How Sheffield has influenced synthpop, jazz, opera and more

Heaven 17 in the 1980s - Martyn Ware, Glenn Gregory, Ian Craig Marsh
Heaven 17 in the 1980s - Martyn Ware, Glenn Gregory, Ian Craig Marsh

As Arctic Monkeys play four huge homecoming gigs at the FlyDSA Arena, cultural figures are asked: “How has Sheffield shaped its musicians and songwriters?​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​”

Martyn Ware, Heaven 17/Human League/B.E.F.

Not being a traditionally-trained musician, I’ve now realised with the benefit of hindsight that I was heavily influenced by the sound of Sheffield when I was growing up. The smaller end of the steel industry, the ‘little mesters’ stuff, was still happening in the centre of Sheffield and the place where we rehearsed was an ex-little mester’s shop. I lived very close to the centre of Sheffield so fundamentally I was constantly surrounded by the sounds of industry, which I thought was completely normal. 

And also on a larger scale you could always hear the sound of the drop forges from the big steelworks down in the valley ricocheting up. When I was tiny I used to live just off Weston Street in Upperthorpe and I could clearly hear that, particularly on still summer evenings – it’s like the heartbeat of the city, really. 

And we had lots of places where people could rehearse for virtually nothing in the centre of Sheffield, because a lot of people had moved out. It was very much about having your own place – imagine being a teenager, and you and your mates have got a place which is yours. It frees the imagination.

The other thing is, I met most of the people – including Glenn Gregory and Ian Craig Marsh, we went on to form Heaven 17 – at a place called Meatwhistle, which was in the Holly Building at the back of the City Hall. This was a Sheffield Council-funded enterprise about bringing together secondary school kids from all different types of backgrounds, from extremely poor to quite fancy in Sheffield terms. It started off as a drama-based thing in collaboration with the Crucible but quickly turned into a test bed for imagining you were in a pop group, for instance, and playing for your mates.  This stood us in good stead for future band formation. 

The main two people were Chris and Veronica Wilkinson, who were actors – they saw the potential for young people being creative. It was an amazing, life-changing thing and to this day I keep saying to anyone who will listen to me, what we need is Meatwhistle 2, essentially; not just support, but people with a bit of vision. It didn’t actually cost that much money.

Colette Dutot, Sheffield Music Hub manager

Sheffield has helped shaped me as a musician, educator and composer, initially through studying 20th century classical music and composition at the university. 

Returning back to Sheffield after an extensive period travelling, I discovered Sheffield Jazz, their gigs and their workshops. This completely opened up a new world for me, engaging with a group of keen musicians that expanded my love for jazz and also opportunities to perform at local gigs. Many of the musicians and the tutors running those workshops have become close friends and other musical projects have flowed from this. 

It has been fascinating to watch the development of music across the city over the last 20 years. The breadth of live music on offer to everyone is huge, from small pub gigs to large venues. Only a week ago I had the privilege of being one of 20 people to watch a very intimate gig of the band Elt at the Hop Hideout. A truly unique experience sitting an arm’s reach from the band.

In complete contrast, on July 8 this year, Sheffield Music Hub put on Hubfest: a one-day festival involving three stages and 160 artists aged eight to 25, all of whom had worked with a professional industry mentor. It was inspiring to see so many young artists develop and collaborate to deliver truly brilliant performances. Sheffield is being recognised nationally. For example, Jazz at the Lescar (Jez Matthew and team) have been nominated for Jazz Venue of the Year by the Parliamentary Jazz Awards. This is a big deal. Sheffield Music Hub, one of just 12 Hubs in the country was awarded the Will Michael Jazz Education Diploma in 2017. 

These are very exciting times.

Andy Cook, director, Yellow Arch Studios

Overarchingly, the city has shaped us and all creative people because of the community.

What’s strange is, the fact Sheffield people talk to each other means things happen. You can’t replace that with social media, that face-to-face interaction. And that's one of the things we’ve got in Sheffield. I don’t know what that’s born out of – mining, steelworks keeping everyone together? It’s something weird. I can feel it a bit in Edinburgh, and a lot in Brighton, San Francisco in America – but we’re struggling. 

Also, just in Yorkshire alone, it’s like ‘If I’ve got a quid you can have it’, and ‘If I’ve got a spade you can borrow it’. That’s something quite special but hard to define.

In the creative world, and very much so in music, you will never find a job advertised unless it’s for ‘secretary’ or ‘personal assistant to’. And I don’t think you’ll see it in the dance world, or the art world, film and media – why would you advertise and have a complete stranger in the room?

It’s always about getting out there and talking, and getting your face out there. So much happens in Sheffield because that’s what we do. There is no notice board for creative jobs: ‘Instant stardom, ring this number now’.

Young kids get in here and it’s like an unbelievable wake-up call, because it’s hard work and they had no idea – sitting editing things, making decisions on your vocal and reverbs. Eventually they come round.

Kathryn Gasic, co-founder and producer, Opera On Location

I came to Sheffield University to study for a bachelor’s degree in music in 2008. I came to Sheffield as an oboeist; I also played the harp. It was great – our first term was still up at the old music department in Crookes, this little tucked-away house. For a long time we were off the grid, really, of the main university. There was a real family vibe and the administrator at the time, Jo Burrows, was almost like this mother hen figure, she looked out for everyone. At that time I think there was only about 50 undergraduate students per year, so it was a really small course when you compare it to things like engineering or English. 

We got to go to a lot of the concerts for free, or maybe £1 or something, and that was a really brilliant way of taking advantage of what the university concert series had to offer. You could immerse yourself in really high-quality concerts that were coming to the city. It was nice that there were some you had to attend for certain lectures, as well. 

There was also Music in the Round which has an under-30s scheme where you can get £5 tickets. Stuff like that is amazing because you’re in this city to study music and you’ve got this world-class chamber ensemble on your doorstep.

Opera on Location started in Sheffield in 2013; Gareth Lloyd and I took a punt on this one project – the university ran a festival called A Boy Was Born, a celebration of the Benjamin Britten centenary. We performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Winter Garden and it was absolutely amazing to have the support of the university behind us. The company didn’t have a name and we sold 600 tickets to a Britten opera. It was totally unheard of. After that we thought ‘Hey, we’re on to something here’. And of course we are the professional resident opera company for Sheffield – there is no other.