Sheffield photographer Pete Hill: “The city was starting to be recognised as a place to discover new music”
To this day, Sheffield’s 1980s music scene remains a revered era for the city with a cultural impact that has lasted through the decades – a period of innovation, economic insecurity and sticky nightclub floors where the younger generations moved to the pulsing sound of synths in iconic venues like The Limit.
Out of the bands prominent during this time – Human League, Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire, ABC, Pulp, to name but a few – there aren’t many who didn’t find themselves between the well-trained lens of photographer Pete Hill at one time or another. With lockdown providing the perfect opportunity for Pete to continue digitising his treasure trove of a collection, we got in touch via the newly ubiquitous journalistic medium of Zoom call to hear what it was like being right in the thick of one of the Steel City’s most exciting musical periods.
Tell us a bit about how you first discovered photography?
I got my first camera when I was 15 and pretty much taught myself from there. I suppose I was partly inspired by some of the old street photography I’d see through my subscription to the Time Life Library of Photography Books – bustling shots of 1920s New York and the like. I started by going out onto streets like Abbeydale Road and just taking pictures – not quite New York, but close enough. I’m a big fan of brutalist architecture and Sheffield had plenty of interesting buildings and places to shoot. I’ve been using the lockdown as a good excuse to start digitising my collection and you do realise how much the city has changed over the years.
Those images have really stood the test of time. It has been said that the impact of street photography has died a bit now most of the subjects are looking down at their phones.
Yes, I know. But maybe they’ll be saying the same in 50 years again, you know? The perceptions of these things change over time. People might be looking at phones and stuff now, but imagine the technological distractions there might be by then.
It must have been a nostalgic experience going through your collection during lockdown.
It is interesting when you come across some of the gems you kind of forget about. Just the other day I was going through some negatives and came across a bloke I vaguely recognised laid on the floor of my mate’s flat with a cat, and I was trying to figure it out for a while. Turns out it was Nick Banks, the drummer of Pulp.
Which moves us nicely onto the music scene during the 80s, where you shot some of the city’s finest bands during a bit of a golden era for Sheffield. How did you come to get involved?
I just fell into it really, through going to gigs with mates, meeting people, taking pictures. It was none of your ‘press pass to get in’ sort of stuff back then; I’d just walk in with my camera, start shooting, and the bands might take three or four shots off me later. I had a small studio in Sheffield city centre, which was an old little mesters workshop. For some venues like Sheffield City Hall I’d have to sneak the camera in through my jacket but was usually alright once I got inside. There wasn’t much live photography taking place then, so most bands just seemed happy to get the exposure.
Which venues were popular haunts of yours back then?
The Broadfield was a popular live music venue, and I remember going to see The Extras perform there quite a lot, packed into the small side room. I later read that they were the house band there. Of course, The Limit was another very popular place, dark and a little bit grimy, with a floor that you couldn’t help but stick to.
Which acts were the best to shoot from an aesthetical point of view?
Artery were fantastic to shoot; their shows were a little like watching performance art really. I was actually one of the first to get a camcorder so I could start recording footage of gigs, and I managed to film them live performing a song called ‘The Slide’ at The Limit, which is just an incredible bit of music – all percussion and really intense.
There were a few bands such as Artery who were huge on the local circuit but seemed left behind when the likes of Human League, ABC, Pulp etc., started to gain national fame.
I think John Lake from The Extras summed it up when he told the story about the band heading down to London on the M1, and the music journalists from London passing them on their way up to Sheffield. The city was starting to be recognised as a place to discover new music. I guess it’s just one of those things really – some bands just didn’t make it.
I spied a couple a youthful Jarvis Cocker images amongst the online archives, in a early Pulp shoot of yours. How was that?
Yes, I shot Pulp a bit later on, when they’d already achieved a bit of fame. I was really happy with how the pictures came out. I remember Jarvis always kind of being around the fringes in the earlier days though, trying to find his place and get it right I suppose, which obviously he did in the end.
Did you have any personal favourites from that era in terms of bands?
I liked Vice Versa, who would later become ABC of course. I was a pop fan at heart, so the more avant-garde stuff wasn’t musically really my thing. You know, I think I only saw the Human League live once during those days, down at the Poly, which would later become the Nelson Mandela Building.
The 80s is often seen one of the most influential eras for Sheffield music and by many as the birth of the electronic pop movement. Did it feel like something special was going on at the time?
Yeah, I think a lot has been said about how groundbreaking that era was, and of course some fantastic music came out of it. But I’d be lying if I said we really realised it at the time – for me, it was more a load of mates looking for something to do, and that was music and going to gigs with friends. I don’t think there was necessarily a conscious wider feeling to it all.
Another thing that’s often touched upon is how the Thatcherite politics of the 80s and the impact on post-industrial cities like Sheffield created fertile ground for the birth of creative music as escapism. What are your thoughts on that?
Again, yeah, things were certainly a bit bleak and the music certainly did provide some escapism for us all; but I think there’s a slight element of people over-analysing things and filling things in later when it comes to that. It didn’t really feel like a political movement to me, but maybe some things don’t at the time.