A The band showing up for a session at the Studio Electrophonique in the late 1970s could have been forgiven for thinking they had gone to the wrong address. An ordinary Sheffield council house with a caravan parked in the driveway, it was paired with thick rugs and a toy poodle with bark like a wildebeest.
But behind the chintzy curtains, an RAF veteran and panel beater called Ken Patten had hand-built one of Europe’s most pioneering electronic studios. For a £15 recording fee, he helped some of Sheffield’s most prominent bands shape their fledgling sounds – from Pulp to ABC, Heaven 17 and the Human League, as well as lesser-heralded acts such as the Doncaster Wheatsheaf Girls Choir.
Now two former Sheffield teachers have made a documentary celebrating “one of the great untold stories in British pop music”. Premiering at Sheffield DocFest this week, they describe Patten’s home on the Balliford Estate in Handsworth as the unlikely melting pot of Yorkshire’s electro scene and Patten his thrifty resident genius.
A Film About Electrophonic Studio is narrated by Sean Bean, who grew up in Handsworth. “When my dad sent me to Ken Patten to pay his garage bill, I had no idea Ken had built his own creative world in his downstairs extension,” he says. “None of us knew he was recording the space age sounds of Sheffield or even that this space age sound would become the future of British music.”
Martyn Ware, who went on to form the Human League and Heaven 17, recalls visiting with his first band, an experimental collective called The Future: “We knocked on the door and his wife was there. She said, ‘Oh hello guys,’ and offered us a cup of tea and ushered us into the front room and it was all chintz and bulky armchairs and a coffee table with a recorder at four tracks on it. I remember saying, ‘Where do we put the synths?’ I think it must have had keyboard supports sitting on the deep plush carpet and I remember thinking: this is way too comfortable to record something as cutting edge as this.
Although he specialized in electronic music, Patten recorded everyone who answered his classified ads in the Sheffield Star. Jarvis Cocker, who did a demo with Pulp in 1981, recalls: “We came in and he was a little puzzled. I don’t think he realized how young we were. I was the eldest of the group and I was maybe 17 years old. The demo led to the still unsigned band getting their first John Peel session on Radio 1.
“It turned out that the main recording location was going to be the bedroom. That’s where the drum kit was set up. Our drummer, Wayne, came up there and I think we were in the kitchen , but through some creative use of wiring, he was able to hear us,” says Cocker.
“What really impressed me was [Patten] turned on this little portable black and white television and we could see the drummer, in the bedroom on television. It was something for communication, but his wife had insisted on making sure people weren’t misbehaving in the bedroom.
Cocker also remembers Patten’s pride in his homemade vocoder, which he tinkered with for 50p using two rolls of toilet paper and old throat microphones pinched from fighter pilots in the RAF era.
The hour-long film takes the form of a mystery novel as James Leesley – a substitute teacher turned solo artist who has adopted the stage name Studio Electrophonique – attempts to track down Patten’s relatives and collaborators.
The pair recorded it all on an iPad ‘using a £20 microphone and edited it using a £3.99 app’, says director James Taylor, a teacher of English who now does outreach work at Sheffield Hallam University.
Patten, who died in 1990, deserves to be better known, says Leesley: “I’ve asked a few people who’ve been around Sheffield music for about 30 years and they’ve never even heard the name Electrophonic Studio. or even Ken Patten, so I guess that makes it one of the great untold stories in British pop music.