Travel: UK - Rhythms of the steel city

Sheffield, site of the new National Centre for Popular Music, has a rich rock'n'roll heritage. David Sandhu takes a tour of some of the city's musical landmarks
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The Independent Culture
"Oh we don't look the same as you, we don't do the things you do, but we live round here too." ("Mis-Shapes", Pulp 1995)

I SPOTTED it - couldn't miss it, really - immediately after exiting Sheffield station: a metallic mothership docked in the city centre. The National Centre for Popular Music, which opens on Monday, consists of four stainless steel "drums", each containing an interactive pop "experience". There was nothing like this when I was a student at Sheffield Poly (1987- 90). In my day, we had to invent our own interactive pop experiences.

The National Centre should certainly be top of the pops for school trips, but I was more interested in reacquainting myself with the rich vein of musical talent mined in Sheffield over the years. They built this city not just on steel and coal, but also on rock'n'roll.

Opposite the National Centre is the AVEC complex which houses Red Tape Studios, financed by Sheffield City Council as a kind of Open University for local music wannabes (it gave BabyBird their first start); Steelworks recording studio, used by luminaries such as The Spice Girls, Bryan Adams and Robbie Williams; and the HL (Human League) studios.

Just around the corner, The Leadmill's eau de stale ale recalled memories of undergraduate excess. This converted flourmill (a waterwheel remains beneath the club) is the city's best-known venue. Back in the early Sixties, The Esquire Club hosted the likes of Clapton, Hendrix and Jagger upstairs in what are now the Leadmill offices. It was the first venture by a Mr Peter Stringfellow and you can almost still smell lingering traces of the Sheffield impresario's aftershave.

Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays cited The Leadmill as the venue of one of the best gigs he ever played. However, I remember it as home of one of the best gigs he never played. The Mondays' hedonistic nature got the better of them backstage one night and they forgot to play, somehow carousing their way home before anybody noticed.

More drunken foolishness occurred above the Sven sex shop (now Private 68) on trendy Division Street in 1985. It was at this ironically hardcore location that Pulp's Jarvis Cocker fell from a second-storey window while attempting to impress a girl at a party. He fractured his pelvis, broke his wrist and ankle and spent six weeks recuperating in hospital, perhaps figuring that becoming famous might be a less painful seduction tactic. But that would take a further eight years to achieve.

A hundred yards away, on West Street, The Hallamshire Hotel, once a lively drinking den that hosted many of Pulp's early gigs, remains in name, if not in spirit. The Beehive, the bunker from where ABC, Heaven 17, Thompson Twins, Cabaret Voltaire and Human League would plot world dominance, is now a Firkin pub. And The Limit, a tiny subterranean club that was pivotal to Sheffield's golden epoch of electronica (1979-1984), is no more, demolished and replaced by a Job Centre. Throughout the Eighties, The Limit hosted embryonic line-ups of local heroes as well as guests such as U2, Simple Minds and Orange Juice. Famously, Jarvis Cocker once played while still in his wheelchair.

A Limit tribute night takes place every Thursday at the Casbah (formerly The Wapentake), itself a rock pilgrimage site for long-haired lovers of the city's biggest music exports, Def Leppard, and run by an ex-roadie of the heavy metal gods.

Passing the pleasantly dull Cavells pub on High Street (where at the then Crazy Daisy disco in 1980, Phil Oakey recruited two under-age girls, Susan and Joanne, to the Human League), you reach the Goth-black Boardwalk on Snig Hill. The Boardwalk (then known as The Black Swan and nicknamed "The Murky Duck") saw The Clash's debut gig in 1976. Judging by its forthcoming attractions (Spear of Destiny, The Meteors), old punks never die on Snig Hill. And to include the Boardwalk's owner Herbie Armstrong among these rock relics may be a bit harsh - but then he is the ex-guitarist of Van Morrison's band.

The career of Joe Cocker, one of the city's veteran rockers, took off after supporting the Rolling Stones (as Vance Arnold & The Avengers) in 1963 at Sheffield City Hall on Barker's Pool, a taupe-coloured Art Deco colossus. The austerity of the building has always been tempered by the reams of fan graffiti adorning its exterior. I recall that Bros played their first major gig here in 1988, turning Sheffield into a pre-pubescent Nuremberg rally, and covering the City Hall in marker pen and lipstick.

A mile or so east, the undulating landscape of Weston Park is familiar to both myself and Jarvis Cocker: he famously lost his virginity among the daisies and I, anonymously, used to revise on the benches. Old boys from nearby Sheffield University include Martin Fry of ABC and the comedian Eddie Izzard.

And so to the Washington. A decade ago this back-street boozer was home to a crowd of NME-reading students like myself, and amiable old men drinking mild. Now the venue, part-owned by the Pulp drummer Nick Banks, has become what the Beehive was back in the early Eighties - both nerve-centre for networking muso types, and a relaxed place to enjoy a pint of Tetleys. Robbie Williams has been known to throw an occasional dart here and pop memorabilia, mostly local, cheers its walls - but Hard Rock Cafe this isn't.

After six hours of vicarious pop thrills, I mused that Sheffield's village- like atmosphere, its friendliness, informality and overall tolerance, must have helped fuel the city's musical success. The lineage continues with Gomez, former Hallam University students who, after taking a demo tape into the Record Collector shop on Fulwood Road, Broomhill, were rewarded last year with the Mercury Music Prize.

Where else in the country would a student (me, 1989) regularly bump into a pop star (Phil Oakey of Human League) in the local chip shop (off Eccleshall Road)? The National Centre for Popular Music may have found the perfect locale.

The National Centre for Popular Music opens on 1 March. Call 0114-296 6060 for information, 0114-296 2626 for bookings. There is a two-tier system for admission prices: the standard rate is for weekends, bank holidays and July and August; the off-peak rate (in brackets) applies at all other times. Adults pounds 7.25 (pounds 5.95); under 16s pounds 4.50 (pounds 4); students pounds 5.50 (pounds 4.75); families (two adults, two children) pounds 21 (pounds 18). Open 10am-6pm daily, last admission 3.30pm