The other day I watched an incredible documentary, Made in Sheffield, that brought back many of the musical memes and memories of my reckoning youth. What I call “The Sheffield Sound” was a movement in the UK in the ’70’s and ’80’s that changed the music world with the introduction of “synthetic sounds.”

Synthesizers were given priority over the standard musical drive of a lead guitar. David Bowie said the music coming out of Sheffield was “the future of music.” Was David Bowie right? Or did the Sheffield Sound implode in vanished wishes and bitter competition? “The Human League” was the lead “sound” coming out of Sheffield, and of the two versions of the band, one didn’t make any money:

While the second version of The Human League made it big with hits like HumanFascination and Don’t You Want Me:

The original brainpower behind The Human League splintered away to create the band Heaven 17 and more hits like Play to Win and I’m Your Money rocketed up the charts showing others that the Sheffield Sound was robust, inspired and worthwhile:

One of the biggest bands to sieve out of the Sheffield depression was the band ABC. ABC’s mega-hits include The Look of LovePoison Arrow and Be Near Me:

We can’t forget Cabaret Voltaire and their wild sounds from Red Mecca:

Is the Sheffield Sound still sound today?

Or has its influence died out in the return to metal backbeats and the Telecaster lead?
If we turn to current bands like Muse and their inspired Knights of Cydonia — some of the unwitting call Muse and that incredible song a tribute to the band Queen — I argue Knights of Cydonia is actually a clever hailing trackback to the vainglorious days of The Celebrated Sheffield Sound.

19 Comments

  1. The album the song I linked to comes from is called “The Soft Bulletin” and could be one of the most introspective albums ever written. Mild exaggeration, I suppose but it really is up there.
    The lyrics are all like this – they sort of make you question yourself.

    Is that gash in your leg
    Really why you have stopped?
    Cause I’ve noticed all the others
    Though they’re gashed, they’re still going
    Cause I feel like the real reason
    That you’re quitting, that you’re admitting
    That you’ve lost all the will to battle on

    At the time I felt as though I had so few friends and so an opportunity to self-challenge was quite welcome.

  2. Where do I even start on Monsey? Let’s see. It’s a little hard because four years have passed and I have a tendency to gloss over the bad things and focus on the good things in my past. I spent nearly six months in Monsey learning at the Ohr Somayach yeshiva – school for Orthodox Jewish learning. The problems i had there were chiefly that I felt a cultural void – nobody knew anything about some things I was interested in that were not school related. It was like going to law school with people who only want to talk about law related subjects.
    Despite all this I learned quite a lot while living there and sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I had only stayed until I had been matched with someone appropriate for me – and I would be married now. Would I be more or less happy? Hard to say.
    I’m glad I lived in Monsey and one day I may look back at my years here and point out the significance it had. I have done some good here but the costs have been staggering – not just money, either.

  3. Great question. Actually, nobody stopped you from listening to music – though one roommate made a sarcastic remark one Friday afternoon when I was listening to the then new Hail to the Thief – another brilliant use of technology in the Sheffield way. He was sort of right, though – it is very depressing music and Friday afternoon is all about the awesomeness of the oncoming Shabbos day! 🙂
    My link has to go to my End of the Monsey Exile article for Go Inside Magazine 🙂

  4. Gordon!
    Music is very powerful! Music fomented the sexual revolution and rock and roll in the 50’s and led us out of Vietnam in the 60’s. Having the “wrong” music in your ears can play with your head and affect values and spirit and I’m surprised Monsey didn’t change you down and remove those tunes! 😉
    Love the Monsey article! So much information that few too people know! Thanks for that textual cultural exchange!

  5. Hi there
    Loved the item on the Sheffield sound, hailing as I do from Leeds in Yorkshire. I was around at the time all this was happening. A lot of it centred on the limit club in the centre of Sheffield. Great to see someone mentioning Cabaret Voltaire they are so under rated. Clock DVA also deserve a mention as well as they were right at the forefront of this, although they never really gained a wider audience. Just one little critiscm, the second picture you used is of Orchestral Manouvres in the dark who come from Liverpool !

  6. Thanks for the fine comment, David!
    “A Thousand Ways” is a haunting song from Cabaret Voltaire.
    Did you see any of the bands perform in person before they broke out? Thanks for the heads up on Click DVA.
    The second image is definitely of The Human League: Susan Ann Gayle, Philip Oakey and Joanne Catherall — it’s an older version of them, but it is them!

  7. I think practically all electronica today can trace its roots back to the Sheffield sound. In that sense, it’s not dead.
    If I had to pick one exemplar song from the era, it’d have to be “Yashar” by Cabaret Voltaire.

  8. Heya CT!
    Thanks for he comment and you’re right on point. That specific synthesized voicing is rooted in Sheffield and still stings today in modern music from Madonna to Trance Music to the World Beat.
    It’s an amazing legacy, really, considering the psychic and economic depression from whence it sprang; and to think how many great musicians who help found the sound never made any money on it or got out… while only a select few became multi-millionaires — on a single debut album that still sells well today — must be a hard beat to swallow for those left behind.
    Thanks for the heads up on “Yashar.” I just downloaded it from iTunes. That song has an amazing and eerie sound!

  9. Hi there
    Sorry, first picture is Orchestral manouevres not the second ! I saw the Cabs play live, they were booed by the militant punk crowd but I have to say that they were presenting the future, if only those people could have seen it !
    I remember when Human league split in two there was an awful lot of bad press between the two parties
    regards

  10. David!
    I thank you much for your expert help! I dug deeper and replaced both Human League images with new promo images that show faces and should, I hope, now reflect the truth of the different Leagues! 😀
    I appreciate your ongoing correction!
    Thanks for the detail on the birth of the Cabs! That must’ve been an electrifying time.
    There’s still a lot of hurt feelings between the Leagues and if Heaven 17 hadn’t happened there might’ve been even a bigger fury. Phil has hinted many times he wants a reunion and he thanks the original guys and that he wants to move on without any hard feelings…