YOU must have been living under a rock for the past 34 years if you have never heard Soft Cell’s hit record ‘Tainted Love’ in some capacity.
But what many people do not actually know, criminally so in the eyes of a certain underground movement, is that it is actually a cover, of a hit Northern Soul song by Gloria Jones.
The first lines of this song truly epitomise the movement that is Northern Soul, as one can only imagine nowadays the sound of hundreds of like-minded youngsters belting out;
‘Sometimes I feel I’ve got to, run away, I’ve got to get away’, and that is exactly what the youth of North West England were doing in the mid to late 70s. The Northern Soul scene was an escape from, what they felt was a flat and boring chart scene.
But what defines Northern Soul? How did it come about and why was it so popular with the young people of England?
Northern Soul became popular in Britain in the mid to late 70s when a bunch of unheard and unsuccessful soul records from America made their way across the pond and into the hands of record store owners up and down Britain. One of these record store owners just happened to be music journalist Dave Godin.
Godin revealed in a 2002 interview with Christ Hunt of Mojo Magazine, that he had coined the term Northern Soul in 1968, as many northern football fans would come into his Convent Garden record store looking to buy the faster and more energetic soul records, which weren’t doing so well in the USA. The word was then first used in an official genre defining capacity when Godin first used it in his weekly Blues and Soul Magazine column in June of 1970.
The Northern Soul scene was an escape from, what they felt was a flat and boring chart scene.
So, to answer the aforementioned question, what defines Northern Soul? It’s relatively simple. Northern Soul records tended to be far faster and have much more ferocity than the regular soul records taking up chart space in America. They were the perfect songs to dance to, with less harmonies and string sections, and padded out with large brass bands.
Motown was becoming far too commercial for the youth of the North West to handle, and was generating a new genre, called ‘Funk’. Everything they had liked in the first place, was being stripped away from this new era of soul, and thus, the teenagers grasped onto their Northern Soul records and indeed lifestyle, for their lives. In doing so, they started the very first scene and subculture based on past music.
The most famous destination for Northern Soul fans to let loose and dance on the weekends was the ‘World Famous’ Wigan Casino. Whilst being the host venue for hundreds of Northern Soul nights, and the place where many DJs were able to showcase their ear for musical gems, it was also the club which started the ‘all-nighter’ craze.
Lifelong Northern Soul fan Ron Peters, was around in the Wigan Casino’s heyday and believes that without it, clubbing nowadays wouldn’t be the same;
‘Wigan Casino was the very first place I went to that offered an all night long dancing room. We would set off from Sale in the back of a van, similar to how we would travel to the football, and make our way to Wigan Casino, getting there for about midnight. The queue would already be around the corner a lot of the time, and there was an awful lot of pushing and shoving to get in.’
He also feels that clubs nowadays are trying to emulate the feeling of an all-nighter, without the same impact.
‘You get similar situations nowadays, where some clubs do an all night long thing for New Year or a one off one, but the Wigan Casino used to exclusively be all-nighters whenever I went down. I suppose it’s just me being cynical a little bit, but they’ll never be able to recreate the feeling we had, it was special, it just hadn’t been done before.’
Many Northern Soul classics and hits, were just throwaway records by major record labels, or, as was often the case, records created by small, independent record labels in tiny recording studios in cities such as Detriot, Michigan and Atlanta, Georgia. In fact, well known and respected Northern Soul DJ, Richard Searling discovered the smash hit ‘Tainted Love’ on the floor of a warehouse in America, as he went ‘soul searching’ if you will.
Richard was one of many who went travelling across the Atlantic in hope of finding the next big record. A much harder feat in a day and age without internet.
It is with the capabilities that the youth of today have, such as the internet, and Spotify and MP3s, that Northern Soul lives on in the capacity that it does so right now.
Being that underground movement that never quite went away, it has seen a new age come to life and Northern Soul has been introduced to a brand new 21st century audience. Ron believes that this is attributed to two factors;
‘Northern Soul today is becoming more and more popular I think because of two things. You have the internet nowadays, so you can just Google ‘Northern Soul’ and up it comes, it’s never been easier to discover a whole new type of music, in our day, we had to go to Piccadilly and to record shops to hear it, now you don’t have to even leave your room.’
‘I think also it is to do with my generation having kids. Whether kids want to believe it or not, their musical taste is influenced in some way by their parents. They listen from an early age to what their folks like, I guess it just so happens a nice chunk of my generation actually likes Northern Soul.’
Northern Soul has indeed entered somewhat of a renaissance period, something which could not be further proven than the release of a feature film based on the music genre.
Aptly entitled, ‘Northern Soul’, the film follows the lives of two young men growing up in 1970s Lancashire who are huge music fans and dream of following in the Northern Soul DJ’s footsteps and travelling to America to unearth the next big hit record.
Josh Whitehouse, who leads the picture as ‘Matt’, in his first ever acting role, believes that Northern Soul is still an underground movement, as he hadn’t even heard of it before accepting his role in the film.
I’d actually never heard of Northern Soul before, it was all really new to me. But it wasn’t long before I was singing the words to all the songs.
With Northern Soul having such a cult following, it has its own unique traits. The dancing involved in Northern Soul takes elements from all sorts of genres and combines them into one, with line dancing, Caribbean and twist being the main contributors to such an energetic and difficult style, something which Josh found difficult to learn.
‘I did have to learn to dance, yes and it was unbelievably difficult. I was lucky enough to have a lot of help from the Elaine Constantine, the director, and all of her incredible team that were running the monthly dance clubs in Manchester. With Gill Soper, Franny Franklin and Paul Sadot most specifically helping me with the steps, there was little chance I could go wrong. On top of that, I also got a lot of help from Kev Darge, in weekly sessions for a good 6 months or so. That sounds like a long time but don’t forget these guys have been dancing like this for years, so they cut me a break.’
Being a musician, specifically the lead guitarist and singer in an indie band, one would expect Josh to have taken the film on for its music heritage plot line, but considering he had never heard of Northern Soul, that was not the case for him.
‘As I said, I’d never heard of Northern Soul. It was actually Elaine and her whole crew that enticed me and their passion for the project. They shared the same kind of passion for their music and their project that I do with my band. That’s what really enticed me because at the end of the day, as good as the storyline is in this film, it’s really all about the music. I never even thought that I would end up getting a lead role, I just wanted to be in the film.’
Proving that Northern Soul is indeed popular with today’s generation, Josh put it beyond doubt that the young extras in the film are actually genuine Northern Soul fans, and not professional dancers.
‘A great deal of the extras in the film, especially the younger ones, surprisingly enough to me, were all genuine and very talented dancers from the scene. There is an incredibly strong a following within our generation. Something which really pleasantly surprised when I was doing research for the film, was how many young and faithful ‘Soulies’ I was meeting along my way. All dancing every weekend, looking the part and loving the tunes.’
Finally, the Northern Soul influence has taken its toll on Josh’s music with his band, so much so that he is even performing cover versions of famous tracks with his group.
‘I found it so inspiring to hear so many classic Northern Soul records, it even made me feel a little out of touch, knowing how much great music I’d been missing. My band actually did a cover of “The Night” by Frankie Valli at one of our gigs quite recently. Listening to Northern Soul has also taught me to take my time with my vocals a little more, which is always a good thing for a front man.’
So Northern Soul seems to be living on through both the generation who grew up with it, and also the following group of ‘Soulies’. But what is next for the scene?
Ron believes that, ‘As long as Northern Soul records still exist, there will always be a scene. I can’t imagine a day there won’t be a dancefloor full of talc, with people spinning all over to the sound of cheap American soul. And if there is a day where that comes, I’m sure I’ll be long gone.
‘I can’t see this being the ‘in’ thing for very long. In fact it never really has been the ‘in’ thing. It wasn’t in its heyday and it isn’t now. It’s an underground scene for a reason, but that’s why I think everybody is so romantic about it. They hold onto it for dear life, so it can’t be commercialised and long may it continue that way.’
One thing is for sure, Northern Soul is now somewhat of a flagship scene for the North, despite it still being underground as Josh and Ron point out, but you can always count on their fans to honour their motto and ‘Keep the Faith’.
By Connor Devine