It’s the same old story in a lot of respects. A town filled with disaffected youth facing miserable futures discovers a new sound through a visiting artist, and, overnight, becomes a vibrant music scene. Some of the local bands become worldwide artists, others at least have one or two moments where they briefly realize a dream of musical success, while many simply burn out and rejoin the real world after their youthful energy dissipates. The story told in director Eva Wood’s documentary Made in Sheffield could be told about dozens of towns at different times in musical history, yet it is also a very specific story that makes a valid argument that what happened in Sheffield during the late seventies and early eighties was a dramatic change in rock and roll.
The film opens with a few brief shots of the industrial town of Sheffield, a thoroughly monotonous and miserable looking place. If there’s one constant through the dozens of interviewees featured on the film, it’s that they continually remind the listener that the one goal of every young person in Sheffield was to escape from Sheffield, and from the stultifying labor they were seemingly doomed to endure. This unique combination of hopelessness, a sense of “we’re doomed anyways, why don’t we try it”, and the machine-oriented society that the young were brought up in, made Sheffield the ideal harvesting ground for what eventually became known as synth-pop.
The list of bands that came from this “forgotten portion of the world” as Sheffield’s first zinester Martin Liliker states at one point, is a phenomenal roll call of some of the more innovative bands in new wave: The Human League (who get the most screen time), Heaven 17, ABC, Cabaret Voltaire, and (much later) Pulp. Don’t come to Made in Sheffield for an in-depth exploration of the glory days of new wave or its repercussions. Wood is interested in the story of the local scene, when the bands were hand-pressing their own records and, (in the case of Cabaret Voltaire), advertising by playing their own records out of their own vehicles while slowly driving through Sheffield. Wood gives equal time to the people who made it, and those who didn’t. Most importantly, she lets them tell the story of Sheffield’s brief moment where it was the most experimental music scene in the country.
Apparently, the gig that set Sheffield ablaze was not, as in so many other English towns at the time, a Sex Pistols gig. Few of the bands featured on the movie are straightforward punk acts. Instead it was Kraftwerk who inspired countless people to go build their own synthesizers and see what kind of sounds they could make. Nearly every other musician goes out of his way to claim that they did not ever consider themselves musicians. The punk spirit was there, but they one-upped the challenge to the status quo. While the Sex Pistols were tying to destroy everything with the instruments of their parents, the Sheffield bands, as the film shows, were trying to move way beyond all rock clichés. “We thought we were killing off rock and roll,” Ian Craig Marsh of the Human League and Heaven 17 says, and he is only half-joking. The sheer hopelessness of the Sheffield conditions gave the youth in the area a sense of “why not?”. So, instead of loud angry guys with guitars playing songs that all sound the same, bands would come on playing things that looked like props from B-level sci-fi films while glammed-out lead singers would mutter and scream at various intervals. While many of the lesser acts are, to be honest, more interesting than “good”, the film focuses on how great it was that these acts were able to explore new ground.
In fact, the stories of these almost-were bands are perhaps the most captivating parts of the film. Dressed in the clothing of their hipster youth, these middle aged men look back at an exciting although brief moment of their lives, and look back with a little sadness at the moment when their dreams died. Members of such forgotten bands as the Joy Division-inspired Artery and 2.3 (who released the first Sheffield record), recollect the moments when they realized that they dream was dying right about when bands like ABC (formed from the ashes of freak-out, experimental group Vice Versa) and the Human League were appearing on Top of the Pops. Most moving of all is the story of the Extras, who were the biggest band in Sheffield, a pub-band that distinguished itself from the rash of experimental bands: “They were avant garde, we were avant-a-clue”. The two main members of the Extras, drinking hard liquor early in the morning, drop their joking around towards the end of the interview. Noting that they lost their fanbase in an attempt to relocate to London and strike it big, they begin to break down into a discussion about how you never really live down failure. It is their story that is really the tragicomic lynchpin of the whole film.
Oddly enough, the film presents the whole Sheffield scene as something of a beautiful failure by de-emphasizing the later successes of influential bands like Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League, and limiting Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker’s input into discussions of what the Sheffield scene affected to his teenaged shelf. (He provides fascinating insight into the birth of Pulp, however, on the plethora of extended interviews in the DVD’s special features.) With the high profile bands skipping town and touring the world, and the lesser bands are forced to break up and face adult living, the scene effectively dies. Despite its bold attempt to kill rock and roll, the Sheffield scene’s most popular turned out to be the slick mainstream heavy metal of Def Leppard. Made in Sheffield, in pointing attention back to one of the strangest musical scenes in modern history, at least transforms this failure into a pyrrhic victory.