Simon Curtis1 Comment


Simon Curtis1 Comment

Sheffield, oh, Sheffield, with your windswept hills and rain lashed gulleys, your banging-shutter factories and arthritic cranes, stalking a gloomy skyline of dust and rubble. Your moody clouds and your gale-strewn litter, your tower blocks perched on the hills that overlook a town that has forgotten how to smile.

Our story of steel and grit begins in The Broadfield Tavern. We are on Abbeydale Road just before it turns into London Road, Just before it heads down to town, just before it gets serious. It is 1983 or 84, 85, 86, as Jim Kerr might tell us, and the wind is howling through the junction like it always does. The sandwich shop across the road is doing its usual brisk late morning trade in ham salad barms and cheese and onion pies as the Broadfield fills up with willing disciples for lunch. A jukebox quacks in the corner and a motley crew of non-working drop-outs line coins along the frayed edge of the pool table, with its blood and beer stains and God knows what else. In the corner a disused podium scattered with straw and coiled wires bears witness to where a young Phil Oakey’s nascent recent bleatings took place, the tentative steps of Sheffield’s electro-pop movement that is now disgorging the dizzy beats of Heaven 17, ABC, Cabaret Voltaire, the Comsat Angels  and, later on, will give us Pulp. The Foppish fringe, heavy eye make-up and miniature keyboard revolution of new wave, new romantic and electric funk. Only there is nothing to be romantic about here on Abbeydale Road with its wind and its litter and its dropouts dropping in.

We stand where Joanne Catherall gyrated just a year or two before, thin and yet to be adorned with the high cheek beauty spot, singing an off key Keep Feeling Fascination for a boozy crowd, blissfully unaware of the phenomenon beginning before their bleary eyes. A sleepless fug hangs over the place, as we wash away the latest hangover with pints of Theakston’s that will soon herald the arrival of the next one.

Sheffield is grim. It is glum. It is in a damn bad mood. The Tories have forgotten, or they never cared in the first place. The city has been left to rot by Thatcher’s government, its giant steel foundries closing one by one, its coal industry a bleak, wretched joke about to develop boils and blisters that will be lanced by eager police officers at Orgreave. We are left with music and football, sex and curry, like many northern cities in the mid eighties. There is truly nothing else to bother about.

We console ourselves with more beer and less sex as the talk veers to football. For whilst the coal industry is being imperiously booted straight down the pan, the football is partly alive. It still has half a pulse in this great city. Wednesday, grizzled old Jack Charlton’s beasts, are now stirring under Howard Wilkinson. From 3rd division megaliths to 2nd tier promotion hopefuls. Across at Hillsborough, a giant cavernous ground that needs top flight football to fill it, the blue and white stripes are on the move. Unknown names have been joined by old warhorses and a small army of Garys, Shelton, Megson, Bannister plus the irrepressible shadow-casting bulk of Mick Lyons, once of Everton.  Neighbours Liverpool have snapped up Bob Bolder so Martin Hodge fills the goal. The giant sloping Kop, without roof in this rain-lashed town fits 25,000 murmuring folk, flat-capped, angry and smouldering.  It is now more than ever a weekly pilgrimage down the slate grey of Penistone Road, through Owlertown and across the litter-borne flow of the River Don to shed oneself of anger and bitterness, to shout and bawl for something powerful and virile, to forget the silent cranes and factories for 90 minutes.

The Saturday afternoon shift at Hillsborough releases the tensions of the week. The closures, the pickets, the strikes, the broken promises and the runaway deadlines for arbitration. The downtrodden masses flood through the gates to worship something that’s looking upwards and not at the fluff in its navel. A second division season of quite some drama is underway in the great city. Wednesday revitalized, vying with a Newcastle of vibrant Keeganesque colours, with Beardsley and Waddle for good measure and those bandy legs of Terry McDermott making everything tick over in midfield. Add to that John Neill’s magnificent goal-scoring Chelsea side from the Big Smoke, with a front tandem of Kerry Dixon and David Speedie and newly demoted Manchester City under Billy McNeill’s tightly controlled purse strings. Four into three won’t go and somebody’s going to miss out on the land of milk and honey, the Canon League Division One, but in the meantime the north west of this city is gripped by the eager four-way fight for football’s greatest prize: a place amongst the gilded elite of England’s teams, a chance to go head to head with United and Forest and Liverpool at the top of the game. A chance to be something, achieve something in this parched wilderness of battered dreams and strangling reality.

Wednesday, high tempo and direct from back to front, diagonal balls hanging in the gale, are a handful for anyone, carrying the hopes of half the city, whilst United, carrying the criticism of the other half, slumber down below. The Blades, following the promptings of the city’s crippled steel industry, are blunt and hopeless. The contrast with Wilkinson’s bounding Wednesdayites is eye-watering.

Wilkinson has built on Jack Charlton’s blustery third division promotion side and is attempting to put the Owls back in the top flight for the first time in 14 years. His team is built on the sturdy yet deeply unspectacular likes of Lawrie Madden, Peter Shirtliff and Lyons at the back. The sergeant major’s side contains a vast reservoir of energy and running power from the likes of Shelton, Imre Varadi and Mel Sterland whilst up front stands the dual totem of Tony Cunningham and John Pearson, seemingly the only towering cranes still properly active in the whole of the Don Valley. 

If Hillsborough’s open precincts offer a kind of windy hope, Bramall Lane, trapped behind the great decaying bulk of Arnold Laver’s timber yards, is in a lost world of detritus and stink. The alehouses of London Road bristle with bottled up violence, the roars of defiance and the sound of splintering glass.

We have moved from the Broadfield’s fuggy embrace to The Royal on London Road’s last parched stretch of asphalt before it reaches town. It is a cavernous space full of foreboding. Big men with dust-strewn eyebrows and tattooed muscles spit and shove at the bar. There is an undeniable stench of fried food and spilt alcohol on the threadbare carpets, the stained tables, the decrepit curtains. Ropey looking students cling to the fringes smoking pot. A woman with skeletal arms joins a boisterous darts crew in the corner. Joanne is still singing to us, via the jukebox by the door, that fringe falling over her heavily made-up eyes, the little red dress swinging gently from side to side, revealing bony knees and the hint of desirable thighs. The clink clonk of the synthesizer parps the tinny beat of early 80s Sheffield across the sweaty throng, a resonant mimicking of a thousand decelerating blast furnaces across South Yorkshire.

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar,
That much is true.
But even then I knew I'd find a much better place
Either with or without you.

Mesmerising, hypnotic, repetitive, tinny, shallow and flawed, but somehow a really good thing to drink luke warm Wards to. The unmistakable clank of Cabaret Voltaire starts up, a death-defying melody suspended somewhere between the morbid black anti-rhythms of Joy Division and the tubular bells and bongos of poppy upstarts Blancmange.  This Fascination, the dislocated voice suggests and suggests again until you nearly believe him. This Fascination. At least someone in this damned city seems to be smacking an anvil, even if Thatcher has demolished everything in sight. Cabaret Voltaire, taking the political situation as grim reality for the time being, are already known for hawking around the well trodden streets of the city in a battered van, playing their latest songs out of the wildly swinging back doors. This is low budget musical self-publicising Sheffield style,  where spirit lives on in small grimy packages.

We wheel around unsteadily to Love Will Tear Us Apart, an anthem for this desolate place,if ever there was one, with its morbid atmosphere, hanging, damp and cantankerous.

Sheffield’s mood is downtrodden, hangdog, besmirched. We live the archetypal no-hope existence, hand to mouth, disaffected, down on our luck. Later, much later, in the steamed up confines of the queue for chips, we will fall into Simon Stainrod coming out of the Shabistan, emblematic of all that is not quite right with United. Discarded by Queens Park Rangers, he looks like a foreign body in these parts, with his bush of shining gelled hair and his mechanically enhanced footballer’s jacket. He’s pissed like us, but a might less bleak, with a giggling hairdresser on one arm and a bulky takeaway on the other.  He’s a Sheffield lad with the big hair to prove it, but fresh from fancy dan QPR, he looks like he’s forgotten how to do bleak with is perma tan and his sequined acquaintances. The night swallows him up as it will swallow us all up.

I used to think that the day would never come That my life would depend on the morning sun

We are standing in the rain on Church Street across from the darkened bulk of the Cutler’s Hall. Thatcher is due to give a speech. Here of all places. The irony is not lost on the mob. There are thousands of us here, donkey jacketed, tooled up and suitably bitter. A rickety police cordon holds us back on one side of the road as cars arrive with their tinted windows and their puffy-cheeked drivers. The mood is aggressive and riven with hate. The Cutler’s Hall named after the cutler’s association, 400 years’ worth of quality control over the city’s cutlery and steel production. Its arch enemy is about to go inside and explain why none of it is worth a small shit anymore. Eggs fly, bags of flour, stones. A police horse slips in the grime and lands on the back of one of the police cars, smashing the back window. We are momentarily afloat, aloud, sirens wailing in the clinging wet. Sheffield’s proud heritage is being fought over by striking miners, redundant steel workers, inebriated students and frazzled unionists. We are shouting our support of the dislocated communities clinging to the Attercliffe heights, where life has been snuffed out, the giant arc furnaces extinguished like a wet match stick. The foundries covered in quick-grow weeds, the disheveled fences falling down, the scarred hillsides where once communities worked and lived. Eighteen months to wipe it all off the face of the escarpment like you would wipe a formica table top clean of spilled ketchup and bacon fat. 

There's a club if you'd like to go you could meet somebody who really loves you

So you go, and you stand on your own and you leave on your own and you go home, and you cry and you want to die

It will take Thatcher’s henchman Norman Tebbitt thirty years to admit “the cuts went too far”, but that’s for the future. We are, as Killing Joke remind us, living the eighties with all its foul-smelling baggage. It’s Love Like Blood right enough and soon the soldiers in the field will be real enough too, as the marshes around Orgeave reenact some kind of blind-sided Medieval battle between the have-nots and the eager truncheons of law and order.

A proud city on its weary knees, its scuffed, world weary knees. What mighty act of vengeance is this to flatten us all in one fell swoop? To batter us and swipe at us until all the living daylights are coming out. There is contempt in the air. Contempt for the working class and contempt for their honour and their dignity. These are basic human rights that are being squashed and stamped into the moist giving turf. “Maggie’s Boot Boys” are everywhere, in the press, in the street, in the courts. Here’s Arthur Scargill, electric haired mouthpiece for the opposition, with his beaked nose and his donkey jacket, his flat vowels and his unwholesome diatribes. Union power has had it day, is fighting its last futile battle on the fields of Orgreave and its leader is a frazzled old man with embarrassing hair. The power of the pit is over and gone with it are the communities that lived from the black gold that poured out of these hills to fire the engine of the city. Sheffield loud and proud reduced to a shamefaced whimper under the policeman’s boot.

We gather again. There is another surge. Sirens still blare. Another hail of eggs are airborne. They crack down one by one around the police lines, who shuffle menacingly forward. Thatcher’s car is here, greeted by a hail of abuse, desperate men screaming into the night sky.  We are being purged, washed through, from penthouse to pavement.

Brothers, sisters, We don’t need the fascist groove thing

Isabella’s is letting us in for free. It’s a good thing as we’re all broke. An act of charity in a city well known for its community spirit. Shift workers, nurses, factory engineers, van drivers, shop stewards, none of us have two pennies to rub together. At least the electro pop beats a kind of pulse and allows us to let our hair down. The Becks is 50% off, our existences are 25% of what they were supposed to be. The sheer hopelessness of it all never releases you from its grip though. You twirl around, drunk in the dizzy whizz of coloured lights and all the time Sheffield is waiting for you outside.

Sheffield’s musical anger is different, however. There is no punk rage here, no smashing of guitars and spitting on the punters, no flying beer glasses and verbal abuse. They have been degraded enough already. This is a home-made cut and paste attempt at glitz, from Cabaret Voltaire in their music van to the death tones of Artery and 2.3 and big square jawed Martin Fry with his ABC of hair care and eye shadow. Phil and Susan and Joanne have it too, this home-made Sheffield glamour, this upstairs bedroom glitter and paste. This is a brief moment of something different, a movement of pub bands that are getting sudden exposure. The best of the lot The Extras, will later tell it tell it like it was: “They were avant garde, we were avant-a-clue.” They leave for London and nobody follows. This is Sheffield and its attempt to kill rock and roll with kindness will fail, just as the steel industry will fail, just as the mines will fail, just as poor old chicken tikka Simon Stainrod will fail with his paltry 15 badly coordinated games for the Wednesday.

Back on the Kop at Hillsborough, it is pissing down. Rain dropping on us from a great height like someone is emptying a truck’s contents directly over us. Newcastle are in town, bringing with them a badly dressed phalanx of 12,000 hard cases, each one more inebriated than the last. There are black and white stripes everywhere, hanging out of our buses, falling out of our pubs, lying in our gutters. A strange roar is reverberating around the precincts of the grey old ground. There are mobs flying into each other in the park. A minibus full of Geordies is being rocked violently by a mob of Wednesdayites intent on turning the thing over.

Inside the ground the Leppings Lane is crushed to breaking point once again. Bodies heaving and wriggling in that long thin corridor of pens and fences, pens and fences, right round to the towering corner segment that joins the standing to the seated in Hillsborough’s old cantilevered West Stand. The places is stuffed, an exhilarating cocktail of excitement, violence and drunkenness holds the old ground in sway. Despite there being no roof, the Kop makes a ferocious noise as more latecomers pour in at the top and down the side entrances. A throaty roar rises up from the Geordie legions at the other end, sliding and swaying like seaweed washed by the incoming tide. Wednesday’s onfield surge is too much for the battered opposition and four goals streak into the visitors’ net. Two come in reply in a thundering, vibrant display of masculine virility. The old precincts reverberate with the raw passion of old. There is life in this place yet.

 When your girl has left you out on the pavement (Goodbye)
Then your dreams fall apart at the seams
Your reason for living's your reason for leaving
Don't ask me what it means

Martin Fry is teaching us about love. Wearing a black and white striped jacket and a straw hat, he resembles a Cambridge student about to take to the water. His hair hangs down one side Oakeyesque, it’s a Sheffield thing this lop sided vanity, a blond strutting master of the mic with his Lexicon of Love and his come to bed eyes that have the local girls weak at the knees. Its gauche and camp but works in spades, an array of glittery jackets and shiny white shoes that reflect the grey backwash of the puddles on West Street outside the Frog and Parrot.

We are on our way up and then down this street of red brick and badly parked cars. In and out of the boozers, sheltering from the squally rain and satisfying insatiable cravings for beer and peanuts. Martin flicks his hair, an effeminate twitch he has mastered amongst the builders and plumbers. Eccleshall is done, West Street will spit us out downtown at the Leadmill, where we will add pints of Becks to the five hours of drinking already circumnavigated. One of our group is carrying a small tree, another has his pint with him as we trudge the glistening streets. Sirens blare, as the rain repeats its beat. Brother, sisters, we don’t need this fascist groove thing.

The Leadmill is a blur of colour and smells, the wet floor plays havoc with our noisy inebriation. Black drapes and heavy eye liner are de rigeur.  Here music is king, drunkenness is king and the night twists and warps into myriad colours, noises and sensations. We are on the edge. The Leadmill is different. It is alive. It is the heart of young protest at what is being done to this city. The music wraps itself around you and carries you away. In the corner, in the dark, in the hot dank air, we slump and try to focus. The noise, the heat, the condensation in this turbulent place. This is our centre of existence. This is where Sheffield ‘s vibrant music scene meets with proper protest. You don’t hear so much Human League in here, not so much ABC, but Cabaret Voltaire are loud and clear, aided and abetted by the North West’s labyrinthine dirges and droners, New Oder, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fall, Elvis Costello. This is where bands are born and reputations are forged, in amongst the smoke and the sweat. We watch on unsteady tip toes  as a nascent James hit their first public chords in front of us. Marc Almond, Big Audio Dynamite and The Pogues have all played a set for us here in the dark and dingy and wonderfully intimate corner of town.

The place flashes a fists-bared alternative to the clickety-clunk of Fry and Oakey, a malodorous embrace and a place to disappear until the night becomes morning. It marries the rickety wooden tables of the working man’s club with more than a flash of Hacienda arrogance. It is so Sheffield yet it is not. It will still be here in 30 years, but tonight’s crowd is not to know that with its live for today attitude, its metallic foundation make-up and it’s Culture Club hair and hat combos.

It spits us out in the early hours of the morning. The city slumbers under a plug grey sky as we walk unsteadily back past the giant silent hulk of Bramall Lane. Unitedites, tough as teak and proud of their struggling team, will be roaming these same streets in a few short hours.

Millwall the visitors in a thankless, joyless plughole of shipwrecks and don’t-wannabes. No problem finding your spec on the Bramall Lane Kop, with its crimson crush barriers visible in the patchy turn-out. 12,000, 13-max, will slog it out, battling sleep and boredom as United head for oblivion. The away end, with its weird stacked stand sat atop the terraces is sparsely populated with only the Den’s finest travelers. No one loves them either.

The Comsat Angels play on the tannoy. Thatcher’s free market economy has stretched to the selling of United ski hats on the main stand concourse. A gaggle of girls trying to take off Siouxie Siou drift past smoking, their eye make-up like pandas on meth.  The smell of chip fat and hamburger brine is everywhere. Unitedites are tougher, more resilient than Wednesday. There’s a cutting edge about them that Hillsborough doesn’t possess. There are some of the trendies that were at the Leadmill here too, Goths, CND enthusiasts, skinheads, new wave, as well as the usual flock of Oakey look-a-likes, Vespa lads and hard cases covered in Fight for the Miners stickers. Students in legwarmers and crinkle cut hair give the place a final touch of mid 80s je ne sais rien and there are Doc Martens everywhere. Millwall’s following on the other hand wears the casual uniform straight as a dye and waits for the chance to fight that will surely come.

They’ll get their opportunity later in the Stonehouse or the Pig and Whistle, or maybe be outflanked at the outlying and isolated Yorkshire Grey. Either way there will be violence for this is the 80s, this is Sheffield and this is the only way we know. As Daniel Defo wrote in his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain in 1724, this town is dark and black, occasioned by the continual smoke of the forges. In 1984 it is still black and dark, in its soul as it is in its appearance, but the heavy soot of history that has gathered will one day blow off and a different city will be forced to emerge and with it a different generation with a different outlook on life will start afresh. One day optimism will return to this stagnant land and the days of struggle and depravation, violence and hopelessness that we are living here will be gone. In Phil Oakey’s Sheffield, that salvation still feels a mighty long way off.


Simon is @bifana_bifana.