Wednesday 28 September 2022





‘None of The Human League have any orthodox musical 
 training, but prefer to regard composition as an extension of 
 logic, inspiration and luck. Therefore, unlike conventional 
 musicians their influences are not so obvious’ 
(Fast Product Press Pack, June 1978)

Rock ‘n’ Roll was never intended to be about virtuosity. It was more a DIY Folk music. 

Skiffle was a 1950s fad championed by Lonnie Donegan, which ignited a thousand ad-hoc austerity groups repurposing household items – a washboard, an old tea-chest impaled with a broom-handle and tension-strung to create a stand-up bass, and maybe a couple of battered acoustic guitars played with more energy than technique. Two decades later Sheffield created a new kind of Electronic Skiffle. 

Why Sheffield? 

The M1 slip-road 34 takes you into the small South Yorkshire industrial city, but with a greater music tradition than that description would imply. We could start with Wurlitzer organist Reginald Dixon, famous for his radio broadcasts from the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. But we probably won’t. Instead we’ll begin in the Beat Boom era with Dave Berry, his distinctive creepy stage persona and hits that included ‘The Crying Game’, his cover of Bobby Goldsboro’s ‘Little Things’ and the Ray Davies-penned ‘This Strange Effect’. Dave was born in Woodhouse, to the south-east of Sheffield in February 1941. Then there’s Joe Cocker who took the Woodstock Festival by storm with his anguished take on Ringo’s modest singalong ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. He was born at 38 Tasker Road in the Crookes suburb of Sheffield in May 1944. Tony Christie might have been born in nearby Conisbrough, but his long association with the steel city includes his 2008 ‘Made In Sheffield’ album, produced by Richard Hawley with contributions from Alex Turner and Jarvis Cocker.

Of course there’s Def Leppard, jazz guitarist Derek Bailey, singer Paul Carrack, jazz drummer Tony Oxley, Pulp, Arctic Monkeys and beyond. But this book is largely centred around the cluster of electro-musicians who were feeling their way through the 1970s, to upsurge into the 1980s as the ‘soundtrack for the second industrial revolution: 45 and 33-&-a-third rpm.’ 

The first time I visited Sheffield, where now there is the labyrinthine Meadowhall temple to opulent consumerism, there were still foundries you could smell in the air and that shook the street beneath your feet, ‘like a metronome, like a heartbeat for the whole city’ according to Ian Craig Marsh. ‘We all come from pretty strong working-class backgrounds’ Ian told me, ‘my Dad’s a bricklayer and my Mum used to work at Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts Factory. My Grandfather got burned clear down his right side when he was splashed with molten steel at a steel works!’ De-industrialisation left abandoned factory units to colonise as rehearsal rooms and studio space for insurrectionary anti-musicians who ‘discarded natural sound source in favour of synthetic instrumentation because of its convenience, mobility and vast source of, as yet, untapped potential’ (the Vice Versa manifesto). 

And there was cheap front-room technology easily adaptable, Skiffle-style, sufficient to bend to purpose. Original – in the sense of not using drums, which were just too tedious to learn, and guitars which were considered obsolete. ‘We wanted to sound like a proper Pop group, but we were not prepared to put in the five or six years that it would have taken to learn a traditional instrument’ explained Philip Oakey. The non-Sheffield Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran described his discovery of synths as ‘this is a new planet that I could live on.’ And yes, that’s how it was. 

It was a time of dense-black Xeroxed fanzines, Sheffield had its own ‘GunRubber’ produced since February 1977 by Paul Bower and Adi Newton, as well as ‘Modern Drugs’ from Martin Fry, ‘NMX’ from Martin Russian and the photocopied ‘Steve’s Paper’ from Stephen Singleton, all documenting the burgeoning local music scene, centred around Cabaret Voltaire and The Future. And the cassette-underground where, for the first time, bands and musicians as well as poets could use their bedrooms to home-record their own experimental sounds, then cheaply reproduce and circulate limited edition C30s or C60s among a proto-internet of linked like-minded activists. It was ignited by the Punk energy and ethos that anyone could get up and do it. It was new. It was exciting, combining the dissident samizdat self-publishing spirit of insurgency with mischievously incendiary early-Dada art-confrontational energies supercharged by the relentlessly dark cut-up strategies of Beat-Generation writer William S. Burroughs and his SF New Wave disciple J.G. Ballard. Each bubblepack package that arrived in the morning mail was ripped open up to reveal new bulletins from the innovative edge of luring and sometimes-scary tomorrows. ‘NME’ carried its own weekly review-column with the addesses of more DIY weirdnesses a mere postal order away.

The first experimental synthesizer system had been devised in 1955 by RCA, but it was a certain Dr Robert Moog who gave his name to the cheaper more marketable modular version that began to infiltrate awareness during the late-sixties, as demonstrated on the first entirely-synthesized ‘Switched On Bach’ (1968) album by Walter – later Wendy Carlos, followed by ‘The Well-Tempered Synthesizer’ a year later. Martyn Ware recalled hearing Carlos on the Clockwork Orange (1971) soundtrack. Heaven 17 would take their name from the same movie.

Bands such as The Byrds, The Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and others began to dabble in the effects that electronics could produce, with Terry Riley, Tonto’s Expanding Headband and The United States Of America taking it incrementally further, nodding to John Cage as a kind of spiritual godfather. The cosmic synth genre was an extension of the psychedelic ‘music to take trips by’ drug culture, an avant-garde trance deployment of otherworldly textures. Then, incorporated into banks of keyboards, the synthesizer became an exotic embellishment to the assault arsenal employed by virtuoso Prog-Rock musicians. Synths were bulky, heavy, fragile and temperamental, utilising voltage-controlled oscillators and related devices that respond to room-humidity and temperature. Heat changes from the lighting-rig could affect tunings. A Moog required a two-hour warming-up period. 

While in Germany Tangerine Dream, Neu and Kraftwerk were not only adapting and developing their own rhythmic variations but were inventing new ones through the use of sequencers. Kraftwerk – ‘the most important group of the century’ according to Philip Oakey, compressed eccentrically catchy musical ideas into the appropriately stimulating shape of wires, programmes, images, trackers, scanners, impulses and screens. 

Championed by DJ John Peel, Tangerine Dream grew out of the Berlin Zodiak Free Arts Lab, where they evolved the hypnotic pulsations of their LP ‘Phaedra’ (1974), a first charting album for them as well as for Virgin Records. Abstract solo albums by Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese dissolved into sound-pixels which absorbed the listener into a Rorschach eyelid-movie of aural fantasia. The 1976 success of ‘Oxygène’ took Jean-Michel Jarre as close as Space music could get to conventional Pop, with brisk programmed percussion and melodic synth-lines that made it both accessible and relentlessly catchy. Yet it was closer to soporific mood-music, conjuring an aid-to-getting-high mindscreen for recumbent sofa-surfers. To gonzo journalist Lester Bangs ‘the men at the keyboards send out sonar blips through the congealing air… three technological monoliths emitting urps, hissings, pings and swooshings in the dark’ (in his ‘Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung’, Serpents Tail, 1987).

In Sheffield it was different. ‘We didn’t need to spend a lot of money to be creative’ said Martyn. The Sheffield answer was to leap obliquely into exploratory voyages to uncharted areas of electronic experiment, sidestepping both conventional musical standards and accepted modes of Rock celebrity. It was innovation inspired by the can-do attitude of Punk, and the art-school Bowie cool. On one side of town was Cabaret Voltaire, on the other there was The Future, a ‘more adventurous but less commercial’ version of The Human League which cannibalised Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware alongside Adi Newton – who operated tape machine-loops and treatments and was destined to form the excellent but much undervalued Clock DVA. 

If there was a pre-existing language, Kraftwerk had utilized tape-loops, while Holger Czukay used random bursts of short-wave radio interference for his work with Can. Cabaret Voltaire began in trainee telephone-engineer Chris Watson’s attic, inspired by a brief eighty-page book called ‘Composing With Tape Recorders: Musique Concrète For Beginners’ by Terence Dwyer (1971, Oxford University Press). So first Chris – then Chris in cahoots with Richard H Kirk, played collage sound-games with reel-to-reel tape recorders, speeded-up, slowed-down, spliced and looped, adding a Farfisa drum-machine with rudimentary mail-order ring-modulator signal processing patched together by Chris – no keyboard, just knobs to twiddle and tweak. ‘I was never a musician’ Chris explained, ‘I had no interest in playing a musical instrument. I had no interest in that sort of discipline. I just wanted to make some noise… we didn’t really know what we were doing, but we knew we wanted to do it!’ 

Later the acquisition of an EMS Synthi AKS titled no less than three tracks on their ‘Methodology ’74-’78: Attic Tapes’ (Industrial Records, 1980, expanded for Mute Records, 2002). Where Cabaret Voltaire are concerned, definition remained nebulous. How to classify a 01:10-minute ‘Jet Passing Over’ which is simply a doubled electronic sound-replication of aeroplane jets in the sky, phasey, like a radio tuning itself in and out of focus? Or ‘Jack Stereo Unit’ which is a confusion of conflicting speech, ‘Treated Guitar’ is splodge-sounds, at least the 01:47 ‘Sad Synth’ recognizably utilizes a synthesizer, while the 39-second ‘Space Patrol’ uses cheap TV Sci-Fi effects in the way that The Future would. These were what Chris Watson described as the ‘new-found freedoms.’

Adding Stephen Mallinder’s bass guitar, their first gig was a ‘Science For People’ Student Disco at the University Upper Refectory on Tuesday 13 May 1975, percussion consisted of a tape-loop recording of a steam-hammer – recorded by Chris in Belgium, while Richard improvised on clarinet while bedecked in flashing Xmas-tree lights. Needless to say, reception was not even mixed – it was hostile, resulting in Mallinder’s trip to the A&E department as a consequence of a fracas with the unruly and unappreciative audience. But if there has to be a date for the Big Bang ignition of Sheffield Electro, this is it. The E=MC2 moment. Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh were taking note.


Lest we forget, there was still a Soviet Union and a Cold War going on, the world seemed breathlessly paused on the brink of mutual assured destruction. But if the crack of doom wasn’t to be heard on some hydrogen jukebox, it just might uncoil from that next C60 in the mail. 

What semantic references, mythological splendours and glittering epithets can be attached to The Human League? Their career was lived forwards, but must be understood backwards, from today back to then. An exercise in de-structuring images and image-making. But all that’s really essential to know is that The Human League brought Pop from the age of the Flintstones to the age of the Jetsons virtually overnight. This is my chance to set history straight, for they were as original as the solar system. 

Sheffield is a small city, and isolated from what was happening in London. In the same way that Liverpool had been isolated from the fads and fashions of the Southern-based music biz in 1963… and by the end of the 1970s simple Casio synths were as cheap and easily-available as guitars...

This is the ‘Introduction’ of my book:

(SonicBond Publishing, 2022)

1 comment:

Rex said...

OK... Let's go -