Star Interview: Artist's poster exhibition chronicles 40 years of rock'n'roll in Sheffield

Martin Bedford is a man of principle. And this extends, it seems, to the thousands of posters he has produced for live gigs in Sheffield and beyond over the past four decades.

Wednesday, 10th January 2018, 9:07 am
Updated Wednesday, 10th January 2018, 9:10 am
An exhibition by Sheffield artist Martin Bedford at The Closed Shop. Picture: Chris Ethells

“There’s a very basic premise I have, rightly or wrongly, arrogantly or not,” he says. “I consider myself a community artist. If you just slam letters on a poster to advertise something all you’re saying is: ‘Give us your money’.”

A look at his latest exhibition, 40 Years of Rock and Roll, happening at The Closed Shop pub at Commonside, gives perhaps the most comprehensive overview ever of Martin’s methods. Heavily influenced by the graphic design of the US underground in the 1960s and 70s, his work blends psychedelia and a strain of Americana with the bizarre, and he is most closely associated with The Leadmill, the venue he helped to establish in 1980.

It is no exaggeration to say Martin F Bedford – middle name Frederick – has made a big contribution to Sheffield’s modern cultural identity, through his art and giving up-and-coming acts places to play. Not bad for a life’s work, but he still feels he’s played truant in some way.

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“Apart from a few times when I’ve run venues, I’ve never had a proper job,” he says, smiling mischieviously over a pint of bitter. “I’ve just done this.”

Martin, originally from Gravesend, Kent – he’s never picked up a Yorkshire accent – began going to art college aged 11. One of the visiting teachers was pop artist Peter Blake, who designed the sleeve for The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper LP.

Martin always wanted to work in music. He couldn’t sing or play an instrument, but saw the Hindu-inspired cover for ‘Axis: Bold as Love’ by The Jimi Hendrix Experience and found a way in.

As an enterprising 14 and 15-year-old he spent break times at school in the art room printing posters. Then, on Saturdays, he would hitch a ride to London, sit on the corner of Carnaby Street and sell his work.

He studied art at Canterbury but came to Sheffield in 1975, gaining a fine art degree and learning photography at Psalter Lane college. Before moving he had been living in squats and communes, but felt persecuted and misunderstood.

“I was just getting stopped all the time because as far as the powers that be were concerned I didn’t look right. I’d got really long hair and and I was just getting chased by skinheads. I thought ‘I’ve got to get out of this place’. It was doing my head in.”

He fell in love with Sheffield, and remembers climbing to the top of the Psalter Lane building and being bowled over by seeing a city ‘overgrown’ with greenery.

“The buildings were black then, in the 70s – they hadn’t been cleaned since the industrial age. But there were all these trees. Unlike London, you can see a little bit of countryside anywhere in Sheffield.”
It wasn’t just the landscape – the people impressed him too.

“I’d been at the art college for about a week, and I was waiting at the bus stop at Banner Cross – it was really windy, and all of a sudden all of my hair blows into this old guy’s face. I apologised, and he said ‘Don’t worry about that, I’ve been through two world wars so that means nothing to me. It’s my birthday, do you want to come on a pub crawl?’ I’d only been in Sheffield a week and I’m out drinking with this guy who’d lived here all his life. If that had happened in London I’d have got a right earful.”

He went on tour with The Damned and The Adverts in 1977, taking backstage photos, and went on to produce promo shots for musicians such as Roy Harper and Ronnie Lane.

Three years later he was part of the co-operative that launched The Leadmill. The first gig, with Sheffield band Artery on the bill, was on May 23, 1980 – Martin’s ex-wife’s birthday, he recalls.

“It gave Sheffield a shock. For the first couple of years it was really difficult to get people down there. Nothing happened at that part of town, it was just where the buses went to bed.

“It started out as a hippy/punk/reggae/whatever ideal – we were putting on theatre, workshops, stuff for the disabled, the miners. We were politically involved.”

He is pragmatic, though, and knows the place had to change to survive.

“The Leadmill wouldn’t exist if it had carried on the way we started it.”

Martin, 62, lives in Upperthorpe. He has two grown-up sons, a stepson and daughter, and has remarried. He works from home these days, using a mix of hand-drawn illustrations and computer lettering.

The Leadmill switched to computer-designed posters in 1992 and stopped commissioning Martin. He was always self-employed, but did have a studio at the venue.

“It was a business move on their part, but it was everything I was against. Not because it was computers, but it just reverted to letters on a page, and if there was an image it was a factual one. Nobody was creating anything.”

Afterwards he set up The Loft art group, doing decor for raves and working with acts like Underworld and the Chemical Brothers, and for nearly five years he has run the Honey Bee Blues Club, which stages eight to ten gigs every month in Sheffield.

There are 102 prints on the walls of The Closed Shop, and Martin feels ‘very proud’ of seeing so much work gathered together. His all-time favourite poster was one he made for a Wilko Johnson show at The Greystones in 2013.

“Everybody’s been really complimentary. In a sense it’s more real than having it in a gallery. As with the gigs I do I prefer to put them, if I’ve got the opportunity, in an interesting or different place.”

Doggedly pursuing his art has made circumstances difficult at times – “Not a lot of cash has floated around” – but Sheffield, he says, has been the best place for it.

“Down south it’s constantly ‘How much are you earning? What are you doing? Who do you know?’ It’s draining. If you’re an artist, or a musician, or any kind of creative individual, Sheffield allows you to get on and do it. People don’t hassle you and think you’re weird.”

40 Years of Rock and Roll: The Posters of Martin F Bedford runs until February 1 at The Closed Shop.

‘Go out and see the bands that aren’t making it yet’

Martin Bedford has little time for those who wish they were around when Sheffield’s top bands were in their early days, and instead thinks people should back today’s future stars.

“I think it’s a bit sad. It’s happening now - unless you go out and see a band you’re not going to see the next Led Zeppelin or whoever. You’re waiting for somebody to tell you: ‘This band are really good, it’ll cost you £25 a ticket.’ If you’re a music lover surely you go out and see the bands that aren’t making it yet.”

Pulp ‘practically lived’ at The Leadmill in the 1980s, the artist and promoter says, but were nothing like the pop proposition they later became.

Martin promotes gigs at small places – the Toolmakers studio off Rutland Road, the Hallamshire House at Commonside, the Porter Cottage on Sharrow Vale Road and the Coach and Horses, Dronfield, are among his regular venues – but would like to see somewhere a little larger.

“We desperately need a venue that holds three to four hundred people. There isn’t really one in Sheffield outside of the O2s and Leadmills. It’d be nice.”