‘They say a town is just a town, full stop, but what do they know?’

Architecture, urbanism and pop in Sheffield


  • Owen Hatherley Author




architecture, electronic music, heritage, modernism, pop, post-punk, privatization


This article attempts to answer the question of whether there is a connection between Sheffield’s ambitious modernist housing programme in the 1960s, and its development between the late ’70s and the early ’90s of the most influential post-punk and electronic music scene outside of London and Manchester, to a degree that far outweighs the city’s size, or its influence on national politics or culture before or since. That influence is hard to quantify—certainly, there is no evidence of it affecting the city’s popular culture or popular music to any significant degree before the late ’70s. At that point, however, various Sheffield bands deliberately evoked, described, sometimes celebrated and sometimes critiqued the city’s architecture and planning. Sheffield’s overwhelming post-war architecture and car-centred planning was obliquely referenced in the artwork and some of the songs on Comsat Angels’s Waiting for a Miracle, as a rather glamorously oppressive space, on the model of Joy Division’s Manchester. On the other hand, the Human League evoked it in a much more positive fashion, referencing the ‘streets in the sky’ housing schemes in lyrics and videos, and writing optimistically about ‘high-rise living’. Over a decade later, Pulp’s presentation of the city is much more explicit, naming streets, particular modernist schemes, in a manner that oscillates between utopian possibility and a grim reality. Meanwhile, the city council’s policy of letting post-industrial space at tiny or nonexistent rents encouraged an important techno scene around groups like Forgemasters, with a clearly modernist aesthetic. Recent years have seen the marketing of privatized parts of this ‘socialist citadel’ via an appeal to its popular music history. Sheffield’s modern architecture and pop music is perhaps now another kind of heritage culture, linked in the covers of Richard Hawley’s records in a fond, slightly rueful nostalgia. However, the Sheffield experience is perhaps most valuable for complicating the tendency to read modernism and pop, state planning and small-time enterprise, as intrinsically opposed.

Author Biography

  • Owen Hatherley

    Owen Hatherley is a writer based in south-east London, and the author of several books, most recently Landscapes of Communism (Penguin, 2015) and The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016). His PhD thesis was published as The Chaplin Machine (Pluto Press, 2016).


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How to Cite

Hatherley, O. (2017). ‘They say a town is just a town, full stop, but what do they know?’: Architecture, urbanism and pop in Sheffield. Popular Music History, 10(1), 30-45. https://doi.org/10.1558/pomh.32554