Sheffield was once a single-industry city, but steel developed in two quite distinct directions, which left their mark on the city’s geography. By the twentieth century it was organised in such a way that in and around the centre you had small traders (‘little mesters’), as in Birmingham, who made small runs of cutlery and other durables, but to the north of the city along the Don Valley, immense sheds where steel was made under the control of giant corporations. The latter sometimes still survive, with a heavily ‘downsized’ working staff, and the former often became the place where ‘regeneration’ happened in the 2000s – with the smaller works turned into offices, flats, and ‘maker spaces’. A distant precursor of these was Western Works, demolished in the 1990s, a small factory which was turned into a recording studio in the late 1970s by Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder, and Chris Watson of Cabaret Voltaire.
Richard H. Kirk died unexpectedly this September, leaving a remarkable legacy of music, both with Cabaret Voltaire and under a dizzying number of pseudonyms. If you trace what happened to the music he helped make between the mid-70s and the early 90s you can find a strange shift from some of the most paranoid, dread-filled music ever made, into a thrilling communal dance music. Of course he was hardly alone in this—the progression (or degeneration, depending on your taste) from Joy Division to New Order is the most famous—but in Kirk’s case there wasn’t the same decline into lazy laddism that happened to so many Manchester bands. Everything had the utmost conviction, everything was based on pushing an idea as far as it’ll go. This story is also one about Sheffield, and how this modernist city quietly pioneers new ideas and new ways of living without shouting constantly about how wonderful it is.
The first Cabaret Voltaire tracks were made in attics, reflected in the title of the three-disc anthology that collected them in the 2000s. They’re extraordinarily creepy, a cheap and nasty bolting together of the bucolic and the grimy, fitting to a city where the peak district always looms just beyond the tower blocks. In South Yorks-accented monologues like ‘Bed Time Stories’ and ‘Photophobia’, or the vocodered, exceptionally unnerving, David Peace-like ‘Oh Roger’, there’s lurid tales recited in a style between William Burroughs and a northern working men’s club comedian. The music Cabaret Voltaire were pushing towards was ‘cyborg’ in the strict sense – not a clean new technological vision, as their friends the Human League were building at the same time, but something molten and organic, where vaguely recognisable instruments played by hand—guitars, organs, clarinets, pianos, or the human voice—are treated with effects so relentlessly that they no longer sound like they were played by real people in a real space, but have been smeared with so much dirt that they don’t sound high-tech, either. Along with all this murk came an obvious love for the most moronic, metronomic, drug-addled elements of rock and roll, as in their cover of The Seeds’ ‘No Escape’, or the incredible ‘Nag Nag Nag’, a thrash that is parodic, cosmic, and cathartic.
There’s a politics to all of this, but it’s not rousing or even particularly clear. In his history of post-punk music, Rip it Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds notes Richard H. Kirk’s teenage membership of the Young Communist League (his father was a CPGB member) and the curious fact that Western Works was used by the Young Socialists before Cabaret Voltaire took it over – they decided to keep all the posters up. Their first couple of records, like the album Mix-Up, share in extreme paranoia that suffused the late 1970s, and a series of ideas and tropes which you could find throughout the imagery and fanzines of the time. Songs might be called ‘Fascist Police State’ or ‘Kneel to the Boss’, might celebrate the public execution of Benito Mussolini, and might allege that Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof were killed by the German state; you were always, their songs insisted, being watched. Songs like ‘The Set Up’ and ‘Obsession’ were an analogue to the conspiracy cinema at the time, films such as The Parallax View and The Conversation; in them, Kirk’s guitars blast through open spaces like the wind between concrete slab blocks.
There was no declarative politics here, it was more a matter of implication – as if to suggest that the best solution to the closing-down of possibility, as the world shifted rightwards, was to carve out your own spaces and your own institutions, whether it was a studio space like Western Works or a record label like Rough Trade, the (then) co-operative that released their first (and best) four albums. There was also, within all this a determination to stare hard at the world as it is, and register that onto tape. The albums Voice of America and Red Mecca were explicitly inspired by the way the new Ronald Reagan administration (with its support from the then-new phenomenon of Televangelists, sampled on ‘Sluggin’ fer Jesus’) faced off against the new theocracy brought to power by the 1979 revolution in Iran.
There was an attempt, in the mid-80s, to reform this into something resembling pop music, with the group as a duo reducing their sound to hard synth riffs and pounding drum machines – albums like The Crackdown and Micro-Phonies were on a major label, and were roughly like a Depeche Mode denuded of all the big choruses, cuteness, and good looks. They were unsurprisingly not hits, especially given the latter album features someone being executed by electrocution on the cover. They’re often perversely enjoyable, and sometimes the fusion of industrial strength paranoia and electro-funk is very exciting, but not nearly as much as what Kirk does in the 1990s.
The effects of Acid House in Britain are usually told through raves around the M25, and in the North, Manchester and the Hacienda is central, but the fact is, all the best early British techno was made by quiet, anonymous, multicultural groups of producers in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The music retrospectively called ‘Bleep and Bass’, which drew on Kraftwerk, computer music, and Detroit Techno to create a deliberately stiff, angular new style, underpinned by enormous dub-influenced basslines, came out of Bradford (Unique 3), Leeds (LFO), and especially, Sheffield, with the first Warp records singles like ‘Track with No Name’, made by Forgemasters, named after one of those gigantic steelworks in the industrial belt in the north of Sheffield. Cabaret Voltaire dabbled in this with some of their last records, but Kirk made more of a mark as one half of Sweet Exorcist, whose ‘Testone’ and ‘Clonk’ were the perfect soundtrack to the raves then happening in the steelworks that had been left empty by the Thatcher-era decimation of the industry. Vast, clanging and clattering music, both abstract and aimed completely at the dancefloor. In XON’s ‘Dissonance’, Kirk and Rob Gordon sample Cybotron’s Detroit techno classic ‘Techno City’, as if to make the statement that the actual techno city was right here, in the empty, deindustrialised spaces of Sheffield.
One of the few really interesting BBC documentaries of recent years, Jeremy Deller’s Everybody in the Place, set up a 1980s to early 1990s sequence that ran from the defeat of organised labour to the sudden and completely unpredicted emergence of rave, with vast, often uncontrolled and free communal events taking place in the empty spaces left by the disappearance of industry, promising a different post-industrial future to the existing one of mass unemployment, call centres, and retail jobs in Meadowhall Shopping Centre. With great speed, the Conservative government of the time put that back in its box; indeed, a few very shady characters were already in there to make a quick profit from the chaos. But that movement there from making dark, paranoid music in a disused cutlery works to dancing to expansive, optimistic music in a disused factory—which is symbolised beautifully in the shift from the tension and dread of ‘The Set Up’ to the use of similar components to create release and joy in ‘Testone’—still retains something utopian, a sudden emergence from darkness into light.