This is pop! No it isn't

Do the hi-tech displays at the National Centre for Popular Music tell us about rock, or are they just gizmos and gimmicks?
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"QUIET, ISN'T it?" remarks Simon Stafford, bassist of the Sheffield band Longpigs, as he scans the city's new National Centre for Popular Music. Stafford is referring to the volume not of noise but of people. Aside from the neatly attired staff and a gaggle of schoolchildren, we are all alone.

Noise is another matter. Noise is everywhere, blaring from television screens, pumping out of giant speakers and hissing out of peculiar orifices in the wall. Snippets of semi-recognisable songs barge into the consciousness before being rudely usurped by another familiar chord sequence. Bass sounds rumble from the floor while Kylie chirps "I Should Be So Lucky" from a distant monitor. "It's like an amusement arcade," cries Stafford, clapping his hands over his ears.

The NCPM, brainchild of the creative director and local entrepreneur Tim Strickland, blends the hands-on ethic of London's Science Museum with the hectic atmosphere of a night-club. The building's four stainless-steel drums are themed to tell the story of pop and explain the technology of music, with a shop, a cafe bar and exhibition space linked by a glazed ground level. As the programme points out, this is not a museum, it is a "celebration of popular music".

But the building has had a bad press ever since it opened in March; one critic described it as an "utter failure in terms of form, content and artistic aspiration". An annual figure of 400,000 visitors was projected, but anecdotal evidence points to only a few hundred a day. Recent restructuring has also led to nine redundancies. "We were over-subscribed to begin with," explained a spokesperson. "But we now have a more realistic gauge of staffing levels."

The centre has set itself a difficult task. Attempting to classify and institutionalise something that is supposed to be deviant and subversive is to remove its sparkle. A grittier, more authentic rendering, however, would have been no-go for school parties, and viewed as an abuse of lottery funds.

So instead of Robbie Williams with his hands down his trousers and Sid Vicious gobbing all over his fans, we are treated to sanitary footage of Take That's dance routines and bouffant-haired ladies doing the twist. The seductive glamour of pop is reduced to a series of neon signs, flickering screens and hi-tech gadgetry.

"It's all gimmicks, isn't it?" complains Stafford, trying vainly to jump- start a machine that promises to help you mix your own record. "Soundscapes", a circular room crammed with speakers that extravagantly demonstrates the possibilities of ambisonic surround-sound, is written off by Stafford as "a waste of a quarter of the building". He is also frustrated by the presence of rock encyclopedias for browsing. "You can get books anywhere."

The centre also fails to score in terms of education. In the "Turning Points" drum - a darkened room where you can watch films on the history of popular music - the commentary seems to be aimed at people who have never heard music in their lives.

The "Making Music" area offers some insight into musical equipment, but no explanation of the music it creates. Perhaps it's wishful thinking when Stafford mistakes a plastic tube snaking out of a glass cabinet for a bong. In fact, the tube is attached to the mouth of a trumpet; a sign invites you to blow into it and "experience" the sound of a trumpet.

"I suppose it's OK for five-year-olds," he concedes.

The lack of chronology, presumably a statement against museum culture, leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. A room entitled "Thirty Voices That Changed Our Worlds" asks you to press your ear up against the wall and listen to the sounds of The Beach Boys, Patsy Cline, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Queen Latifah, but offers no hint of who came when and where.

But while Stafford is keen to point out that things could be improved, he identifies a few winning touches.

"Have you been in the gents?" he asks.

"Er, no."

"The lyrics to The Velvet Underground's `I'm Waiting For My Man' pass by as you pee. It's great."

He also highlights the centre's admirable attempts to showcase new talent. A handful of gadgets invite you to tamper with music by up-and-coming Sheffield bands, while the bar downstairs doubles as a venue in the evenings.

"The concept is fine - it's time that pop music is recognised as a proper art form. But it has aimed too low. It's a classic case of style over content. Frankly, I'd rather go home and play my records."

To make bookings at The National Centre for Popular Music, call 0114 296 2626