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They turned down Madonna - but Leadmill is still a music legend

Leadmill, Sheffield

Leadmill, Sheffield

Fears that The Leadmill may close have prompted many memories of the legednary venue. Colin Drury looks at its star-studded history...

IT would surely have been a gig which went down in Sheffield history.

The Leadmill, the city’s world-famous music venue, has staged shows by some of rock n roll’s biggest names during its 34 year history: Oasis, Joe Strummer, The Strokes, Coldplay and The Stone Roses to name just a few.

But it was the one that got away that haunted staff for years.

In 1983, the venue in Leadmill Road booked a young up-and-coming American singer to make her British debut here. Yet at the last minute, after a disagreement about money, bosses pulled the show.

Thus, Madonna went across the Pennines to play the Hacienda in Manchester instead.

“As own goals go that takes some beating,” says Neil Anderson, author of a series of books charting Sheffield’s nightlife since the Fifties. “The only thing comparable is when Sheffield United turned down the chance to sign Maradona as a teenager because he was a few thousand more than they wanted to pay. It’s incredible. Just imagine being able to say Madonna made her British debut at your venue.”

It is just one of many memories which have poured out this week after fears emerged that the venue might be forced to close.

Such concerns, it should be said, are unfounded. The building which holds the legendary nightclub is up for sale (starting price £570,000 at auction on Monday) but a long-term lease agreement means The Leadmill itself will remain there until at least 2023 no matter who buys.

“The Leadmill is not going anywhere,” promoter Lauren Hunt told The Star, unequivocally.

Which, common consensus appears to agree, is good news for the city.

For, in an age when every Tom, Dick and O2 Academy earn the title ‘legendary’, this is a venue that really is just that.

Proof? How about the fact it has twice in the last four years been named the best music venue in the UK? Or what about the letter Ringo Starr once sent the place calling it integral to British music? Or consider the way post punk heroes Arcade Fire once declared playing the venue a “rite of passage” they’d dreamed of during their youth - particularly impressive given they’re from Canada.

Who else has played here? Who hasn’t? The Libertines, The La’s, Happy Mondays, Kaiser Chiefs, The Fall, The Killers and Lily Allen are among those to tread the boards. Culture Clubs could be seen here for just 50p the week they went to number one with Do You Really Want To Hurt Me in 1982. And Spice Girl Mel C made her solo debut at the venue - with three of her ex-band mates (Baby, Scary, Posh) and David Beckham in the audience.

“I remember they smelt really nice, you could smell that they were rich and posh,” recalled former manager Rupert Dell afterwards. “And I was in OK magazine, you could just see the top of my head in the picture from the gig.”

Pulp hold the record for the most number of appearances, having graced the stage(s) 17 times. That’s not counting new year’s eve 1982 when a pre-fame Jarvis Cocker put on a pantomime for children.

They’re not the only home-town band to have left an impression, either. Arctic Monkeys famously love the place so much that, before the release of their globally-anticipated second album, they sneaked in to play a secret Saturday night show there.

The Crookes, Slow Club, Babybird, Heaven 17 and ABC have all done their stuff too. So, in their own unusual way, have current whippersnapper rock band Liberty Ship.

The local lads had one drink too many from their rider while making their debut at the venue - and ended up going all Keith Richards.

“A security guy came to me and said ‘I think you better take a look in Suffolk Road’,” remembers current manager Ian Lawlor, who has worked at the venue for seven years and who was appointed to his present post in February. “They’d thrown a desk and ironing board out their dressing room window.

“We don’t really want that kind of behaviour but they’re good lads. I think they wrote us a letter of apology afterwards, and we’ve had them back since.”

More rock n roll behaviour? The night New York poppers Scissor Sisters played, perhaps. A cleaner arrived the next afternoon to find their drummer, Paddy Boom, somewhat the worse for wear asleep under a desk. He was supposed to be on stage in Liverpool within a few hours.

These days, of course, it’s not all gigs.

Claims have been made that the venue has abandoned its original routes as an arts venue, dedicated to promoting new music, exhibitions and theatre. Critics reckon it now focuses too heavily on mainstream and student clubs nights.

“I don’t agree,” says 27-year-old Ian of Dinnington. “We still put on new music and bands, there’s a monthly comedy night, we have burlesque shows, there’s lots going on. But the more popular stuff - club nights like Sonic and Shag - pay for being able to do a lot of that stuff.

“In the past we’ve actually described the club nights as a cash cow. That’s not true because they’re incredible in their own right. We do them amazingly well. There’s a brilliant atmosphere and people love them. But yes, they certainly bring in money which we can invest in other areas.”

And, clearly, it’s working. On an average week, more than 1,500 people pass through the venue’s doors. The place - which, bizarrely, perhaps, is actually a converted flour mill - sells 40,000 pints of beer every single year.

Not bad for somewhere which, in its earliest days, the New Musical Express described as having “the thrift...of a working men’s club”. But then, maybe that’s always been part of the charm.

“It’s funny,” says Ian. “We were having the old turnstiles serviced the other day and we found what I think was an old sixpence piece under one. That’s when you realise just how long we’ve been going, and it makes you proud.

“Everyone in Sheffield seems to have a Leadmill story. We had a guy fixing the bin bay shutters the other day and he was saying ‘Aye, I remember coming here’. I think it’s secret is that there’s a great, friendly, attitude-free atmosphere. We’ve never lost that. That’s why people are still coming here.”

THE LEADMILL IN NUMBERS

17 - number of times Pulp have played there.

34 - years it’s been open.

70 - number of full and part time staff.

324 - events and club nights put on in the last 12 months.

40,000 - pints of lager sold last year.

63,000 - cans of Red Stripe sold last year.

570,000 - pounds, value of building.

 

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