City Profile: Sheffield, England

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A festival funded by spare change, pubs that spin the same vinyl they did in the 60s, local artists who manage to bring the same quintessential cheekiness to a variety of genres; the music scene in Sheffield, England has an identity all its own.

I should begin this profile by confessing a shameless bias towards the city of Sheffield. I spent the first sixteen years of my life in England’s Steel City. I was born in a hospital named after a factory owner. I attended Sheffield Wednesday football matches as a sweary-mouthed teenager. I once passionately argued that The Human League’s 1982 hit, “Don’t You Want Me” was the greatest piece of pop music of all time. Yes, Manchester and Liverpool probably have richer musical histories and maybe Sheffield’s not the place you immediately think of when planning a musical pilgrimage. It is, however, home to a vibrant and eclectic scene that seems to have grown each time I visit.

Of all the bands to ever form in Sheffield, there are two whose mainstream and critical successes eclipse all the rest. Pulp and Arctic Monkeys resumés both include number one albums and headline slots at Glastonbury Festival (Pulp in 1995, AM in 2007). The mid to late 90s saw Pulp firmly positioned at the forefront of Brit Pop, an era that came to an end with the cocaine-fueled demise of Oasis. In 2005, Arctic Monkeys’ debut single and album broke all UK fastest sales records imaginable and the band was credited for everything from saving British guitar music to inventing MySpace. Beyond the band’s origins and success, what most readily links Pulp and Arctic Monkeys are front men whose lyrics capture the working-class youth, humor and energy, evident on any night out in the city center. “She told me that her Dad was loaded / I said in that case I’ll have rum and Coca-Cola,” sang Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker on the 1996 single “Common People.” And in 2005, it was easy to imagine AM’s Alex Turner taking inspiration from seedy clubs (like Cocker did) for his own song, “I Bet you Look Good on the Dance Floor,” as he sang lines like, “banging tunes and DJ sets / dirty dance floors and dreams of naughtiness.”

Though more recently Sheffield’s most prominent musicians have come in varied shapes and sizes than their indie predecessors, there is still something charmingly Northern English about their delivery. Slow Club, a boy/girl duo whose influences range from trip-hop to honky-tonk are two of the most friendly and open live performers I’ve seen. Their second album Paradise was released late last year and demonstrates a band that’s matured incredibly since its debut. Another local artist fresh off the back of his sophomore release is DJ/producer Toddla T. More energetic than insulin itself, Toddla blends reggae, dub, and moombahton and collaborates with urban UK stalwarts like Roots Manuva and Shola Ama. Toddla’s debut album, Skanky Skanky featured sound bites that the DJ recorded whilst chatting to friends and tramps on the streets of Sheffield.

Toddla T – Boom DJ from the Steel City: [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kh4p7HTfj2M]

Slow Club -Two Cousins: [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiViJkz10nw]

Another of Mr. Toddla T’s significant contributions to his hometown is that he’s an organizer of Sheffield’s annual free music festival, Tramlines. Since 2009, the Tramlines Festival, which is funded by a combination of sponsorships and donations made to change buckets in the city’s pubs has trippled in size. The fest has become a mainstay attraction of Steel City summers and draws a larger and stronger line-up every year. It was Tramlines where I first saw The XX perform in student pub The Harley to around one hundred people just months before the band’s sound had spread across the Atlantic and found its way into car commercials and post-game American Football montages.

Arctic Monkeys’ boxing, clothes designing drummer, Matt Helders was another co-organizer of the first Tramlines festival. Helder’s bar, The Bowery, serves as a venue for the festival and the rest of the year round, is one of the city’s best-known spots for new music–both local and imported. Hip though it is, a bar owned by a rock star has the slight curse of being a bar owned by a rock star.

ImageWhat a number of other Sheffield bars have is an ability to revive aspects that attracted our parents to them in the 60s and 70s and combine those with more modern trends. The Green Room, a bar that used to be called Mr. Kites back when my dad wore a parka and drove a Lambretta, still crams people in at weekends for Mod/modern revival and vinyl-only Northern Soul nights. In this sense, Sheffield is a city where the music of an earlier generation never died. And though the city’s musical past may not be as expansive as other’s in the North, good music and those who love it will be in Sheffield forever.