In the late 1960s, the dancefloors of northern England were bouncing with a very specific beat. Clubs such as the Twisted Wheel in Manchester and Wigan Casino were blasting out obscure American soul tracks to throngs of revellers dressed in the widest trousers possible and throwing themselves around with all manner of kicks, drops and flips. The new craze became known as northern soul.
Although there were thousands of different artists and thousands of different songs, being spun to thousands of northern clubbers every weekend, northern soul remains instantly recognisable, but also kind of difficult to describe. It’s soul, but a certain type of soul. It’s Motown-esque, but also not. Basically, when you hear it, you just know it. And chances are it makes you want to throw half a tub of talc on the floor and get dancing. But what is it about this specific type of music that caught the attention of Lancastrians, Yorkshire folk and others around this part of the country?
There’s no absolute clear answer, but we can have a good guess. Journalist Paul Mason puts it down in many ways to escapism. He talks of the white working-class boys like himself who grafted in the heavy industry of Lancashire finding a way to take themselves out of their lives for a night by throwing stylish shapes to the pulsating beats created by black American soul artists a decade before. It was different and exciting, but it also resonated. Many of these artists had struggled to make their way into the business across a range of industrial American cities. They came from Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, with even scene legend Harold Melvin having to hawk his own records after gigs in Philly. The differences and the similarities are what Mason writes about in The Guardian, “We were using the black industrial music of the late 1960s to say something about our white industrial lives in the 1970s.”
So, what is northern soul? There are definite nods to Motown, but northern soul seems like that movement’s unruly younger brother. Whereas Berry Gordy was working with his stellar artists to craft the slick and polished product that took the world by storm, northern soul was more rough and ready. It was all about the heavy beat and the fast tempo and, the stand out feature for Paul Mason, the vocals. He writes, “these were the singers whose voices were too rough, or too fast, or just too good for Motown, which had become a machine for selling black music to a white audience. We didn’t need anyone to sugarcoat it – we wanted the real thing.”
Another area of contention is where the name comes from. Some suggest that the ‘northern’ refers to the American cities in which the bulk of the music originated, but fans generally accept that it is named in honour of the fact that the UK scene kicked off at the Twisted Wheel, Wigan Casino, Blackpool Mecca, Mojo in Sheffield and other such venues across Lancashire and Yorkshire.
In fact, one record shop owner of the time in London takes credit for inventing the name, thanks to his day-tripping clientele. Dave Godin, who ran Soul City in Covent Garden in London, noticed swathes of northerners visiting who had no interest in the popular tunes of the day. They were instead into the more obscure tracks that were filling their dancefloors back home. He told Mojo Magazine that: “I had started to notice that northern football fans who were in London to follow their team were coming into the store to buy records, but they weren’t interested in the latest developments in the black American chart. I devised the name as a shorthand sales term. It was just to say ‘if you’ve got customers from the north, don’t waste time playing them records currently in the US black chart, just play them what they like – ‘Northern Soul’. Godin says he coined the term in 1968 and first used it in print in 1970, when he mentioned it in his column for Blues & Soul magazine.
Major northern soul tracks include Out on the Floor by Dobie Gray, The Snake by Al Wilson, Tainted Love by Gloria Jones, Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) by Frank Wilson and many more. However, the irony is that for the hardcore northern soul fanatics, the popular tunes were the ones they were, on the whole, least interested in. One of the joys for a large number of devotees was trawling the crates at club nights and record shops to seek out the obscure gems, something that has led to certain rare records rocketing in price.
Of course, the music was only one facet of northern soul, which also brought with it a unique set of athletic dance moves and instantly recognisable fashion. And then there were the, shall we say, pharmaceutical assistants that helped devotees make it through the all-nighters.
Whilst northern soul fashion started more mod-like in appearance with fans wearing buttoned-down Ben Sherman shirts and skinny jeans, as the dance moves became more vigorous, the clothing became looser. It wasn’t exactly practical to attempt high kicks when your legs were constricted, so the signature baggy trousers came into being.
Your typical northern soul dancefloor would be a writhing mass of people, shuffling, spinning, gliding and sliding, with a special area reserved for those who were confident enough to attempt the flips and backdrops to a professional level. It would also be gritty with talcum powder, which dancers spread around to make it easier to show off their moves. Everyone you meet who was into the scene at the time recalls those days with a misty-eyed fondness. It wasn’t just a trend, it was (and remains) a movement. A way of life.
It was about seeking out new sounds, being the first to play obscure records and throwing yourself into the culture without any hesitation. Letting it immerse you entirely. And it was a northern thing. We owned it up here and we (eventually) shared it. For those working long, hot, tiring hours to keep the juggernaut of the north’s industrial heartland moving, it was the reward at the end of the week. The time when the lads and lasses could throw off their overalls, dress themselves up to the nines and spend hours in the company of likeminded individuals doing what they all enjoyed best. As Paul Mason puts it, it was a “subcultural revolt on a scale no other youth scene at the time came close to.”