Northern soul: identity and representation

The ‘homology’ of elements I’ve identified here can easily be compared with those of other youth subcultures. Yet to what extent can Northern Soul be seen as a subculture? It was certainly subterranean or ‘underground’, in the sense of being hidden from wider public view for several years; and it was to some extent subversive, in that it might have seemed to embody a different set of values and priorities from those of the mainstream adult culture. However, I have tended to employ the word ‘scene’ rather than ‘subculture’ here. There has been some rather tiresome debate among youth culture scholars as to the validity of these (and other related) terms. I’ve tended to talk about ‘scenes’ partly because of the geographical locatedness of these phenomena, the fact that they involved large groups of people gathering together in specific settings for limited periods of time. In this respect, Northern Soul seems very different from much more dispersed phenomena like punk.

For some of its adherents, however, Northern Soul represents much more than this. In documentaries and memoirs, it is routinely described as a way of life, or a lifestyle. It is something that ‘gets in your blood’, a ‘movement’, even a kind of ‘religion’, with its own set of values. As I’ve noted, older participants in the current scene continue to talk about ‘keeping the faith’: they have an intense identification with the scene that has proven to be of enduring significance – and perhaps even the most important element in their lives, well beyond their teenage years. This is partly a matter of collective solidarity, of good times spent with like-minded people. However, as for many other committed ‘subculturalists’, it often seems to have a highly personal, almost mystical dimension.

In the case of Northern Soul, there is an insistence on authenticity and even purity that is crucial here – although again, it is far from unique in this respect. According to its followers, Northern Soul was ‘real’ music: it was imagined to be somehow outside the capitalist music business, or at least to have been rejected by it on the grounds of its lack of commercial appeal. Unlike the crowd-pleasers at Motown, the soul singers who were favoured were somehow expressing ‘real’ emotions, rather than fake sentimentality: they were singing about genuine suffering and pain.

It’s often claimed that this purity and authenticity – and the sense of solidarity among the participants – transcends social boundaries. Adherents of the Northern Soul scene sometimes maintain that it did, just as the ravers of the following decade tended to claim that ‘club cultures’ were inclusive and welcoming to all: everybody, it seemed, was equal on the dance floor. Yet was this in fact the case?

Northern Soul in Japan

It’s hard to deny that the Northern Soul scene was predominantly working-class, although it did attract some more middle-class followers as it gained more media coverage. Most of the participants who have written memoirs of the scene, or been interviewed in books and documentaries, were in manual or low-grade clerical jobs at the time. One common explanation that was offered here – for example, in Tony Palmer’s 1977 TV documentary on the scene – was that the scene offered a kind of temporary escape from the grind of mundane unskilled and semi-skilled labour. Like other scenes before and since, it was about ‘living for the weekend’.

Meanwhile, all the evidence I’ve seen would suggest that the scene was also very much male dominated. As we’ve seen, some people argued that the more athletic style of Northern Soul dance allowed young men to display a different, less aggressive style of masculinity. Some have suggested that the lack of emphasis on heterosexual coupling meant that gay participants could feel more comfortable, even if they were unlikely to be ‘out’ – although Northern Soul was a long way from disco in this respect. Nevertheless, all the leading DJs, record collectors, promoters and other ‘experts’ on the scene – and (more arguably) the large majority of the most celebrated dancers – were male.

The scene was also very predominantly white: this is acknowledged by most commentators, and I have noted very few instances of black dancers in all the footage I have seen. It’s my impression that this is especially the case in the more traditional, ‘oldies’-oriented end of the contemporary scene as well. In retrospective interviews, some black participants do attest to the welcoming atmosphere at venues like Wigan, but they were clearly in a small minority. At the same time, some of Andrew Wilson’s interviewees – mostly long-term participants in the scene – did express casual racist views; and while these might have been unremarkable in the 1970s, this was less the case in the 1990s, when he conducted his research.

Northern Soul is by no means unique in these respects; but as with other youth scenes or subcultures such as punk or rave, there are reasons to question the claim that it was socially inclusive or open to all. On the contrary, I would argue that it is often the exclusiveness of a subculture or a scene that accounts for much of its appeal. Having specialist knowledge – knowing about things that others don’t, or before others discover them – creates a sense of being part of an elite, a secret society. Being ‘underground’, and hidden from public visibility, represents a means of validation, and even self-glorification. Within the scene itself, measures are often adopted to prevent or police the involvement of newcomers or outsiders, by humiliating or excluding them. In the Northern Soul scene, for example, participants on specialist online forums will distinguish between genuine ‘soulies’ and what they dismissively call ‘handbaggers’ (girls who dance around their handbags, apparently a sure sign of a lack of true commitment). Various tests and policing techniques are used to distinguish between the true cognoscenti and the ignorant outsiders, in displaying high-status knowledge or in social etiquette (for example on the dance floor).

As the scene becomes more accessible, it gains in popularity; and as it becomes less exclusive, it inevitably loses some of its appeal to those who are in the know, and who tend to dominate it. There is often a contradiction in the rhetoric here: on the one hand, the exponents of the scene claim that what they are doing is so good that everybody should share it; but on the other, they are keen to keep it to themselves, for fear that it will be somehow diluted or corrupted, or merely caricatured, as it comes to wider public awareness. They want other people to know, and yet they really don’t.

This is, I would argue, a key aspect of the appeal of some forms of black music for white audiences. In the case of Northern Soul, it was very apparent as the scene became ‘commercialised’ (although of course it was always partly ‘commercial’). As ‘tourists’ of various kinds began to appear at the Wigan Casino – curious outsiders, even university students – the original participants were dismayed; some stopped attending or moved on to even more hidden and exclusive venues. They feared that the original principles of the scene, its authenticity and purity, would be somehow distorted if more people became involved – although they might have been hard pushed to define what those principles were. Even worse, there were traitors within. As some at Wigan clung to its ‘oldies’ policy, DJs like Ian Levene were playing new material – jazz funk, smoother soul and early disco – at the rival Blackpool Mecca. There was a public campaign to oust Levene, which probably wasn’t helped by a degree of arrogance on his part; but the fundamental conflict wasn’t so much about individuals, or even taste in music – it was about the cultural identity and exclusiveness of the scene itself.

As I’ve implied, it would be hard to distinguish Northern Soul music simply on the basis of its formal or aesthetic characteristics, or even its ‘danceability’. More important in many respects was its rarity. The difficulty of obtaining it gave it not just economic value, but also a kind of symbolic cultural value: rarity was a guarantee of quality and status, but also of a kind of authenticity. As records were bootlegged or re-released and crossed over into wider acceptance, their rarity – and hence their economic value – was likely to decline. Collectors and some DJs insisted on the importance of ‘original’ versions – and these days, of course, on 7-inch 45 rpm. singles: some clubs advertise an ‘OVO’ (original vinyl only) policy, and reject ‘CRAP’ (CDs, reissues and re-pressings). Cultural capital – that is, inside knowledge of the scene – establishes credibility and authority, and this is something long-term members will be reluctant to surrender, for example when faced with younger newcomers.

Of course, the Northern Soul scene is by no means unique in any of these respects. Nevertheless, we need to be cautious of claims that it embodied some kind of political subversion or rebelliousness. On the face of it, the whole phenomenon seems quite paradoxical: why should white working-class youth in the industrial North of England in the mid-1970s develop an apparently obsessive devotion to obscure African-American soul music, mostly produced in the mid-to-late 1960s? As we’ve seen, some have suggested that there was an underlying political solidarity here – that the Northern Soul scene was a response to class oppression that found its equivalent in the racial oppression of black Americans several years previously. This is a claim that is made in one form or another by several commentators, including former participants in the scene like Stuart Cosgrove and Paul Mason. Yet for several reasons, I want to suggest that it is overstated.

Followers of Northern Soul frequently claimed that – unlike Motown, for example – their music was ‘too black’ to be accepted in the mainstream music industry. To some extent, this is true. As in the ‘blues boom’ of the early 1960s, African-American artists were brought over to perform in the UK at a time when segregation effectively persisted in their home country. Many of them were impoverished: as the singer Edwin Starr suggested, it was performances at Wigan and other venues that kept artists like him alive. It seems that for some fans, the more obscure an artist, the greater status they would have: having died prematurely and in poverty was a particular point in favour. The idea that Northern Soul fans were somehow rescuing such artists from penury sometimes permitted a kind of self-congratulation.

In this context, the suggestion that a given performer might in fact be white was likely to undermine the claim to authenticity. However, fans could be misled. There is a revealing story here, told by several sources, about a rare record that was discovered by one nameless collector and (as was often the case) given a fake label to disguise its real identity. The record became a hit on the Northern dancefloors, but it subsequently emerged that it was in fact a B-side recorded in the 1960s by the white British DJ and singer Tony Blackburn – who by then was working for the decidedly mainstream BBC Radio One and (horror of horrors) Top of the Pops. Blackburn was apparently invited to perform the song at a live appearance in Wigan, and the dancers refused to believe it was him: he was even asked to sign copies of the record using his fake name.

There may have been what Andrew Wilson terms a ‘resonance’ or a ‘cultural similarity’ between the class experiences of Northern Soul fans and those of the performers whose music they preferred. However, there was little sense that participants in the scene were particularly aware of any connections between soul music and the contemporary Black Power movement in the US. At least in terms of lyrics, most of the music that was popular on the Northern Soul scene was primarily about the vicissitudes of romance: there was little explicit politics, certainly by comparison with the overt messages of some contemporary funk and ‘psychedelic soul’ music of the time (James Brown or the Temptations, for example) – and this was music that most Northern Soul DJs and fans rejected in any case. As both Tim Wall and Andrew Wilson point out, there was little manifestation of ‘Afrocentricity’ or even interest in the black liberation struggle among Northern Soul fans. This is not to suggest that the parallels or ‘resonances’ were not important; but it does suggest that they were far from overt or obvious to those involved, and that we should beware of jumping to conclusions about their political significance.


Representing Northern Soul

The brief account I’ve offered here would almost certainly offend many Northern Soul enthusiasts and specialists. Yet the history itself is quite contested. As I’ve suggested, there was a struggle for ownership of the scene that became particularly intense (and unpleasant) as the Wigan Casino hit its peak in the mid-1970s; and in more recent years, there have been tensions between long-term adherents and younger incomers. Some participants have a great deal invested – both personally and economically – in maintaining particular ‘truths’, or perhaps ‘mythologies’, about the scene.

Meanwhile, the last decade has seen a proliferation of material about Northern Soul, with the release of several books, documentaries and feature films, alongside compilation CDs, websites and social media. Northern Soul is no longer a hidden secret: indeed, it could arguably be seen as over-exposed. In the material I have seen, the same small group of former participants is frequently interviewed; the same small amount of available footage of exuberant dancers (much of it taken from Tony Palmer’s 1977 documentary about Wigan Casino) is repeatedly recycled; and many of the same stories are told again and again. Some of this appears to serve the aim of ‘talking up’ the contemporary scene: Northern Soul, it is often claimed, is a scene that ‘refuses to die’, that is as thriving and popular as ever – despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary.

By contrast, at the height of the scene in the 1970s, many participants were dismayed both by its apparent commercialization, and by the rise in media attention. Palmer’s half-hour film for Granada (a commercial channel) allegedly attracted twenty million viewers, which was very high even for that period, but adherents of the scene were mostly quite dismissive. In order to film the dancers, Palmer had to employ a considerable amount of lighting, which gives a rather misleading, almost dream-like impression of the dance floor. Scenes of the Casino are intercut with shots of the town, which largely portray it as grim and desolate: images of the present are mixed with historical material, showing undernourished children playing on waste ground, rag-and-bone carts and cobbled streets. A few Northern Soul tracks are included in the dance sequences, but considerable time is given to folk songs by the traditional singer Leon Rosselson, which seem to invite pity for the poor and dispossessed: ‘nothing to do for the ugly ones,’ one repeated lyric runs, ‘the ones with nothing to sell’. Older people are interviewed reminiscing about the poverty of the past and the rigours of work in the satanic mills; while interviews with dancers emphasize how the scene is rebuilding a ‘sense of belonging’ and a ‘community feel’ that would otherwise have been lost. As Katie Milestone suggests, the film largely plays to patronizing stereotypes of ‘backward Northernness’. It also imposes – from Palmer’s metropolitan perspective – an interpretation of the scene as a kind of utopian response to the grimness of life ‘up North’ that lingers today.

Similar themes can be found in two recent fictional films about the scene. Soul Boy (directed by Shimmy Marcus, 2011) follows one teenage boy’s induction into the scene as he pursues a dream girl who has taken his fancy. A second girl, the sensible but artistic girl-next-door (with whom, needless to say, he eventually gets together), teaches him the dance moves; and he gradually takes on the dress style (baggy trousers, patches, vest, bowling shirt, leather coat), as well as getting marginally involved in dealing speed. The film is a fairly formulaic moral tale, in which everything unravels and then comes right at the end, and the various obstacles to romance are overcome. Nevertheless, there are some good observations of the scene, and some exciting dance sequences (which were later ‘sampled’ in various documentaries). Notably, the movie begins with a sequence that could almost be a parody of Tony Palmer’s film; and the closing credits run alongside a montage of interviews with older fans reminiscing about the scene.

The second film, simply entitled Northern Soul (directed by Elaine Constantine, 2014) feels more authentic and convincing. The story of initiation and coming-of-age is very similar to that of Soul Boy, and the plot is equally creaky at times. The Northern Soul scene is shown in similar terms, as a kind of escape from a grim reality, and from the blandness of the mainstream popular culture of the time. However, the teenage hero gets into much deeper water, and the film makes more of the soul boys’ rebelliousness and resistance to adult authority. The overall scene is shown in greater detail, with some interesting observations of the trade in recordings; and the film doesn’t shy away from the characters’ involvement with drugs. Again, there are some powerful dance sequences, but the soundtrack of this film is stronger and less predictable than in Soul Boy. The film appears to have been a long-term project for director Constantine, a photographer and a Northern Soul ‘insider’ who has also released a monograph documenting the scene. The film was partly crowd funded; and it seems to have gained an audience through word of mouth, despite having only a limited release. Northern Soul was nominated for a BAFTA and a London Critics Circle award, but it also seems to have gained wider approval within the Northern Soul community.

Both films clearly hark back to the heyday of Northern Soul, and both of them depend upon the appeal to older fans. It’s hard to imagine there could be any further films – and especially any more documentaries – about the scene: by now, the story has become very repetitive, and there is only so much to tell. By contrast, the story of what I will call ‘southern soul’ has been much less comprehensively documented.


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