Northern soul: making a scene

In his definitive history of the origins of rock-and-roll, Sound of the City, published in 1970, the radio presenter and music writer Charlie Gillett observed:

There has been a tradition in Britain since the twenties, maintained by a substantial minority of people, of being interested in declining forms of Negro popular music. As a succession of stylistic trends in the United States rendered various styles virtually obsolete, a group of enthusiasts in Europe devoted themselves to perpetuating the music, by collecting records, by importing, if possible, the original performers to Europe to make a tour or even take up residence, and by playing the music themselves.

With the exception of the latter point, Gillett might have been talking about Northern Soul, although the scene was barely in its infancy at the time, and had certainly not yet acquired its label.

As Gillett suggests, and as I have explained, there is a long history here, which can be traced though the British reception of jazz in its various forms, as well as blues and eventually reggae and soul. This tendency was also apparent among the original mods of the early 1960s. Mod was a hybrid style. In terms of fashion, it looked to Continental Europe, and specifically to Italy for its sharp suits and motor scooters; as well as taking elements of Jamaican ‘rude boy’ style. However, its music was drawn largely from urban America: it was funky ‘soul jazz’ and rhythm-and-blues, which eventually morphed into what we now know as soul (the term itself apparently originated in the early 1960s). And as soul began to appear in the mainstream pop charts, dedicated record collectors and mod DJs began to look for examples of the music that were more obscure and harder to obtain; and so the market in ‘rare soul’ was born.

In the second half of the sixties, as some mods moved on to become ‘suedeheads’ and skinheads, and others became hippies, the London club scene largely moved away from black American music towards progressive rock. The survival of interest in soul in the north of England – in what came to be known as Northern Soul – can partly be understood as a continuation or a reworking of mod, and as a working-class reaction against the middle-class ‘hippification’ of the music scene that was evident in London. These young people ‘kept the faith’ (to use a distinctive Northern Soul slogan), adopting a distinctive style that remained underground for many years.

The first Northern Soul club, Manchester’s legendary Twisted Wheel, was originally a mod club. It opened in 1963. Its DJs played rare soul records that were not easy to obtain in the UK; and the club also hosted leading US soul performers like Ike and Tina Turner, Edwin Starr and Junior Walker. The club’s marathon dance nights were partly fuelled by amphetamines, or ‘speed’ – and it was the trade in these drugs that led to a great deal of attention from the evangelical Chief of Police in Manchester, James Anderton, who eventually succeeded in getting the club closed down in 1971.

The history of Northern Soul is generally told as a succession of relatively short-lived clubs: the Twisted Wheel, the Torch in Tunstall (Stoke-on-Trent), the Blackpool Mecca and the Wigan Casino. These were mostly very large venues otherwise used for ballroom dancing, which could accommodate as many as 2000 people. Many of the soul sessions began in the early hours of the morning when the traditional clientele had gone home to bed, and lasted till morning. The clubs could not be licensed for alcohol at these times, but in any case other drugs were better suited to all-night dancing – and, as in Manchester, the police drug squad were in regular attendance, often undercover. Around these larger venues, there were many smaller ones, mostly (although not exclusively) in Northern towns like Bolton and Stafford; while some of the more popular clubs later in the decade were in seaside resorts like Cleethorpes and Morecambe. People travelled to the clubs by a variety of means: part of the success of the Wigan Casino, for example, has been attributed to its proximity to two railway stations, although fans were also making use of Britain’s growing motorway network, with organized coach transport coming from very long distances.

The term ‘Northern Soul’ itself was a Southern invention, generally attributed to the London DJ and music journalist Dave Godin. According to some accounts, Godin realised that his London record shop was busy at the weekend with customers coming down from the North, asking for obscure early soul, generally with a faster tempo for dancing; others claim that he coined the term after playing a set at the Twisted Wheel in 1970. The locations are important: with the exception of Manchester, the clubs were mostly in peripheral smaller towns rather than metropolitan centres – and not in London or the more affluent suburbs of the south-east (as was the case with the ‘southern soul’ scene I’ll go on to describe). Even so, the collective label ‘Northern Soul’ may suggest a greater coherence than is really appropriate.

Like other such scenes, Northern Soul developed its own infrastructure. While early collectors had to visit the US in person to search for records, there was a growing trade in imports, which were sold in specialist shops and in informal ‘marketplaces’ at the club nights themselves. As the scene grew, price inflation began to take hold; there are stories of particularly rare singles changing hands for as much as £15,000. Meanwhile, the music was played on the American Forces Network, and by the growing numbers of offshore pirate radio stations that developed in an attempt to evade the UK’s restrictive broadcasting regulations. Specialist publications like Godin’s Blues and Soul began to devote more space to the music, although they could not afford to be exclusive. Several of the clubs mounted performances by visiting US artists – many of whom were in semi-retirement, and were surprised to discover a mass of wildly enthusiastic British fans. However, it was the DJs, both in the clubs and on radio, who were essentially the stars – and there was a good deal of rivalry between them.

For several years, the Northern Soul scene operated with little attention from the mainstream media. However, by 1975, the growing popularity of the Wigan Casino and the Blackpool Mecca was beginning to draw the interest of record companies. Pye, a major subsidiary of Lew Grade’s media company ATV, began a series of compilation albums under the title ‘Disco Demand’; while DJs like the entrepreneurial Ian Levine, who had been one of the first on the scene, put out their own compilations. While there had long been a trade in bootleg versions of rare records, some companies began re-making ‘classic’ tunes. To the dismay of many long-term enthusiasts, bands like Wigan’s Ovation were hastily assembled to front these records; and some regarded the performance of ‘Footsee’ by an ad-hoc band called Wigan’s Chosen Few on the BBC weekly chart show Top of the Pops in 1975 as the beginning of the end.

Meanwhile, the scene was also starting to fragment, not least as soul music itself was changing. Clubs like the Wigan Casino stayed largely with the original rare soul recordings of the 1960s and early 1970s – especially the aggressive ‘stompers’ that were good for collective dancing – but others, especially the Blackpool Mecca, mixed ‘oldies’ with more recent music, often with somewhat slower tempos (‘shufflers’, as some called them). DJs like Levine began to include some of the lush, somewhat jazzier soul tracks emerging from Philadelphia, which can retrospectively be seen as the beginning of disco music (it’s interesting to note that in the 80s, Levine went on to become resident DJ at London’s Heaven, the leading gay disco of the period). There was also a growing sense, as the seventies progressed, that the vein of rare soul discovered by the original collectors was becoming exhausted: it was becoming harder to unearth new (or at least previously unheard) records, and some felt that the quality was in decline. Rivalries between the clubs were partly about musical taste, but they were undoubtedly exacerbated by some obnoxious personalities – and by the fact that there was now some serious money to be made.

While many argued that the last night of the Wigan Casino in 1981 was effectively the end of the Northern Soul scene (it was closed by the town council, and subsequently burned down), a great many would dissent from this. Although some announced their ‘retirement’ from the scene at this point, many have since returned. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the scene is its longevity and continuity. It’s not unique in this respect: there are many ageing punks and Goths who also manage to keep their own faith, and there are periodic revivals of other styles (mods, skinheads) that occasionally appear on the media radar. Today there is a small, ‘retro’ Northern Soul scene, made up partly of people in their fifties and sixties, albeit with some younger participants (many of whom seem to be their children). All-nighters continue, notably at Prestatyn on the North Wales coast, although the dancing is almost certainly less athletic than in the heyday of Wigan. Club nights are accompanied by compilation albums, YouTube and internet radio channels, Facebook groups and occasional live performances by sprightly US stars. Here again, the scene is supported by an infrastructure of specialist websites and publications that appear to be international in scope: perhaps predictably, there is a dedicated Northern Soul scene in Japan.

While some argue that all this is merely fond nostalgia, or a means of resisting the ageing process, others are keen for the scene to progress and be renewed; and the debate continues between the traditionalists, who only want to hear the ‘oldies’, and those who are open to newer sounds. As in other youth cultures, there is typically a struggle for power here. Some older fans are keen to impose the authority that derives from long-term involvement in the scene, and express concern about younger fans (and younger DJs) taking over; while others are more worried that the scene will simply die out if it is too exclusive.

 

In search of homology

Like any youth cultural phenomenon, Northern Soul involved a distinctive combination of stylistic elements – or what academic researchers in this field sometimes call a ‘homology’, meaning a set of similar elements in a common structure. Thus, a particular style of music is generally combined with distinctive fashions (in clothing and accessories, hairstyles and bodily adornment), styles of dancing and other forms of physical expression, and frequently with the use of specific recreational drugs. This combination is also somehow seen to express something about the social position or experiences of the participants: style, as Dick Hebdige and others suggest, carries social meanings.

Northern Soul can certainly be aligned with a particular style of music, although it’s not easy to define its distinctive characteristics. Until the scene became ‘commercialised’ and began to fragment in the latter half of the 1970s, Northern Soul was very much based on records first released in the period roughly between 1965 and 1970, made by black American artists (even cover versions by white artists would be frowned upon). As black rhythm and blues crossed over into the mainstream US charts and became ‘soul’, and as Motown began to fulfil its claim to be ‘the sound of young America’ (that is, to appeal to a large white audience), a great deal of potentially promising material was ‘left in the vaults’. As we’ll see, the rarity or obscurity of the recordings – and the exclusiveness of the selection – were important in themselves. The records sought out by collectors were mostly less commercially successful, for various reasons. Of course, enthusiasts maintained that this wasn’t because of poor quality – on the contrary, it sometimes seemed as if neglect by the mainstream commercial industry was itself a guarantee of quality. These records were mostly released on small labels, which lacked effective distribution in the US, let alone internationally.

As such, this music could be fairly diverse, and it’s hard to identify what makes it distinctive in terms of musical form or style. Outsiders might find it difficult to distinguish between most Northern Soul and mainstream Motown hits. Many of the tunes sound very familiar – it’s just that we can’t recall having heard them before. The songs follow a familiar chorus-verse-chorus structure; the tempo is generally upbeat, and the four-to-the-bar rhythm is very explicitly stated; and there are repeated ‘hooks’ that can easily be remembered. However, the tracks that feature on contemporary compilations and YouTube channels tend to combine a style of ‘deep soul’ (rough gritty vocals and horn sections more reminiscent of Stax than Motown) with a very emphatic ‘stomping’ dance beat. These songs often feature downbeat themes like betrayal, unfulfilled desire and despair, although this is by no means always the case. It should be said that the production values of these tracks can be poor, or at least less polished, reflecting the limitations of the studios in which they were made: unlike the crisp and multi-layered sound of Motown (which partly assured its effectiveness on transistor and car radios), these tunes can sometimes sound muddy and flat.

Along with the music, dancers at the Northern Soul clubs developed a particular dance style – although here again, the distinctiveness of this can be overstated. Much has been made in documentaries and fictional films of the flamboyant athleticism of the dancing: there are frequent shots of dancers performing back-flips, high kicks, dives, hand-springs, splits and multiple spins. The style owes something to black performers like James Brown and Jackie Wilson, and it has some similarities with the early breakdancing that followed, although it’s not clear that there was any influence here. Most – though by no means all – of the dancers featured in these films are male; and participants have frequently suggested that this athletic approach allowed male dancers to feel that dance was not a ‘sissyish’ activity. Indeed, it could be argued that there is an element of macho, masculine assertion about the style, although it would be mistaken to regard this as a primarily sexual display (indeed, participants in the scene have often argued that there was very little emphasis on ‘copping off’ with potential sexual partners, and it was rare for people to dance together in couples). There was an undeniable element of competitiveness here. There appears to have been a kind of hierarchy, where the more accomplished dancers were allowed to dance closer to the DJ’s stage; although several participants were rather dismissive of the more formal dance competitions that came to be organized, for example at Wigan.

However, this emphasis on acrobatics is almost certainly overstated. Tim Wall, an academic who has long participated in the Northern Soul scene, argues that the style of dance was more complex than this. He suggests that the basic move was a kind of sideways glide; and this can be clearly seen in some of the available film of the time. The dance was about the individual looking cool and confident, but it was also a collective activity: it was about being part of the in-crowd, enjoying a kind of solidarity with the group (typically expressed in a unison clap at particular points in a song), and using the available space in a way that would respect others’ freedom to move. Wall also shows in great detail how the dance typically fitted with the structure of the music, expressing the different parts of a given song and drawing out some of the meanings in the lyrics.

To some extent, there was a distinctive style of clothing associated with the scene, although again it would be wrong to see this as entirely exclusive or distinctive – unlike, for example, the more elaborate forms of punk or Goth fashion. In order to comply with licensing regulations, the clubs required participants to pay for membership; and this was also marked by the display of woven patches sown onto clothing or the athletic holdall bags in which many would carry their dancing outfits, as well as by badges and buttons. Styles of clothing changed over time, although perhaps the most distinctive item for men were the high-waisted baggy trousers, sometimes known as Spencer or Oxford bags. Tops could be sleeveless vests, US-style bowling shirts or Ben Sherman shirts (as worn by both mods and skinheads); and many men would dance topless. Women often danced in long, wide pleated skirts, similar to US-style dresses of the late 1950s. While some of this clothing was distinctive, much of it was also very functional in terms of dancing – and in this respect, there is an interesting contrast with the skin-tight sexy disco wear that was beginning to appear in clubs across the Atlantic at around the same time.

Equally functional in some respects was the use of recreational drugs. The scene inherited from the mods a preference for amphetamines or ‘speed’, in the form of pills (black bombers, greens, blues, clears, chalkies, dexys) as well as powder. As I’ve pointed out, the clubs were frequently patrolled and raided by police on these grounds, and participants developed strategies to deal with this – not least by taking the stuff before they arrived. The topic was a frequent focus of local newspaper coverage; and while club managers attempted to play down the frequency of illegal drug use, drug squad officers estimated that more than three-quarters of those attending on any given night were likely to be ‘speeding’. Part of the concern, at least in the early days, was that the desire for drugs was fuelling waves of burglaries of pharmacies.

Dancers needed such drugs simply in order to keep going at an all-night session – although the subsequent come-down would be difficult, and the drugs were undoubtedly addictive. However, as the criminologist (and participant) Andrew Wilson argues, these drugs also contributed to establishing a shared mindset or ‘ethos’ among the clubbers. The illicit circulation of drugs helped to create a sense of mutual obligation, but it also promoted a sense of collective euphoria and energy on the dance floor. The idea of ‘homology’ suggests that drugs can also play an important role in establishing the aesthetic style of particular youth subcultures (think of hippies and LSD, ravers and ecstasy), although for obvious reasons participants tend to play this down in the wider public debate.

 

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