The UK city word association game can throw up revealing insights into our national psyche and cultural heritage, not least when the first thing you think of is a venue. Nottingham: Rock City. Manchester: Hacienda. Sheffield: Leadmill.
These are the places where so many musical legends are made that it rubs off on the buildings themselves. Pulp, Arctic Monkeys and Bring Me The Horizon are just a few of the homegrown Sheffield superstars for whom a sold-out show at the Leadmill was their first true mark of success. When management announced last week that they were to be evicted and the Leadmill as we know it may cease to exist, the huge outcry from the rock and comedy community was testament to the cultural importance of the place.
It’s where bands from Sheffield and further afield can realistically aspire to play, a tangible goal on their doorstep inspiring them to build a local following big enough to fill it, rather than dream impossible Dick Whittington dreams of one day rocking up in London unannounced and being roared onto its most prestigious stages like Prince reborn. As such, its loss would leave a gaping hole in Yorkshire culture, perhaps even forcing some bands to shun their local community, haul out for the bigger smokes and endure a youth of struggling penury juggling small gigs in a big pond with shifts at Tiger Tiger.
There’s some uncertainty about what the Leadmill’s announcement means in practice. The venue’s management have revealed that the owners – the Brixton-based Electric Group, who purchased the freehold in 2017 and also, as you might have guessed from the name, run venues such as the Electric in Brixton – are set to evict them from the building in 2023, causing the Leadmill to close. Electric Group, meanwhile, are assuring gig-goers that the building will still be run as a music venue. Is it just the Leadmill brand that’s under threat? Are the owners out to cynically capitalise on the Leadmill “family”’s hard-built 42-year reputation for great live music? The details, for now, remain murkier than Prince Andrew’s conscience.
What’s certain is that the disappearance or repurposing of major cultural landmarks almost always leaves behind a vacuum. Londoners saw it in the choking of fresh north London talent when the Bull & Gate’s back room became an average-at-best restaurant, or when the demolition of the Astoria saw the whole point and purpose of ever going to central London sink into the Crossrail void along with the venue’s Keith Moon Bar.
“The place we earned our pedigree / Scene of our victories,” was how Frank Turner described the Astoria in the wistful tune ‘Polaroid Picture’, and even more pertinently, a “sanctuary in the centre of London”. It’s not a flippant or trite point: a city only thrives culturally if all of its tribes feel welcome at its heart, not shunted out to its remote arms and tributaries to make way for real money to be made. If gentrification, for all its sins, generally creates cultural hubs, capitalisation ultimately destroys them. And Sheffield has too few such palaces to stand by and watch them get plundered.
Progress is progress, of course. Without redevelopment and investment, we’d all be stood in dilapidated ballrooms called The Roxy trying to listen to Muse through a Tannoy borrowed from the bingo night. But the protective outcry at this news speaks volumes for how much the Leadmill name and reputation is prized and valued by Sheffield and the wider rock world.
Arctic Monkeys have previously stepped up to raise money to help the team through the pandemic by auctioning Alex Turner’s guitar. Acts such as Kaiser Chiefs, The Charlatans, Paul Heaton and the comedian Nish Kumar have thrown their Twitter weight behind the outgoing team’s #WeCantLoseLeadmill campaign. And five Sheffield MPs have written a letter to Culture Secretary Nadine Davies about the move. Which may surprise her because she likely assumes something called the Sheffield Leadmill would have been shut down without a thought by Margaret Thatcher in the ‘80s.
The only sensible thing is to wholeheartedly support saving the Leadmill, even if in original name and spirit alone. Because if it gets a lick of paint and a rebrand as the Sheffield Electric, it wouldn’t just be some manky seating but a chunk of the city’s soul that’s been ripped out.