Electro-pop rescues Sheffield’s decade of nightmares
1981 was the year when a new breed of Sheffield music truly arrived. Not nationally, but globally.
The seventies had been a bit of chart disaster; bar Tony Christie we’d hardly bothered the UK top twenty.
But the eighties were our calling, our Ground Zero, our aural assault and then some.
Steel City was about to become electro-pop-Mega-City-One and the Human League’s 1981 ‘Dare’ album was the genre-defining long-player that took the city’s musical career stratospheric.
Released in October of that year, it took the world by storm and paved the way for ‘Don’t You Want Me’, the December single that hit the top spot both here and in the USA.
The region didn’t need asking twice – Heaven 17, ABC, Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA, Comsat Angels, Artery, Vision, Pulp, Danse Society and scores of other local acts lined up for a piece of the action.
It was a good job really, we needed a distraction.
Other than entertainment the decade was the stuff of nightmares.
Under Thatcher’s watch there was one proper war (the Falklands) which helped her landslide victory in 1983; a near civil war at the hands of the Miners’ Strike which first started in South Yorkshire at Cortonwood Colliery; mass unemployment and Armageddon looking a near given with a worsening of US/Russian relations in the continuing Cold War.
No leader of the 20th century outside of wartime ever held anything like psychological grip Thatcher held over its people. Some went to extreme lengths to get a release – the suicide rate apparently doubled every time she won a new term in office. Like her or loathe her, she permeated parts of society previously untouched by a Prime Minister.
Her pervading views of the free market economy and patriotism couldn’t have been more at odds with the new left who were preaching anti-racism, anti-war, anti-sexism with the help of a new strain of alternative comedians, Red Wedge Tours and CND rallies.
Sheffield didn’t take things lying down in the area soon to be referred to as the ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’. Sheffield was declared a ‘nuclear-free zone’, the red flag flew over the Town Hall and free gigs were organised for UB40 holders.
We welcomed the filming of Barry Hines’s ‘Threads’ (1984) – the documentary-style film that showed Sheffield in the build-up and aftermath of a nuclear attack. Though it definitely got the point across, it left an entire generation traumatized…
If politics weren’t your thing or you simply wanted to drink yourself to oblivion after watching the mushroom cloud rising over the city you could lose yourself in the champagne bar at Josephine’s, wander the cavernous Romeo and Juliet’s (later to become Cairo Jax) on Bank Street or climb the hallowed stairs to Isabella’s on Eyre Street.
If you fancied a surreal day time distraction you could always try the mighty ‘Bendy Bus’. The unfeasibly long mode of transport was a bizarre hit. And even if your particular bus didn’t bend, it probably still happily ran all night with an average fare of next to nothing (which was the scheme of things in this decade of heavily subsidies bus fares).
Things didn’t fare so well for the once-mighty ‘Hole In The Road’. Winos aside, the subterranean institution was fast falling out of favour as the escalators ground to a halt and the graffiti artists moved in to redecorate.
Subtle wasn’t a phrase you’d use to describe 1980s Sheffield. It was bold, brutal and outlandish – and that was just the crimped hair ascending the stairs at the West Street dole office.
It was the era of youth culture in turmoil with factions rising and falling at an alarming rate: trendies; Goths; psychobillys; second wave punk merchants; vege-charged anarchists; Greenham Common feminists; acid house; metal; scooter boys; skinheads; new romantics; yuppies and more.
Sales of Dr Marten footwear was at an all-time high as everyone bar the vegans seem to adopt them; ‘Flashdance’ (1983) gave us legwarmers and American cheerleaders can be blamed for ‘ra ra’ skirts that swept the nation.
Sheffield’s own Phil Oakey had a lot to answer for. As well as dictating the nation’s listening tastes, he also pioneered the kind of asymmetric haircut that became symbolic of the decade.
If we didn’t like the music there was always football. The trophy cabinets might have been barren landscapes for both home teams in the eighties but inter-fan rivalry was at an all time high as the police struggled to contain the pitched battles between local firms.
The 1989 Hillsborough Disaster scars run deep to this day whilst Heysel happened in Europe.
Though we all liked the alternative edge of Sheffield’s X Clothes and Rebina shoes on the shopping front, we were all secretly relieved Redgates was still flying the flag for toys.
In a decade devoid of bars with post 11pm late licences it was up to the clubs to provide the dance floors whilst the pubs provided the alcohol-charged rocket fuel to get you in groove mode: enter Pig & Whistle, the Stonehouse, the Old Blue Bell, Henrys, the Marples, Hanrahans, the Golden Ball, the Geisha Bar (later to become Legends), the Frog & Parrot, West Street’s Hallamshire, Mailcoach and Beehive, and so, so many more!