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Book: Sounds Northern

Chapter: 3. 'They Say a Town is Just a Town, Full Stop, but What do They Know?': Architecture, Urbanism and Pop in Sheffield

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.31964


Sheffield competes only with London, Glasgow and Birmingham for the intensity of its transformation in the immediate post-war decades. Under an effective Labour one-party state, the city embarked on a massive programme of rebuilding, which had extremely melodramatic architectural results. Rather than being designed by volume builders or engineers, Sheffield's housing schemes were produced by the city architect's department, and placed quite deliberately on the city's hillside peaks, as if to announce the city and its priorities from a distance - an effect described in Jonathan Coe's novel What a Carve Up as a socialist citadel, independent and hostile to the capital - the 'socialist Republic of South Yorkshire', as it was only half-jokingly described.
This paper attempts to answer the question of whether there is a reason for the fact that Sheffield had this hugely ambitious programme, and the fact that it developed between the late 70s and the early 90s the most consistently interesting, original and developed music scene outside of London, Glasgow and Manchester, to a degree that far outweighs the city's size, or its influence on national politics or culture before (or, in many respects, since). That influence is hard to quantify - certainly, there is no evidence of it affecting the city's popular culture or popular music to any significant degree before the late '70s. At that point, however, various Sheffield bands deliberately evoked, described, sometimes celebrated and sometimes critiqued the city's architecture and planning.
At the end of the 1970s, Sheffield's overwhelming post-war architecture and car-centred planning was obliquely referenced in the artwork and some of the songs on Comsat Angels's Waiting for a Miracle, as a rather glamorously oppressive space, on the model of Joy Division's Manchester. On the other hand, The Human League evoked it in a much more positive fashion, referencing the 'streets in the sky' housing schemes in lyrics and videos, and writing optimistically about 'high-rise living' ('not so bad', Phil Oakey informs us). Over a decade later, Pulp's presentation of the city is much more explicit, naming streets, particular modernist schemes (Kelvin, Park Hill, Castle Market) in a manner that oscillates between utopian possibility and a grim reality. Meanwhile, the city council's policy of letting post-industrial space at tiny or nonexistent rents encouraged an important techno scene around groups like Forgemasters, with a clearly modernist aesthetic.
Recent years have seen the marketing of privatised parts of this 'socialist citadel' via an appeal to its popular music history. Sheffield's modern architecture and pop music is perhaps now another kind of heritage culture, linked in the covers of Richard Hawley's records in a fond, slightly rueful nostalgia. However, the Sheffield experience is perhaps most valuable for complicating the tendency to read modernism and pop, state planning and small-time enterprise, as intrinsically opposed.

Chapter Contributors

  • Owen Hatherley ( - ohatherley) 'Independent Scholar'