Made in Sheffield: The Human League, Heaven 17, ABC and others.
Above Photo: Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall of the Human League.
I recently watched a documentary called Made In Sheffield, in which all the bands featured had a link back to the Punk and New Wave music period of the city.
The documentary opened with Jarvis Cocker explaining how Pulp (who found fame many, many years later) had originally formed in 1978 after he’d heard Elvis Costello on John Peel’s BBC radio programme. He then pestered people to get his band on the gig circuit, when they could hardly play their instruments.
University killed Pulp Version 1, when all the other band members went off to study, leaving Cocker on his own. He then set up the band again, with the help of local musicians, and began the long, slow haul to fame.
Sheffield band Cabaret Voltaire, who I saw live a few times in 1978-1979, also featured in the programme.
Interested in electronic music, tape recorders, multimedia – film, art, art history, print, and, above all, the Dada art movement, former member Chris Watson said the band had been heavily into industrial noise and synthesizers.
One day they were invited to play a gig at Sheffield University. The audience expected music, but what they got was noise – a tape loop of a steam hammer recorded in Belgium, a clarinet and a guitar, with one of the band members wearing a jacket with flashing Christmas tree lights all over it.
They were attacked and literally thrown off the stage shortly afterwards, before someone finally pulled the plug on them.
“It was brilliant. It was just chaos” said Watson.
ABC was another band to come out of the New Wave landscape of Sheffield. Originally known as a band called Vice Versa, which formed in 1977, their debut gig was supporting Wire at Sheffield’s Outlook Club.
Later they asked singer Martin Fry to join, and by 1980 they’d changed their name to ABC.
In 1981, their first single, Tears Are Not Enough charted in the UK and in 1982 their outstanding album The Lexicon of Love got to Number One. Strangely (and having to blank out the tin foil and gold lame threads of Fry and the band) I really liked that album and I make reference to it in Bombed Out!. The production and the bass lines were fantastic (Trevor Horn produced it).
But the biggest surprise in the documentary for me was to discover the founder members of Heaven 17 were also founding members of the Human League until they all fell out and they left Phil Oakey to it, allowing him to use the name, in return for him adopting the liabilities of the band, including an imminent European tour.
I saw the original Human league lineup a couple of times in Eric’s Club in Liverpool in 1978/1979, when Being Boiled was popular – a song that still reminds me of the Club before it filled up at night.
A few years later, I couldn’t believe my eyes (and obviously not knowing anything about this breakup) when I saw the Human League on Top of The Pops in the middle of 1981, now with two attractive women (Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall) in the band, singing to Love Action (I Believe In Love). The B side was better – Hard Times, but then their album Dare came out later in 1981 and I was blown away by it.
Meanwhile, the two members who’d left the Human League (Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh), had set up Heaven 17 and were working on their first album (Penthouse and Pavement) in the same small Sheffield studios that the reconstituted Human League were also using to record their album, Dare, in. The former band members were trying their hardest to avoid each other.
Heaven 17 had a great song called We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thing in the UK charts in 1981, which was banned by the BBC as being offensive to Ronald fucking Reagan, of all people.
Later that year their ground-breaking album Penthouse and Pavement was released. I still love some of the tracks on that album, and can remember being seriously impressed when it came out.
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