When it comes to music, Sheffield has always had a knack for producing experimental, unconventional acts out of nowhere.
The late 60s and early 70s produced several big names and musical hits from the Steel City. Joe Cocker’s performance of The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” at Woodstock in 1969 turned him into an international star overnight and in 1974 local band Ace had a hit single on the charts with “How Long?”.
One thing that typified Sheffield bands of this era was the fact that many had better success overseas than at home. Joe Cocker became a household name in America after his performance at Woodstock, Ace’s song “How Long?” peaked at number 3 in the charts in the USA and Canada yet only got to number 20 in the UK. Even incredibly obscure musicians like Ramases (whose 1971 album Space Hymns became a cult hit in South Africa of all places) and Warm Dust (who attributed their break up to their lack of success in the UK, despite doing quite well in Germany) managed to find success in other countries.
By 1977 this had all changed. Joe Cocker had moved to America as he had far more success there than in the UK and Ace released their third and final album “No Strings” and broke up later that year. Rock and Folk no longer dominated the charts as they once had and big names that would have easily found success a few years ago, now struggled. The rise of Punk however brought about new bands who decided to play music just because they could. Add to this, the fact that electronic synths were cheaper than ever and you had a mix that gave way to a revitalised scene in Sheffield.
All of a sudden, bands were springing up from nowhere. Vice Versa, Clock DVA, The Future (later The Human League) Cabaret Voltaire, The Comsat Angels, Thompson Twins and Pulp all formed in this period. However the biggest of all of them, certainly the one most destined for success, found themselves reduced to a mere footnote due to nothing more than tragic circumstance.
Robin Markin’s involvement in the Sheffield music scene goes back a long way. Whilst in University around October 1976, Robin ‘happened upon a random group of students, who had a one week residency at the Broadfield pub on Abbeydale Road. Robin talked to the singer, gave him his phone number and ‘six months later he phoned me and it grew from there’.
Influenced by Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and Roxy Music, Robin joined the band, now called The Extras in April 1977. In Mid 1977 there weren’t that many bands in Sheffield and there was no local scene to speak of (that was still roughly a year away) but the band used this to their advantage.
“Despite the fact we had no ambitions or expectations, there was also a sense that anything was possible,” said Robin.
The Extras quickly became one of the biggest bands in the city, being touted as the ‘next big thing to come from Sheffield’. By mid 1977 the band were doing studio recordings payed for by Phonogram Records. The band moved to London in 1978 in the hopes of signing a record deal. However the record deal went sour and the band never got the contract and were sent back to Sheffield, eventually breaking up in 1980.
When asked if there were any bands that he would class as being significantly from the late 70s in Sheffield, Robin answered “Cabaret Voltaire definitely. They typified Sheffield’s non-mainstream approach and style which was less formulaic”.
Formed in 1973 by Stephen Mallinder, Richard H Kirk, and Chris Watson, it could be argued that Cabaret Voltaire started Sheffield’s obsession with electronic music. Early recordings between 1974 and 1977 were more experimental and involved tape machines and homebuilt synthesisers. They switched to a more dance-oriented sound in 1982 and reached their commercial peak with songs such as ‘Yashar’, ‘Sensoria’, ‘Just Fascination’ and ‘I Want You’.
By 1981 things were looking up. Although it didn’t work out for The Extras, a lucky few became more successful and began to break out of Sheffield. Meanwhile, new bands such as ABC, BEF (and it’s side-project Heaven 17), The Box, Chakk and Hula began to emerge. Although the steelworks were closing all around the city and unemployment rates were skyrocketing, musically, at least, the future seemed bright for Sheffield.