Northern Soul Music Definition Essay

Some points about the UK Northern Soul scene and US soul music remade. December 12, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in Northern Soul, Soul.

This post is based upon a post I made about a year ago. In the year since I put it up it caused quite a bit of controversy with people on the Northern scene. I’ve rewritten it a bit to try and get my point across more clearly. If you want to compare this with the original post, it’s here. If you are at all interested in a few reflections on academic writing I made when I made the changes, they’re here.

This is a short extract from a much longer paper on dancing on the Northern Soul scene that was published in Popular music, and I posted the original extract as a contribution to a debate with other popular music academics about the link between white Britons and black music. So, I’m not trying to explain the Northern Soul scene here, just take issue with what’s been written by other academics about the link between the scene and black American culture.

Hopefully here’s a clearer discussion about that relationship between the UK Northern Soul scene and US soul music:

When writing about the Northern Soul scene in Britain many academics try and make some strong points about the link between the scene and US soul music and the African American culture in which the music developed. Based on my own involvement in the scene, and my own reflections as a popular music academic I’m not convinced the other academic analyses are correct.

Joanne Hollows and Katie Milestone (1998) have produced a thoughtful mapping of the cultural geographic meanings of the relationship of the UK Northern Soul scene with the northern cities of the USA where the music was recorded. Many of the points they make are accurate. The authors note that by using imported records participants in the scene could produce a culture independent of London. They further suggest that people on the scene in the 1970s negotiate the competing meanings of ‘North America’ in English culture to produce a relationship with an ‘imagined’ African American culture structured through an interpretative community which extends from the US cities in which the music was produced, through the dancefloors of the Northern scene, and to the pop sensibilities of other consumers of soul records (87- 94).

That is an overstatement of the case. The relationship between the UK Northern Soul and the black culture of Northern cities of the US is even more complex than Hollows and Milestone suggest. The greater complexity can be grasped by attention to the practices in African American music culture during the 1960s, and the British Northern Soul scene in the 1970s and beyond.

As a number of other scholars have demonstrated, there is a richness to the politics of culture, identity and music generated in African American communities in the 1960s and 70s, which requires sophisticated analysis (George 1986; George 1988; Early 1995; Ward 1998; Smith 1999). The music played in Northern clubs is selectively, and meaningfully, drawn from the historical moment in which the aspirations among black Americans for integration gave way to a desire for a self-defined equality. Specifically, Northern soul DJs most often play records from the earlier black pop pro-integrationist period, and exclude those with strong musical elements associated with the ‘funkier’ music associated with the African pride and black power initiatives which followed.

This point will become clearer, perhaps, if we turn to Dobie Gray’s recording of ‘Out on the Floor’. I’ve used this record elsewhere to explain Northern Soul dancing, and within the scene this is how it is meaningful. However, in the context of the development of black music in the USA the lyrics and music place the song in an interesting mid-point between the integrationist agenda in black politics and the civil rights movement and a greater emphasis on separatism.

Brian Ward has allied these cultural poles to the move from the Motown black pop of the early sixties to the black power funk of late sixties James Brown (1998, p. 123-169). The early operation and music of Motown Records in Detroit exemplifies the internationalist cultural and political ambitions (Smith 1999) – and it is no coincidence that Motown’s early records are often presented as key to the Northern sound – while Brown’s late 1960s and early 1970s music embodies both the move to a more conscious celebration of the distinctive qualities of black culture and the contradictions of trying to operate in a white dominated society and music industry (1988, 388 – 415).

On the one hand the lyrics ‘Out on the Floor’ deal with hedonism and dancing drawing upon a repertoire of black entertainment, and reference points from the broader sixties American youth culture which were apparent in much of the black pop produced by Motown and other independent record labels that were established after the success of Rock and Roll (Gillett 1971). Gray sings the lyrics in a style mid way between the dominating influences of Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson; two of black pop’s biggest contemporary stars who worked in Los Angeles where Gray also recorded. The production reflects many of the pop experiments undertaken by Phil Spectre at the time.

On the other hand the recording also features hints of the new developing music of Soul and Funk. Unusually for black pop the lyrics feature the sorts of African American phraseology increasingly apparent in the music of James Brown at this time (see Wall 2003, p. 138-141). As such, it is an example of what Brackett argues is the articulation of a new black ‘soul’ culture (Brackett 2000). While Gray’s vocals do not feature the high key style which gives James Brown’s singing its distinctive feel, he does use Sam Cooke’s characteristic glissandi and the urgency of Jackie Wilson’s blues gospel style with increasing prominence as the song progresses. Nevertheless, the song structure is characterised by the same sorts of developments found in Brown’s music, where verses and choruses are increasingly dissolved into continually movement and delayed harmonic releases. The mid section of increasingly emotionally-expressive sung one-liners of black vernacular speech are very similar to the sorts of developments in Brown’s repertoire of the time, particularly the ground-breaking ‘Papa’s got a Brand New Bag’ from 1965.

However, in my experience on the scene these very important factors in African American music are not significant in the way the record is interpreted on the Northern scene. It is not incidental to the popularity of the record on Northern dancefloors – along with another Gray success ‘The In-crowd’ – that the lyrics seem to celebrate the world of dance culture that gave them a new life beyond the deletion racks. Further, the song’s lyrics of sixties black vernacular speech are transformed in the scene to articulate the scene itself, and its strong sense of communality (rather than its connection to liberation politics). This is also true of the use in the scene of the African American-derived terms ‘right on’, ‘keep the faith’, and ‘brothers and sisters’. The ‘faith’ is no longer one of liberation and a better future, but of a commitment to a community, its records and dancing.

The lyrical content of the record is understood to stand for, and articulate, the scene as a whole and many dancers sing these key lines as they dance. The sense of identity with Northern Soul is the product of a complex set of layered relationships: the musical structure of a record like ‘Out on the floor’; then performed as dance within a common set of competencies of dancers and shared techniques.

That is not to deny that there is some sense of identification with African American culture. My own interest in black music, and my development of an academic career around that interest, was fired by my love of soul records. However, the relationship between the scene’s participants and African American culture is not direct, is much more conditional. African American music on record relates more to the cultural possibilities it offers for a British alternative identity, than to any consistent support for the liberation struggle taking place in the US at the time.

Brackett, D. 2000. ‘James Brown’s ‘Superbad’ and the double-voiced utterance’, in Reading Pop, ed. R. Middleton. (Oxford): 122-39
Early, G. 1995. One nation under a groove: Motown and American culture. (New Jersey)
George, N. 1986. Where did our love go? : the rise & fall of the Motown sound. (London)
George, N. 1988. The death of rhythm & blues. (London)
Gillett, C. 1971. The sound of the city : the rise of rock and roll. (London)
Hollows, J. and K. Milestone 1998. ‘Welcome to dreamsville: a history and geography of northern soul’, in The place of music, ed. A. Leyshon, D. Matless and G. Revill. (New York ; London).
Smith, S. E. 1999. Dancing in the street : Motown and the cultural politics of Detroit. (Cambridge, Mass. ; London)
Ward, B. 1998. Just my soul responding : rhythm and blues, black consciousness and race relations. (London)
Wall, T. 2003. Studying popular music culture. (London)

This is an extract from ‘Out on the Floor: The Politics of Dancing on the Northern Soul Scene’ in Popular Music 25/3

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20 September 2013Last updated at 18:02
The popularity of the Northern Soul scene surged when the all-nighters began at Wigan Casino nightclub

Britain's Northern Soul music scene exploded with the first "all-nighter" at the Wigan Casino nightclub in September 1973. The Culture Show's Paul Mason, once a regular on the dancefloor, recalls the sound that defined his youth:

Looking back on Northern Soul, 40 years on from the first all-nighter at Wigan Casino, one thing stands out.

It may have blazed a trail to the all-night dance club scene we have today, but it was also the first youth subculture focused on the past.

Though the scene was biggest in the mid to late 70s, it was driven by obscure tracks from the heyday of American soul between 1965 and 1971.

Compared to funk and disco it was already "old" even then.

I've been wondering what made me, as a kid, abandon pop, rock and disco and spend every penny I had on deleted seven-inch vinyl tracks - which few people in America had ever heard of.

Continue reading the main story

Twisted origins

Northern Soul is a phrase coined by writer Dave Godin in 1970, when he noticed football fans from northern England asking for old-fashioned, fast-tempo soul records in his London shop.

Many would have attended the Twisted Wheel in Manchester - a super-cool club for Mods.

But as American black music began to develop in the direction of funk, the clientele clung to the more gritty sounds of the late 1960s.

When the Wheel closed, a series of clubs in the north of England and Midlands had all-nighters. Then Wigan Casino opened and the scene went massive.

Though there is a thriving Northern Soul scene today, with many of its adherents now aged in their fifties, what abides for me is the music.

There is no real American genre called Northern Soul. It is something created by the dancers and DJs on this side of the Atlantic.

Though many of the best records came from Detroit, from recording studios owned by Motown boss Berry Gordy, the sound is the opposite of the one he developed at his Hitsville USA studio.

Dance beat

There are fewer strings, fewer shimmering harmonies in Northern Soul. But the most important thing is it is dance music. It is fast and furious.

Gordy's aim in commercialising Motown - in hiking production standards and grooming its stars - was to make it more appealing to a white audience.

But the audience in northern England in the 1970s - an era of football violence, terrorism and industrial strife - wanted something different.

DJ Richard Searling called Northern Soul "deep soul with a dance beat". That translates as more heartfelt, rougher, more emotional.

Searling was among a small number of fans who travelled to the United States to comb through record warehouses in Detroit and Philadelphia.

They wanted to find tracks that had flopped or never been released but which, according to the aesthetic of Northern Soul, were masterpieces.

Searling famously found Gloria Jones' Tainted Love - later covered by Marc Almond - on the floor of a warehouse.

Ian Levine, one of Britain's iconic soul DJs, has been an obsessive collector since the age of 14. He would go on trips with his parents and buy up rare records in Florida.

"Northern Soul is about the artists that wanted to be the Motown sound but weren't," he says.

"People who wanted to be The Supremes, The Temptations, but didn't have any money to spend on production values or distribution."

Levine, and a generation of fans like him, realised what this music lacked in slickness it made up for in authenticity.

They discovered thousands of tracks in the remainder bins of US warehouses and a genre was born.

Those who were part of it knew we were outwitting not only the luminaries of the British pop industry - who were trying to cram commercial music down our throats - but also the masterminds of American soul.

Clubs across the north of England held all-nighters

Like all the best subcultures, this combination of niche music, slick fashion, dance style and heavy use of drugs made it a kind of portable secret world to carry with you through the 1970s.

Though some Northern Soul records were made for the scene from new, during its heyday most "new" records were in fact old records rediscovered.

Most expensive

Today there are still DJs and collectors trying to find the next big Northern Soul hit among reels of tape and acetate pressings made 40 years ago.

It is this "curated" nature of Northern Soul that has come to fascinate me.

It's hard to explain to a generation raised on iTunes and Spotify, but this was a time when if you didn't physically own the record, you could not listen to it.

There was no digital radio, no online discographies to help identify what you were listening to.

You had to go to an all-nighter, or root through the little square record boxes of the collectors at places like Wigan.

I remember paying £7 for an original copy of Little Anthony and the Imperials Better Use Your Head on the Veep label in 1976. For comparison, when I got a factory summer job that year, the weekly wage was £17.

Recently, the most expensive Northern Soul record ever - Do I Love You by Frank Wilson - sold for a reported £20,000. There are only two copies in the world.

Continue reading the main story

Working class rebels

Some youth cultures rebelled by ripping up the rules of existing pop music - like with punk or hip-hop. Northern Soul rebelled by borrowing and transforming other people's music.

They did not transform it physically. But by putting its hyper-emotional lyrics and major-seventh chords into halls full of white working class youths, they were montaging one culture onto another.

Elaine Constantine's feature film 'Northern Soul' captures what it meant to be on the scene.

"The message was this is underground, it's all about a big secret that's ours," she says. "It was about being cool, wearing the latest clothes, looking for the records that no one in the real world knew about."

I left the soul scene in the late 1970s, but the music never left me. Now, thanks to the internet, I've been able to find out more about the artists whose voices entranced me.

YouTube has become a proxy online jukebox containing thousands of uploaded soul tracks.

A few of the artists were slightly famous, like Jackie Wilson for his crossover hit The Sweetest Feeling.

But some were completely obscure. The 1973 track You Really Hurt Me Girl by The Carstairs was big on the soul scene.

Ian Levine found that record - three copies in a batch of 100,000 from a warehouse.

Underground scene

In the late 1990s he tracked down the lead singer, Cleveland Horne, and discovered the record was never released because the distributor had gone bust.

"Twenty five years later we got the group back together," says Levine. "They performed it and he cried in front of 800 people.

"Tears ran down his face when he realised how popular this song had been."

For soul aficionados, that is the problem.

Music that to modern club-goers seems as old and corny as the stuff on Strictly Come Dancing, sounds to we ageing soul boys better than anything new.

"I can't bear to listen to Radio One," adds Levine. "I'm still hopelessly lost in time with this music that still makes the hair on the back of my neck tingle".

It would be easy to write Northern Soul off now as nostalgia. But as I found in making The Culture Show for BBC Two, it has given birth to a new underground dance scene in the north, composed of teenagers just as crazy about the music as we were 40 years ago.

That's the weird beauty of a subculture that was already, at its birth, based on nostalgia for a time that can't come back.

Like the young, hopeful voices of the singers on the tracks themselves, it can be forever new.

The Culture Show Northern Soul - Keep the Faith is on BBC Two at 22:00 BST on Wednesday 25th September. It is available afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

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