My hometown of Portsmouth can only claim one vaguely famous musical son. Given the son in question is Joe Jackson, and he really came from Gosport (a town referred to in grim tones by Portsmuthians as “them over the water”)… well, you might forgive the Portsmouth music scene the chip on its collective shoulder. In contrast the Steel City has punched well above its weight in the music stakes over the years. But why has Sheffield done so well and Portsmouth so poorly? Is it just luck, or something else?
Synth-twiddling egg-head Brian Eno put a neat name to a theory about exactly that: scenius. After studying the history of art in an attempt to work out why geniuses suddenly spring out of nowhere, he realised something: they don’t. What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people – some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were – all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work.
Like all good theories, it seems obvious in hindsight. But there’s a bit missing, I think; Eno’s formulation explains those single stellar emergences of talent, but not scenes that repeatedly burp up quality product in the same locale. My theory is that there’s a feedback loop involved, or maybe a sort of lingering resonance. This is hard to explain in the musical context, because… well, ‘dancing about architecture’, innit? So think instead of Sheffield’s other, older scenius.
Sheffield was known for its knives long before it was known for its steel. In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that it was Sheffield’s reputation for blades that made it the site of the steel revolution. Steel takes a point better than cast iron, and back when we Brits still considered forks to be an effete affectation of the French, you’d want a knife with a good sharp point for spearing your manly and patriotic slabs of roast beef.
Folk were making crucible steel in all sorts of other places, but blades meant more demand for it here, so the process started scaling up. By the time Bessemer was ready to wow the crowds with his iron-to-steel converter, there was only one town with the optimal audience, one town where he could hire the right stage crew. Scenius has a gravity to it – no, a magnetism. It attracts itself.
It wasn’t just steel, either. Toolmaking, especially files and saws; Old Sheffield Plate; mass-produced railway hardware: all these things happened right here, drawn together by their similarities, their common need for the right expertise, resources and passion. The irony of the Iron Lady snatching the steel away is the cruellest, perhaps.
If you use a magnet to stroke a piece of steel repeatedly, the steel itself becomes magnetised. Who were those first musical magnets – the original Rolling Stones, perhaps? Def Leppard? (A sobering and melancholy thought, that one.) Or maybe one of countless more minor bands who never made their national mark, or some forgotten folkie singing Chartist anthems to weary grinders in a dim, smoky pub…
My theory? It was all of them. Every sweaty show, every sing-along single, every hook, riff, bassline or beat – the magnet strokes, the music resonates, the city remembers. Culture is collective. The business of stardom likes to cover up this truth, because it’s a bitch to monetise.
Here we are in the TwentyTeens, with the record industry reeling from its failure to get to grips with the digital age, firing off lawsuits like a gutshot cowboy in a cheap movie. I just saw the Brit Award nominations; Amy Winehouse up for Best Female, 18 months after dying, years after recording anything new. British pop is looking desperately backward, refusing the future. The charts have never been more irrelevant.
There will never again be a Next Big Thing. I think that’s great news, because it leaves space for the Next Good Things. And good things are always local, because the goodness of a thing is in part a function of its proximity to you when you’re looking for it, right? Right – so I’m looking here, waiting for the scene to burp, for the compass needle to swing.
East of the city – near the site of the Battle of Orgreave, in fact – lies the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, where researchers are working on new ways to blend steel into hightech composite materials. And in some old cutlery works or warehouse, some bunch of kids with wild ideas are forging a new noise, the sound of tomorrow. Listen for the chime of the anvil.Paul Raven.