Northern Soul

Northern Soul I’m currently reading two related books at the same time:

  • “Turn the beat around – the secret history of disco” by Peter Shapiro
  • “Last night a DJ saved my life – the history of the disc jockey” by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton

Both speak about a phenomenon of the 60’s-70’s: Northern Soul. It is the unlikely emergence of a subculture of English white working-class youths that only danced to American upbeat soul music. It started in Manchester, the Twisted Wheel club and spread from there.

The original northern soul scene lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, and is considered a retrogressive or revivalist movement based on a style of music created years earlier. At the height of its popularity in the 1970s, African American artists had moved on to newer genres such as funk, jazz funk and disco, so the northern soul scene relied on a finite supply of 1960s recordings.

This happened around the time I was born, and I was back here in Belgium so the whole movement kind of escaped my attention. Now why is this important? Because the northern soul was an essential part of the birth of the DJ culture, and contributed to genres like acid jazz, and after that deep house, all of which are near to my heart. Some more influences:

  • DJ Fatboy Slim from Brighton, England has used a number of samples from northern soul recordings in his music e.g. the use of the guitar riff from “Sliced Tomatoes” by The Just Brothers for his “Rockefeller Skank” single
  • The British pop and rock artist Paul Weller is an aficionado of black-American music and a keen collector of northern soul 45s. Many of his songs have been musically influenced by northern soul, such as “Beat Surrender”, “Town Called Malice”, “Trans-Global Express” and “The Gift” (by The Jam) and “Solid Bond In Your Heart” (by The Style Council).
  • Sharleen Spiteri, singer/songwriter and member of the British act Texas is a fan of northern soul music. The Texas song “Black-Eyed Boy” uses a classic driving northern soul backbeat and brass sound.
  • For the promotional video accompanying their single “Familiar Feeling”, British band Moloko featured a highly authentic recreation of Wigan Casino complete with dancers in period fashion. Lead singer Roisin Murphy is also shown attempting northern soul dancing manouvres.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTtxruV9vgc
  • Edwyn Collins (“A Girl Like You”), Simply Red and Scottish group Belle And Sebastian are amongst many other recording artists who have utilised elements of the northern soul sound in their recordings
  • Duffy’s single Mercy features dancers performing the spins and flips that are commonly associated with northern soul in the video. The song also has a very northern soul sounding feel to it.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtK74ufU7OY
  •  To hear some Northern Soul music, check the jukebox at www.northernsoul.net.

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    2 thoughts on “Northern Soul

    1. Andy, Brighton

      “The original northern soul scene lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1980s”

      This is nonsense. Although the scene shrank during the 80s, it continued to thrive with the music during this time being more innovative and progressive than at any stage since the early days of the Northern scene. Presumably the person who wrote the above has never heard of the 100 Club, Stafford, HWSC, Morecambe Pier or any other of the allnighters that blossomed in those years.

    2. Graham Martin aka "The Hat"

      I have to agree with the statement about “original scene” – its newer iteration is (I believe you will find) now called “Modern Soul”.

      There is a basic divisive split in Northern Soul from my experience – those that think Northern Soul is a certain type of “Beat” and those that believe, like me, that it is basically because the music first really came into the country up in the North of England – at the time of recording it, a lot of the “original” Northern soul music (as we called it) was competing with the phenomenon called Motown in Detroit – black artistes saw music as a way out of poverty and many cut demos – this is why the sound “quality” on many recordings sometimes leaves something to be desired and why the other identifier for Northern Soul, the rarity of the original material, happened – people simply couldn’t afford big runs of vinyl. Many of the artists involved failed in the US (I believe this was primarily because there was simply a glut of good material and only room in the charts for so much of it), and many artistes had no idea how big their records were, in this scene, in the UK (classic example was Loleatta Holloway who sang Love Sensation – listen to the song and suddenly you know where “Ride On Time” came from many years later when it was sampled without her knowledge – she sucessfully sued the label Black Box recorded under I believe). Don’t forget these artists were competing with the likes of The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops etc. Did you know that by definition, Edwin Starr is a Northern Soul artist – he made it big in the UK only.

      The whole soul scene is still strong in the UK and still not very mainstream, although tracks like “Jennifer Hudson, Spotlight” are popular (Modern Soul track) and of course R&B gets most of its sound and influence from this original scene.

      By the way Peter, excellent site – and if you’re into all this stuff at the moment, can I recommend “Searching for Soul” as a book which has a very simple and easy style and shows off what the scene “feels” like from someone who was a part of it. On a loosely related point, I must strongly recommend the new Seal album called “Soul” – its simply brilliant IMHO.

      Hope these limited comments add something … all the best everyone

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