“Forty years ago in a sweaty cellar club on West Street, my favourite band changed from being four blokes from Düsseldorf playing electronic music, to four blokes from Sheffield playing electronic music”. Four decades on, Downing remains a staunch advocate, collector and supporter of Sheffield music to the point that, after taking early retirement from a job in IT, he has started his own record label and one-man lathe-cutting service. Through this, he’s pressing and releasing records of the local music he loves, all under the suitably Yorkshire name of Do It Thissen.
Downing’s exposure to music started early. “I got taken to see a bunch of original New Orleans jazz bands with my dad,” he says. “He would hang around at the end and buy a record off the band and get them to sign it.” Downing’s own collection would soon begin. As a 16 year-old, he would travel from his home in Rotherham to Sheffield to see bands such as Roxy Music, David Bowie and Genesis, collecting the ticket stubs and official programmes.
He left South Yorkshire in 1974 to go to university in Guildford. “One of the first things I did was join the stage crew,” he remembers. “So I got to see all the bands. I did security on the dressing room door in exchange for two cans of beer and a sandwich.” His graduate job at British Steel brought him to Sheffield, where he has remained ever since. Arriving in the city in 1978, he found a fertile period of culture as post-punk and burgeoning electronic bands were starting to make a national name for themselves. “I’d been reading about the Sheffield music scene in the papers, bands like Cabaret Voltaire,” he recalls. “Then the whole thing really gained momentum during 1978.”
It was during this first week of moving to Sheffield that Downing went to see the Human League at the Limit Club. It was a four-band bill and the top two were Def Leppard and the Human League, with the former support group still mostly playing as a covers band. It was the pioneering new electronic sounds that caught Downing’s ears, however. He even remembers that “the band played with Perspex shields around their equipment”. Fresh from the gobbing and bottle-throwing trends of punk, Phil Oakey and co had constructed their own riot gear-like shields to protect themselves and their instruments.
For decades, Downing remained a music fan and began obsessively collecting records from South Yorkshire. This added to the one-man archive of posters, fanzines, tickets and music memorabilia that he had been building since a teenager. By 2012 this had grown to such a degree that he was asked to exhibit some as part of the biannual Festival of the Mind in Sheffield. The exhibition was a week-long and explored the late 1970s Sheffield post-punk scene. Alongside Downing’s collection, there were featured items by Phil Oakey and Stephen Singleton of ABC. It was an encounter here that would go on to spark the idea of releasing records.
Downing re-connected with Kevin Hobbi, a Sheffield musician from the punk band Hobbies of Today. “He gave me a CD and it was this long-lost EP,” Downing says. “In early 1977 they had recorded their own tracks and had them pressed themselves but the pressing plant went bust. They even had to go to a small claims court just to get the cost of the master tapes back. So this EP had completely disappeared.” Although it turns out that it hadn’t quite completely disappeared, as the band had made a few cassette copies for themselves. “So I was the first person to hear this material since 1977,” Downing adds. “They were absolutely cracking tracks and I said ‘you’ve got to release these’. I think Kevin was a bit disheartened because he didn’t have the funds or the inclination to get them released. I thought it was a historic recording because by March 1977 there were still only a few punk records released – the Sex Pistols, the Damned, Buzzcocks – so if it had come out then as planned you don’t know what could have happened.”
Hobbi’s old record label was resurrected and Downing got the records pressed up for release. “I found a newspaper from February 1977, around the time they were recording, and then clipped out all the letters for the artwork,” Downing says. “I handmade 24 and then got another standard 200 pressed.” Soon all the records had sold out just through word of mouth and they received some glowing reviews in the process. “The icing on the cake was Christmas that year . I got a Record Collector magazine and it had been included in their top singles of the year.”
After retiring in 2017, Downing soon thought about starting a label. His previous exhibition had ran under the title Do It Thissen, so there was already a name and association in place and then when he ended up speaking with Sheffield indie-pop band Thee Mightees, it was soon decided that he would release an EP of theirs on his newly formed label. What soon followed was an EP by the classic Sheffield punk band the Stunt Kites, as the label moved forward under the ethos of “the past, present and future of South Yorkshire music”.
Not long after releasing his second record Downing found himself in Germany on a mission to seal a deal for a custom-made lathe-cutting machine. “There’s a website for this company run by a guy but it’s not as simple as going online and ordering it,” he says. “He’s got to want to sell you one. They are in high demand and I read lots of comments on forums about what an eccentric character he was and how difficult it had been for some people to buy a set-up from him. So I drafted a carefully worded and respectful email and a week later I got a reply saying, ‘yes’, and a date to be flying to Germany. He only takes cash, so I had to travel with €7,000 on me, travelling from Sheffield to Manchester to Düsseldorf to Stuttgart and then into the middle of nowhere in the south- west of Germany.”
Downing now has a studio set-up in Sheffield city centre and is in the stages of testing his first vinyl release. The lathe-cutting machine allows him to press vinyl from a CD source and after adjusting various levels and components from temperature to groove distance, he can produce records in small batches, with each copy cut in real time from the source material. Once he has tested all the levels and got a perfect-sounding record from the source, he can then start to repeat the process, carefully producing one record at a time. The aim is for Downing to be able to produce small-press vinyl releases for local bands. The one he is currently working on is for his own label and is an album by Michael Somerset Ward.
“I’d like to do as many releases for local bands as I can, and the interest seems to be there,” he says. “I can do mates rates for local bands, just to cover my costs and a little bit of beer money. For people outside of South Yorkshire I can still offer the service but I’ll charge at more competitive rates, keeping it separate from the label which will remain specifically releasing independent music from South Yorkshire.”
For Downing, it’s about returning the favour to a city that has given him so much. “It keeps me out of mischief and it helps the local scene,” he says. “I just want to give a little bit back to a music scene that has been really good to me for the last 40 years.”