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A Magazine for Sheffield

The forgotten story behind the studio that birthed some of Sheffield's most daring bands

Tom Ronan reports for Now Then from a magical mystery tour of Sheffield's musical past, searching for the untold story of Studio Electrophonique.

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Travis Elborough.

On a balmy summer evening in early July, I clamber aboard the top deck of a bus parked near The Leadmill. I join a ragtag group of pilgrims headed for Ken Patten's house, and the LED sign on the front of the bus bears his name. Ken Patten is a forgotten figure of Sheffield’s music scene, now earning his rightful place in musical history through A Film About Studio Electrophonique, a homegrown documentary that recently had its premiere at Doc/Fest. Tonight, we travel to the house that was once Ken's home and amateur recording studio, with Pulp drummer Nick Banks acting as our guide. His sardonic South Yorkshire wit narrates a weaving city-wide tour, snaking a path reminiscent of 'Sheffield: Sex City' – a lesser-known Pulp b-side in which Jarvis Cocker breathily runs through a roll call of Sheffield’s suburbs. Sun shining, we roll onto the ring road.

We begin on the fringes of the city centre, circling the streets that were "a little gritty" in the 1980s according to Banks – places where walking into the wrong pub could mean "getting yer 'ead kicked in". The silver lining for bands at the time was that practice rooms were cheap, if a little basic. The cheapest lacked bathrooms, a fact which did not seem to faze an early Def Leppard, and Banks treats us to stories of their beer-strewn rehearsal studios and questionable hygiene.

Our tour runs past the sites of lost Sheffield institutions. The most prominent is The Limit on West Street, once the boozy home of alternative music, a "sticky-carpeted subterranean heaven" replete with overflowing bogs, surly bouncers, and combative skinheads.

"Who got thrown out of The Limit?" asks Nick, "and did you go to Big Al's for chips after?"

Cheers of nostalgic joy erupt from my fellow passengers. I stay awkwardly quiet, being born three years after it closed its doors. We travel down the remainder of West Street, past the pubs and clubs of early Pulp gigs, eighties venues where zines were traded and demo tapes foisted. We cross the stretch of road that was once home to another lost landmark: The Hole in the Road. Banks' verdict: "acoustics, brilliant; odour, not so brilliant.”

This is also a tour of Ken Patten's Sheffield. Ken was a panel beater by trade, and we make a visit to the Wicker arches where he once worked. These arches are still home to industry and commerce, and we get some confused waves from car mechanics unaccustomed to seeing double decker buses squeeze past their industrial units. These thriving islands of industry now sit between the bougie post-industrial gentrification of Kelham Island, and the abandoned factories of Burngreave.

We journey west to the leafier suburbs; there are knowing chuckles when Banks tells us that the signs for Psalter Lane were once graffitied with the words "middle class ghetto". In Nether Edge we pass a handsome Victorian townhouse, hearing how it was snapped up by Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders after the success of their first album, before their stardom grew further and he sold the house in order to "bugger off to LA". At this point, it briefly starts to feel like I'm on a Beverley Hills homes-of-the-stars open top bus tour – only there is patently a roof above my head, this is Yorkshire, and the tour feels more This Is England than La La Land. Banks seems only half-jokingly perturbed by the Arctic Monkeys' unpatriotic emigration from Sheffield, and goes on to ask whether bands formed of University of Sheffield students born elsewhere in the country can truly be called “Sheffield bands”. This proves a mildly divisive topic, but the bus is soon united once more by the breaking news of cabinet resignations and a rapidly imploding Tory party – news that elicits a hearty cheer from all aboard.

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Director Jamie Taylor outside Ken Patten's house, the home of Studio Electrophonique.

Travis Elborough.

We finally make our way into Handsworth: Ken country. Our pilgrimage culminates at a pub called The Everest Inn, where the bus disgorges its thirty thirsty passengers. Across the road is an ex-council property that was once the home and recording studio of Ken Patten, who died in 1990. This all feels very Pulp: great art and kitchen sink drama hidden in unassuming settings. I think of their song 'Acrylic Afternoons', a salacious story of suburban shagging, taking place just out of sight – a forbidden love affair conducted behind net curtains, under quilted eiderdown, over cups of tea. Sex, secrecy, suburbia: it's peak Pulp. Patten's visitors had less sordid intentions, but nevertheless received an English welcome of tea and biscuits served in a chintz-lined living room. Guests were then led to a back room housing an array of cobbled-together recording equipment, operating under the delightfully incongruous name of 'Studio Electrophonique'. Bands came to record demos for the princely sum of fifteen pounds, and early incarnations of Pulp, ABC, and The Human League passed through these doors. An acoustic drum-kit would have upset the neighbours, so everyone was required to use Ken's tinny electric kit, meaning that the manners of semi-detached living went on to shape the sound of a musical scene.

After peering at Patten's house, we settle down back at The Everest for a viewing of A Film About Studio Electrophonique. The documentary is a warm and loving portrait of Ken Patten, a quiet man who obsessively documented and recorded others but shied away from the camera himself. His character shines through on relaxed interviews with those who knew him. Sean Bean, a Handsworth native who crossed paths with Ken in his childhood, provides narration; his dulcet Yorkshire tones overlay some gorgeously grainy archival footage of Sheffield streets in decades gone by. The filming has a deliberately amateur vibe, shot on an iPad and edited on a £3.99 app; we watch it this evening on a slightly wonky projector propped up by a stack of pub food menus. Ken's daughter makes an appearance in the film, and is said to be in The Everest that night, but too occupied with the bingo in the room next door to have her moment on the red carpet.

On the way back, there’s a music quiz featuring demos recorded at Studio Electrophonique. It's mostly spacey synthesisers and arty spoken word – all the DIY ethos of the nascent punk scene, none of the three chord aesthetic. I have a competitive streak when it comes to 'guess the intro' quiz rounds, but feel like I have well and truly met my match when faced with fifteen pieces of Sheffield-based avant-garde electronica from the late seventies and early eighties. It's a little niche. We hear the likes of Bangkok Shock, Grasping The Pineappleness, and The Electric Armpits – truly a golden era of band names. There is an Electric Armpit on the bus tonight, who has something of an unfair advantage, and probably outstrips everyone else's feeble scores just by guessing his own songs.

At its heart, the film is a homage to English eccentrics, cottage industry fanatics, and labour-of-love autodidacts. Ken Patten was a man who, on a whim, decided to build an ill-fated homemade speedboat, in one of England's most landlocked cities. In the years since his passing, music production has been democratised further, and now anyone with a laptop and a microphone can make internationally successful music from their bedroom. For all its ease, this approach lacks the charm, romance, and human connection of turning up to a Sheffield housing estate with a guitar in your hand and a song in your head. Not a bad deal for a fifteen pound recording fee – just don't forget some change for the bus.

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