‘Dreams To Fill The Vacuum – The Sound Of Sheffield 1978-1988’

❉ Ange Chan reviews this collection exploring the punk and post-punk sound of the ‘steel city’.

Sheffield in the late 1970s and early 1980s was an extremely bleak place to be.  It was a forgotten city in decline; factories were closing left, right and centre and its vast housing estates were starting to decay and crumble to the ground.  It was a city that was no longer living on its former glory of the industriousness of its worldwide steel heritage.  Everything seemed to be taking a downward trajectory for the South Yorkshire city; to add insult to injury, even its two football teams were experiencing their worst times in living memory.

However, out of the bleakness was to emerge a musical revolution in the post-Punk era.  Taking advantage of the vast, and more importantly cheaply available performance spaces now available to rehearse in, the young local talent emerged from the shadows to challenge the musical legacies created at that time by London, and fellow Northern cities like Manchester and Liverpool.  Places like The Leadmill became available, and over the years it has grown into a famous music venue, considered to be a ‘must play’ rite-of-passage venue.

At that time in history many towns and cities were extremely insular, and the record-buying youth tended to stay in their own areas to experience the music they enjoyed.  Radio was relied upon to access previously unheard-of new music and as a mechanism, was much more fundamental than it is these days when new music can be accessed via a variety of technologically advanced mediums.  Radio 1’s John Peel was from the North West of England and championed many of the emerging acts from all over the country.  He was well respected and seen as the guru for new and alternative acts; if he liked them, they got played on his Sunday night radio show.

For our younger, and less-initiated readers, let me paint a picture… This was a time when vinyl and cassettes were the medium of choice (the choice being either or) and mobile phones were something that were largely unheard of in 1978, and something which only City Boys in London had by 1988.  If you wanted to speak to someone you called on a phone landline; if they weren’t answering you gave up, as there was no voicemail available.  There was no such thing as email, and if you wanted to write to someone, you put pen to paper.  Times were extremely primitive by today’s tech-rich standards.   Aspiring acts would get themselves heard by sending cassettes to DJs such as Peely, and fanzines such as Whippings and Apologies which showcased local bands specific to the South Yorkshire area.

A new release by Cherry Red in an extensive 4-CD pack charts the emergence of talent from the era between 1978 and 1988, which subsequently put the South Yorkshire region firmly on the musical map of the UK as one of the most exciting and innovative cities, producing landmark commercially successful artists such as The Human League, Heaven 17, Pulp, ABC, and BEF.

Taking the collection’s title from I’m So Hollow’s track of the same name, the collection is split by chronological order; 1977-1981 which opens with the synth heavy experimental sounds of Dancevision by The Human League perhaps the most iconic act to emerge from Sheffield, 1981-1982 which highlights the emergence of Heaven 17 following the branching out of The Human League into its newly formed incarnation with the additional of Susanne Sulley and Joanne Cathrall, 1982-1984 in which Pulp and The Danse Society came to the fore and started to change the musical landscape of Sheffield, and finally 1984-1988 which charts the emergence of a number of largely commercially unsuccessful artists which were influenced by their local peers who went on to their gradual yet steady placing of Sheffield the city, in electronic and pop history.

The essence of Sheffield is showcased in this collection from the roots of the synthesizer on tracks like BEF’s A Baby Called Billy which demonstrate their harsh piecing sounds, mimicking the brutalist architecture of the city, through to the punk-inspired monotony of Ipso Facto’s Manniquin.  As well as commercially successful artists you can experience Fish and Breadcake’s self-titled track which is a forerunner to bands like Stomp; scant vocals, drum-based beats in classic home-produced randomness.

Pulp evidently feature in this CD collection in the form of the track Everybody’s Problem.  There are possibly more Sheffield-based songs that could have been chosen, (Babies, Joyriders and Deep Fried in Kelvin being three that immediately spring to mind) however Sheffield runs through Pulp like letters in a stick of Blackpool rock.  Jarvis is Sheffield.  He left the city in September 1988 when he started to write about the place but deeming himself to be “too involved” in the location.  He moved away to London to seek the romance of his hometown from a geographically displaced viewpoint.  He said, “I couldn’t wait to get away from Sheffield and have spent all my time since trying to recreate it in my memory”.

The handy hardback book which forms part of this collection includes essays and memoirs from some of the artists who feature on this collection, giving a first-hand commentary of their songs and the socio-economic landscape at that time, which spawned the music and lyrics at the time of release.  Within the book, there’s extensive sleeve notes on each song, adding an insightful kudos to the collection as a whole.  All in all, it’s a neat package and would make a perfect present for the forthcoming Yuletide festivities.

This CD collection is for anyone who wants to track the progression of a musical era which influenced, and is continuing to the influence, generations of music now and in years to come.  It has something for everyone and features classics, rarities, album tracks and twelve previously unreleased songs.  The collection is a musical snapshot which is eminently of that important era in social history and its relationship with the music produced, whilst charting the importance of Sheffield, and all its brutalist and pioneering charm.


Various Artists: ‘Dreams To Fill The Vacuum – The Sound Of Sheffield 1978-1988‘ (4CD Bookpack) Released December 6, 2019, Cherry Red Records CRCDBOX83. RRP £24.99

❉ With grateful thanks to Whippings and Apologies for the kind permission of the use of the image used in this article.

❉ Ange Chan is a regular contributor to We Are Cult and is a writer of novels and poetry.  Her current long-standing, ongoing project is her third novel Champagne Flutes and Pixie Boots which she hopes to see published in 2020.

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