Martin Lilleker: Beats Working For A Living – Sheffield Popular Music 1973-1984 (Juma)

PRACTICALLY EVERY city in Britain has a roster of musical hod carriers with appalling names. This exhaustive history of Sheffield’s music scene is crammed with reams of monikers that would keep The Wire’s Dodgy Group Names chart fuelled up for months on end: Sexual Lotion, The Uncalled 4 Band, Quite Unnerving, A Major European Band…

There’s even an A-Z at the back mopping up such untouchables as An Alien Heat (talking point: neighbour died next door during practice); Bedroom Athletes (featuring Designers’ Republic founder Ian Anderson); Fish And Breadcake (Varese-inspired avantery featuring young Jarvis Cocker); Molodoy (Clockwork Orange-obsessed skinheads); Naked Pygmy Voles (Derek Bailey-influenced noise terrorists with Martin Archer); Prior To Intercourse.(S&M duo: “Your dislike is our wanted reaction”); Phono Industria (“became Sindy & the Ictheons”).

This is the nitty gritty of music making in Britain during the past 30 years or so: the graft behind the glamour that carries on in cheap warehouses, rehearsal lofts and front rooms, by self-appointed local geniuses who rehearse in between signing on and getting loaded. Martin Lilleker has been an active player and journalist in Sheffield since the 1970s. His style is conversational, vernacular; reading for too long in a single sitting is like being badgered by a pub-corner fanatic. But his experience gives him access to many of the important voices: we hear first-person accounts of the rise of Cabaret Voltaire, Dead Daughters (later the Human League), Vice Versa (ABC), Clock DVA and Pulp, as well as Peel show has-beens you thought you’d managed to forget such as Floy Joy, Hula, One Thousand Violins and the Danse Society. Being a completist, unpartisan history of Steeltown music, even the likes of Def Leppard and the Comsat Angels are given their own full-bodied chapters.

Many of Britain’s cities might yield comparably amusing stories, but Sheffield has more than most. The Cabs’ rise has never been told with such a keen eye for prosaic detail, and is a good complement to the more critical stance in Simon Reynolds’s Rip It Up and Start Again. In fact, there are several overlaps between these two books, Reynolds’s chapter on Sheffield supplying the critical takes lacking from Lilleker’s anecdotal approach. Lilleker strips away the myth — you’re given the hard slog, the empty pub gigs, the cloth-eared promoters, apoplectic town councillors and bungling policemen that line the route of many of these groups as they make their slow progress through often minuscule careers. Try the chapter on the disastrous group Artery for an object lesson in heroic failure.

The opening 100 pages or so are by far the best, as Lilleker demonstrates that the real beginnings of Sheffield’s electronic pop period, the late ’70s, can almost be seen as a kind of glam-rock manqué on a student budget. When ABC’s Martyn Ware says, “We’d been through our own mini-punk revolution,” he’s referring to Meatwhistle, the provocatively titled theatrical activity centre bankrolled by the city council in 1973, run by husband and wife Chris and Veronica Wilson with a hippy called Justin, and which became a haven on school afternoons to almost the entire generation of youths who went on to form groups like Heaven 17, ABC, Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA.

The opening pages are a litany of dead-end manual and shop jobs — future stars like Richard Kirk and Stephen Mallinder, ABC’s Martin Fry and Stephen Singleton, Human League’s Phil Oakey etc. all scraping a living while looking to sci-fi, electronic synthesizers and dreams of pop stardom as an escape from the destiny they saw had destroyed their parents’ will down the mines or in the steel factories.

At times the book reads like a musical version of Crap Towns, liberally illustrated with photos of terminally obscure no-hopers, and Lilleker is to be praised for such exhaustive picture research, as well as for the individual sections on significant venues, recording studios, shadowy producers and managers. The story ends at a prophetic juncture in the mid-’80s: with the establishment of FON studios by MCA-signed funkateers Chakk, the stage is set for the rise of Warp Records.

The “oral history” provided by a strong fanzine culture in the late 70s is brought to the fore: zines such as Paul Bower’s Gun Rubber, Steve’s Paper (by ABC’s Steve Singleton), Modern Drugs (Martin Fry) and Bath Banker (Pulp’s Russell Senior) were integral. There’s a great deal of contemporary commentary lifted from NMX, which Lilleker calls “the most authoritative” of the time. It was run by Martin Lacey, aka Martin X Russian. Coincidentally, of course, Lacey now runs Juma, publisher of this book.

If the book relies too much on accumulated detail, and would have benefitted from a more discriminating drawing-together of threads, Lilleker has done an impressive job in cataloguing every dank and depressing corner of the Sheffield scene. But a more complete history of Sheffield’s steeled sound than this is difficult to imagine. It’s more than just local music for local people.

© Rob YoungThe Wire, July 2005

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