originally published October 13, 2012

Were it not for my stunning lack of dance-floor coordination, I think I may have found the genre of music which could be my perfect match: Northern Soul.

The ‘North’ in Northern Soul says nothing about where the music was recorded, nor does it necessarily distinguish a specific style from traditional soul music. It refers to Northern England, where an intense underground music scene was fuelled by the cast-offs from the American R&B scene, the obscure 45s that gained zero traction at home but propelled kids into dancehalls across the pond.

These were the prototypical British hipsters. They shunned anything too mainstream; no Motown, no Stax, no Atlantic soul records. The Northern Soul scene embraced obscurity. And because of this, most of the artists who were at the core of the movement never had a clue.

It all began in Manchester, at a former beatnik bar known as the Twisted Wheel.

In 1963, owners Ivor and Phil Abadi started opening the club to all-night dance parties on Saturday nights, mixing in live and pre-recorded music. Their DJ, Roger Eagle, brought in soul, r&b and jazz music from the US, and played to the energetic mod crowd.

The mods were a pre-hippie subculture who wore snazzy suits, drove scooters and listened to American soul, Jamaican ska, and British Beat music. These were members of the post-war boom, with money to spend and the time and willingness to craft an image. By the mid-60s, after the notion of mod-ism had become mainstream (and therefore functionally useless as a subculture), its members went one of three directions:

  1. Some grew up and became productive members of society. Screw those people, they aren’t interesting.
  2. Others ventured down the psychedelic rabbit hole and tuned in to the trip-rock scene in London, which – of course – had not yet lured the Beatles and other panderers of mainstream culture.
  3. The mods in the North hung on to the soul music they’d been grooving to; they just looked a little deeper.

(they didn’t want to give up their scooters)

It might have ultimately come down to drug selection. Those who wanted to soak their psyches in the tie-dye waters of the new LSD trend ended up floating south into the psychedelic scene. Up north it was all about the speed.

Speed spurts energy into the bloodstream, and energy leads to dancing. The kids wanted more and more soul, so the DJs had to look beyond the discs that marched up and down Billboard’s R&B charts. They went to America and dug through their resources, looking at labels like Ric-Tic, Shout, Mirwood, Golden and Okeh. These are the soul artists that didn’t get signed to Motown, but still wanted to emulate the sound.

A lot of the records were deleted; DJs had to get creative in their hunting. They bought old warehouse stock, searched the deepest bins at American record shops. A record needed the soul sound, it needed to be danceable, and if it was rare enough to be wholly unique in Great Britain, all the better. I wasn’t kidding about these kids being hipsters. They wanted to be in on a song before the rest of the world caught up.

(“I think I heard someone else listening to this… disgusting.”)

To give you an idea of the music, picture early Motown, something like the Temptation’s “I Can’t Help Myself”, with its pounding syncopated beat and adrenaline-inducing tempo. The kids wanted this music in particular because it fuelled their dancing. And their dancing was something to behold.

The soul craze spread from the Twisted Wheel all over the north of England. By 1970, as the Twisted Wheel was winding toward closure due to pressure by the authorities (if kids were having fun anywhere in the 60s, the police usually found out and shut the place down), The Golden Torch in Tunstall, Stoke started rolling.

The Torch’s all-nighters were Friday nights. The place lasted until 1972, but shortly after it closed down the next big spot rose to take its place. This is how the Northern Soul craze survived. It was the rave culture of my parents’ generation, though it never spread outside northern England. Kids partied all night, danced beyond any reasonable estimate of a human’s energy supply, and while some were pumping themselves full of artificial stimuli, a lot of it was simply youthful jubilance. The music was liberating and the scene was fresh. Even after years, it still seemed fresh.

The Wigan Casino, which was not an actual casino but rather a dance hall, was the dominant venue for Northern Soul partying in the 70s. Kids drove from all over the country to be a part of the scene. The club even attracted some top-notch performers, like Junior Walker, Edwin Starr and Jackie Wilson.

Forget the Fillmore in San Francisco, forget CBGB’s in New York – this is the scene I would have liked to have witnessed. Though eventually the soul purists were drowned out by the demand for newer music, the Northern Soul world continued into the early 80s. There are scads of box sets of Northern Soul music on the market now, and still the occasional dance party pops up, keeping the scene alive.

Northern Soul was more than a fad. Its DJs learned the art of slip-cueing to synch songs together with similar beats, a precursor to the art of DJ-ing as we know it today. The dancing, wild and acrobatic, has been cited as an influence on breakdancing and hip-hop moves. Not only that, but a train-ful of artists may have received a royalty check or two once Northern Soul music started getting re-released in compilations.

I have been a collector of Northern Soul for years now. Not in the expensive, obscure-record-buying way, but in the impoverished student, download-ish way. My dance skills may be inexcusably arrhythmic, but I love a good soul song. Here are a few of my favorites from the Northern Soul world:

  • The most obvious is Gloria Jones’ 1965 rendition of “Tainted Love”, a song that was covered by Soft Cell. Dave Ball of the group used to hit the soul nights at Blackpool Mecca and the Wigan Casino.
  • Edwin Starr, who later became a huge Motown name, started out on the Ric-Tic label with “Agent Double-O Soul” – a little cheesy, sure, but a great little song.
  • James Fountain’s “Seven-Day Lover” is as riff-driven as anything Motown put out in the 60’s, and inescapably groovy.
  • The Vibrations – “Cause You’re Mine”… this is simply outstanding. Raw vocals, manic piano, and a rhythm so potent the only way it can’t affect you is if you’re deceased.
  • The MVP’s “Turnin’ My Heartbeat Up” sounds like pre-Sly-Stone soul with a kick.

This is just great, great music. I love to mock the crap culture has shoveled at us, so it’s nice to devote an article to one of the gems that lay beneath our collective musical refuse. Kind of refreshing.

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