Around a decade or so ago, I watched a documentary on BBC2 about this strange youth phenomena that took place in the 70s about large swathes of teens up north going to clubs in Wigan, Blackpool and Stoke every weekend for all-nighters to dance to obscure soul music. This fascinated me greatly and I asked myself, why would a bunch of white, working class teens go to such unglamorous places like the aforementioned, where no alcohol was served, that lasted literally until the sun rose and most people on the dance floor were male? Just what was this strange gathering about exactly?
Northern Soul is a music and dance movement that spawned one the biggest underground following amongst the youth that Britain has ever seen. Musically, it was about American soul music on seven-inch vinyl imported by DJ's who went there on their travels. But not by Stevie Wonder or Smokey Robinson, oh no. The whole point of Northern Soul was that it was an outlet for the disenfranchised and disillusioned with pop music like the Osmonds and heaven forbid, Sonny and Cher. Every weekend for a decade thousands of teens made their way to the Wigan Casino, Blackpool Mecca and The Golden Torch in Stoke as a form of escapism to lose themselves in the music. Northern Soul wasn't so much a scene to many, as much as it was a way of life.
These tunes were the most obscure of the obscure, plucked from indie labels in the ghettos of Detroit and Chicago. Some songs were only ever intended as demos, and here in the UK they found a new lease of life. The beat was heavy and the tunes were frenetic. And so were the dance moves. Put it this way, you had to be in tip-top physical shape to pull off them off. Lots of flips, drops and spins that would very easily damage a limb. Or two. Breakdancing has nicked heavily from Northern Soul moves and doesn't give it the credit it deserves either.
The whole scene fascinated me so much at the time that I started to dig around a little. Before long I was rummaging through Spotify, finding out that Tainted Love and What was in fact by Gloria Jones and Judy Street respectively and not Soft Cell, Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy and Nothing But a Heartache that were used in adverts a few years back were actually Northern Soul 'hits' (if there was such a thing).
The next step was to go to a record store and spend an hour a time at a different record store flicking through different 7"s to see anything I recognised - only Dobie Gray Drift Away and Barbara Mills Queen Of Fools stood out at the time.
Over time, it proved to be a brief phase as other genres started to pull me away and pique my interest. Until I recently saw a girl on YouTube from Bristol dance in a northern soul style to Pharrell Williams Happy and Velvet Hammer's track of the same name. I suddenly saw the error of my ways and Northern Soul pulled me back in. For the past couple of months, it's pretty much all I've been listening to. Thanks to Levanna McClean from the video that has clocked half a million viewers online, Northern Soul is in my blood again. I can't help but shuffle in the street to the songs in my earphones. I am hooked.
And I'm not alone - dedicated enthusiasts of the scene itself gather around frequently like its 1973 again and is bigger than ever. For Soul revelers young and old, there are all-nighters that take place all over the country and worldwide, there are clubs in Australia, Tokyo, Dubai to name a few.
Here's my personal top 20 in no particular order:
1. Dobie Gray: Out On The Floor
2. The Exciters: Blowing Up My Mind
3. Velvet Hammer: Happy
4. The Poppies: There's A Pain In My Heart
5. Frank Wilson: Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)
6. Jimmy Radcliffe: Love After Tonight Is All Over
7. Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons: The Night
8. Gladys Knight: No One Can Love You More
9. Barbara Mills: Queen Of Fools
10. Major Lance: You Don't Want Me No More
11. The MVP's: Turnin' My Heartbeat Up
12. Johnny Moore: Walk Like A Man
13. Luther Ingram: If It's All The Same To You Babe
14. The Precisions: If This Is Love (Then I'd Rather Be Lonely)
15. Judy Street: What
16. Willie Hutch: Love Runs Out
17. Kim Weston: Helpless
18. R. Dean Taylor: There's A Ghost In My House
19. Yvonne Baker: You Didn't Say A Word
20. Rain feat. Charity Brown: Out Of My Mind
Trust me, you have no idea how hard that list was to put together. And no doubt it is subject to change on a very regular basis. And as I keep discovering more timeless soul gems in this genre treasure trove, my ears I'm sure will be in for a special treat. For the rest of you though, hunt these tunes down - you won't regret it.
A good reference point is to hunt down The Culture Show episode from September last year about Northern Soul by Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason speaking about the scene he was a part of all those years ago. It pains me so much watching footage from all those years ago and talking heads citing that you had to be there. All very well guys, but being born in 1984 makes me feel a little worse. As for me, I'll soon be heading down to my first soul night where I'm told that people are friendly and welcome. That it's about the music first and foremost and not drunken violence or pulling a girl of the opposite sex. Just writing that sentence has me itching to go. Until then, keep the faith!
(oOh, and if you're wondering, yes I am listening to some Northern Soul at the moment - The MVP's: Turnin' My Heartbeat Up)Suggest a correction