Northern soul is a music and dance movement that emerged in Northern England in the late 1960s
Written by MarkCarney on 21st May 2016
Northern soul is a music and dance movement that emerged in Northern England in the late 1960s from the British mod scene as a particular style of black American soul music based on the heavy beat and fast tempo of the mid-1960s sound.
The northern soul movement, however, generally eschews Motown or Motown-influenced music that has had significant mainstream commercial success. The recordings most prized by enthusiasts of the genre are usually by lesser-known artists, released only in limited numbers, often by small regional American labels such as Ric-Tic and AMG Records (Cincinnati), Golden World Records (Detroit), Mirwood (Los Angeles) and Shout and Okeh (New York/Chicago).
Northern soul is associated with particular dance styles and fashions that grew out of the underground rhythm & soul scene of the late 1960s at venues such as the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. This scene and the associated dances and fashions quickly spread to other UK dancehalls and nightclubs like the Chateau Impney (Droitwich), Catacombs (Wolverhampton), the Highland Rooms at Blackpool Mecca, Golden Torch (Stoke-on-Trent) and Wigan Casino.
As the favoured beat became more uptempo and frantic, by the early 1970s, northern soul dancing became more athletic, somewhat resembling the later dance styles of disco and break dancing. Featuring spins, flips, karate kicks and backdrops, club dancing styles were often inspired by the stage performances of touring American soul acts such as Little Anthony & the Imperials and Jackie Wilson.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, popular northern soul records generally dated from the mid-1960s. This meant that the movement was sustained (and “new” recordings added to playlists) by prominent DJs discovering rare and previously overlooked records. Later on, certain clubs and DJs began to move away from the 1960s Motown sound and began to play newer releases with a more contemporary sound.
The phrase “Northern soul” emanated from the record shop Soul City in Covent Garden, London, which was run by journalist Dave Godin. It was first publicly used in Godin’s weekly column in Blues & Soul magazine in June 1970. In a 2002 interview with Chris Hunt of Mojo magazine, Godin said he had first come up with the term in 1968, to help employees at Soul City differentiate the more modern funkier sounds from the smoother, Motown-influenced soul of a few years earlier. With contemporary black music evolving into what would eventually become known as funk, the die-hard soul lovers of Northern England still preferred the mid-1960s era of Motown-sounding black American dance music. Godin referred to the latter’s requests as “Northern Soul”:
I had started to notice that northern football fans who were in London to follow their team were coming into the store to buy records, but they weren’t interested in the latest developments in the black American chart. I devised the name as a shorthand sales term. It was just to say ‘if you’ve got customers from the north, don’t waste time playing them records currently in the U.S. black chart, just play them what they like – ‘Northern Soul’.
The venue most commonly associated with the early development of the northern soul scene was the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. The club began in the early 1950s as a beatnik coffee bar called The Left Wing, but in early 1963, the run-down premises were leased by two Manchester businessmen (Ivor and Phil Abadi) and turned into a music venue. Initially, the Twisted Wheel mainly hosted live music on the weekends and Disc Only nights during the week. Starting in September 1963, the Abadi brothers promoted all-night parties at the venue on Saturday nights, with a mixture of live and recorded music. DJ Roger Eagle, a collector of imported American soul, jazz and rhythm and blues, was booked around this time, and the club’s reputation as a place to hear and dance to the latest American R&B music began to grow. However, other towns and cities across Britain had similar enthusiasts around this time who would tune into pirate radio broadcasts, and record shops would help bring the U.S. soul sound into Britain. Pubs such as the Eagle in Birmingham were frequented by young British soul singers such as Steve Winwood and Robert Plant, who both released songs of similar style to the early U.S. soul sounds, and the emphasis in the Midlands was more on live soul bands than discos.
Throughout the mid-1960s, the Twisted Wheel became the focus of Manchester’s emerging mod scene, with a music policy that reflected Eagle’s eclectic tastes in soul and jazz, and featuring live performances by British beat musicians and American R&B stars. Gradually, the music policy became less eclectic and shifted heavily towards fast-paced soul, in response to the demands of the growing crowds of amphetamine-fuelled dancers who flocked to the all-nighters. Dismayed at the change in music policy and the frequent drug raids by the police, Eagle quit the club in 1966 taking with him his vast collection of UK and imported vinyl.
By 1968 the reputation of the Twisted Wheel and the type of music being played there had grown nationwide and soul fans were travelling from all over the United Kingdom to attend the Saturday all-nighters. Until his departure in 1968, resident ‘All Niter’ DJ Bob Dee compiled and supervised the playlist, utilising the newly developed slip-cueing technique to spin the vinyl. Rarer, more up-tempo imported records were added to the playlist in 1969 by the new younger DJ’s like Brian “45”Phillips up until the club’s eventual closure in 1971. After attending one of the venue’s all-nighters in November 1970, Godin wrote: “…it is without doubt the highest and finest I have seen outside of the USA… never thought I’d live to see the day where people could so relate the rhythmic content of Soul music to bodily movement to such a skilled degree!” The venue’s owners had successfully filled the vacancy left by Eagle with a growing roster of specialist soul DJs including Brian Rae, Paul Davis and Alan ‘Ollie’ Ollerton.
The Twisted Wheel gained a reputation as a drug haven, and under pressure from the police and other authorities, the club closed in January 1971. However, by the late 1960s, the popularity of the music and lifestyle associated with the club had spread further across the North and Midlands of England, and a number of new venues had begun to host soul all-nighters. These included the King Mojo in Sheffield, the Catacombs in Wolverhampton, Room at the Top in Wigan, Va Va’s in Bolton & Shades (Northampton) the top Northern Soul venue further south in England.
Northern soul reached the peak of its popularity in the mid to late 1970s. At this time, there were soul clubs in virtually every major town in the Midlands and the North of England. The three venues regarded as the most important in this decade were the Golden Torch in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent (1971 to 1972), Blackpool Mecca (1971 to 1979) and Wigan Casino (1973 to 1981).
Although Wigan Casino is now the most well known, the best attended Northern soul all-night venue at the beginning of the decade was actually the Golden Torch, where regular Friday night soul “all-nighters” began during the latter months of 1970. Chris Burton, the owner, stated that by 1972, the club had a membership of 12,500, and had hosted 62,000 separate customer visits. Despite its popularity, the club closed down due to licensing problems in March 1972 and attention switched to soul nights at Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room, which had started hosting rare soul nights a few months earlier.
Wigan Casino began its weekly soul all-nighters in September 1973. Wigan Casino had a much larger capacity than many competing venues and ran its events from 2.00am until 8.00am. There was a regular roster of DJs, including the promoters Russ Winstanley and Richard Searling. By 1976, the club boasted a membership of 100,000 people, and in 1978, was voted the world’s number one discotheque by Billboard Magazine. This was all going during the heyday of the Studio 54 nightclub in New York City. By the late 1970s, the club had its own spin-off record label, Casino Classics.
By this time, Wigan Casino was coming under criticism from many soul fans about selling out the format and playing ‘anything that came along’. Contemporary black American soul was changing with the advent of funk, disco and jazz-funk, and the supply of recordings with the fast-paced Northern soul sound began to dwindle rapidly. As a result, Wigan Casino DJs resorted to playing any kind of record that matched the correct tempo. Also, the club was subjected to heavy media coverage and began to attract many otherwise uninterested people of whom the soul purists did not approve.
Blackpool Mecca was popular throughout the 1970s, although the venue never hosted all-nighters. The regular Saturday night events began at 8.00pm and finished at 2.00am, and initially, some dancers would begin their evenings at Blackpool Mecca and then transfer to Wigan Casino. In 1974, the music policy at Blackpool Mecca sharply diverged from Wigan Casino’s, with the regular DJs Ian Levine and Colin Curtis including newly released US soul in their sets. While the tempo was similar to the earlier Motown Records-style recordings, this shift in emphasis heralded a slightly different style of Northern soul dancing and dress styles at Blackpool Mecca and created a schism in the Northern soul movement between Wigan Casino’s traditionalists and Blackpool Mecca’s wider approach, which accepted the more contemporary sounds of Philly soul, early disco and funk.
Other major Northern soul venues in the 1970s include the Catacombs in Wolverhampton, Va Va’s in Bolton, the ‘Talk of the North’ all-nighters at the Pier and Winter Gardens in Cleethorpes, Tiffany’s in Coalville, Samantha’s in Sheffield, Neil Rushton’s ‘Heart of England’ soul club all-dayers at the Ritz in Manchester and the Nottingham Palais. As the 1970s progressed, the Northern soul scene expanded even further nationally. There was a notable scene in the east of England, Shades Northampton was one of the leading venues in this part of the country during the early 1970s until it closed it doors in 1975. Later came the all-nighters at the St. Ivo Centre in St. Ives, the Phoenix Soul club at the Wirrina Stadium in Peterborough and the Howard Mallett in Cambridge. Other towns with notable Northern soul venues at this time included Kettering, Coventry, Bournemouth, Southampton and Bristol.
1980s and later
When Wigan Casino closed in 1981, many believed that the Northern soul scene was on the verge of disintegrating. However, the 1970s mod revival, the thriving scooterboy subculture and the acid jazz movement produced a new wave of fans. The popularity of the music was further bolstered in the 1980s by a wave of reissues and compilation albums from small British independent record labels. Many of these labels were set up by DJs and collectors who had been part of the original Northern soul scene. The 1980s — often dismissed as a low period for Northern soul by those who had left the scene in the 1970s — featured almost 100 new venues in places as diverse as Bradford, London, Peterborough, Leighton Buzzard, Whitchurch, Coventry and Leicester. Pre-eminent among the 1980s venues were Stafford’s Top of the World and London’s 100 Club.
Today there are regular Northern soul events in various parts of the United Kingdom, such as the Nightshift Club all-nighters at the Bisley Pavilion in Surrey and the Prestatyn Weekender in North Wales. In an August 2008 article in The Times, broadcaster Terry Christian argued that Northern soul was undergoing a distinct revival in the late 2000s. Christian cited the popularity of regular revivals of Twisted Wheel soul all-nighters at the original venue (in Whitworth Street, Manchester) plus the Beat Boutique Northern soul all-nighters at the Ruby Lounge and MMUnion in Manchester. Many of those who ceased their involvement in the late 1970s have now returned to the scene and regularly participate in such events. As of 2009, Paul O’Grady has included a Northern Soul Triple in his weekly BBC Radio 2 show. He plays three Northern soul hits, often at the request of his listeners.
The Northern soul movement inspired the film Soulboy (2010), directed by Shimmy Marcus, and at least one novel: Do I Love You? (2008) by Paul McDonald. In June 2010, theatre director Fiona Laird wrote and directed Keeping the Faith, a musical based on the Wigan Casino scene and featuring Northern soul music. It was staged at the Central School of Speech and Drama’s Webber Douglas Studio, with a revival at the same venue in September 2010.
The music of Yorkshire singer John Newman has been described as ‘Northern soul’, including his No. 1 hit “Love Me Again”. One version of the video for the song features stereotypical Northern soul dancing. Additionally, the track samples the famous soul drum break from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”, performed by Clyde Stubblefield.
Music, artists and records
In the book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: the history of the DJ, the authors describe Northern soul as “a genre built from failures”, stating: “…Northern Soul was the music made by hundreds of singers and bands who were copying the Detroit sound of Motown pop. Most of the records were complete failures in their own time and place… but in Northern England from the end of the 1960s through to its heyday in the middle 1970s, were exhumed and exalted.”
The music style most associated with Northern soul is the heavy, syncopated beat and fast tempo of mid-1960s Motown Records, which was usually combined with soulful vocals. These types of records, which suited the athletic dancing that was prevalent, became known on the scene as stompers. Notable examples include Tony Clarke’s “Landslide” (popularised by Ian Levine at Blackpool Mecca) and Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” (purchased by Richard Searling on a trip to the United States in 1973 and popularised at Va Va’s in Bolton, and later, Wigan Casino). According to northern soul DJ Ady Croadsell, viewed retrospectively, the earliest recording to possess this style was the 1965 single “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by the Four Tops, although that record was never popular in the Northern soul scene because it was too mainstream.
Other related music styles also gained acceptance in the Northern soul scene. Slower, less-danceable soul records were often played, such as Barbara Mills’ “Queen of Fools” (popular in 1972 at the Golden Torch) and the Mob’s “I Dig Everything About You”. Every all-nighter at Wigan Casino ended with the playing of three well-known Northern soul songs with a particular going home theme. These came to be known as the “3 before 8” and were: “Time Will Pass You By” by Tobi Legend, “Long After Tonight is Over” by Jimmy Radcliffe and “I’m on My Way” by Dean Parrish. Commercial pop songs that matched the up-tempo beat of the stompers were also played at some venues, including the Ron Grainer Orchestra’s instrumental “Theme From Joe 90” at Wigan Casino and the Just Brothers’ surf-guitar song “Sliced Tomatoes” at Blackpool Mecca.
As the scene developed in the mid and late 1970s, the more contemporary and rhythmically sophisticated sounds of disco and Philly Soul became accepted at certain venues following its adoption at Blackpool Mecca. This style is typified musically by the O’Jays’ “I Love Music” (UK No. 13, January 1976), which gained popularity before its commercial release at Blackpool Mecca in late 1975. The record that initially popularised this change is usually cited as the Carstairs “It Really Hurts Me Girl” (Red Coach), a record initially released late in 1973 on promotional copies – but quickly withdrawn due to lack of interest from American radio stations. The hostility towards any contemporary music style from Northern soul traditionalists at Wigan Casino led to the creation of the spin-off modern soul movement in the early 1980s.
Rarity of Northern soul records
Some Northern soul records were so rare that only a handful of copies were known to exist, so specific DJs and clubs became associated with particular records that were almost exclusively in their own playlists. Keith Rylatt and Phil Scott wrote: “As venues such as the Twisted Wheel evolved into Northern soul clubs in the late 1960s and the dancers increasingly demanded newly discovered sounds, DJs began to acquire and play rare and often deleted US releases that had not gained even a release in the UK. These records were sometimes obtained through specialist importers or, in some cases, by DJs visiting the US and purchasing old warehouse stock. Many of the original singers and musicians remained unaware of their newfound popularity for many years.
As the scene increased in popularity, a network of UK record dealers emerged who could acquire further copies of the original vinyl and supply them to fans at prices commensurate with their rarity and desirability. Later on, a number of UK record labels capitalised on the booming popularity of Northern soul and negotiated licences for certain popular records from the copyright holders and reissue them as new 45s or compilation LPs. Among these labels were Casino Classics, PYE Disco Demand, Inferno, Kent Modern and Goldmine.
The notoriety of DJs on the Northern soul scene was enhanced by the possession of rare records, but exclusivity was not enough on its own, and the records had to conform to a certain musical style and gain acceptance on the dance floor. Northern soul collectors seek rare singles by artists such as Holly Maxwell, Gene Chandler, Barbara Acklin, the Casualeers, and Jimmy Burns. Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” has been rated the rarest and most valuable Northern soul single. In December 2014 collectors were bidding in excess of £11,000 for a copy of the London Records version of Darrell Banks’ Open the Door to Your Heart, thought to be the only copy in circulation. It had previously been thought that all the original versions had been destroyed when rival label EMI won the rights to release the single.
Hits and favourites
The Northern soul movement spawned an active market in reissuing older soul recordings in the UK, several of which became popular enough to actually make the UK charts several years after their original issue. Dave Godin is generally credited with being the first UK entrepreneur to start this trend, setting up the Soul City label in 1968, and striking a deal with EMI to licence Gene Chandler’s 1965 recording “Nothing Can Stop Me”, which had been popular for several years at the Twisted Wheel. Issued as a 45 on Soul City, the track peaked at UK No. 41 in August 1968, becoming the first Northern Soul-derived chart hit. A few months later in January 1969, Jamo Thomas’ 1966 single “I Spy (For the FBI)” was similarly licensed and reissued, hitting UK No. 44.
The trend continued into the 1970s, as many songs from the 1960s that were revived on the Northern soul scene were reissued by their original labels and became UK top 40 hits. These include the Tams’ 1964 recording “Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me” (UK No. 1, July 1971) – which was popularised by Midlands DJ Carl Dene – the Fascinations’ 1966 single “Girls Are Out to Get You” (UK No. 32, 1971), the Elgins’ “Heaven Must Have Sent You” (UK No. 3 July 1971), the Newbeats’ 1965 American hit “Run Baby Run” (UK No. 10, Oct 1971), Bobby Hebb’s “Love Love Love” which was originally the B-side of “A Satisfied Mind” (UK No. 32 August 1972), Robert Knight’s “Love On a Mountain Top” of 1968 (UK No. 10, November 1973) and R. Dean Taylor’s “There’s a Ghost in My House” from 1967 (UK No. 3, May 1974).
The Northern soul scene also spawned many lesser chart hits, including Al Wilson’s 1968 cut “The Snake” (UK No. 41 in 1975), Dobie Gray’s “Out On the Floor” (UK No. 42, September 1975) and Little Anthony & the Imperials’ “Better Use Your Head” (UK No. 42 July 1976).
A variety of recordings were made later in the 1970s that were specifically aimed at the Northern soul scene, which also went on to become UK top 40 hits. These included: the Exciters’ “Reaching For the Best” (UK No. 31, October 1975), L. J Johnson’s “Your Magic Put a Spell on Me” (UK No. 27, February 1976), and Tommy Hunt’s “Loving On the Losing Side” (UK No. 28, August 1976). “Goodbye Nothing To Say”, by the white British group the Javells, was identified by Dave McAleer of Pye’s Disco Demand label as having an authentic Northern soul feel. McAleer gave a white label promotional copy to Russ Winstanley (a Wigan Casino DJ and promoter), and the tune became popular among the dancers at the venue. Disco Demand then released the song as a 45 RPM single, reaching UK No. 26 in November 1974. To promote the single on BBC’s Top of the Pops, the performer was accompanied by two Wigan Casino dancers.
In at least one case, a previously obscure recording was specially remixed to appeal to Northern soul fans: the 1968 recording “Footsee” by Canadian group the Chosen Few was sped up, overdubbed and remixed to emerge as the 1975 UK No. 9 hit “Footsee”, now credited to Wigan’s Chosen Few. In addition, the Northern soul favourite “Skiing In The Snow”, originally by the Invitations, was covered by local band Wigan’s Ovation, and reached No. 12 in the UK singles chart. These versions were not well received by the Northern soul community as their success brought wider awareness to the subculture.
The first domestic disco hit, “Kung Fu Fighting” (UK No. 1, 1974), which was created by singer Carl Douglas and producer Biddu in Britain, was influenced by the Northern Soul scene.
In 2000, Wigan Casino DJ Kev Roberts compiled The Northern Soul Top 500, which was based on a survey of Northern soul fans. The top ten songs were: “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” by Frank Wilson, “Out on the Floor” by Dobie Gray, “You Didn’t Say a Word” by Yvonne Baker, “The Snake” by Al Wilson, “Long After Tonight is Over” by Jimmy Radcliffe, “Seven Day Lover” by James Fountain, “You Don’t Love Me” by Epitome of Sound, “Looking for You” by Garnet Mimms, “If That’s What You Wanted” by Frankie Beverly & the Butlers and “Seven Days Too Long” by Chuck Wood.
Fashion and imagery
A large proportion of Northern soul’s original audience came from within the 1960s mod subculture. In the late 1960s, when some mods started to embrace freakbeat and psychedelic rock, other mods – especially those in Northern England – stuck to the original mod soundtrack of soul and Blue Beat. From the latter category, two strands emerged: skinheads and the Northern soul scene.
Early Northern soul fashion included strong elements of the classic mod style, such as button-down Ben Sherman shirts, blazers with centre vents and unusual numbers of buttons, trickers and brogue shoes and shrink-to-fit Levi’s jeans. Some non-mod items, such as bowling shirts, were also popular. Later, Northern soul dancers started to wear light and loose-fitting clothing for reasons of practicality. This included high-waisted, baggy Oxford trousers and sports vests. These were often covered with sew-on badges representing soul club memberships.
The clenched raised fist symbol that has become associated with the Northern soul movement emanates from the 1960s Black Power movement of the United States. On his visit to the Twisted Wheel in 1971, Dave Godin recalled that “…very many young fellows wore black “right on now” racing gloves … between records one would hear the occasional cry of “right on now!” or see a clenched gloved fist rise over the tops of the heads of the dancers!”
Influence on musicians
Northern soul has influenced several notable musicians. Terry Christian — in his 2008 article about Northern soul for The Times — wrote: “There’s an instant credibility for any artist or brand associated with a scene that has always been wild, free and grassroots.”
- Soft Cell had chart success in the early 1980s with covers of two popular Northern soul songs, “Tainted Love” (originally recorded by Gloria Jones) and “What?” (originally recorded by Melinda Marx on VJ, 1965, Judy Street 1966 and Tina Mason 1967). Soft Cell member Dave Ball used to occasionally attend soul nights at Blackpool Mecca and Wigan Casino.
- Moloko’s video for “Familiar Feeling” is set against a Northern soul backdrop and was directed by Elaine Constantine, a longstanding Northern soul enthusiast. The video was choreographed by DJ Keb Darge, who rose to prominence at the Stafford Top of the World all-nighters in the 1980s.
- Fatboy Slim’s 1998 big beat single “The Rockafeller Skank” samples the Just Brothers’ “Sliced Tomatoes”. The song reached number 6 in the UK Singles Chart and also had success in many other countries.
- The music video for Duffy’s 2008 song “Mercy” features Duffy singing on a platform, accompanied by Northern soul dancers performing elaborate moves.
- Plan B’s 2010 album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks displays a significant Northern soul influence. The video for “Stay Too Long” features northern soul-style dance moves such as spins, flips and backdrops. The album sleeve features Northern soul-style sew-on patches.
- The video for John Newman’s ‘Love Me Again’ also features Northern Soul dancing as a backdrop to a Romeo and Juliet style romance.
- The video for the Courteeners’ ‘Are You In Love With a Notion’ also features Northern Soul dancing.
- The video for Above and Beyond’s ‘Sun and Moon’ also contains Northern Soul dancing.
- Paul Stuart Davies recorded ‘Northern Soul Reimagined’ in 2015, with guidance from Russ Winstanley, presenting classic Northern Soul tracks in a new light.