Writer Jackson Harvey looks at the movement's influence on music, fashion and relevance today, explaining why we should all “keep the faith”.
We’ve all heard of northern soul. And yet, you’d be forgiven for not recognising the bulk of the “stompers” in the countless compilations you are likely to come across.
There have been various legends of artists being broken to the masses via the airwaves by disc-jockeys and flashes of impeccable timing. Yet, never before, or since, has a movement rested so significantly in the hands of the DJ. In the BBC documentary Living for The Weekend, Ian Levine recounts a flight back from the States where his bulky haul of 4,000 soul cuts nearly took down the plane. He made it home, and with him came what would become the back catalogue of the northern soul sound.
The turntablers turned the tables on the fates of countless records that never made the cut across the pond, week on week. Previously unsuccessful and almost forgotten tracks from the soul and Motown recording houses of the US were unearthed and compiled by these arbiters of taste for ardent fans who took pride in their subculture status. Many of them were unavailable for purchase in the UK, and due to their singularity, venues such as The Twisted Wheel in Manchester and the pre-eminent Wigan Casino drew crowds on the basis that they were the only place to hear certain records.
The ethos promoted could be viewed as a direct precursor to punk, in that they actively broke away from the herd in their tastes, shunning Top of the Pops and the hit parade. If their music didn’t distinguish them enough, then they dressed to stress the fact. From wide-legged trousers spanning the breadth of the dancefloor to knitted tank tops nicked from younger sibling’s drawers; the devout wilfully stuck out.
Even the dancing was unconventional. Leon Haywood’s Baby Reconsider thumps bass and drums to set the pace. By the chorus, every dancer’s heartbeat is at one with the tempo. After trawling through countless images I’ve come to the conclusion that the style of dance can only be categorised as living in the moment. Some Polaroid stills could be placed seamlessly within a b-boy exhibition, others in a ballet portfolio, and several in a gymnasium wall mural. What unites them all is the vigour with which they are performed. Each move is beyond pre-meditation and enacted in no half-measure. To dance to northern soul is akin to moshing fearlessly to Wuthering Heights and doing so without hesitation.
For those in the north, psychedelic rock was too meandering and impractical. For Bohemian Londoners, to tune in and drop out was a feasible pastime but for those with a trade, work was a Monday morning-to-Saturday afternoon affair. It could be said that the yearning vocals are spaced and languorous. The lyrics are pleading. And yet, the relentless rhythm of The Tams’ Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me is an amphetamine dream. Northern soul nights were a precursor to nineties rave culture. Doors opened at midnight and finished at 8 on a Sunday morning, allowing fans to sleep until work the next day. The aptly named Sparky in BBC short Soul Boy relates his idea of heaven, “the pearly gates open, it won’t be a dayer, it won’t be a nighter; it’ll be eternity. That’s northern soul”.
The artists who created the hits of the northern soul era were in the unique position of having no notion they were carving out a legacy, not for the present, but for future generations. The singer is a dichotomy. They grovel and rejoice at the same time. No matter how solemn they get; they are never alone. The band and backing singers always manage to rouse the weariest of spirits. Their music would come to define a fundamental feature of the movement. Northern soul is a community united in heartbreak. At its peak, the tracks were already a thing of the past in America. Novelty is a finite resource when fishing in a bygone bag. Like an asteroid in the ocean, northern soul made waves. Then, when the discoveries ran dry, it rippled out and was assimilated. Never had a love so good followed the Highland Room’s smoother disco direction. And Wigan Casino ended up straying from soul and playing any tune that fit the tempo.
Yet, if the music was barely acknowledged in its inception and has since hidden away in deep cut compilations; if the style is resigned to the charity shop and the venues replaced by housing; then what remains of the movement, and how has it changed us?
The movement appears to be an act of excavation. Wearing your grandad’s braces and borrowing your auntie’s record collection. It’s no surprise that northern soul has been reignited by a generation invested in recycling and getting the most out of what we’ve got. In with the old is in with the new. It’s taking a chance and cutting loose. The impact of northern soul can be found in any subculture or movement today, wherein participants advocate being themselves, fearlessly, collectively. It’s not dead. It still lives in those who stay true to who they are. Keep the faith.
Top northern soul tracks:
Zola by King Errisson
Time’s a Wasting by Fuller Brothers
Get Ready by Ella Fitzgerald
Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) by Frank Wilson
Nothing But A Heartache by The Flirtations