Interview: A tour of Sheffield with Jon McClure
The (Sheffield) Gospel according to Jon…
On a Steel City pilgrimage with the Reverend.
Alreyt pal? Sorry I’m a bit late. How’s it going anyway? Here, do you smoke? If you do, just take a fag whenever you want. So … where do you want to go first?
Jon McClure is in his usual exuberant mood as I climb into the ‘Revmobile’, a slightly worn T-Reg BMW parked outside Exposed HQ on a warm August afternoon. He can be something of an interviewer’s dream at times: primed with no bullshit answers, always accommodating with his time and happy to give informed opinions on pretty much any subject you could think of. Today I’m effectively playing tourist in my own city, as the outspoken Reverend and The Makers frontman has agreed to take me on a journey around the seven hills of Sheffield so we can visit places which, for one reason or another, mean something special to him. It’s common knowledge that McClure relishes the opportunity to wax lyrical about his hometown, and I’d strongly wager he’s got the anecdotes to back it up – or at least that’s the hope as seatbelts are adjusted and he fishes a Marlboro from its pack.
“That’s entirely up to you, Jon,” I reply. “It’s your gig.”
“I’m gonna enjoy this. I love this sort of shit,” he says with a genuine look of excitement as we set off. “Reyt, I know exactly where we’ll go first.”
Turns out we don’t have to move too far from our Kelham Island starting point to reach the initial area of interest, literally driving a few hundred yards before taking a left onto Mowbray Street. Jon quickly shifts into full anecdotal flow without warning and I’m left hastily scrabbling for my notebook.
“Here was where we used to share a practice room with the Monkeys,” he says, pointing a finger to an old works situated about three-quarters of the way up the road. “And just around the corner is our first studio where me and Ed [Cosens, Rev guitarist] used to squat. It takes me back to the early days around here.” We don’t bother pulling over as it’s so early into the drive, but instead McClure reels off stories about late-night scraps with pool cues alongside The Harrisons and Arctic Monkeys, early demos which were recorded at Yellow Arch Studios and the feeling of “something tangible being in the air” when these friends first started sharing their music amongst each other and local audiences.
“Rev’s Tours! That’s what Gilly from Inspiral Carpets did, taking people around Manchester and talking them through the music scene. I think it could be a real money-spinner – what do you reckon?”
All joking aside, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a viable business proposition as we headed down Neepsend Lane. The city has certainly churned out enough musical greatness to map an interesting route, but are people really aware of what a strong heritage we have up here? Does it get the kudos it deserves? “False modesty,” Jon calls it. “It’s a bit of a Sheffield thing not shouting about yourself too much and I think it holds us back a bit, especially when you look at how much Manchester and Liverpool rave about their musical history.” A minute later the car crunches to a halt outside the semi-dilapidated remnants of The Farfield Inn, a Grade II-listed building with roots stretching back to the 1700s, and the first brief stopping point on Rev’s Tours.
Farfield Inn (formerly The Owl)/Hillfoot
“So, all my mum’s family live on Upperthorpe, where I’ll take you in a minute. But my nan used to go to school around here, the Hillfoot area. Before it all became factory units this used to be houses, rows of houses called ABC streets – they were named in alphabetic order, you see – and my mum grew up around here too. But I used to have an imaginary friend who lived in this pub and he were called Bonzo. I’ve always had this mad imagination and my mum and dad still take the piss about it every time we go by this boozer. But yeah, fucking Bonzo, eh?”
Chuckling, he slips the car back into gear and we cruise around the corner, behind the battered pub, down roads flanked by various industrial units and regularly reaching dead ends. We pull over and he lights a cigarette in the parking bay of a tools factory before delving a bit deeper into his family’s ties with the area. His grandad once booked a young Engelbert Humperdinck – then performing under the name Gerry Dorsey – for the turns at the Hillfoot Club; Uncle Norman made local legend when he rode into the same club on a donkey he found tied up outside; while older generations of Jon’s family would indulge in a spot of bare knuckle boxing in a long-lost place nearby called Pig Alley.
McClure is often described a big character, which he undoubtedly is, but after listening to the escapades of various ancestors, it would seem that larger-than-life personalities crop up regularly in the family lineage. In this particular jaunt down memory lane there are a couple of nods to early musical awakenings too; he talks about his mother being a club singer and gives a hazed recollection of his first spliff while listening to The Beatles Anthology in Wardsend Cemetery.
Just half a mile or so up the road, Hillsborough, naturally, is the next stop on Rev’s Tours. It’s the home of his beloved Sheffield Wednesday, but his affection for the area isn’t just football-related. A church on Penistone Road was where his parents – and a good chunk of his wider family and friends – were married; whereas The Rawson Spring, now a Wetherspoons, was once a baths and where he learnt to swim. But all feelings of sentiment are ramped up ten-fold when we pass the old ground, even causing him to drop 10mph off the speedometer to annoyance of a few cars following close behind.
“Now this place means the fucking world to me,” he says, winding down the window as if to make the point a bit clearer. “I’ve had a season ticket on every single stand. Wednesday runs deep in my mum’s family; my chuffing nannan went dancing with the players after they won the FA Cup back in the 1930s. I guess you could say she were a bit like a Proto-WAG, was my nan. Seriously though, I’ve shed tears over my team and you can’t underestimate that connection between a football club and your personal history. Some people might not get it, but it means a fucking lot to me.”
We continue up Halifax Road, veering left after The Railway pub, nipping up through Fox Hill and then on to Skew Hill – a long lane flanked by dry stone walls and rolling fields. This green space, which he refers to as ‘the back ‘edge’, was a popular spot for mucking about as kids. Further down there’s Grenoside crematorium – “Pretty much every fucker we know ends up in there, don’t they?” – and The Cow and Calf pub, where he worked as a teenager. “It’s a bit like being on stage, working at bar – everyone’s looking at you and you’re kind of in control of things for the night.”
A short drive from the pub is the McClure family home, a road populated by the usual semi-detached post-war housing which forms the brunt of suburban Sheffield estates today. We don’t go in as not to disturb his brother who’s working inside, but instead turn back towards the village as the conversation shifts, somewhat darkly, to the issues faced by small suburban communities in big cities. He recalls a period where some serious drug problems caused issues in the village for a small group, a few of them close friends, and there’s a frank admission that was it not for a couple of good school teachers (we’ll come onto that later) and music influencing a move away, things could have gone swiftly downhill for himself too. Driving along the village’s high street, he points out one of the main pubs, The Old Harrow, which was the scene of two separate shootings back in 2015. “It’s fucking crackers, isn’t it? They just turned up and sprayed the boozer with a load of bullets.” There’s often far more to these small north Sheffield suburbs than what meets the eye; and in ‘What The Milkman Saw’, an early track from Reverend’s debut album, he captured the merry-go-round of suffocation, paranoia and crazy characters which bring these places to life.
What’s going on at number 34? Kev says there’s bodies buried underneath the floor
But this isn’t murder it’s just Grenoside
Can you believe that Keeley’s with him again? A clever lass but she’s daft when it comes to men
Walls of ears and there’s nowhere to hide
“The thing is: you’re that bit removed from the city centre here, a bit out in the sticks, so people just find various ways to get off their box. Greno’s a bit of a weird place; it’s a strange old mix of people. I moved to London after the first album did well, but ended up doing too much drugs and having a meltdown – I mean literally crying in my pants and calling my parents to bring me home. And over there, look, is where I used to get the bus to school.”
Going from a drug-induced breakdown to catching a school bus is pretty standard fare with Jon: the guy shifts through topics at an alarming speed. By the time we’ve gone halfway down Halifax Road he’s opined on the legalisation of weed (“common fucking sense if you ask me!”), the likelihood of nuclear armageddon and recounted a grisly story about a beheaded Southey Green chip shop owner. We get back onto music while passing through Hillsborough High Street, where Hillsborough Records (now a flower store) once stood was the place he bought his first CD, ‘Twist & Shout’ by Chaka Demus & Pliers ft. Jack Radics & The Taxi Gang. But it wasn’t long before the love for guitar music came along, as he was charmed by an emerging group who would inspire countless numbers of young northerners to cobble together a band and aim for the stars.
“Basically, Oasis happened,” he explains. “And when some lads who looked and spoke a little bit like me and my brother started bringing out this incredible music, we were just fucking blown away. But then you start tracing the music back, don’t ya? So you find Oasis, then you find Stone Roses and read about what they’re into, so eventually you end up listening to Sly and The Family Stone. Then you’re off and running.”
With big-hitters such as PULP and Longpigs entering their heydays, the mid-90s were fertile ground for the Sheffield music scene and consequently played a big role in inspiring the following generation of musicians. However, despite those two names taking most of the plaudits in a mainstream sense, he recounts a number of other bands which made the era an exciting one. “People often forget about the others kicking around in those days. Obviously, you had those two doing great – but there was also Babybird, Speedy and Sea Fruit, who were Geoff Barradale’s [Arctic Monkeys manager] and Alan Smyth’s band.” Anxious to get a piece of the action, it wasn’t long after that Jon had pulled together the members for first band Judan Suki, a line-up which featured Monkeys duo Alex Turner and Matt Helders amongst its ranks. With typical honesty he dismisses this early music project as “dog shit”, but maintains that follow-up group 1984 was a big improvement. He tries to recall the chorus of an early track – “It was about a heroine addict. I’ve always enjoyed writing about dark shit, even as a kid” – as the car scales the unforgiving hills of Stannington, passing a house the McClure family lived in prior to relocating in Grenoside
After a quick stop for sarnies in Walkey, we continue along South Road and cut down towards Upperthorpe, the area where a good chunk of his family lived (plenty still do) and where Jon would spend much of his youth kicking balls against garages while keeping an eye out for Jonny Nelson’s car pulling onto the estate. We pass by a supermarket which was once The Scarborough Arms, a fairly notorious pub on Addy Street which his cousin owned for a period of time, before beginning to climb back upwards towards the plush surroundings of S10 – heading towards Notre Dame High School, a place which had a huge bearing on his adolescent life.
“I remember once he got hold of me and said something along the lines of: ‘You’re going to be a little bastard, you, but you’re also a clever kid. It’s up to you which road you go down.”
“I’m not even catholic,” he says sparking another cig. “My nan’s side has some Irish catholic there, but my dad just wanted me to go to a catholic school. Everyone slags off secondary school, but I really loved Notre Dame and think I’ve become a better person for going there. A few of the teachers – Mr O’Connor, Mr McShane, Mr Murray and Mr Bonner – retired recently and I wrote a letter to thank them all, but I was thinking of Mr O’Connor in particular. I remember once he got hold of me and said something along the lines of: ‘You’re going to be a little bastard, you, but you’re also a clever kid. It’s up to you which road you go down.’ He probably saved me from myself a little bit and I’ll always be grateful.”
It’s a bit of a melting pot, is Notre Dame. Despite a posh reputation inspired by its location in Fulwood, one of the wealthiest districts in the city, having faith school status means that catchment areas are spread right across the city. “It’s a proper mix of people, which is obviously a good thing,” he says as we pull away from the school gates and drop down past the large houses encasing the school yard. “It was where I met Ed [Cosens] and we are literally polar opposites from completely different ends of town, but that’s why it works so well with us. Notre had a really good mix of kids from various backgrounds; it gives you a good sense of all the different spectrums of life and I’m genuinely glad to have experienced that.”
Naturally, as an avid follower and indeed active participant of the Sheffield music scene during the noughties, The Boardwalk was always going to crop up at some point today. We pass the remaining wing of the old Jessop’s Hospital on our way down and, not for the first time in the interview, we’re treated to some prized Sheffield folklore: “You see, I was born there and they always say you can tell who was born in Jessop’s because they have normal ears; whereas Northern General babies have sticky out ears. I swear it’s true an’all.” I mention that I was born at the latter and mine, I’ve always thought, are fairly run-of-the-mill tabs. He glances at the side of my head with suspicion for a few moments before responding sharply: “Are tha sure? You proper look like a Jessop’s kid to me. You might want to get that double-checked, mate.”
After eventually finding a parking spot around the corner from the fabled Snig Hill venue, a place where he served sweaty gig-goers pints of lager from behind the bar and the scene of his very first gig, talk shifts from the past to the imminent future. Reverend and The Maker’s sixth album, Death of a King, drops late-September and there was a conscious decision made to get away from their hometown during its creation. And you don’t get much further from South Yorkshire than Thailand. “I’ve already made a ‘Sheffield’ album, The State of Things, and I don’t want to repeat that. It was all about getting away, getting some other sounds in your ears and some other flavours in your gob. Also, it just makes for a great time and plenty of good stories. Apart from me getting nicked in Thailand, ‘cos that’s just fucking scary.”
Aside from a brush with the Royal Thai Police for driving a scooter without a helmet, another significant event during the trip was the death of the nation’s monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, which gave the record its title. “It were proper weird, that. The whole country went into mourning, all wearing black and that. The whole trip was an amazing experience for the band and there’s definitely a bit of a Thai-influenced flavour in the album at times.” Vocal duties have been shared amongst the band’s members throughout the tracks as he’s “well over” everything revolving around him: “I’ve got a band of incredible musicians. I’m mad not to use that.” True to his word, bandmates Joe Carnall, Ed Cosens and his wife Laura McClure all sing a track each, but when asked how far he allows the delegation to go there’s a pause, a grin and more than a little bit of backtracking. “Well, I’m here praising the democracy but everything has to go through me. I’m like Pluto’s benevolent dictator: just get a reyt sound c**t in charge and it’ll all be reyt.”
He’s the first to admit that the band have rarely been a critics’ favourite, but most recent album Mirrors garnered a positive critics response and he doesn’t see reason to tread too far from the strong foundations that it laid. “It’s a bit of a continuation from that record, I’d say, and I’m proud of every track. However, I’ve already got an idea for another sound that I’m playing with. I’ve arrived at the stage now where I’m kind of like ‘fuck it’ and up for taking risks. Look at what Hawley did when he went really dark and psychedelic with Sky’s Edge – it was a gamble but people loved it. I’ll never run out of things to write songs about, but you’ve got to dress it up in a different, more interesting way. You gotta keep moving, man.”
The Death of a King is out 22nd September through Cooking Vinyl Records