there are extra interviews that I of course watched. I recommend it all. If you've seen it, or if you watch it any time soon, I'd like to know what you think.

3 Comments

Thanks for the tip. I will pop this into my queue soon...

I must say that I am Shocked(!) by your take on Human League. After all, this is one of the most IMPORTANT and INFLUENCIAL bands in the history of pop music. So many artists have noted Human League as THE reason and THE inspiration for their work. The list includes: Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston, Death Cab for Cutie, and the Monkees!

This is an indisputable fact and I am surprised that you have failed to recognize the GENIUS of a guy in eyeliner flanked by two Madonna-wannabees in silky blouses! The future is HUMAN!

; )

Maybe I should cut back on the crack....

I haven't seen Made in Sheffield yet, though it is on my film queue. I did just see Martyn Ware in Gateshead, at a music performance he organized called The Future of Sound. It was pretty cool. He had eight sound artists and researchers of various sorts there to talk about their ideas and to perform or demonstrate some of their work. It was a diverse selection, from Brian Duffy of the Modified Toy Orchestra, to an architect named Jason Bruges, to the acoustic archaeologist Paul Devereaux who discovered that many ancient megaliths like Stonehenge were engineered by thier builders to resonate at 111 hertz, which can induce a trance.

When the show began, I was a bit worried that the event was organized to promote Ware's business venture, which is a sound installation company that has developed a kind of "Surround Sound" like you would hear in movie theatres that incorporates a third dimension to the audio space: the sounds don't just move on an horizontal plane but also up and down. But it has to be said that the system was pretty cool and he certainly recruited some very interesting sound artists to play with the space.

I do love punk, but I also understand the impulse to "[kill] off rock and roll." It's a very punk attitude. Punk mutated in so many interesting ways once it spread out of New York and London. In England, punk bands were organized by non-musicians with the ethic of "do it yourself" and they captured an amazing cultural energy of that time that enabled so much experimentation. One of my favorite bands, The Slits, started out by getting members of The Clash to tune their instruments for them. But they didn't just remain non-musicians with musical instruments, they practiced and worked and developed their skills and voices. In the US, the Ramones were similar: kind of a joke, very simple songs with bonehead lyrics, but you only really get the joke when you realize how hardworking those guys were and the precision with which they played live. Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, a straight-edge hardcore band from DC, went on to form Fugazi, whose work is musically and lyrically very sophisticated.

I confess that I am less familiar with most of the Sheffield sound, other than Cabaret Voltaire. I loved the way punk evolved in the hands of bands from Leeds, like the Gang of Four and the Mekons; from Birmingham, like the Au Pairs; or from Manchester, like Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, and the Durutti Column. Punk's innovations have tended to ossify, provoking the impulse to get out of the punk uniform and destroy the rigidities of received punk culture. So the turn to electronic music by former punks like Martyn Ware makes ethical and aesthetic sense to me (I wonder if he might chafe at being described as a punk now, 30 years after the fact). Besides, I also really enjoy electronic music and the "do it yourself" ethic has really lent itself to electronic musicians who now have enormous processing power in their laptop computers. Maybe Melissa Welch is the granddaughter of the Sheffield scene?

Before I was first exposed to punk rock (first through Patti Smith, then Pere Ubu, then the Sex Pistols – those were heady days indeed) I listened to lots of complex "progressive" rock: Yes, ELP, Genesis, Pink Floyd. For me, most of it doesn't stand the test of time. Embracing punk wasn't just my seeking a new identity as a teenager; I was bored with the remoteness of their music. I admit that some of Pink Floyd's music does stand up to more close listening today, but just as you feel no real need to go out and buy London Calling, I can be content with stumbling across the occasional radio play of Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here.

Sorry for the overly-long comment.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on January 22, 2007 5:47 PM.

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