The appeal of Northern Soul

Posted on August 19, 2014

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Benn Hall in Rugby, Warwickshire is a roomy, rectangular conference hall that’s usually reserved for commercial meetings and sales conferences. It also hosts private functions, parties and receptions now and again. But every 3 months, this small town that’s most famous for inventing a sport  that only Australians and New Zealanders care about hosts a Northern Soul do. Many revellers whether they’re mods, skinheads and indeed 60’s soul fans drive down (or up) to Rugby tonight for one thing. Scratch that, they’re there for several things – to dance, buy and sell rare records, catch up with one another and show off their vespas or Lambrettas. In other words, they’re all present for all things soul.

Before my trek up north, I rocked up to a few Soul nights in London to get a taste of what NS is about, but in the back rooms of pubs for the most part. I was advised that going to nights up north – the heartland of the scene – in bigger rooms would make much more sense to me because of the amount of space and people dancing.

Benn Hall, Rugby

Northern Soul is a type of American soul music informed by mod culture in the 1960’s based on the heavy and up-tempo beat. It had its peak in the 70’s where every weekend, youngsters would attend large ballrooms in Wigan, Blackpool and Stoke to dance till the small hours to records never heard before on this side of the Atlantic. Fast-forward 40 years later, the scene is in rude health and stronger than ever. It’s now a worldwide movement with nights taking place as far-flung as Japan and Australia, though by and large it’s a common occurrence throughout the UK, particularly north of Watford.

As for the Northern tag? The story goes that in the late 60’s, football fans coming down south to follow their teams play away would rummage for records in shops that owners had never heard of. London was all about trends and fashion, with funk the order of the day. Journalist Dave Godin realized that there was a market in his store for selling more up-tempo records specially catering for those that asked for them, with a section entitled ‘Northern Soul.’ Thus, it became a moniker that stuck.

But what is it about Northern Soul that appeals so much? Well, a little context is needed: this scene in large part was borne out of economic circumstance. Three-day weeks, riots, a recession, unemployment, mines being shut down, the rise of the national front and hooliganism at football grounds made England quite the bleak and grey place to be in the 70’s. Indeed, it were grim up north, so goes the adage.

Therefore a form of escapism was sorely needed to battle the elements. Granted, putting all this hand in hand with a music scene has a certain romanticism attached to it. But this scene attracted a mostly male following at dancehalls because it was a way out, just as much as it was an expression of themselves, if only for one night a week. As a direct consequence, Northern Soul gave birth to a nightclub scene that would influence DJ culture, rave music and expressive dance styles.

An archetypal NS track is two minutes long, tells of either a love lost, an unrequited love or being in love. Admittedly, there’s not a lot of variation when it comes to subject matter. But it’s within this narrow spectrum of love and heartbreak that every one of us can relate and readily identify with. Even though songs in 2014 are mostly risqué and about partying all night, love is still an overriding theme for songwriters.

I arrive in Rugby at around 8.30pm, though the night officially starts at 9. Strolling onto the slick, glossy wooden floor, mid-tempo songs play to an empty audience, save for a couple of early arrivals. I was driven up there from the big smoke courtesy of Chris Harvey, known to most on the scene as Trickster. He’s a popular dude, cut by his trademark outfit of Hawaiian shirts, baggy jeans and slick jet-black hair. He’s hard to miss, though that may or may not be because he hung out with a life-size cut out of Elvis throughout much of the evening that mysteriously made its way from the stage, to the foyer of the venue. On the way up, he shared many stories of his time on the Northern Soul circuit over three decades where he’d won dance competitions, Paul Smith taking inspiration from him for future designs and bittersweet tales of how the scene used to be.

We were also joined by Nancy Yahiro – A Japanese-Californian based in Tuscany that set up a stall selling records for figures that would make your head spin. An intriguing dialogue took place between her and a punter that wanted to buy around six records from Nancy for a total of roughly £1300. And that was a discounted rate. The conversation between the two was in actual fact the second part of an exchange between the two as they had unfinished business from the alldayer in Cleethorpes. It wasn’t necessarily a heated or confrontational exchange, but Nancy, a seemingly experienced seller of rare soul records, knew how big a goldmine she owned and wasn’t prepared to sell it short.

Copyright Soul-source.co.uk

By about 11pm, Benn Hall became pretty busy with a queue stretching outside the main entrance. A far cry from a couple of hours ago. There’s a cross-section of varying age groups – those that were old enough to be at Wigan Casino first time around, those that just missed out getting involved in the scene a decade later and kids as young as 16. I must profess to have had misconceptions that most Northern Soul types were 50-60 something’s wearing vests. That they spent their Saturday nights shuffling gingerly on slick, wooden floors trying to relive the glory years. I know now that not to be true. Well, not entirely true anyway.

Other misconceptions are that all Northern Soul is derived from the Motown sound, that everyone wears wide Oxford bag trousers and that everyone present pulls off backdrops and spins at every opportunity. To clear that up, Northern Soul is a broad, vast landscape musically, entailing rare 60’s, 70’s and modern sounds, including crossover tracks, which will often veer into Disco, Latin and Electronic territories. In terms of fashion, whilst there are many that are in keeping with the baggy trousers that were en vogue back in the day, anything goes. I wore navy slim-fit chinos and short-sleeved 70’s styled shirt. Go figure.

Throughout the night from various DJ sets, I was pleasantly surprised to hear many different styles of music that are under the NS umbrella. Although many NS purists may differ as to what Northern Soul is exactly as a genre, the high watermark most acknowledge is that the record is rare, danceable and has the 4×4 beat.

Needless to say that by about midnight the room is teeming with people and sweat. In between breathers and rests, dancers go outside for fag breaks, a quick chat or peruse the record stalls for that aural piece of gold dust they’d hope to find. It can be an intimidating experience for some, as it’s a long shift to put in. It’s even longer if you’re not dancing.

Towards 6am, those still remaining out on the floor were down to their last legs in a literal sense. A quick fix for that was Trickster and I heading off to the promoter Sian’s house with a few other weary soulies for a much-needed and deserved sit down and some nibbles. Some soul records played faintly in the living room whilst all were trying to keep eyes wide open with general chatter.

An intense, blazing sun greets us on a Sunday morning whilst looking out onto the green horizon of fields and allotments dotted all over from our view in the garden. We shortly part ways with ‘Keep the faith’s and arrangements for meeting one other in various parts of the country for the next soul happening. For all the talk of subcultures and scenes being dead, Northern Soul at this particular space in time feels vibrant, despite the young people not dominating it. But why should they have all the fun anyway?

The scene can be quite contrasting in some ways – the people are super friendly and welcoming, the records and scene are accessible and yet – just like 40 years ago, despite the Internet – you have to go to it. And therein lies its charm: Northern Soul is a wholly different family to what some might be used to with other followings and subcultures because there’s nothing else quite like it. It’s the people that make it what it is. And as for the records, they say something about us, but most of all, it says something about me. It’s that esoteric quality of those timeless records and the friends made for life that keeps the devotees coming back every time.

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Posted in: Music, Social