WATCH American movies, say Helen Steele and Sheldon Wood, and you’ll have the impression that if you walk into a rock bar you’ll immediately become part of a fist fight.
In fact, says Helen, Sheffield rockers are generally intelligent people with good jobs.
Sheldon, for example, works with local government on welfare reform while Helen is a former financial consultant for the banking industry. Nevertheless, they both have long hair, dark clothes and like Mötley Crüe, Whitesnake and Aerosmith.
And now they are also co-owners of The Nelson Rock Bar in Furnival Gate.
Earlier this year, the previous owner was nearing retirement age and was asking around for somebody to take on the challenge of providing a home for Sheffield’s rock music fans.
“We thought about it and in the end said we’d give it a go,” says Sheldon. “We said if not us, what’s going to happen to the place? Where are we going to go?”
He and fellow customer John Fairest brought in two friends who had run pubs before and a little later Helen, another customer of the Nelson (and in earlier days, The Wapentake).
“My savings weren’t doing very much because interest rates were so low, so we put our money into the lease and rent here instead.”
They put their time and further savings into a frantic three-week refurbishment, when the new owners and their friends stayed at the pub for 12-hour days to redecorate.
“I used to think it was black lino on the floor and mahogany on the bar,” says Helen, “but it was actually years of grime – spilt beer, muddy boots and cigarette smoke. Years of dark, grungy muck.”
What Sheldon and Helen realised was that aficionados of seventies and eighties rock music tended to be of a certain age these days.
The Nelson has been pubs of various persuasions and names but it had been a rock pub of sorts for the last seven or eight years.
The original younger owner of The Nelson had a penchant for Nü-Metal, so ‘classic’ rock fans were demoted to the small (even darker) basement area, while a younger generation considered the merits of Slipknot in the main bar.
“The thing was it tended to be packed downstairs in the dungeon, while upstairs you might have six teenagers,” says Helen. “So we decided to turn it upside down.”
If the main customers are rockers of the middle ages and beyond, rock bars ought to reflect that. “People our age are too long in the tooth for standing in dark, dingy, black rock pubs.”
So the partners put in over £30,000 of savings, ‘blitzed the place’, went for white walls in the upstairs bar, a classy sound system, album cover decor, new bar equipment, real ales and, just as importantly for vintage rockers, quite a lot of comfy chairs.
“We want to sit down,” says Helen. “It’s an age thing and what’s wrong with that?”
One problem is that younger people these days have no money. “When I was 17 I’d be out several nights a week. Now it’s only our generation who can afford to do that. Nowadays, teenagers don’t have the luxury of being able to go out three or four nights a week.”
Most young people with an interest in rock music forgo the pub beforehand, stay at home, then go straight to a rock club before the free entry deadline, Helen notes.
The Nelson is working with Red Tape studios to provide an outlet for young rock musicians, however. Sheldon hopes it will provide a free venue for new bands to play their first gigs.
The downstairs room is already providing a venue and the pub welcomes inquiries from rock bands of all persuasions wanting to play.
The aim when the pub reopened in August was to grow steadily, says Sheldon. The old Nelson was only open on Fridays and Saturdays but the new version is open from noon from Tuesday to Saturday.
Already the new place is attracting visitors from Nottingham, Leeds and Manchester and the traditional rock night on Saturday is packed upstairs and down. The investment, Sheldon says, appears to be paying off.
The Nelson staff remember The Wapentake with affection. Sheffield’s famed rock bar of a generation ago was characterful in its decor and hygiene but it was also friendly, welcoming to all and played the right music at a time when rock fans were not always appreciated.
In her Wap days, Helen recalls being chased through Castle Market by skinheads, apparently because she was wearing an Afghan coat.
Sheldon and Helen hope The Nelson can create a Wapentake ambience without the less welcome side-effects.
“Going in the Wap and sticking to the floor, with stuff dripping off the ceiling and the ladies’ being two inches deep in standing water is fine when you’re in your 20s,” Helen said, “But when you get a bit older you appreciate a clean, tidy pub.”
Plans include a traditional rockers’ celebration on Christmas Eve, links with the student rock societies in the New Year, private parties and even possible Nelson day trips for the clientele, which Helen believes may be very popular among first generation Aerosmith followers.
“We could have a day trip to Blackpool,” she ponders. “In a charabanc with a crate of brown ale on the back seat.”
lThe Nelson Rock Bar, tel 275 4222, email firstname.lastname@example.org