Photo by Tim Simpson via Flickr (Under License Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))
A few weeks ago, I was flicking through channels on the TV when something caught my eye. It was the BBC Proms, but not as one would usually imagine it with classical music and opera as the focus of the festival. Instead, it was titled ‘Northern Soul at the Proms’. As a fan of soul music I was instantly intrigued; I had never heard of northern soul before and had little idea about what the programme would entail. For the entire 90-minute programme, I was enthralled by the songs that were performed by extremely talented individuals. The concept of watching the BBC Proms and simultaneously tapping my feet to the music is one which felt foreign to me and likely others too. By the end of the broadcast, not only was I listening to Northern Soul for the remainder of the evening, transfixed by the euphoric feeling; but also wanting to know more about the origins of the music and how it got its name and reputation.
The term ‘northern soul’ was coined by the DJ David Godin in the late sixties to describe a music scene which was filled with rare American soul music which flopped in the States but was beloved by many from the north of England. Godin said not to waste time playing current hits to customers from the north, instead ‘play them what they like- northern soul.’
It was a revolution against the music charts, with many Mods fed up with the mainstream music being played on radio. It initiated a search for lesser known American soul records, the rarer the better. There are stories/myths of failed records in the US being used as ballast for large ships travelling to Europe and when finished with, the 45’s got dumped in warehouses and consequently got discovered by Mods.
This music generated an entire subculture and youth movement in the North of England, it created a euphoric atmosphere with a sense of escapism in a life otherwise filled with manual labour, industrial decline, recession, strikes and struggles. Venues such as The Wigan Casino, The Torch and Manchester’s Twisted Wheel were synonymous with Northern Soul and became a haven for Mods and soul enthusiasts looking for somewhere to dance their troubles away to the fast tempo records. This naturally led to dance being just as integral to northern soul as the music was. Dance moves such as the backdrop, the spin and the shuffle could be seen in every dancehall. The music brought people together by allowing their passion of soul to be shared into the early hours of the morning, which created identity and purpose and a place to truly express themselves. It was and still is a way of life.
I have been listening to Northern Soul on loop since stumbling across it, with ‘What’ by Judy Street taking the top spot for me closely followed by ‘Seven Days Too Long’ by Chuck Wood and the classic ‘Do I Love You’ by Frank Wilson. To me, the music is timeless, it does not feel like it has aged even a day and I understand how it became somewhere to break free from people’s normal life. Despite many of the iconic venues which housed numerous Northern Soul nights closing down decades ago with many today not even knowing they existed; the resurgence could very much be on the horizon.
Northern Soul has left an indelible mark on music and culture and has been dubbed by Stewart Maconie as ‘one of the most thrilling subcultures ever’ and he is certainly not wrong. It has an ability to foster a sense of identity and belonging, and I have learnt it's far more than just music, it’s a haven. My eyes have been opened and I hope to have opened others to northern soul.
Edited by Lucy Blackmur, Music Editor