Goodbye Harley: A farewell to Sheffield’s most important venue
Leo Burrell (AKA Leroy) is our Nightlife Editor. He DJ’d and promoted club nights at the Harley from 2014 until its shock closure last month. He tells us why it was always much more than just a music venue.
The Harley was its own little world. It felt like a microcosm of Sheffield banged up into one little pub. You could impress any hard-nosed music fan with the huge list of bands, DJs and artists that have performed within its walls. From Mala to Helena Hauff, Arctic Monkeys and the XX. But I don’t think this is why its closure will leave a gaping hole in the soul of the city. For me, it was a second home. I’ve eaten, napped, got drunk, danced, shat, kissed, and been dumped there. I’ve woken up there in the morning and had breakfast. I’ve seen a disco ball fall on someone’s head and a pint glass fly across a full club, concussing my mate. Somehow, the place made you comfortable. The band Slaves once reached the ceiling whilst crowdsurfing. I welled up more than a little bit when Midland played Radiohead’s ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ as his last song. At the Mark Rebillet gig this February, a man proposed to his girlfriend (successfully, see video below). When people feel at home, beautiful moments happen.
In David Byrne of Talking Heads’ book, ‘How Music Works’, he writes about how to make a scene. He describes CBGB – the infamous New York venue that sparked the careers of the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads. They say you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til you lose it, and when The Harley shut, I realised it was our CBGB. Walk in any night of the week and there was usually some people doing their thing until 4am, playing their music. It was one of the only bars in town where you would stumble upon a bunch of DJs and their mates, blasting out their favourite tunes or being treated to an intimate set from their hero. Freedom to play and book what we want is something we DJs and promoters live for, and The Harley was the perfect blank canvas. Low hire fees and a decent-sized capacity meant promoters could get away with booking cheap artists and hardly anyone showing up, as well as booking expensive ones and still making their money back. There was never a single genre that represented The Harley. Grime MC AJ Tracey once went off so much the crowd completely destroyed the metal barriers. From dub to garage, to disco and techno, each community will have their stories.While this was all peachy for the promoters, life for The Harley management was a constant battle. Its magical spot at the top of West Street meant so much – it was just out of reach for people who didn’t give a fuck. This meant it struggled as a bar, as the West Street warriors rarely trekked up the hill on a whim. For the club nights it was great because the majority of people in there were there for the event that was on. This is what made the place its own little world. Yes, there were Drake nights, and promoters from other cities who tried to charge £20 on the door. But on the whole, it was just people putting on the DJs they wanted to see for themselves, their mates and no-one else. And when all the nights are that genuine, you end up there all the time. You trust that it will be fun, no matter what’s on. You get dragged to your mate’s mate’s night expecting to not know anyone, and find yourself in a room where everyone seems to know everyone. People gravitate towards venues with this atmosphere like bees around a honey pot.
This family vibe and all that goes with it did take its toll on the Harley’s bankroll. I once saw someone sneak in two bottles of wine, one up each sleeve. On a busy night the backstage area would be as packed as the dance-floor and became a bar in itself. Eventually they paid a bouncer to enforce a ‘wristbands to get backstage’ system, which helped – but I’m not sure how much. In another world, the Harley could have survived with a massive investment. It could have become a nice, glossy venue with strict bouncers on every door, a lick of paint every three months (please not over my “Leroy <3 The Harley” graffiti in the loos), well-programmed lineups that meant you wouldn’t stumble into an empty gabba night on a Wednesday, £8 doubles and burgers that come with okra and matcha-infused lime dressing. But then, it wouldn’t be The Harley everyone loved. The Harley never changed. In the words of Talking Heads… same as it ever was.
Cover: Midland at Pretty Pretty Good’s 1st Birthday, Liam Taylor Photography
Saul’s Sessions, Lewis Evans Photography
AJ Tracey at Bluewave, Shahi Aluwoade Photography
Hackman at Nice Like Rice, Liam Taylor Photography. Spot the Harley’s #1 fan.
Scouse & Fletch
The broken barriers after AJ Tracey
Ash and the bouncers