Nestling at the foot of the Pennines (named after the Italian Apennines by the conquering Romans), the town of Sheffield has always had a reputation for its contrary, awkward and bloody-minded people. While the temperament can be frustrating, it is also part of our charm, and contributes to Sheffield's atmosphere as a distinctive city. Sheffield could not possibly be mistaken for Manchester, Leeds or London, and this uniqueness partly explains how the city has produced such an eclectic music scene, fostering the hard rock band Def Leppard, crooners like Joe Cocker, and electro-pop pioneers including Cabaret Voltaire, the Human League, Heaven 17 and ABC. All of them started out doing something slightly out of the ordinary, ploughing their own stubborn furrows in the capital of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire until the world noticed them. It is a pattern that has carried on till today with groups such as the Arctic Monkeys (on whom more, later).
However, every city has its own poet laureate: Alan Bennett in Leeds, John Betjeman in London, Noel Gallagher in Manchester. There is always one individual who can capture the essence of a town with a few well-chosen words, a quaint phrase, and a good ear for accents. From the glory days of 1994 up until now, the strongest voice writing about Sheffield has been Jarvis Cocker. His lyrics encapsulate the city of the miners' strike and the Labour-led councils, from the Park Hill flats to the Pennines, from the Moor to Meadowhall, from the Leadmill to Low Edges. In his songs, every part of the city's life is dissected and diffused to a wider audience.
Showing that there is more to Sheffield than The Full Monty and the empty shells where the steel works used to stand along the Don, Jarvis Cocker and Pulp have had an immense influence, inspiring many other bands to follow in their footsteps. One of the greatest effects of the Pulp phenomenon was that Sheffield was suddenly seen as cool, somewhere to visit rather than sneer at, and Pulp's music and attitude helped to bridge the gap between the post-industrial early nineties and the new Sheffield, a city of lifestyle apartments, contemporary art galleries, new jobs and industries, and big new venues for music, sport, and entertainment, not to mention a vibrant, busy city centre.
Although Pulp were formed in the early eighties as Arabacus Pulp by Jarvis Cocker, Wayne Furniss, Jamie Pinchbeck and Peter Dalton, the group were on the fringes of indie music for the best part of the eighties and early nineties, even though they recorded a session for radio legend John Peel in November 1981. Their breakthrough only began with the release of the single Babies in 1992 on Gift Records, reissued in 1994 on the Sisters EP following the success of the singles Lipgloss and Do You Remember The First Time? from 1994's His 'n' Hers album. At this point, Pulp's core line-up were Jarvis, Steve Mackey on bass, Candida Doyle on keys, Russell Senior on guitar and violin, and Nick Banks on drums. Arriving on a wave of up-and-coming bands like Suede, Oasis, Blur and the Verve, His 'n' Hers helped launch the Britpop revolution. Over ten years later, the songs are still fresh, particularly Babies and Lipgloss with their tales of mundane suburban lives looking for transformation, and characters out of Alan Plater dramas. His 'n' Hers' tour-de-force, however, is the closing quintet that includes Happy Endings, Do You Remember The First Time?, Pink Glove, Someone like the Moon, and David's Last Summer. This set is arguably the point at which Jarvis's lyrical preoccupations and the musical influences, including dance beats, magically came together to allow all the pathos, energy and sentimentality to shine through. From the euphoria of love, to loss and remembering, this closing set has it all. Ending a great record on a high, it also signposted Pulp's next direction. It was the first of the band's albums for Island Records, and reappeared in 2006 as a newly remastered, deluxe edition with new sleeve notes by Jarvis and a second disc of bonus material: B-sides, demos, and live favourites such as Space and Deep Fried in Kelvin.
1995's Different Class cannot be discussed without first mentioning the song Common People, written as an angry riposte to the class tourists, posh people slumming it and pretending to be working-class. (Jarvis has never said whether it was aimed at any specific band in the Britpop pack, but I have my suspicions). It garnered such a response on its live debut that the single was released in May 1995, and went straight to number two in the charts. The success of Common People turned Pulp from the next big thing into the big thing, and Different Class, with its cast of misfits and misshapes, became the number one album. Other huge singles included the controversial Sorted For E's & Wizz, about the rave culture of the time (The Daily Mirror tried to have it banned), and the ubiquitous Disco 2000, which still burns up the floor at Sheffield's Leadmill on a Wednesday night.
On the previous album Jarvis had found his voice, and on this one he was using it with all his might, to connect with the ordinary fan, with the music nut in his bedroom, with the lovers, the losers, and the outcasts. If, in the Britpop days, Blur were Tory and Oasis were the Labour Party, then Pulp were the Liberals, demonstrating the existence of an alternative route. Musically, the band had upped their game, with long-time roadie and assistant Mark Webber joining them full-time on guitars, enhancing the sound on this well-rounded album. Ending with the wistful and wonderful Bar Italia, this was Pulp's most mature and successful record to date. Disc two of the new (2006) double album contains the triumphant performance of Common People at Glastonbury 1995, where the crowd knows the entire song. Different Class turned Pulp into stars and Britpop royalty, and Jarvis hit the front pages with his protest against Michael Jackson at the 1996 Brit Awards. Ironically, by singing about the lives of Common People, he and the group had lost their anonymity, and this lowered Jarvis's spirits. At this point, Pulp also lost Russell Senior, who left them to pursue other projects. If Different Class was the party, then 1998's This is Hardcore (the last of the Pulp albums to be remastered and reissued in a double-pack) was most definitely the morning after. It captured the dark side of celebrity, from the title track to the big single Help the Aged, which, with its lyrics about being old and forgotten, suggests that Jarvis could foresee the end of the roller-coaster ride. In general, 1997-98 were darker years for English pop and rock, with Radiohead's OK Computer, Blur turning experimental, and bands like The Verve splitting up. The Britpop days were well and truly over, a fact made clear by this album. Sinister, gloomy electronica is the order of the day, on tracks like The Day After the Revolution and the sleazy and nasty Seductive Barry. Even the quasi-optimistic Glory Days is an anodyne, trite re-write of Cocaine Socialism, a marvellous song that Jarvis has never released as a single, despite its huge brass section and scathing, almost anti-New Labour sentiments. (The track gets a welcome release on the double-pack.) Seedy and pessimistic, This is Hardcore could be mid-eighties Pulp, and yet in 1998 this minor masterpiece failed to make an impact, despite the Bowie-in-Berlin sound of the brilliant Party Hard. Reappraised, the record forms the final part of a great trilogy of albums that made, and nearly destroyed, Pulp.
The band reconvened in 2001 for their last studio album to date, the overlooked and underrated We Love Life, and since 2002 have been on hiatus. They have never officially split, but at the moment Jarvis says that he sees no reason why they should re-form. If those three superb double-CD packages of their best albums are too much for your budget, then The Peel Sessions is the next best thing. It collects everything that they recorded for the great man, including their first session from 1981, radio debuts of Pink Glove, Mile End, and the epic Sunrise, and some fantastic versions of Party Hard and Common People, not to mention a performance of Help the Aged dedicated to Peel. The set is a wonderful introduction to Pulp, far better value than the greatest hits album that, as a contractual obligation, sits in most record stores. Jarvis kept a low profile after We Love Life, resurfacing briefly in 2003 as half of Relaxed Muscle, playing crazy, funny electro-pop and making an appearance in one of the Harry Potter movies. Then all went quiet until last year. In the meantime he moved to Paris, had a family, and rediscovered his muse. His self-titled album appeared on the Rough Trade label in October 2006, after tracks were previewed on MySpace. Assisted by old Pulp stalwarts Richard Hawley and Steve Mackey, he delivers the kind of witty, intelligent pop-rock that was always his forte, with the tongue-in-cheek charm that we have come to associate with him. The album confirms his status as one of the greatest English songwriters. Songs like Don't Let Him Waste Your Time match razor-sharp lyrics with superb melodies, and the ballads Baby's Coming Back to Me and Big Julie reflect a softer side and added maturity, although the mordant Jarvis of old rears his head on the darkly comic Fat Children and Disney Time, as well as the politically incendiary 'hidden' track of which one title is Running the World. Anyone expecting a re-hash of his Pulp days is going to be disappointed, but Jarvis is still as brilliant as ever at turning slice-of-life commentary into catchy music.
As part of his comeback, Jarvis was recently asked to compère the Meltdown festival at the recently refurbished Royal Festival Hall on London's Southbank. For the finale, he himself performed, and I was lucky enough to be in the audience. He blew the crowd away with some fantastic performances, playing his entire debut album, with the added bonus of an appearance by Candida Doyle on keys, and the London Chamber Orchestra and Choir expanding the already mighty sound. Three xylophones turned Baby's Coming Back to Me into a wall of epic music, Big Julie into a rousing piece of optimistic joy, and the finale Black Magic into a magnificent rock-out. A chat about Glastonbury and the mud led into the fantastic Heavy Weather, and the concert ended with a stunning version of Eye of the Tiger. When he encored with Running the World, one or two of the audience members looked shocked, but most seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. The concert was Jarvis at his best. Like the gig he played at Sheffield's Plug in February (the first time he had played his home town in five years), he played no Pulp material at all. With a debut album as strong as this, he doesn't need to.
Back in Sheffield, the gap created by the disappearance of Pulp is already being filled. A huge number of Sheffield bands are being signed to labels, and the reason for this is the Arctic Monkeys effect. Coming out of nowhere to suddenly become the biggest band in England, the Monkeys used Myspace and the internet to tout their wares. On their first album, they took the country by storm and heralded a new wave of guitar bands, a sort of mini Britpop revival. Favourite Worst Nightmare (Domino Records) was probably the most anticipated second album by any band since With the Beatles back in 1963. Fortunately, the Monkeys had the tunes to live up to the hype. On the new record, Alex Turner (no relation) proves that fame has not affected his down-to-earth lyrical take on the world, and heralds a slight shift in musical direction on the closing 505, which is both enigmatic and beautiful, full of longing. Musically, the tracks are hard and fast on this relatively short album, which is as good as, if not better than, their first record. Like all great Sheffield rock, it is full of word-play and sharp vignettes. In short, Sheffield's biggest export have done it again. The world is theirs if they want it.
With the success of the Monkeys, record labels are hoping that the reflected glory will rub off onto the new Sheffield bands. Luckily for us, many of them are fantastic. Unsurprisingly, some have a Pulp connection. Narcissus Road (A&M Records) is the debut album by the Hours, founded by former Pulp member Anthony Genn and musical cohort Martin Slattery. With a striking Damien Hirst sleeve, it is dark rock at its finest. Songs about being yourself (People Say) and other topics are written with a lyrical panache worthy of Jarvis, and the sweeping orchestral backdrop covers all the bases, from Scott Walker to early Human League, Radiohead, and eighties Pulp.
Someone to Drive you Home, on Rough Trade, is by one of the hottest new bands from Sheffield, The Long Blondes, fronted by the fantastic (and gorgeous) Kate Jackson. Produced by former Pulp man Steve Mackey, this punchy album is littered with spiky lyrical couplets. On rockier songs Lust in the Movies and Giddy Stratosphere, the group mix garage rock with smart words, while the slower tracks Weekend Without Makeup and Once and Never Again add a world-weary pathos. One of the best debut albums I've heard in a long time, this should be in everyone's record collection.
Dead Like Harry are another fantastic Sheffield group. Their debut album Stories from the Cellar, with tracks including Steel Town and Tenth October, showed just how talented they are. The brilliance continues on Red Dress, an album of nine songs running at just under forty minutes. There's no filler here, just a collection of great folk-pop tracks, with Matt Taylor and Alice Faraday's voices perfectly matched. Their superb four-part harmonies with Sally Brown and Sam Taylor (Matt's brother) build to a crescendo on the epic Lake Geneva, which must be one of the best songs written in the past decade. Other stand-out tracks include the brilliant Bells, and the closing Nothing Matters Now. After establishing a brilliant live reputation in Sheffield and a loyal following, even the loss of Sally Brown and original drummer Gracjan Szwezyk has not halted the band's progress. With Matt and Sam coming up with superb material like this, it won't be long before Dead Like Harry are as big as they deserve to be.
Tiny Dancers offer a poppy alternative to the rockier and spikier Sheffield bands. This does not mean that their music is trivial, however. On their debut album Free School Milk (Parlophone), they tackle dark and light, and all the shades in between, with a sure-footed instinct for the right place to use a big chorus (Hannah We Know, and I Will Wait For You) and more serious ballads such as Ashes and Diamonds. Blending lyrical playfulness with a delightful musical backing, this is a perfect summer album, showcasing a lighter side of Sheffield to the world.
Reverend and the Makers are another well-regarded band, having supported the Arctic Monkeys, and their debut single Heavyweight Champion of the World is a slice of pure Sheffield dance-rock. Mixing club beats with cynical lyrics about broken dreams and the should-have-been, this is going to be a big hit, different enough from the Monkeys' material to guarantee the group a separate identity and audience. On the B-side, The Last Resort is a piece of trans-Pennine poetry performed with Salford's poet laureate, the great John Cooper Clarke. Sparring with singer Jon McClure, Clarke shows that he has lost none of his verbal bite and inventiveness.
At the moment, Sheffield is still tidying up from the recent floods. People and pets, houses and cars, shops and businesses were all flooded out. The experience of the floods was like a disaster movie, with the M1 shut, dams threatening to burst their banks, and people being airlifted out by helicopter. Yet the inhabitants are carrying on in spite of it all. Doggedness, as well as individuality, are great Sheffield traits, and they are displayed by all these bands in one way or another, and by others, as yet undiscovered, still playing the Boardwalk, Grapes, Leadmill and Octagon. --James R. Turner