Northern soul remains one of the most enduring musical movements the UK has seen
Something strange happened in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Young men – mainly from working class backgrounds and fresh out of school – descended on northern cities such as Manchester, Blackpool and Wigan for a night out. But, not just any night out, these were northern soul nights. An all-night, drug fuelled rampage of a night. Nights so good they spawned an entire youth movement.
Yet, there was more to northern soul than just dancing, drugs and questionable fashion statements. It was a collection of working class men who, through their passion and drive, had the effect of keeping alive reams of music that would have otherwise been consigned to the scrapheap.
For the devout it was secret handshakes and sewn-on badges; a niche lifestyle which would continue to see their passion burn as strong today as it did back then. But, what was northern soul?
Essentially, it is a matter of classification. As the 1960s drew to a close, the godfathers of soul music in America, Tamala Motown, began to change their signature sound.
They turned away from the heavy beat and fast tempo records that had popularised them in the mid-1960s and, instead, began to produce a funkier, smoother strain of soul in the vein of Marvin Gaye’s seminal What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind.
“What was really unusual about Northern Soul is that it looked into the past to get its sounds”
This did not sit well with the belligerent northern male, who still preferred listening to the up-tempo soul tracks, which could power them through the night. Fortunately for them, such was the popularity of soul music in America at the time, there was a treasure trove of unreleased records just waiting to be discovered by a hungry British audience.
However, northern soul, as a term, came about in a slightly different fashion.
“The guy that termed it ‘northern soul’ was a journalist called Dave Godin who had a record shop in south London that sold nothing but black music,” explains Tim Brown, a collector and dealer of northern soul records (raresoulvinyl.co.uk).
“What he noticed was that people from the north of England, mostly men and mostly following football teams, used to come down and ask for records that were three or four years old because they weren’t fond of the later sound.
“He started getting these particular records together, put them in a box, and called it northern soul. It all developed from that point on.”
This is one of the things that makes the development of northern soul interesting. Fans were not buying new records, but instead digging up old ones – making it a musical phenomenon out of its time, during its time.
“Everything that happened subsequently with rave, punk or anything like that; that was music from that geographical area and that timeframe,” says Mr Brown. “What is unusual about northern soul is that it looked into the past of another country, the USA, and so the music was 90% American. That is what was really unique about it.
“There have been numerous, more modern, music scenes that involved staying up until 4am, taking drugs and wearing the wrong kind of clothing, but what was really unusual about northern soul is that it looked into the past to get its sounds.”
But does Mr Brown believe there could there ever be a movement like northern soul again?
“No,” he says firmly. “The Internet has ruined any chance of that. It was a secret society. Facebook is an anathema to what northern soul represented in, say, 1974. It is just completely the opposite. It was all about secret handshakes and a, ‘you don’t know what we’re doing’ attitude.”