‘Our music was like trying to put a ballgown on Ken Loach’

In the first of a series of features on the musicians who put Yorkshire on the map, Pulp’s Russell Senior tells Sarah Freeman how he was made in Sheffield.

There was a time when Russell Senior wanted to get as far away as possible from Sheffield.

It was 1979 and having finished his A-levels, the 18-year-old knew only one thing – he wanted to escape from the smokestacks and the endless rows of red brick houses where families were already witnessing the impact of growing unemployment and an end to industry as they had known it.

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Senior’s own father would soon be made redundant from a local steelworks and so when it came to applying to university, the main criteria was not the quality of the course or grades needed, it was the distance from Sheffield.

“I wanted to go somewhere completely different,” says Senior, who turned 50 last year. “I applied to Kent, Exeter and Bath which were about as far away from Sheffield as I could get. I wanted to be somewhere beautiful, I’d had enough of ugly.”

That autumn, Senior packed his bags and boarded a British Rail train to Bath. It was 200 miles away from home, but culturally and historically the gap between Somerset and South Yorkshire was much wider.

“Bath was lovely, but it also felt some how opaque and not quite real,” says Senior. A few years later, he would join Jarvis Cocker as the guitarist and violist for Pulp and he admits he soon felt the pang to be back in the city “I missed the bite. It was the buses that did it. In Sheffield you’d get on a bus and an old lady you’d never met before would tell you about her nephew’s spleen operation in excruciating detail. The old ladies on buses in Bath didn’t talk. I guess I just decided that I’d rather have interfering old ladies than silence.

“The best way to sum it up was that I had found myself living in a place that had produced Tears for Fears and I wanted to be back in Sheffield which had produced Cabaret Voltaire.”

Arriving back in Sheffield in the early 1980s, Senior found a city where everyone seemed to be forming a band. He recognised Cocker as the charismatic salesman from the fish market and, like countless other hopeful musicians, they were soon spending their days rehearsing against the sound of Sheffield’s forges. Their disco-influenced sound combined with kitchen sink lyrics seemed to sum up the two sides of the city which with David Blunkett as council leader had already begun to refer to itself as The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire.

“There is a Dickensian quality to Sheffield with the blackened chimneys, the alleyways and the Little Mesters workshops which I liked then and I still like know,” says Senior. “Bands rehearsed against the backdrop of grinding machinery and while I don’t think you can put your finger on what linked the music coming out of the city, there was definitely an attempt to dress up the grimness. It was a bit like putting a ballgown on Ken Loach.

“I suppose it explains why as Pulp we always cared about how a performance looked, we wanted to offer something different to the city where people worked and lived. It usually ended disastrously. People would come to our early gigs just to watch the set falling apart around us, but we never saw the funny side, we took ourselves very seriously.

“The 80s were a strange time in Sheffield, Duran Duran were in the charts, but their singles ended up providing the soundtrack for what can only be described as a grey industrial struggle.”

If Sheffield of the 1980s provided Pulp’s musical inspiration, it was also where Senior became switched on politically. During the year long Miners’ Strike, which began in the March of 1984, Senior became a flying picket and witnessed first hand his home city pitched against Margaret Thatcher’s government, the police and a media which many saw as telling only one side of the story.

“I guess you’d call me a young radical, I went on lots of pickets and raised money for the miners and their families, I was what Thatcher would have called the enemy within. I’d always been politically aware, but the strike set me on fast forward. The city was full of angry young men, but they were angry with good reason. They were living in a post-industrial wasteland.

“I wasn’t in any political party, but I had come from the kind of background where shop stewards were respected. There was a lot of idealism in Sheffield at the time and socialism was a guiding light. My dad had worked in the steelworks with people who had fought in the Spanish civil war. It’s true that a lot of people in the factories thought communism would bring salvation, but there was also a sense that collectively people could and should make a difference.”

After being laid off from the steelworks, Senior’s father found work as an odd job man, but his professional years ended the day he picked up his redundancy cheque. It was the same story for thousands of others, but amid the grim reality, Senior says he also saw the true spirit of Sheffield rise up.

“I remember going on the People’s March for Jobs which was an attempt to recreate the Jarrow Crusade. We were all wearing Chartist green Harrington jackets, the kind skinheads wore. We were marching down the Wicker when from an alleyway a man called out to my dad from the hot steel sparks of a foundry.

“When he realised what we were all doing, he shut the foundry and ordered all his men out on the march. There was a sense that something was happening in Sheffield, I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew it was more exciting than gigging.”

Senior is aware that 30 years on, there is a danger of romanticising the past. Sheffield, he says, wasn’t immune from the same streak of materialism which in the capital had given birth to the champagne-drinking, mobile phone-wielding yuppies.

“At the start of the strike I think a lot of the older miners thought the younger ones wouldn’t have the stomach for a long, hard fight. They’d been used to Spanish holidays, they’d invested in time shares and had bought the latest VHS video recorders, but they did pick up the mantle and I think the 1980s gave Sheffield a sense of perspective which it has never lost. There was genuine hardship, it wasn’t about not being able to afford a pair of new trainers. When you can’t afford to feed your family, that changes people and it changed Sheffield. Ultimately, it led to real burning anger, it felt very sinister how policemen who previously had been modelled on Dixon of Dock Green turned into Pinochet’s henchmen. So much has changed since then, but Sheffield still has unfinished business.”

Senior is currently writing Two Tribes – The Miner’s Strike Musical with Sheffield-based DJ Ralph Razor, which he hopes will go some way to addressing the unanswered questions of Sheffield’s past. The show, while written, is still in need of a cast and for Senior the project has forced him to look back at the 12 months which defined the city.

“Previous miners strikes had been successful because the lights of Britain went out,” he says.

“Thatcher wasn’t going to risk that happening again and who knows how long they had been stockpiling coal. In December there was a switch on at 6pm campaign where everyone would run around the house switching on lights, turning on the television and the kettle in the hope it would crash the grid. It didn’t and I think at that moment I knew it was lost.

“When the miners had their dignified march back to work with the brass bands playing it was really touching, but then they were forgotten.

“I went back to Orgreave a few years ago to make a documentary for the 21st anniversary of the strike and the Arthur Scargill graffiti has now been covered with BNP graffiti. That’s the untold story of what happened to Sheffield.”

Plans for the musical were interrupted when Senior got a call from Cocker sounding him out about a possible reunion of Pulp, which had signed off with a greatest hits album in 2002. He had left Pulp somewhat abruptly, just before his 40th birthday, partly in the belief that music isn’t an old man’s game and partly disillusioned by the direction the band, who had created some of Britpop’s most memorable anthems, had travelled since their early days in Sheffield.

“The music industry is run in a malevolent Ab Fab kind of way,” he says. “We’d been used to rehearsing in Little Mesters and to be honest it had all became a little bit poncy. The end game for me was when we played a corporate gig for Carlsberg in Barcelona. I was already looking for an out, but as I stood there in front of people who really couldn’t have cared less that we were playing, knowing I wasn’t putting 100 per cent in, it was time to leave. Walking away was the right thing to do, but it had always felt like a truncated column or a sentence without a full stop.”

Senior did return to the stage for Pulp’s reunion and admits that while they looked like “the tattered remnants of Stalin’s army”, playing their first gig back in Barcelona was for him a nice piece of symmetry. However, while the best of the band went on an extensive world tour, Senior, who doesn’t like flying, returned to Sheffield.

“In the early years of the 21st-century Sheffield changed beyond recognition. Cranes filled the skies and you could suddenly buy cappuccinos, fresh basil and all the other essentials of modern living, but the music has remained. Sheffield is not as depressed as it used to be, but for me the city will always be at its best under leaden skies.”

Hunt for young men and lots of donkey jackets

In the production offices of Two Tribes – The Miner’s Strike Musical, it’s impossible not to wallow in a little 1980s nostalgia.

Just a short walk from the Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema and a clutch of new buildings which have sprung up across Sheffield in recent years, in one room a rail is packed with the clothes from the decade taste forgot and the other overlooks a piece of waste ground a reminder of those parts of the city untouched by 21st-century development.

It’s here where Russell Senior and Ralph Razor have been working on their musical, which will be staged to the sound of Duran Duran and Cyndi Lauper.

The pair hope to stage some taster scenes at Sheffield’s Tramlines festival in July, but first they need a cast.

“We’ve already held a couple of auditions and the response was great, but we need more young men,” says Russell, admiring a neck to ankle rainbow-coloured body tube.

“It has crossed my mind that perhaps we should stage an all-female version of the Miners’ Strike, but perhaps that would require one leap of imagination too far.”

As well as cast members, back stage and technical crew, Russell and Ralph are also on the lookout for a job lot of donkey jackets

For more details about the musical and how to get involved visit www.tt84.co.uk