Music documentary, DVD
Sheffield, it seems, is the ugly duckling among the major cities in the north of England. Abandoned warehouses, derelict council estates and grimy "dark satanic mills" form the backdrop for a barren cultural wasteland - at least that's what a mainstream box office success movie like "The Full Monty" made you believe.
There is of course some truth in every story, but Sheffield is certainly not such a bad place, though the history of the city's music scene has until late remained hidden behind the declining steel industry which had been Sheffield's mainstay since the 18th century. Both Manchester and Liverpool are renowned for their wide-reaching impact on popular culture, while it is a little known fact that Sheffield's music scene is more than just a footnote in the city's history.
From stadium Rock acts like Joe Cocker or Def Leppard (make that stadium Rrrrawk in that case) it has of course been a long way to Moloko's relaxed Pop sound, In The Nursery's epic soundtracks, or the bleepy madness released by Sheffield's finest record label, Warp Records. Somewhere inbetween, a sudden eruption had hit Sheffield in the late 1970ies, when Punk broke down any barriers for countless aspiring musicians eager to escape a tedious career in one of the local steelworks. In due course, Punk also worked as a catalyst for musicians like Cabaret Voltaire who had already experimented with tape recordings and unusual methods of sound creation.
"Made in Sheffield" is dedicated to that particular period in music history, when Punk turned into post-Punk, and guitars were gradually phased out by synthesizers and drum machines. This is not a script- and actor-based movie like Michael Winterbottom's tribute to Manchester's Factory Records, "24 Hour Party People", but a music documentary based on oral history. In that respect it resembles Juergen Teipel's attempt to capture the spirit of the German Punk and New Wave scene in his book "Verschwende deine Jugend" (available in German only).
"Made in Sheffield" was conceived and produced by Eve Wood (not related to Ragdoll-boss and Teletubbies-creator Anne Wood, though in the interview scenes with Paul Bower from Sheffield band 2.3 one can easily spot two tiny figurines of Tinky Winky and Dipsy proudly displayed on the bookshelf). Eve has definitely done a good job, obviously a lot of work has gone into the research of possible sources and the composition of the film.
While some might argue that the film's subtitle "The Birth of Electronic Pop" is a slight case of overstatement (surely, Kraftwerk had been there before), it should be added that the fusion of electronic music and Pop song structures, like any other "trend" in Pop music history, worked according to the theory of a punctuated equilibrium. The main ingredients are there, and, voilà, it just happens without anyone consciously "inventing" it. Apart from that, Sheffield bands like Cabaret Voltaire have certainly been influenced by the adventurous sonic experiments of Kraftwerk, but also by other German bands like Can or Neu, as well as Brian Eno. On the other hand, Kraftwerk's sound and aesthetics had an impact on literally any style of modern Pop music, so there are of course Kraftwerky traces in the music of Human League or Heaven 17.
So what's in the film? Recent interviews for one, with Phil Oakey, Joanne and Susan (aka the Human League), Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh (both in early band project The Future with Adi Newton, later founding Human League and Heaven 17, while Adi went on to form Clock DVA), Chris Watson (ex-member of Cabaret Voltaire), Stephen Singleton (from Vice Versa, later to become ABC), Jarvis and Saskia Cocker (of Pulp fame), Paul Bower (from ill-fated act 2.3), John Lake and Robin Markin from likewise ill-fated pubrockers The Extras, and the late radio-DJ icon John Peel. The original interviews were cut and edited to make up the main film, whilst another section on the DVD features the full-length interviews (of which Stephen Singleton's vivid collection of anecdotes is certainly the most entertaining part). Then there's a picture gallery comprising historical shots from the 1970ies and 1980ies, plus footage from the 1980 Futurama festival in Leeds showing live performances by Vice Versa, I'm So Hollow, and the brilliant (yet sadly underrated) Artery.
All in all, "Made in Sheffield" runs for more than 2 hours, and, at least according to my personal taste, this music documentary never gets boring. It also provides the rare opportunity to hear about less known Sheffield acts (like aforementioned Artery) and serves as a vivid reminder of those fascinating times when there was in fact a literal wave of underground creativity sparked by an "anything goes" attitude. It couldn't however last very long. As soon as bands like ABC and Human League had become part of the mainstream music business, their novelty tag wore off quickly and the Sheffield electronica scene in due course began to falter. Years later though, Warp Records has picked up some of the original vibe and brought it forth to the 21st century.
"Listen to the voice of Buddha, saying stop your sericulture" ("Being Boiled", the Human League)