Dancing music in the C20: northern soul (1960-64)

northern soul dancers wigan casino 1975

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.

Martha Reeves & The Vandellas – Heat Wave

Both of these soul stompers were written by the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting engine that powered the Motown hit factory.

Northern Soul

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.

Spotify playlist: Holland-Dozier-Holland (1962-73)

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 – Come on

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.

Spotify playlist: early northern soul (1960-64)

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.

Hunt writes:

“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.”






Guest mix: BADLANDS

Featuring : Badlands + Podcast


Malmö-based producer Catharina Jaunviksna has just dropped her first full-length album as Badlands. Locus is a deeply atmospheric album that comes on like a synth-soundtracked night-time drive through a sci-fi suburbia.

“To me Locus is like watching a distant supernova through a telescope in a Spielbergy teenage room, that thing of peeking from a secure distance,” Catharina recently told The Line of Best Fit about her work. “I’m inspired by safe suburbia with a twist, and I strive to look at the world through a 35mm soft glow filter with a just-enough-eerie mystery to solve.

“That fragile balance appeals to me, and I think I need it to channel the thoughts, emotions and observations in which Locus evolved from.”

We asked Catharina to provide 20JFG with a guest mix. Read what she had to say about this excellent collage below!

Badlands – Memento mix

“Memento is a snapshot collage consisting of the work of friends, old heroes, Soundcloud/crate finds and new pioneers and sources of inspiration. I won’t go into each tune, but Freur’s ‘Doot Doot’ has been a big fave ever since I was a little kid. Not only have I cried countless teenage tears screaming into the pillow to this song, but I also used to end my mixtapes with it, and a couple of years ago I picked up on that tradition again. The song works as a reminder of who I am, and why once I started making tunes. It’s all about saying things that can’t be said, so let’s just take off together.”


Intro (Badlands)
No Mans Land – Tangerine Dream (Hyperborea album, 1983)
Oslo – MoTER (OmegaDriver EP, 2016)
Panic About Love – Wounded Healer (Panic about Love EP, 2015)
Lift – Oneohtrix Point Never (Garden of Delete album, 2015)
The Oldest Mind – Jape (Ocean of Frequency album, 2011)
Evensong – Zachary Cale (Duskland album, 2015)
Black Hole – Monoganon (Lost Cat 002 EP, 2014)
Ballad – Vangelis (Spiral album, 1977)
Gold Slaw – Sasparilla (Slave To the Cat Gang album, 2010)
Planet FX – AWITW (Still 80’s album, 2016)
Under the Chandelier – CMB (André Obin remix, 2016)
Pulse of Joy – Somadrone (The First Wave album, 2013)
Nucleotide – Michael Shrieve, Klaus Schulze & Kevin Shrieve (Transfer Station Blue EP, 1984)
The Four Horsemen – Aphrodites Child (666 album,1971)
Purest Heart – Badlands (Battles Within EP, 2012)
Doot Doot – Freur (Doot Doot album, 1983)

Buy Locus by Badlands from Bandcamp

Bass Jam

Featuring : Lone


Today we bring you the celestial Jungle jams from Lone (courtesy of his album Levitate).

Lone – Backtail Was Heavy

Backtail Was Heavy is the soundtrack to Sonic’s Casino Night Zone if only a few specks of neon were left on and the stars were allowed to sing to our spiky blue avatar.   A headlong rush that only pauses briefly as you fall through the inky black night, before blasting forth once more.

Blacktail Was Heavy is the sound of raves, if raves involved techno-pagans actually getting their shit together and opening up portals to the minds of vastly higher beings.  Who also happen to be at a rave.  Like Being John Malkovich except with amen breaks and your mind existing as a moment of pure energy before being crushed by superior intelligences.

Levitate came out last Friday on R&S and you can get get it right here.

Dancing music in the C20: Yoruba music (1951-68)

Featuring : Babatunde Olatunji


“Trying to illustrate the importance of dance in the Yoruba culture will be almost like trying to illustrate the importance of food in human existence,” explains the Nigerian dancer and drummer Adebole Olowe.

“Dancing, drumming, singing—they’re important for every aspect of life. If you’re a fisherman, you have special dances that you do and special drumming and songs. If something happens—you have a baby—there are special dances and songs that are performed. At kings’ coronations there are special dances and songs that are performed. Every aspect of people’s lives has special dances and songs that are performed.

“It’s really hard to even find areas of the Yoruba life where you wouldn’t have singing and dancing and drumming.”

Yoruba music is, put simply, the music of the Yoruba people of West Africa. The Yoruba are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, and are largely centred around Nigeria, where they comprise 21% of the population.

In general terms, yoruba music could encompass legends like Fela and Femi Kuti and King Sunny Ade, modern singers like Angelique Kidjo, and even Sade and Seal – as all are considered part of the Yoruba diaspora, not to mention the central role that drumming and dancing has played in Yoruba culture for thousands of years.

What we are investigating here though are the first recordings of Yoruba music, which did not emerge until the 1950s and 1960s, and consisted of an intriguing mix of Folkways-style ethnomusicological sound studies of traditional Yoruba music and the LPs by modern Yoruba that formed a sonic precursor to highlife and afrobeat.

Spotify playlist: early Yoruba recordings (1951-68)

The traditional musics that were recorded around this time were often functional rather than recreational – made to accompany rituals, sport, funerals, marriages, births, war or the dances of the famous Yoruba masquerades.


Occasionally, though, these ritual musics would take root in the popular imagination and spawn a genre free from the associations of their function. One such example is Ekassa, which had been originally been devised as a royal dance in the 16th century.

In traditional Yoruba culture, music – usually drumming – is almost inseparable from dancing, and genres were typically classified and differentiated according to the purpose of the dance rather than the musical ingredients. When music was fashioned for purposes other than dancing, it was less drummy – more thumb-piano-y – and used instead to convey narratives; griot oral traditions.

Nigeria: The Yoruba – Orishanla, Sacred Drumming (from Folkways’ African And Afro-American Drums)

Although violin-type instruments can be found in Yoruba music, like gamelan, Yoruba music is really all about the percussion. A wide array of percussion instruments – from cowbell-type drums to kettle-drum-type drums, drums that spark high-pitched tones, drums that belch out low-pitched tones, and most magically, talking drums. The famous talking drums of Yoruba are hourglass-shaped instruments whose pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone and linguistics of human speech, and in particular, the Yoruba dialect.

The ‘talking’ is facilitated by squeezing and relaxing the drum while it is being played, which varies the tension on the drumhead. Using these techniques, the pitch, volume and rhythm of human speech can be emulated to such an accurate degree that Yoruba phrases could be translated from the drum patterns. Talking drums could therefore be used for neighbouring villages to communicate with each other, as the sound can reportedly travel for up to 5 miles!

Probably the biggest influence traditional Yoruba music bequeathed to its descendent genres – and to music as a whole – is its capacity for complex, conflicting cross-rhythms. The Afro-Cuban musician Mongo Santamaría would popularise the Yoruba cross-rhythms and hybridise them with jazz, first with his 1959 composition Afro Blue.

Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis would all develop their own interpretations of this Cuban-Yoruba jazz.

At the same time, a similar mix of Yoruba rhythms and Afro-Cuban jazz was also mined by the New York-born musician Tito Puente.

However, neither of these musicians – fine as they are – were part of the Yoruba people. In the 1950s, the leading modern Yoruba musician was Babatunde Olatunji.

Babatunde Olatunji – Akiwowo (Ah-Key-Woh-Woh) (Chant to the Trainman)

Olatunji was born in a Nigerian village in 1927, but like Puente and Santamaría, he spent the 1950s in New York. Unlike those two, he wasn’t there to make it big in the music industry, but to study public administration. While in New York, he started a percussion ensemble to help fund these studies. Somewhere along the way, Olatunji ended up performing with the Radio City Music Hall orchestra, which led to an album deal with Columbia records.

Babatunde Olatunji – Shango

Olatuji’s Columbia records introduced not just America, but the world in general, to Yoruba music for the first time. His first LP, Drums of Passion, even spawned a multi-million-selling hit single! The group at this time consisted of three male drummers and eleven female singers and dancers, though the Drums of Passion ensemble would swell to a drum orchestra featuring more than 20 percussionists.

Olatuji worked with many of the greats, from Cannonball Adderley to Stevie Wonder, and – more than a decade before Fela – he made a name for himself  as an impassioned social justice activist.

Rememberance of times blast

Featuring : Koban + RENDEZ-VOUS


Our younger selves would have loved Rendez-vous, whose propulsive cold-wave sounds like The Rapture if they had re-prioritised Hot Snakes over P.I.L., or Nitzer Ebb after a mostly unsuccessful holiday in the cyberpsychosis clinic.

Yes, our younger selves, all spit and spunk and skinny trousers, would have lost their shit to Rendez-Vous’ nuclear air-raid guitar sirens, disciplined party drumming and crypto-romantic exhortations, really-really immersed in the blinding confusion of the chemical dancefloor.

We would have dropped Workout right after Les Savy Fav’s The Sweat Descents, and watched the world burn.

Rendez-Vous – Workout

Obviously, our current, stabilised and settled selves also love Rendez-Vous, but in a way that is not as pure. Get their excellent Distance 12’’ from AVANT Records.


Koban blaze slower, but with equal power. Their tools and tropes may be those of the minimal wave insurgence, but their spirit is anything but cold. Instead, they shake and coil furiously like a synthetic reincarnation of Crass thrashing in the vats of Haas-Bioroid corporation.

We find Illusion particularly engrossing, a children’s mobile from Eraserhead whose weird facets spin in impossible synchrony: a macabre cha-cha-cha, a primeval rumble full of Death Valley ‘69 threat, holograms of Bettany West hovering above the storm like a mutant seer with psychic blade fingers.

We don’t think it is of this world. We don’t know where it draws its energy from. We just know that it was here, and then it’s gone, and we’re like, wha.

Koban – Illusion

Get Koban’s Abject Illusions from AVANT too.

Guest mix: POSTHUMAN

Featuring : Podcast + Posthuman


In a 2006 paper, philosopher Nick Bostrum defined a ‘posthuman’ as “a being that has at least one posthuman capacity.”

“By a posthuman capacity,” Bostrum explained, “I mean a general central capacity greatly exceeding the maximum attainable by any current human being without recourse to new technological means. I will use general central capacity to refer to the following:

  • healthspan – the capacity to remain fully healthy, active, and productive, both mentally and physically
  • cognition – general intellectual capacities, such as memory, deductive and analogical reasoning, and attention, as well as special faculties such as the capacity to understand and appreciate music, humor, eroticism, narration, spirituality, mathematics, etc.
  • emotion – the capacity to enjoy life and to respond with appropriate affect to life situations and other people”
A Posthuman is also a duo of London acid house producers and cousins Rich Bevan and Josh Doherty.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrU_PXsJNTg

Their new release, Back To Acid is first-rate lysergic cyborg fizz, so we invited the duo to compile a mix for us!

Posthuman – 20 Jazz Funk Greats mix


Posthuman – Europa Sky
Sherr – Beat This Love
Splinter (UA) – Bank Of Red Tides
Chambray – Evenue
Acid Witch – Acid Witch Theme
Casio Royale – I Finish
Marshall Jefferson presents Hercules – Lost In The Groove (Jerome Hill Remix)
Gavin Russom – The Telstar File
Posthuman – The Benz (Ben Sims Acid Remix)
Ejeca – PH1
Snuffo – Rage
Tuff Wheelz – Prophecy
Psyk – Arcade
Posthuman – New Jack
Cardopusher – Facelifter
Mr Jones – Zoom 42
Warlock – Break Bones
Kamikaze Space Programme track I think, unlabelled promo.
Moomin – Aquarama
Mike Dunn – I Wanna Be House (Johnny Aux Remix)
Jared Wilson – How Deep
Kirk Degiorgio – Time Spin
Posthuman – A Better You
Mark Forshaw – Magnetic Highway

Buy Back To Acid from Balkan Recordings

Image via http://trashcanland.tumblr.com

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Rememberence of Discos Past

Featuring : Ann-Margret


With the sun beating down on the eager Brighton streets, one of your intrepid 20JFG scribes paid an overdue visit to his local hairdresser this evening.  Sun beating through the large glass window, shorts in abundance and Disco on the stereo — we’re reminded of why people pay immoral amounts of cash to live here.

We were too young to have experienced Disco as anything other than a faint rumbling from beyond the womb — before the racist backlash of Disco Sucks robbed us of a childhood of horn sections and extended drum breaks.  So for us, Disco is always a memory.  An unreal time (so we’re told) that can never actually be real for us.  Which is perfect in its own cyclical way.

So when, from nowhere, the seed of Disco lands once again in our overly impressionable minds, the rediscovery of the songs of our past is as fresh as it was the first time.  As it can’t be fresh at all.

Ann-Margret – Everybody Needs Somebody Sometimes (Instrumental)

Amazingly (and I searched) we’ve never posted Ann-Margret’s Prins-Thomas-bothering (and grammatically questionable) classic: Everybody Needs Somebody Sometimes.  Winner of many Emmys and once billed as the female Elvis (whatever that means), Ann-Margret decided to start putting out dance records at the end of the 70s.  And we’re very grateful she did.

Everybody Needs Somebody Sometimes is the nexus.  It contains within itself a greatest hits of what we love about Disco.  Synths!  Indulgent string sections!  Sultry vocals from a 40 year old Oscar nominated actress!  And that drum and bass combo, working together to grease the way towards the dancefloor.  It’s all just so fucking irresistible.  Soaring and base and camp and life affirmingly sultry all at once, over and over for seven minutes.  It is what Disco always promised — from out of the past — an escape to a place where you’re far sexier than mere mortals.  Who the fuck needs VR…