Introduction: black music, white youth

One of my earliest and most formative musical experiences took place at the age of eight or nine. It must have been in 1963 that I happened to watch James Brown playing live on the commercial TV show Ready Steady Go! It wasn’t just his rasping and pleading vocals that I found so compelling, or his astonishing dancing. I can still recall the moment where Brown seemed to break down in an apparent excess of soulful emotion, or perhaps physical exhaustion. He dropped to his knees, sweating profusely, as an assistant wrapped a cloak around him and ushered him off stage. Brown proceeded to throw off the cloak, grabbed the mic and returned to performing. Little did I know that this routine was a regular feature of Brown’s act. For a lower-middle-class white boy in suburban Britain, it was a kind of revelation: it suggested that music could be something other than the bland, white mainstream pop that my parents seemed to like.

Soul music has stayed with me. While I grew up with Tamla-Motown, I was obviously much too young to be a mod; although by the time I arrived at my hippy teenage-hood, I was still listening to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. I can’t pretend that I was a dedicated seventies soul boy, but by the end of the decade (then in my mid-twenties) I was a regular listener to specialist soul music shows on the radio: bands like Maze, Cameo and Earth, Wind and Fire, as well as Brit-funk groups like Linx and Sade, are still in my vinyl collection.

In his influential book Subculture, published in 1979, Dick Hebdige argues that the history of youth subcultures in post-war Britain can be understood as a succession of responses to the growing presence of black immigrants. This is, he argues, ‘a phantom history of race relations’. Hebdige makes a large claim, and it’s possible to think of exceptions to his argument: it’s hard to see much evidence of this in glam rock or the ‘teenybopper’ phenomenon of the 1970s, for example. Some responses – such as those of the teddy boys of the 1950s – seem to be primarily defensive reactions against immigration, rather than any more positive response to multiculturalism.

Nevertheless, one can certainly identify the influence of black music and fashion – and to some extent of black cultural politics – in the style of the beatniks, the mods and to some extent the hippies of the 1960s, even though in the UK these movements were largely confined to white youth. Crucially, however, the influence was largely from American – or what we would now call African-American – culture. It was not until the late 1960s and 1970s, when Hebdige was writing, that we can see much direct influence deriving from immigrants to Britain – and then largely from the Caribbean, rather than from South Asia.

Like other academics in the field, Hebdige makes much of the association between punk (another almost exclusively white subculture) and the Rastafarian style of ‘roots’ reggae. Although I was never a punk, I can certainly recall apocalyptic gigs in the late 1970s by bands like Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse and Aswad, and I still listen to Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs and a whole range of dub. However, in this essay I want to explore a rather different example of this relationship between black culture and white youth – namely the ‘soul scenes’ that flourished in the north of England, and somewhat later in the south, during the 1970s and early 1980s. Both scenes are important precursors of the ‘rave’ and dance club scenes that exploded in the late 1980s, and have remained a key location for contemporary youth culture.

Here again, the focus was very much on black American music, although it eventually led to the emergence of a distinctively black British style, in which elements of American soul merged with influences from Caribbean and African music. My emphasis here, however, is not so much on the music itself as on the ways it was used and consumed, primarily in the context of social dance. As I’ll attempt to show, these soul scenes can indeed be understood as indications of an increasingly multicultural society, and (by extension) of globalization. However, they also reflect other social changes of the period, including the wider rejection of dominant cultural norms and values among white working-class youth.

The story of soul fans in Britain is often presented as one of ‘young soul rebels’: several films, books and record albums have all carried this title. Both fans and researchers have explained the affinity between white working-class British youth and black American soul music in terms of a shared experience of oppression and marginalization. In this sense, the issue is highly political – or at least it has been ‘politicized’ in a way that makes it impossible to see it as merely a matter of entertainment and enjoyment. For example, in his book Black Culture, White Youth, published in 1988, Simon Jones argues that black music was not just a source of pleasure for white youth, or a resource for social activities like dancing and socializing (and sex): it was also ‘a carrier of oppositional attitudes and sensibilities, and of new, liberating possibilities and pleasures to young whites’ (p. xxi). ‘Time and again,’ he argues, ‘white youth have found in black music a more realistic and resonant account of their experience than established idioms of cultural expression could offer.’ According to Jones, the growing appeal of such music in the 1950s and 1960s was a result of a broader failure on the part of the mainstream (white) cultural industries to engage with young people: ‘the cultural needs and aspirations of many young whites in the early 1950s had gone largely unfulfilled by a mainstream entertainment industry unequipped to register the changing patterns of leisure consumption in post-war American society’. In the context, what he calls the ‘loudness, excitement and spontaneity’ of black music became a marker of generational identification, or generational difference, and even of rebellion: it seemed to embody the energy and expressiveness of youth in a way that other forms could not.

In the case of the UK, the fact that this was American music was also significant. Time and again, younger British audiences picked up on musical forms that were neglected – and indeed systematically marginalized – by the white-dominated music industry in the US. There is a long history here, which can be traced from the British beatniks’ enthusiasm for traditional New Orleans jazz, through the blues boom of the early 1960s, and on to the 1970s soul scenes I will be discussing here. As Jones argues, it was partly because of its geographical distance from its point of origin that such music was able to play an oppositional role – perhaps because it also sidestepped the internal racial contradictions of British society at the time. In this respect, there is a significant difference between white British audiences’ enthusiasm for American soul and for reggae (which is Jones’s primary focus) – although the comparison between them is informative, as I hope to indicate.

From this perspective, then, white working-class audiences’ enthusiasm for black music is as much – if not more – about class as it is about ethnicity. Black music is seen to express a sense of powerlessness and disenfranchisement, and to offer a kind of escape or even resistance against social conditions that are primarily about class. I believe there is some truth in this, but I also want to point to some contradictions here. I’m not sure that class and ethnicity can or should be so easily equated, or that there is simply a transfer from one to the other. The British soul scenes I’ll go on to describe are more diverse in both respects. And although white youth often look to black soul music for a form of authenticity, outside the commercial mainstream, its popularity in this context is also itself a manifestation of contemporary consumer culture.

By way of context, I’ll begin with a brief account of the longer history, and then move on to consider the relationship between white youth and black Caribbean music, especially reggae. I’ll distinguish between the different strands of reggae at this time, and look briefly at the hybrid form of two-tone, which emerged at the end of the 1970s in the context of an explicitly anti-racist politics. This is an area that Hebdige and other researchers have considered in some detail, and it reflects academics’ preference for ‘spectacular’ and more obviously ‘oppositional’ youth subcultures. By contrast, the soul scenes I’ll be considering – especially their manifestation in the south of England – have been much less widely discussed. In the following two sections of the essay, I’ll look in turn at Northern Soul and then at what (for want of a better term) I’ll call ‘southern soul’.

As Simon Jones argues, this is not just a ‘phantom history’, as Hebdige calls it: it is also a substantive, material one. It is about specific encounters taking place in specific geographical locations and specific social settings (and as such, they are more appropriately defined as ‘scenes’ rather than ‘subcultures’). It is primarily about dancing to recorded music – although home-grown live bands do emerge, especially in the case of reggae and the later ‘southern soul’ scene. It is also about the economic operations of the music business: about record companies, distributors and shops; about the management of leisure venues such as dance clubs; about the role of radio, magazines and other media; and particularly about the importance of disc jockeys, who are the vital intermediaries between the music and its audience.


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