Only a few recent local dance scenes gained enough influence on a global scale, so they could be called some sort of movement; with powerful and addictive rhythms, strong horn sections, strings, highly emotional (shouted) lyrics, an overall richly decorated studio sound, a positive outlook (in the lyrics), a genre of late-1960s soul music, played mostly in northern clubs in England, became extremely popular in the early 1970s.
Northern Soul, named after locations in England (most prominently The Twisted Wheel or the Wigan Casino, Greater Manchester), and not in the US, where the music originated and was produced, took crowds of dancers by storm and was the soundtrack for countless “all-niters,” dancing parties and DJ battles. Northern Soul fans do not form a youth culture, as the dancers who show up (today and already in the 1990s) are both teenagers to people in their 40s and 50s.
This book is about their stories and their devotion.
In the late 1960s, people living in the northern parts of England, particularly the teenagers and young adults, were said to preserve their “outdated” musical tastes, in a way. While the cultural center of the country, London, had new trends in fashion and music every few weeks, the northerly parts were said to be rather conservative in their tastes. Musical trends survived there often for several years, and while Rhythm and Blues and soul music were largely outdated in London by the late 1960s, it survived in the North.
Actually, it was booming there and became the musical center for “soulies” and later Northern Soul. The term itself only emerged in 1970 by London-based music writer/record store owner David Godin in one of the (shorter) key texts of research for this topic. When he saw his customers from the North had no interest in the latest hits he offered, he decided that “… if I want to sell soul records to my Northern clients, it is best to set aside a drawer with the type of music that they look for, and call it northern soul.”
In contrast to the many other dance crazes like the mambo, the Lindy Hop or the tango, dancing in the Northern Soul scene is strictly without a partner, i.e. the individual moves free-style to his or her own choreography that includes jumps, backdrops, spins and all sorts of acrobatics. (This feature, also invented in the US in the early 1960s and exported to England, gave much-appreciated freedom to girls who would no longer have to wait for boys to ask for a dance.) These highly energetic characteristic moves to fast music also call for special wardrobe, so men in extremely wide pants (“Bags”) and women in long, comfortable full circle skirts (already in the early days of the scene) were the common sight. What has remained the same is a change of clothes for the dancers; if you do acrobatics for hours, you will need a change of fresh clothes sooner or later.
And contrary to many other English subcultures, the Northern Soul Scene is “comparatively” open, i.e. it is a participatory scene that does not massively discriminate against newcomers or dancers either too young, too old or those not willing to put on a specific uniform.
Rather, it is a dance floor culture that can boast with sometimes three generations of fans of that particular sound all in one place, all of which will participate in the same party and celebrate the same DJ set. Nevertheless, the members of the scene “…. like many music-focused communities, police their boundaries; developing, sharing, and applying a hierarchy of membership based upon what a ‘true’ northern ‘soulie’ should know and do….”
Collecting a mass of data from contributors, interviews with several generations of dancers, and diverse perspectives and conclusions on the Northern Soul scene, a rich and highly informative book developed. It shows the many differing opinions on DJs, stories, the movement’s history, legendary performers and aspects of relationships, gender and fashion. Worth mentioning is also the musical foundation: it is a vinyl culture that formed around rare records collectors and DJs. Even today one will not see such a DJ preparing to do a show with his laptop, but with his little bags of expensive 7” singles.
While the idea of the book was born at two symposia in Manchester and Birmingham, the academic approach was broadened by including first-person and “in-crowd” information from fans and active practitioners. The seventeen chapters here provide lots of information, genuine interviews with record collectors, rare soul authorities, dancers, music writers, photographers, DJs, journalists, broadcasters, university lecturers and Professors.
This includes, naturally, certain “lore” and die-hard stories that survived for decades and form part of the basis of the movement. Memories of the past (scenes) and familiarity play an important role both within the community and in Northern Soul song lyrics. Tied to the many different “histories” of the originals, high times and foundations of the scene is, naturally, also the fact that heavy use of drugs and the entire chain of distribution that at times was tied deeply to the scene. Originally, there was no hard drinking and some early clubs would not sell alcohol. Hence mostly amphetamines were used by some in the scene; as these would keep a busy dancer awake for long party sets that would usually last until 7, 8 or 9 a.m. This consumption was already part of the Mod culture, that bloomed when soul music initially hit England. Some argue that drug abuse – and the continuous police raids – were the reasons why the scene fell apart at several times, first in the early 1970s. (The Twisted Wheel club was closed by the authorities in 1971 because of that).
The book’s data is mostly new and so are the texts and essays; however, there are some older texts on the theme included, that provide a good introduction (then and now) to northern soul research. Additionally, three brief pieces by photographers share some of their pictures of dancers from the early 00 years and 2016. Time and again, the incredible devotion, energy, heart, endurance, the will to research, trade, buy and finally own certain 7”, the love and, … well … soul put into the movement and the dancing itself are documented excellently.
It becomes obvious, that being part of the Northern Soul scene for some almost an obsession, the dancing a ritual and a way of life; this is little wonder, as just listing to this kind of music actually makes people happy. Dancing is another – if not the most important – aspect of the scene, taken care of by several authors in an excellent manner: the function, freedom and benefits for male and female dancers when attending such a DJ set. Nevertheless, it started out (and still is) basically a working class occupation that is welcome to forget about last week’s work and to immerse oneself into the crowd of dancers.
Furthermore, some contributors are well-known to the scene: Ady Croadsdell – promoter and researcher for the Kent records label – and interviewees Tony Palmer and Elaine Constantine, both movie directors, one popular for a documentary on the Wigam Casino from 1977, the other one director of the 2014 movie Northern Soul.
The three editors, Sarah Elizabeth Raine, Tim Wall and Nicola Watchman Smith, claim that their anthology is “… the first to provide a wide variety of perspectives on the history and contemporary nature of the scene, and creates a forum for wider dialogue and debate among academic researchers, students and those immersed in the scene.”
And why, yes, it is! This title is some kind of a revelation, as it easily combines academic research with interviews and fans’ stories on a large scale, leading to massive amounts of data. This approach to theoretical or cultural study of music in popular culture will not always work out so well, but here it can present a very readable and informative work.
It is also remarkable that all three editors are highly involved into the topic of the book. And not just as researchers, but in various ways, as DJ, record collector or as in all three cases Northern Soul fans and dancers. A very lucky coincidence indeed. And it absolutely makes a difference. Recommended reading through and through.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2019
Sarah Elizabeth Raine, Nicola Watchman Smith, Tim Wall (eds.) The Northern Soul Scene (Studies in Popular Music). Equinox, 2019, 320.