So, it’s been a while but here is another feature I wrote for Area Culture Guide. It’s about Northern Soul, something very close to my heart. As you may know, I’ve been brought up through the soul music scene, it’s a big deal in our family and I once
attempted failed to make a documentary about it. Here is my attempt at a summary of it’s magic. Check it out here in all it’s glory, or read on below. Enjoy.
Keep the Faith
Through countless trends, genres and ideas, spanning multiple decades, under the banner of a single clenched fist, has survived one of this country’s most organic and vibrant subcultures: Northern Soul. It’s distinctive and enduring appeal is of course its unique soundtrack. Based on variations of black American soul, its deep roots lie in gospel and blues. However, the particular records played at traditional Northern Soul events are and always have been those of the so-called failures of the 1960s Tamla Motown sound.
DJs and collectors alike sought out only the rarest records that were released in limited numbers. Although a lot of those beloved artists were influenced by the Motown scene, mainstream soul itself was and still is shunned by the purists of the movement. The sound itself is entrenched in deep rambling bass, hectic and fast paced drum patterns and frantic horns. In a similar vein to jazz, it’s an expression so explosive and emotional in it’s delivery that it has the power to cast frenzy over a dancehall.
It all began in the North of England at The Twisted Wheel in Manchester with local businessmen Ivor and Phil Abadi who promoted all-night parties and booked DJ Roger Eagle, a collector of American jazz and blues records. This was the birth of the famous all-nighters. From this initial platform, the scene grew in popularity and events for the day, evening and all night starting sprouting up from nowhere in towns across the North and the Midlands.
The Torch in Stoke-on-Trent, Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca became notorious hotspots for young people with limitless energy wanting to dance all night to tunes they could scarcely hear elsewhere. The dancers’ appetite for the soul was enhanced by widespread use of the drug amphetamines (commonly known as speed) Midlands DJ ‘Pem’ recounted how “there was always a lot of drug use” and insisted “It’s still there on the scene at the moment, just not as much”
But this story is not quite as vice as it may initially sound. Pem recalls the Midlands scene in it’s heyday as being “unique” and insisted “none of the clubs ever sold alcohol. The guys and the girls never went to meet a partner. They just purely went to the venues for the music” This is quite the contrast to what you would find on almost every high street of every town or city in the country on a Friday night. It was a group of people simply coming together to appreciate music.
Largely unknown American soul artists became idols on the back of ongoing plays from DJs like Russ Winstanley and Ian Levine. Mostly known in the scene for only a few songs, artists like Chuck Wood, Dobie Gray, Jimmy Radcliffe and Frank Wilson were often unbeknownst to the fact that they were forming the bedrock of a musical community across the Atlantic.
The modern day state of the northern soul scene is one which polarizes opinion. It has its pros and cons. Pem thinks “the northern soul scene has got very political over the last ten years. A lot of people just want to make money” On the other hand, many of its compatriots now believe it to be thriving more than ever. With most of its generation no longer shackled by parenthood with children having left home, the majority of Northern Soul fanatics are now free to dedicate themselves to the music once more, and that’s something they do loyally.
They spend hard earned money collecting vinyls, they spend hard earned money going to shows and to festivals, and they spend all of their energy on the dance floor any chance they get. The pressing question on the lips of the scene’s elders is the future. What will come of this historic musical community that is so engrained in British culture, music and fashion? Pem worries about what will come of the huge array of records he owns: “’I’ve got probably £50,000 worth of records and who will buy them when we are gone? It’s not a young people scene”
There are always one or two young people dotted around at shows, but it’s never a large percentage. Go to a festival with 2,000 people and you may see 50 ‘young’ people. This is worrying for those who have so much passion for the music of their youth, and for the young people who are embracing the subculture. Pem thinks that those select few may keep it alive somewhat, but is not wildly optimistic about the chances of Northern Soul continuing to thrive in the coming decades: “I think it will fade with our generation. I think it will become very obscure and very underground” In a sombre tone, he tells me “It would be nice to think it would live on and the records would go somewhere, but I really don’t think it will survive”
It is hard to predict how the future of Northern Soul will pan out, but the influence it had on a generation will never be forgotten. Its legacy may be fading, or it may be thriving. It depends who you ask. One thing is certain. There will always be a few die-hards keeping the faith. You can still hear it’s grand bellowing at the Wigan Athletic football stadium, where it greets the players on match day before kickoff. You can still see its influence in our fashions. You can hear it’s inspiration in the music of artists like Duffy, Plan B and Adele. It’s memory has yet to completely disappear, but will that be the case for much longer? Is one of Britain’s most iconic youth cultures soon to become a permanent thing of the past?
If you want to see for yourself, you should check out Halesowen Soul Club on the second Friday of every month, at Halesowen Members Club on the Hagley Road, B63 4RH. It’s a great example of what’s going on in small communities all over the Midlands, and it’s only £3 on the door. If you’re looking for something a tad bigger, get down to The Hub on Kent Street, Birmingham, B5 6RD on Friday 2nd August. It’s a 1,400 capacity club with top DJs including Russ Winstanley himself. You can call 07581225027 for more information. It’s £6 on the door, with £4 advance tickets. Go to www.soul-source.co.uk to find out everything that’s going on in your area.
Thanks for reading. I know most of my audience is mostly made up of wrestling fans and this is a change of pace, but you know, it’s wrestling with a pinch of other. I hope you enjoyed the piece nonetheless. While you’re on the interwebs, why not go and find out some more about northern soul music. Maybe you will like it. There are probably some legends near you who are addicted to it. Believe me, they are everywhere. Thanks for reading anyway.