What does it sound like?:
Does a city have a distinctive sound is the central question of this sort of compilation. In the case of Sheffield it’s not a city that produced bands who broke through during the first flush of punk – London, Manchester and Liverpool are perhaps rather more well known. Rather, Sheffield bands came through nationally a year or two later, and added a sense of synth adventure to the choppy rhythms and scratchy guitars of the post-punk template. Things were industrial, post-industrial and futuristic. William Burroughs, JG Ballard, Philip K Dick, Alphaville and above all Clockwork Orange were some of the cultural touchstones.
This huge compilation – almost 100 tracks – charts ten years in the musical life of Sheffield from early Human League through to proto-acid house. In a compilation of this size there’s no way to review each track individually surely, so let’s try and draw out a few themes:
The famous bands
There’s a handful of tracks by bands that everyone will have heard of. Heaven 17’s Fascist Groove Thang, ABC’s Alphabet Soup, Dancevision by the Human League, pre-Island Pulp with Everybody’s Problem. Clearly these are the jewels in the steel city crown and absolutely necessary to chart the course of this fecund decade. One notch below is an early track by The Thompson Twins, a pop twinkle already present and correct, though early single She’s In Love In Mystery in its perky guitar stylings gives little indication of the horrors to come. There’s a BEF track from cassette-only Music For Pleasure. However, there are some omissions which do prevent this compilation giving the fullest picture possible. No Comsat Angels, no Age of Chance, no Cabaret Voltaire and perhaps most importantly no John Shuttleworth. I can only assume licensing, but they are sorely missed.
Cabaret Voltaire were clearly a central driving force in the city. Not only did they show how a band could release records and tour internationally without a major label, they then signed for a major label. Their evolution from cut-up industrial pioneers to electro and proto-house pioneers is perhaps every bit as important as the League/BEF/Heaven 17 story. Their complete absence does leave a void. Anyone interested in the Western Works, the studio that they operated that became a central hub for Sheffield music, can get lost here:
After the false pop dawn of ‘Dancevision’ we are plunged straight into the bedrooms and local studios that gave birth to a multitude of acts, most destined to burn out and dissolve after a handful of gigs and a self-released 45. 2.3, Vena Cava, Graph, the Negatives, TV Product. Some are more competent than others, most bear the hallmark of better known bands from other cities did make it. There’s strong flavours of Au Pairs, Gang of Four, Pop Group – Tubeway Army in Metal Boys by Hobbies of Today. There’s a hint of other people messing around with synths than the League, with Mein Gas Fabrik an interesting discovery on disc 1. I should add that the weakest tracks in the whole collection are three or four lumpy and badly recorded punk/new wave tracks at the end of Disc 1: proof that though there are plenty of undiscovered gems in these 90 tracks there are also some that should have stayed in the bedroom.
Goth and industrial
Dance Society lead the charge of the black brigade with Danse/Move, but no question that Sheffield gave birth to plenty of goth acts, as further up the M1 the Sisters were taking shape in Leeds. Clock DVA and Artery are acts I now know the sound of, as their original recordings go for silly money and are frequently unSpotifiable. In The Nursery and Dachau Choir would never trouble the charts, but were made for a black t-shirt.
C86, electrofunk and on and on
Chakk are probably, in the absence of Age of Chance, the band that straddled the Pigbag era of white funk into early house and are well represented here with a 12” mix of Out of The Flesh. There’s also C86 notes as national musical movements are mirrored in Sheffield as elsewhere. 1000 Violins and plenty of others cover the jangle territory. There is also some would-be corporate pop that has not aged well, Tsi Tsa for example.
The plain weird.
Disc 1 track 2 is a spoken word scientific lecture about venereal diseases from They Must Be Russians set to pop punk. The Wacky Gardeners wax lyrical about lawnmowers. Fish and Breadcake, Kilgore Trout, The Flight Commander are all out there. Pa Bo channel (can you guess…) Pere Ubu – nothing wrong with that.
Where does it end? 1988 and the acid house explosion just to happen. Warp Records were founded the next year, carrying the Sheffield torch into the nineties.
What does it all *mean*?
I get that this compilation was no doubt fun to make, and needed to be done. The booklet has great reads from key players. Western Works, FON Studios, The Leadmill – no question that there was a very unique culture in Sheffield over these years.
It’s also a great listen. I didn’t like it all, and sometimes there’s one too many sharp, snappy slightly funky tracks. There’s an existential point to make about these compilations: don’t like a track and yes, move on. Like a track by say, Nick Fish and the Seahorses and what do you do next? A little more digging than heading to Spotify is required. These types of compilations are gateways rather than statements: and that’s half the fun.
New Model Soldier, for example, led a mayfly existence typical of the obscurer bands on this compilation. But dig deeper – and lo there’s some charming lo-fi footage of a reunion gig in a Sheffield pub in 2015. The Midnight Choir and many others – even Mr Fish – have live recordings which live on on Bandcamp. There’s something called the Sheffield Tape Archive at https://sheffieldtapearchive.bandcamp.com/ which looks like you could go down there and never come back again.
Goes well with…
The internet. There will be something you’ll want to google.
Might suit people who like…
Post-punk. Pop funk. Proto-house.