Uncommon people: Still live and kicking at Sheffield’s Leadmill

Martin Bedford, one of the founders of The Leadmill, pictured at the music venue in Sheffield.

Martin Bedford, one of the founders of The Leadmill, pictured at the music venue in Sheffield.

  • It’s survived three recessions, one flood and seen the city in which it is based transformed. As the Leadmill celebrates 35 years with a special BBC broadcast, Daniel Dylan Wray takes a look at Sheffield’s iconic music venue. Main picture by Scott Merrylees.
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On May 4 one of Sheffield’s longest-running music venues will be celebrating its 35th birthday with the BBC. Steve Lamacq of BBC 6 Music will be broadcasting live from the club as part of the celebrations, which will see live performances from the Mystery Jets with support from Sheffield’s own Slow Club and a DJ set from perhaps the city’s most famous musical export, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker.

Since its opening, the Leadmill has gone from a politically-orientated DIY space to a multi-room venue that operates both as a nightclub and a gig venue. It’s also proven a haven for the city’s many thousands of students.

The Leadmill has always had a leftfield bent ever since it opened 35 years ago. None more so than with this performance by Frank Sidebottom back in 2010.

The Leadmill has always had a leftfield bent ever since it opened 35 years ago. None more so than with this performance by Frank Sidebottom back in 2010.

Martin Bedford is a man who has watched the evolution of the Leadmill. One of the venue’s founding members, through his unique poster designs, the Sheffield artist also helped shaped the aesthetic and identity of the place during the 1980s. As we chat over a pint in his local, he remembers it being a part of town that was hardly synonymous with nightlife.

“It was where the buses went to sleep and that was it. Loads of people wouldn’t come down here initially, it was just this dark, industrial area and people thought, ‘Why would we want to go there?’ It was just somewhere that was tucked away by the railway station.”

Martin formed the Leadmill with John Redfern, Chris Andrews, Adrian Vincan and Phil Mills. “Chris and John came round to my flat and said, ‘We’ve got this place where we want to put gigs on and we heard you do posters’. That’s how I got involved.” He says of his early involvement, “We’d all been at, or inspired by, three major venues: the Melkweg in Amsterdam, the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Roundhouse in London. We wanted to put on stuff like they did. When those venues started they were supported by great communities and that’s what we wanted. Once we were up and running we were doing all sorts: gigs, theatre, community art, workshops with the Workers’ Education Association and there was also a café that fed a lot of people.” Martin remembers a theatre production starring a young Jim Broadbent as being a particular highlight in those early days. He was just starting out in his acting career, but his talent, says Martin, clearly stood out.

“For myself there was also a political element to the Leadmill,” he says. “We wanted to do something that involved, and was for, the community and wasn’t just a cash cow. When the miners’ strike happened that was very personal, we did a lot of benefits and bands were very active in supporting that.” After the year-long bitter dispute resulted in defeat for the miners, a more apolitical stance took over as a means for “survival”. Although Martin admits that the club probably did need to change in order to continue to exist and grow.

Leeds singer Corinne Bailey Rae performing at the Leadmill in Sheffield

Leeds singer Corinne Bailey Rae performing at the Leadmill in Sheffield

“They were hard times and things had to change, if they didn’t the Leadmill wouldn’t be celebrating 35 years now. If they’d left it in the hands of the hippies it would have been long gone.”

As the political landscape altered, the club did enter a new chapter and began building its reputation as a gig venue.

“When we first started there the dancefloor was still cobbled because essentially it was an open courtyard within the building and the first roof we ever had on it was a military parachute used for dropping jeeps out of planes.” And it wasn’t just the dance floor that was unorthodox, the stage doubled up as a bed too. “One of our first sound engineers used to sleep under the stage with his dog,” he recalls. Martin carried on making posters for the Leadmill and while the venue might not have been as overtly political as it had once been, its commitment to the surrounding community remained.

“By doing those posters we were setting out to say we were a venue that cares, we’re not just interested in turning you upside down for your cash because if we were we wouldn’t be doing this. I think we achieved that – it also gave respect to the artists too and a lot of people played for less of a fee than they could get elsewhere because of the vibe of the place.”

Arctic Monkeys played a sell out gig at the Leadmill in 2007 following the release of their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

Arctic Monkeys played a sell out gig at the Leadmill in 2007 following the release of their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

In 1992, after 12 years with the venue, Martin left to pursue other endeavours. Today Rebecca Anne Walker, is the assistant general manager. She has been with the Leadmill for the last six years, is in charge of the live bookings and has played an integral part in planning the anniversary celebrations which have come to fruition as a result of another age-old Sheffield tradition: snooker.

“We were approached to work with the BBC on a Radio 5 Live broadcast for the station’s Fighting Talk show which went out on April 18.

“It was to promote the World Championships at the Crucible and during those meetings we were chatting about how much Jarvis Cocker loved snooker and Steve Lamacq wanted to be involved with the goings-on at the Crucible and I mentioned it was our birthday around the time of the snooker, and from there we progressed to doing a live broadcast show. It’s all really exciting. They did a show 10 years ago for our 25th with Arcade Fire so it’s almost a tradition now.”

Dorian Cox, chief songwriter and guitarist with Sheffield group the Long Blondes, who met some of his future band mates at a Strokes gig at the Leadmill, remembers that night a decade ago well because his band were playing on the bill.

The Leadmill in Sheffield has become a haven for the city's students.

The Leadmill in Sheffield has become a haven for the city's students.

“It was incredible, we were totally honoured to have played there supporting Arcade Fire,” he says, remembering it fondly. Another strong memory for him and his group was playing with the Arctic Monkeys in 2007.

“They asked us personally and when we went on stage you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. It was the Monkeys’ first homecoming show and every line of every song was sung back to them, it was like Oasis at Knebworth.” Soon afterwards came a headline slot of their own however, which Cox describes as “A proper schoolboy dream come true”.

Reflecting on the club’s longevity I ask Rebecca what the secret is to the Leadmill’s success? “Our secret isn’t really a secret. What keeps us alive is a mixture of being an independent venue and having an absolutely amazing team. Being independent, we are able to adapt quickly to trends and competition without having to wait for a group of suits in a head office to make a decision. The team we have here at the Leadmill are incredible and work extremely hard to stay one step ahead of trends and keep the Leadmill adapting to what our customers want in a venue. With this in mind we’ve survived three recessions and one flood and are still going strong.”

As for personal highlights and memories of her time there, Rebecca recalls a show in 2014.

“A personal and recent highlight would have to be the Royal Blood show back at Halloween. The show sold out almost instantly, it was a Friday night and Halloween – the atmosphere was set to be incredible anyway.

“The band, through their social media, requested all attending should dress up as skeletons, which about 80 per cent did. It was an incredible image. And to top it all off, during sound check, a knock at the door revealed an undertaker making a delivery, ordered by the band’s label. A full sized genuine coffin. Royal Blood’s Mike Kerr wanted to be carried on stage in it, through a sea of skeletons by our staff dressed in skeleton suits and then went on to play one of the most intense sets I’ve seen on our main stage. It’s going to be a tough one to beat.”

While these celebrations look favourably on past accomplishments over the 35 years of the Leadmill, this isn’t acting as a moment to slow down, quite the opposite by the sound of Rebecca, who is somewhat clandestine about the venue’s future but incredibly positive, “All I’m saying is that in the next 18 months we will be revealing something a little bit special that we’re all very excited about.”

The special BBC 6 Music broadcast hosted by Steve Lamacq and featuring the Mystery Jets will take place at the Leadmill on May 4. That night there will also be a DJ set by Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackey as The Desperate Sound System. For more details visit www.leadmill.co.uk

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