The term ‘northern soul’ was reportedly coined in 1968 by music journalist and owner of the Covent Garden’s Soul City record shop, Dave Godin.
The handle would not become commonplace until some 5 years later when the northern soul scene took root in a handful of nightclubs scattered across the north of England. Godin’s terminology wasn’t an attempt to christen a burgeoning musical genre, but simply to describe a purchasing behaviour he’d observed among soul fans from the north who expressed a clear preference for obscure, Motown-descended mid-60s soul 45s over the harder modern funk sound.
As Godin explains:
“I 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 at all 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’.”
Reminiscing on his days in the 1970s as a northern soul boy in The Guardian, Channel 4’s political correspondent Paul Mason acknowledges that “Today you would call northern soul an act of curation. By the time we danced to it, the music was already old.”
Given that the music was already a decade out of fashion, and these peculiar acts of devotion to the black dance music of Detroit were occurring in northern English nightclubs, half the world away from the sound’s authors and largely without their knowledge, it is technically wrong to consider northern soul as a musical genre. More accurately, it was a subculture and a parochial nightclub scene – a way of dressing and dancing, a code of behaviours.
Nevertheless, as music fans, when we see the words ‘northern soul’, we hear an immediately recognisable sound in our heads – a formula distinct from other soul music with heavy, syncopated beats, fast tempos, major seventh chords, call-and-response choruses and keening, gospel-inflected vocals that seemed simultaneously sexual and spiritual.
These records became known on the northern soul scene as “stompers”.
The northern soul DJ Ady Croasdell suggests the first single to embody the musical aesthetics of northern soul was The Four Tops’ I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) in 1965, but that its blockbuster success makes it ineligible for admission in the northern soul canon, which prizes rarity above all else.
However, our interest in this series is in the bursts of innovation that prompt certifiable change within dance music, so – digging deeper – we can detect stirrings of this sound in earlier recordings.
For instance, Martha Reeves & The Vandella’s Heat Wave pulled the same tricks as I Can’t Help Myself, but two years earlier.
Both of these soul stompers were written by the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting engine that powered the Motown hit factory.
So were Holland-Dozier-Holland the architects of the northern soul sound? Certainly the 130 or so sides that the trio penned for Motown and their own Invictus and Hot Wax labels between 1962 and 1973 share common DNA with the ‘stompers’ that became staples at northern soul nights, and some of their uptempo dance tracks – such as R. Dean Taylor’s There’s a Ghost In My House did acquire new identities on the northern soul scene.
But providing a soundtrack to dancing was just one component of the multifaceted Holland-Dozier-Holland approach to documenting the teenage experience. They were industrious professional songwriters who wrote ballads, musicals and bubblegum-ish pop hits alongside their stompers, always with an ear tuned to whatever was happening on the radio at the time.
Probably the first ‘northern soul’ record was a single by The Distants, in 1960, released appropriately enough on the Northern Records label!
The Distants would later morph into Holland-Dozier-Holland-associated act The Elgins, before transitioning finally into the soul institution The Temptations.
The point worth observing here is that no one artist or songwriting team can lay claim to patenting what we recognise now as ‘the northern soul sound’, and that the curatorial aspect of the movement should be emphasised.
The northern soul categorisation arose from DJs identifying a set of common traits from specific records culled from a range of artists and labels whose repertoires demonstrated a broad variety of styles.
Author Chris Hunt identifies this commonality as ‘the Wigan sound’ and he argues that it was shaped by the very specific requirements of the Wigan Casino as a venue – the ballroom that formed the spiritual home of northern soul.
The Wigan Casino was the biggest of the northern soul dancehalls, comfortably housing 2,000 revellers across its two rooms and their balconies. As such, it needed the biggest tunes.
“Wigan’s dancers were demanding and the music had to be just right or they would walk. There could be few experiences worse for a DJ than standing behind the turntables on the stage of the Casino’s main ballroom when the mighty, heaving, Wigan dancefloor cleared in a show of spontaneous musical disapproval, revealing that vast expanse of sprung wooden flooring to the watchers on the balcony. With those kind of pressures dictating the playlist, Wigan’s unique circumstances were shaping the music that was played, enabling the club to develop a style of its own, often out of keeping with what was happening elsewhere on the ‘Northern’ scene.”
The Casino reportedly had superior acoustics to the other main northern soul venues – The Mecca in Blackpool, The Golden Torch in Stoke-on-Trent and The Twisted Wheel in Manchester – and its sheer size allowed dancers the luxury of really showing off. Flashy spins, twists, kicks, backflips and daring balcony dives became part of the vocabulary of Wigan’s dancers. The doors to the northern soul night didn’t open til 2am (though as the club had more than 100,000 members at its height, patrons would begin queuing hours earlier) and, given Britain’s licensing laws at the time, alcohol was prohibited. This seems like an unusual pretext for a dance night by modern standards, especially given that the club would run for a marathon 8 hours!
These circumstances saw an influx of prescription amphetamines into the northern soul scene – the only way hyper-energetic ravers could keep their balletic moves up until daylight in a dry environment – creating the first symbiotic relationship between narcotics and dance music in the 20th century.
“Northern Soul’s legacy was to give birth to the modern dance club,” Paul Mason agrees. “When the rave scene started in the 1980s, ex-Northern Soul DJs (and drug dealers) recognised it as a kind of second coming. And today if you want to experience some of the mania, working-classness and speed-enhanced goodwill, a Gabber night might come close, although there’s a deathly absence of humanity inside the music.”
To keep this mass of speed-fiends moving, the Wigan DJs had to play fast, frenetic and stomping records at a tempo that eclipsed the pace of rival nights.
And although Mason is correct to link northern soul’s appetite for whizz to twinned motivations of ecstasy and house music in the coming decades, there are some notable differences. Firstly, the soul music that the denizens of Wigan Casino and The Twisted Wheel got high off was not made for the express purpose of being administered with drugs, unlike techno and house.
Though full of energy, the music itself was resolutely ‘undruggy’, and this quality – combined with the no-alcohol policy of the all-nighters – contributed if anything to a sense of purposeful clear-headedness. The anomaly of mid-60s obscuro Detroit soul singles being rediscovered and galvanised by the amphetamine dancing of working-class white kids in Wigan a decade later isn’t simply a mangling of context. Those exhilarating balletic dance moves could never be executed with precision by a drunk person, and would even be unappealing to anyone rushing on the mongy ‘lost in the rhythm’ bliss-fog of ecstasy.
Those who used speed at northern soul all-nighters did so for expressly functional purposes, so when other, more recreational drugs are taken out of the equation, you are left with a dance fervour that seems less like a nightclub and more like a devotional experience, more like the singing, dancing and clapping of African-American Pentecostal church services (clapping too, was an important feature of the northern soul experience – when a roomful of dancers synchronised a handclap in the Casino the sound ricocheting off the wooden interior was said to resemble the crack of a pistol being fired). Or when you factor in those beautiful quadruple spins of northern soul dancers, you might even think of the graceful, persistent twirls of whirling dervishes communing with their God through the music of the Sufis.
As we mentioned before, the kind of soul popular at northern soul events featured gospel-like deliveries and spiritual overtones, but it also had an ecstatic buoyancy all of its own, that when combined with soulful ruminations on the healing, obliterating power of love, seemed like it was describing some transcendent level of realisation. Combined with the mass transference of energies in the northern soul all-nighters, the overall effect was convincingly that of super-charged humans brimming with light and a new kind of clarity.
Despite the communal euphoria recalled by scene veterans, the best northern soul dancers were fiercely competitive and highly discriminating.
Overly “commercial” sounds were frowned upon, so the DJs were forced to hunt down the rarest small-pressing stompers from niche American labels. In clandestine efforts to keep tracks exclusive to their nights, DJs would lay faked names and track titles over the centre labels on their 7″s or even buy up and destroy copies of a prized record to prevent other DJs from obtaining them.
The obsessive nature of the scene ultimately conspired to make its longevity untenable. There were only so many obscure mid-60s fast soul records to discover, so the Casino and other nights attempted to thwart over-familiarity by introducing disco, funk and even novelty pop records – a tactic that alienated the core soul audience. Alarmed by the drug-fuelled nature of northern soul, the scene became heavily infiltrated by plain-clothes police officers. And with any scene in which drugs form a centre pillar, disintegration began to set in.
“Northern Soul was not some isolated cultural quirk,” writes Paul Mason, who posits northern soul as an act of youth-orientated resistance against the ascendant racism and sexism of the National Front-sympathising 1970s Britain. “It was the crest of a wave of working-class culture: rising literacy, social mobility and solidarity. We had no idea all this was about to be destroyed – by mass unemployment, the criminalisation of poor communities and industrial decline. But I think we sensed we were at the high point of something.
“For me Northern Soul is not about nostalgia for the past. It’s nostalgia for life as it could be lived in the future, if people in towns like Wigan and Detroit ever throw off all the poverty and criminalisation that got imposed on them in the decades inbetween.”