Sheffield in Song: Great Music Inspired by the Steel City

When I first moved to Sheffield in 2009 – to study Music at the University – I didn’t know much about Sheffield and the surrounding area.  In fact, I had only visited the city once, to attend a University open day.  However, as a teenage fan of bands like Pulp and Arctic Monkeys, I felt like I had gleaned a knowledge of the city from their songs, which included references to locations around Sheffield and local landmarks.

As most students and local residents know, Sheffield has a rich musical heritage and is the home of many celebrated bands and musicians.  In the 1960s, northern soul legend Joe Cocker found fame performing in pubs around Sheffield.  The city later became a centre of electronic music, producing bands such as The Human League, ABC and Heaven 17, groups which went on to storm the 1980s pop charts.  Cabaret Voltaire were the great innovators of this era – an experimental band that pushed the boundaries of industrial electronic music.  In the early ‘90s, art school pop-rockers Pulp rose to prominence as part of the Britpop movement, becoming perhaps the most famous and influential Sheffield band to date.  Since then, Sheffield’s best-known musical export is, of course, Arctic Monkeys, who rose to fame in 2005 by promoting their music on the social network Myspace.

What is perhaps most interesting about these artists – and other local musicians – is that many of them have been inspired by the city itself, singing about local places, filming music videos in the city and, in the case of Cabaret Voltaire, replicating the sounds of industrial Sheffield in their music, such as the clanking metallic sounds of the steelworks.  Most notably, songwriters Jarvis Cocker and Alex Turner have frequently drawn inspiration from Sheffield, capturing the city’s unique charm and character in their songs.

Here are just a few of my favourite songs about Sheffield…

‘Coles Corner’ by Richard Hawley

Richard Hawley’s touching, mournful ballad ‘Coles Corner’ is pure nostalgia, with lush orchestration and a vintage 1950s feel.  Hawley’s vocals maintain a rich, powerful quality, whilst simultaneously conveying a sense of yearning and heartache, reinforced by the lyrics which speak of loneliness and lost love.

Coles Corner is, in fact, a real place: it is in the city centre, at the Cathedral end of Fargate (specifically, the corner where Fargate becomes Church Street – where you can catch the 52 bus to the University).  Coles Corner was once a local landmark, and lovers used to meet there before going on dates.  The song (and the album, which is also called Coles Corner) harks back to this era, imaging the many romantic meetings which occurred at Coles Corner, and the relationships that blossomed as a result.

‘Disco 2000’ by Pulp

‘Disco 2000’ is one of Pulp’s best-known songs; it’s a song that is played frequently in pubs and bars around Sheffield, and it seems to have achieved the status of ‘old-school retro classic’ (i.e. perfect Pop Tarts material).  This is probably because it’s so catchy and upbeat, with a chorus that everyone can join in with.

Like ‘Coles Corner’, ‘Disco 2000’ is a song about nostalgia, and remembers a time when houses had ‘woodchip on the wall’.  The song reflects on the awkwardness of youthful relationships and imagines what it would be like to fulfil a long-forgotten promised reunion (‘let’s all meet up in the year 2000, won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown, be there two o’clock by the fountain down the road’).

The fountain mentioned in the chorus was once an important Sheffield landmark: Goodwin Fountain, which stood at the Town Hall end of Fargate (not to be confused with the new Goodwin Fountain in the Peace Gardens).  Sadly, the Goodwin Fountain was demolished in 1998, making it impossible for anyone to meet there in the year 2000.

‘Red Light Indicates Doors are Secured’ by Arctic Monkeys

As well as their really catchy tunes, the success of Arctic Monkeys lies in Alex Turner’s ability to craft songs which almost everyone can relate to, with evocative lyrics that conjure up images of ordinary people in everyday situations.  ‘Red Light Indicates Doors are Secured’ is a perfect example of this, demonstrating Turner’s ability to make even the most banal scenario seem interesting.

The song recounts a typical night out in Sheffield, a disappointing encounter in a club with a girl at the bar, an altercation between two men in a queue, a conversation in the back of a taxi and the instructions shouted to the driver (‘it’s High Green mate, via Hillsborough please’).  Many of the other songs on the band’s first album (Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not) also reference places in Sheffield, and the album is a must-listen for students who are new to the area.

‘Wickerman’ by Pulp

Another Pulp song, this time from the band’s seventh and final album We Love Life.  ‘Wickerman’ is the ultimate musical tribute to Sheffield, a sprawling, sensuous tour of the city, encapsulating nuggets of local knowledge, history and popular folklore.  As is common with Jarvis Cocker’s songs, the lyrics lie somewhere between song-writing and poetry, evoking images of a post-industrial wasteland, bleak concrete river banks, disused factories, traffic islands and man-hole covers.  It is within this forbidding urban landscape that Cocker tells stories of childhood memories, momentous romantic encounters and missed opportunities.  This is a song about real life: the real lives of real people, inhabiting a real city which – in ‘Wickerman’ – seems very much alive.

 

Of course, these are just a few notable examples; there are many more songs about Sheffield, and local musicians continue to write music that is inspired by the city and its unique atmosphere.  In many ways, the very fact that Sheffield has been such a source of inspiration is interesting, and reflects the city’s rich musical heritage, thriving creative culture and proud regional identity.  These songs are valuable because they immortalize the sights, sounds and stories of Sheffield, bringing the city to life and preserving the memory of locations and landmarks that are now long-gone.  Songs are just one of the ways that we can connect with places as they once were and gain an understanding of the history of these landscapes.  Ultimately, it is through this understanding that we can begin to make sense of our relationship with our surroundings and our place in the world.

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