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Elite frequencies

Sheffield has produced some of the most consistently brilliant pop music of the last 30 years. But a

Warp 20

Various locations, Sheffield

At the centre of Steel City is something called the Cultural Industries Quarter. This contains the former National Centre for Popular Music, two steel blobs designed by Nigel Coates, a somewhat faded "Millennium Project" which closed within a couple of years, now used by Sheffield Hallam University for offices. There's the long-standing Leadmill Club, the Site Gallery and for some reason a branch of Spearmint Rhino. More to the point, it contains a 1930s building housing the Showroom cinema and Workstation, home of Warp Films, the only part of Warp Records' media empire that is still based in the city.

The very name "Cultural Industries Quarter" (one of ten "quarters" in the zoned city) is bright, Blairite nu-language that seems a bad joke amidst the recession's foreboding harshness. The notion that an economy can run itself through the "creative industries", financial services and tourism has taken an extremely heavy knock. It's particularly ironic that it sits next to the rail station of a once-proud heavy industrial metropolis, which has never quite worked out what to do with itself since the steel industry's "restructuring" in the 1980s (unlike South Yorkshire's coal mining, steel never ceased production, and the city makes as much of it as it ever did - only with a fraction of the workforce). What Sheffield has had since the late 1970s is perhaps the most consistently brilliant popular music of any city outside of London.

The city's electronic music, from The Human League and Cabaret Voltaire to early Warp artists Forgemasters and Sweet Exorcist, took palpable inspiration from the cyclopean factories of the Don Valley and the fearless, grandly scaled 1960s architecture built for their workers. It's no surprise, then, that Warp Records' 20th anniversary celebrations in the city the label left in 2000 take place in the disputed remnants of a council estate and a steelworks, with film screenings in the former and a rave in the latter. The proceedings are assisted by the local regeneration quango, which bears the instructive name "Creative Sheffield".

That this is not entirely benign is obvious as soon as you get to the first of the two events, a Warp Films showcase in the magnificent, mostly disused Park Hill Flats. Once a gigantic declaration of Sheffield's pride in itself as a centre of municipal socialism, only one wing of this snaking, complex building is inhabited, while on the other side the Mancunian property developers Urban Splash are stripping the block to its frame in preparation for transforming it into barely recognisable upmarket apartments - with the assistance of state money. In between is dereliction. It's this boarded-up part which was used by Warp for this showcase of their film production arm, and given the sheer quantity of public space that defines Park Hill, you might assume the pedestrian could just walk in. Instead, metal fencing marks off the film event from the inhabited parts of the estate, with police watching from the walkways. Even the playground is fenced off. As a preview of the "mixed class" estate promised by Urban Splash and its public sponsors, it is not encouraging.

Nonetheless, once inside the films (mostly) fit the space well. A film on the All Tomorrow's Parties music festival is about as interesting as someone else's home movies, but Warp's music videos, remain playful, ambitious and intriguing. Warp's videos, from Jarvis Cocker and Martin Wallace's early efforts for Sweet Exorcist and Tricky Disco, to more extravagant works like Alex Rutterford's "Gantz Graf" for Autechre, or Chris Cunningham's bling absurdist film for Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker", are mini-masterpieces of the form. Certainly the futurist melancholia of the latter record feels appropriate for this tragic, sublime building.

The main event takes place in - again, note the already dated nomenclature - the Magna Science Adventure Centre, a Stirling Prize-winning building in 2001. Again we have a perfect meeting of place and sound, and again an overwhelming reminder of the area's class conflicts and disputed transformations. Magna was once the Steel, Peech and Tozer steelworks, part of the industrial zone that stretches between Sheffield and Rotherham. Next to business parks, retail parks and still functioning (if recession-threatened) steel plants, Magna offers up steel as a spectacle - and it's an awe-inspiring one, a superhuman process whose eventual lack of use for human workers seems entirely unsurprising. Inside a hangar-like space, reached through views of the overwhelming machinery, are the hilariously tiny DJs.

Warp is now a decidedly international operation, lacking the regional sentimentality of, say, the late Tony Wilson's Factory Records, which has spared Sheffield the tedious myth-making of the Mancunian music scene. The label seldom signs local acts. Nonetheless, it was Yorkshire producers who created Warp's most enduring, powerful music in the early '90s: the precise, compulsive techno of Sweet Exorcist's "Testone", LFO's Frequencies, Nightmares on Wax's "Aftermath", or Forgemasters, named after a Sheffield steelworks. Nightmares on Wax feature at Magna, billed as a reformation of their original lineup - after several singles in a Yorkshire techno vein, they split in 1991, leaving one member to pursue a rather less interesting trip-hop direction. At Magna their DJ set starts worryingly with a couple of tracks from later albums, but after interspersing Nitro Deluxe's "Let's Get Brutal" it becomes a techno set, concentrating on the cavernous, concussively physical, spacious sound they pioneered 20 years ago. It's awe-inspiring to hear it in a space like this, although the irony that it would have once occurred in disused warehouses and factories illegally, but is now doing so with local government assistance is doubtless not lost on some of the older participants. Alongside this controlled ferocity, the juxtaposition with the whimsical, wistful electro-jazz of Chris Clark or Squarepusher is not kind to later Warp, with their prettiness woefully inappropriate to the context. Nonetheless, Hudson Mohawke's set of mutated, maximalist hip hop shows they can still make some adroit signings.

Sheffield does not lack new electronic music. Yet it's a very different kind, the sort I heard teenagers play off their phones that night on the Rotherham-Sheffield train - bassline house, Yorkshire's brutalist version of 2-step garage, which owes much to the tinny bleeps and enveloping bass pulses of early Warp, splicing it with a far from minimal commercial crassness. Yet rather than being quango-funded, Niche, the club where it started was closed by South Yorkshire Police in 2005, in the tactfully named "Operation Repatriation". There wasn't a hint of bassline at Magna. "Creative Sheffield" remains a divided place.

Owen Hatherley's "Militant Modernism" (Zero Books) is out now. He blogs at Sit Down Man, You're a Bloody Tragedy For more information about Warp's 20th birthday celebrations, click here.

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain