North of England, 1968: The Mods have been defeated. Progressive and Hard Rock sounds are now popular. And yet... many working-class teenagers seek in good outfits, Soul music and amphetamines an identity that will make them "distinct". Without any particular ideological position and by actually adopting foreign cultural elements (Italian fashion, black music) they created a subculture that lasted until the mid 70s, when Punk and Disco changed everything.
Musically, this fashion was marked by a particular feature. Hit songs were... already old! Some of them had been published ten years ago. Fans of the trend rejected Funk and found the established Soul music cheesy, so regional DJs were forced to play 60s Soul which, however, was unknown. As a result they choose songs that in America had failed miserably, but had a second chance to become hits in Britain.
Since playlists at clubs such as Wigan Casino, Blackpool Mecca and Twisted Wheel had to be filled, DJs were searching constantly for new material. Thus, a market was created for DJs and fans. The fact that records were either failures or independent productions, making them already rare, had consequences in their market value. Demand raised prices. Even today some discs are easily sold for 250 pounds, while "Do I Love You" by Frank Wilson, was sold in 2009 for 25,000 pounds! Fortunately, for the have nots, beautifully assembled collections have been published.
Actually, the market created the term Northern Soul. In fact, it was invented in London by the owner of a specialized record store, the Soul City, in response to northern football fans, who went to buy rare discs before matches. There, he had to create a special section to direct his clients, that he termed "Northern".
The term was then established, and now determines a kind of “rough” unpolished Soul, due to difficulties in production, less “sweet” and acceptable by major companies (Motown, Atlantic, Stax), rare and mainly danceable. Big names do not exist, since most artists are unknown but The Impressions with Curtis Mayfield stand out. Songs that have become widely known include: “Beggin'” (Frankie Valli), “Go Now” (Bessie Banks), “The Snake” (Al Wilson) and “Tainted Love” (Gloria Jones).
Although limited in scope, Northern Soul left, however, a number of legacies. Being an underground and uncommercial fashion, Northern Soul bestowed its unconventional character to the emerging Punk movement. In addition, hit songs sprang through the dominance of the club DJs, a trend that was to be repeated with electronic dance music. Club culture easily led some of them to hop onto other fashion trends, like Mike Pickering of M People, who introduced House music in the legendary Manchester “Hacienda”. Moreover, white label vinyl print was widely established at that time since competition forced DJs to hide disk details from being disclosed to "opponents". Finally, clubbers danced alone, usually under speed in an effort to retain an all-night groove - as it happened with electronic music and ecstasy. In music, Northern Soul affected the work of famous artists such as Soft Cell and Paul Weller in the 80s, Saint Etienne and Dodgy in the 90s and more recently, Amy Winehouse and Duffy.
This is not a humble legacy for a fashion that, in reality, was not to be. Because practically there was never a single musician that produced a unique sound that differentiates Northern Soul from the rest of Soul music, although today the adjective "Northern" categorises many unknown gems of black music. It was the drive of young people for diversity that triggered the trend. As The Guardian journalist Paul Mason, a Northern Soul club-goer recollects:
Our fathers’ world was the one you see in Carry On films. In these films “attractive” men were depicted as sleazy, sexist drunks dressed in drab tweed jackets. We knew that cool British men had always had an affinity with Italian fashion and we were using black industrial music of the late 1960s to say something about our white industrial lives in the 1970s. I knew what I was part of: subcultural revolt on a scale no other youth scene at the time came close to.
Listen: Top 50 Northern Soul Classics on The 45s Club You Tube channel
Watch: “Northern Soul”, feature film by Elaine Constantine, 2014
Read: “The Story of Northern Soul” by David Nowell, Portico Books, e-book, 2012
- All-Music, NME, Wikipedia, The Guardian, Manchester Evening News, X-Ray Soul Club