So as London suffered through a post-jubilee filled with anarchy and aggression, Sheffield slowly but surely grew into a Mecca for the new and novel synthesizer experience. Out of a core group of friends and schoolmates came a noise so unique, so unlike what was being peddled on both radio and in the riot clubs that it took a few full years to catch on. But once it did, it set a standard for recorded insurgency that would last for decades to come. Everyone points to Johnny Rotten's sneer, Sid Viscous's violent nature, or Joe Strummer's considered politics as the true essence of the 70s seismic rock and roll mutiny. But it was really the twisting of knobs and the modulating of sound waves that caused the greatest disorder. It was a sound so foreign it could only come from outside the domain of London. Indeed, it was a noise Made in Sheffield.
Yet by 1981, after all the cash-making cows of chaos came crashing to the Earth, there was still this strange new sound of the crowd. It was a heady hometown brew, as alien as the safety pin and Mohawk set, but with an ear toward melody, not mass hysteria. It was the rumblings of a slumbering giant. It was a noise made of circuits and cynicism, an ambiance created out of isolation and invention. It was the hum of technology mixed with the starkness of an empty communal soul. Together with its three-chord brethren, it redefined the music business. Not too shabby for a wholly unique resonance Made in Sheffield.
Some stories just need to be told. Until they are heard, no one believes them, or puts faith in the facts surrounding the situations. And even then, once the anecdotes pass into practice and the reality seems to be set, there are still some who never quite let the truth settle in. When one thinks back on the emergent electronic pop scene of the late 70s/ early 80s, particular visual and aural cues come flooding back from their place in memory: Gary Numan, robotic and regal, guiding a bank of keyboards through the metronome-like melody of "Are Friends Electric?"; Soft Cell's Marc Almond, vamping and camping his way through "Tainted Love"; a young Depeche Mode flaunting the gay politics of disco directly into the pop charts; and groups with indecipherable names like Comsat Angels, The Normal and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark.
But when recalling the drum machine dreams of the era, few fall on Sheffield as their point of reference. Unless they knew of Human League (before their "Don't You Want Me?" denouncement) or the complex Cabaret Voltaire, this upper UK locale was more recognized for its steel town tenets than its original music scene. Even with singles as strong as "Being Boiled", "Touch", "Tears Are Not Enough" and "(We Don't Need this) Fascist Groove Thing", the groups that called the Yorkshire burg their home have rarely gotten the recognition they deserve. Instead, a group of teens with a tendency toward cockrocking and a mischievously misspelled name – Def Leppard – are usually the individuals cited as giving Sheffield its place in the sonic landscape.
But make no mistake about it, the electronic movement was one of the most important factions in the fracturing world of late 70s popular music. The art form was being assaulted from all sides as the DIY spirit of punk proved that anyone could make and release their own records. Such a novel idea is at the heart of Eve Wood's not quite definitive documentary Made in Sheffield. Hoping to cover the birth and bonanza that was the initial keyboard revolution, the first time filmmaker has crash-landed on one of the more dense subjects in the epistle of rock and roll. That she stumbles a bit is less of a testament to the area of consideration, and more because of the aesthetic of ambition over ability. There is just too much here for one documentary, and one documentarian, to adequately cover.
Wood does give it a good try, however, concentrating on some of the more electrifying personalities of the period. While we get the occasional outsider snippets from the likes of the late, great BBC disc jockey John Peel, Made in Sheffield is told almost exclusively by those who actually lived it. Sure, there are some very famous faces missing from the mix (ABC's Martin Fry, Heaven 17's Glenn Gregory) and the rare omission is not so much glaring as merely a prescient point glossed over. What we do end up with is a linear timeline narrative of how a group of disaffected youth built their own simple synths and decided to go out and change the face of music. And as that story, Made in Sheffield is excellent. Even better, it manages to flesh out facets of the sounds rise and fall that other films may have avoided altogether as unnecessary or uninteresting.
Made in Sheffield is far from dull. It contains many mesmerizing tales. One such case is the sad saga of The Extras. In every story like this, there is a band that should have been, but somehow never really was, or got the chance to even be. In the case of Made in Sheffield, that group was The Extras, a bright young band of hardworking blokes whose fresh, flavorful R&B style rocking was heavily touted as the next big UK thing. Among the other upstarts in Sheffield, The Extras were viewed as minor gods. They filled the clubs and stole all the press. As a result, they were also the first to leave for the much larger celebrity of London. Unfortunately, as they were traveling down to England's capital of culture, all the critics were heading in the opposite direction. The press was more interested in the bleep-blip bop of Human League and Cabaret Voltaire than the pulse pounding pub sounds of a group of genial guitar guys. As a result, The Extras miss their one and only golden opportunity, dropping down to footnote status in a scene that they more or less helped create and sustain.
Made in Sheffield could really use more of these kind of cautionary tales. As a documentary, it's needlessly nominal. The subject screams epic, since it's paralleling the rise of punk with the equally important birth of electronic pop, and director Eve Wood apparently has no problem accessing the individuals who made the Sheffield sound click. But the dichotomy between what is shown (some classic Kraftwerk performance footage) and what is suggested (Vice Versa's change from stark sonics into the sublime dance delights of ABC gets a solely superficial explanation) leaves one feeling like there's more to the story than what is presented here. Indeed, part of Wood's problem is the scope of what she's addressing. How a group of steel town yobs managed to transform popular music, inviting in the synthesizer while rejected the other analog, acoustic elements of rock is a very big, very broad topic. A mere 52 minutes is not long enough to cover it all, especially when the individual personalities involved each deserve their own full scale motion picture.
Indeed, it is those people and their personas that save Made in Sheffield. Chris Watson of Cabaret Voltaire is so erudite, so completely disconnected from what happened over 20 years before that he's capable of viewing it today with real insight and vigor. Similarly passionate, but probably still too emotionally involved to completely let go is Human League's still dynamic front man Phil Oakey. His appearances in the film are one constant lament, a look back at a life that he apparently hopes will reemerge some day. Yet there are other interesting faces here, people from bands with revered names like I'm So Hollow, Artery and Pulp that get just the briefest of mentions. Each one has an achingly affective tale to tell, a story of rewards gained and prominence lost. Though many would consider it, perhaps, the most disposable of all the music to come out of the DIY decade, it's interesting to see how incredible influential it remains. While punk had to adopt pop to become mainstream, the strange, evocative sounds that flowed from the keyboards of bands like Heaven 17 still influence music today.
Sadly, the lack of modern recognition is another of Made in Sheffield's minor weak points. All nostalgia aside, there are dozens of bands, from Nine Inch Nails to nearly every member of the cut and paste techno nation of today that owes a huge, undeniable debt of gratitude to the Sheffield sound. It's where electronica got its roots, where synths stopped being sissified and started sounding strong. Yet there is not a single modern artist featured, no one to carry the Sheffield flag beyond the limits of this thin film. Wood's narrative treats the scene like an episode, not a lasting element, of modern music's makeup. Yet anyone who's heard the burble and squeak of Dr. Dre's dissonant, keyboard heavy funk or all the TRL tweek idol-ness can't deny the impact of this innovative noise. The entire 80s was built on it, and the memory still remains.
Frankly, it is really unfair to criticize Wood for being so broad. One imagines that, had she forgotten to mention the Vice Versa/ABC connection, or show how jealous Human League and Heaven 17 were when Fry and the boys hit it ultra-big, there'd be massive grumbling on that account. There is just no winning when it comes to discussing the Sheffield sound, and that is probably because the last few chapters haven't really been written yet. While their popularity has diminished, bands like ABC, Human League and Heaven 17 are more than just one-hit wonder wistfulness. They carry on a torch that so many others have put down as too heavy, or not financially secure enough.
Even as the digital age has dragged the rest of the music business into the realm of samplers, sequencers and easily manipulated MIDI, the music made in the 1970s and 80s still sounds revolutionary today. It reminds us of how bleak we thought the future might be, and how promising it could possibly become. Amazingly, both sentiments are very true in this post-millennial society. Who would have thought that such a simple, sobering sound would become the score for the world in the 21st century? And who would have thought is would be Made in Sheffield? Though falling short of being a masterpiece, this is still a dazzling document to a time long gone – and very much our own.
But the best material here is obviously the extra interviews. Given a larger canvas onto which they can complain and reminisce, seeming sourpusses like Chris Watson warm up, while the rose colored glasses of Phil Oakey get a nice dash of self-determined reality. But it is Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh who get the most bonus time, and their discussion of the Human League break-up, as well as the inadvertent jealousy of other bands' massive popularity (Heaven 17 was big, but never on a Oakey's League, or ABC level) is essential viewing. With more from Stephen Singleton, and Jarvis Cocker, the added content really solidifies Made in Sheffield's importance as an electronic pop primer.
Without their desire to experiment, their will to push the limits of what one thought of when they considered the pop song, we'd be stuck listening to nothing but Malcolm McLaren rejects and way too much Ant-Music. Though they weren't the inventors of the sound, they were definitely the innovators, and thanks to Eve Woods wonderful, if still a little wonky documentary, everyone will finally understand why the delicious din Made in Sheffield was so important. It not only defined a generation – it defined a genre. And you can't get much more influential than that.