I am sat here at my desk listening to the John Kane’s Northern Soul show on BBC York & North Yorkshire. I like what I hear. Northern Soul is not a subject I know much about – neither does my friend, Stew. So, in light of Craig Charles coming to town in a few days, I have dipped in to the internet archives and boy have I dug deep. In this article, I may be teaching your Gran to suck eggs. However, it was all new to me and I intend to dig further.
It seems Northern Soul is a music and dance movement that emerged independently in Northern England, the English Midlands, Scotland and Wales in the late 1960s from the British mod scene. Northern soul mainly consists of a particular style of black American soul music based on the heavy beat and fast tempo of the mid-1960s Tamla Motown sound.
The northern soul movement, however, generally eschews Motown or Motown-influenced music that has had significant mainstream commercial success. The recordings most prized by enthusiasts of the genre are usually by lesser-known artists, released only in limited numbers, often by small regional American labels such as Ric-Tic and Golden World Records (Detroit), Mirwood (Los Angeles) and Shout and Okeh (New York/Chicago).
Northern soul is associated with particular dance styles and fashions that grew out of the underground rhythm & soul scene of the late 1960s at venues such as the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. This scene and the associated dances and fashions quickly spread to other UK dancehalls and nightclubs like the Chateau Impney (Droitwich), Catacombs (Wolverhampton), the Highland Rooms at Blackpool Mecca, Golden Torch (Stoke-on-Trent) and Wigan Casino.
As the favoured beat became more uptempo and frantic, by the early 1970s, northern soul dancing became more athletic, somewhat resembling the later dance styles of disco and break dancing. Featuring spins, flips, karate kicks and backdrops, club dancing styles were often inspired by the stage performances of touring American soul acts such as Little Anthony & The Imperials and Jackie Wilson.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, popular northern soul records generally dated from the mid-1960s. This meant that the movement was sustained (and “new” recordings added to playlists) by prominent DJs discovering rare and previously overlooked records. Later on, certain clubs and DJs began to move away from the 1960s Motown sound and began to play newer releases with a more contemporary sound.
The phrase northern soul emanated from the record shop Soul City in Covent Garden, London, which was run by journalist Dave Godin. It was first publicly used in Godin’s weekly column in Blues & Soul magazine in June 1970. In a 2002 interview with Chris Hunt of Mojo magazine, Godin said he had first come up with the term in 1968, to help employees at Soul City differentiate the more modern funkier sounds from the smoother, Motown-influenced soul of a few years earlier. With contemporary black music evolving into what would eventually become known as funk, the die-hard soul lovers of northern England still preferred the mid-1960s era of Motown-sounding black American dance music. Godin referred to the latter’s requests as “Northern Soul”:
I had 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 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 U.S. black chart, just play them what they like – ‘Northern Soul’.
The venue most commonly associated with the early development of the northern soul scene was the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. The club began in the early 1950s as a beatnik coffee bar called The Right Wing, but in early 1963, the run-down premises were leased by two Manchester businessmen (Ivor and Phil Abadi) and turned into a music venue. Initially, the Twisted Wheel mainly hosted live music on the weekends and Disc Only nights during the week. Starting in September 1963, the Abadi brothers promoted all-night parties at the venue on Saturday nights, with a mixture of live and recorded music. DJ Roger Eagle, a collector of imported American soul, jazz and rhythm and blues, was booked around this time, and the club’s reputation as a place to hear and dance to the latest American R&B music began to grow. However, other towns and cities across England had similar enthusiasts around this time who would tune into pirate radio broadcasts, and record shops would help bring the U.S. soul sound into Britain. Pubs such as the Eagle in Birmingham were frequented by young British soul singers such as Steve Winwood and Robert Plant, who both released songs of similar style to the early U.S. soul sounds, and the emphasis in the Midlands was more on live soul bands than discos.