Saturday, 8 February 2014

Northern Soul: Revival Squared

To enter the world of northern soul is to enter into a culture unashamedly trapped in the past. Even in the movement's seventies heyday it was a retroist movement, isolated both in time and space. The essence of it is that some time in the late sixties a number of mod clubs in the north of England began to move away from eclectic rosters consisting of various forms of jazz, R&B and other black American music, and instead began to focus solely on danceable fast-paced soul influenced by the output of Detroit's Motown label. The original Northern Soul club, the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, closed in 1971 under pressure from the authorities for its reputation as a drug haven. By this time however, the culture of the music and the associated all-night amphetamine fuelled raves, where dancers were renowned for their skill and stamina, had spread to other parts of the North and the Midlands. Nights were held at famous venues such as Wigan Casino and Wolverhampton's The Catacombs.

The movement reached its zenith in the mid to late seventies, and by this time musical exclusivity was the focus of most of the DJs who operated within the scene. This is mirrored currently in the penchant within UK bass music for VIP mixes and other commercially unreleased tracks which can only be found within mixes by the most respected DJs. Rarity was prized and DJs often would secure their bookings on this basis, perhaps by being the owner of the only known copy of a particular record. As such the scene was based upon failures; records by US mid-western artists which had not made an impact upon their release a decade prior were now esteemed in an entirely different context to that from which they emanated. As such, besides the DJs there were no real stars of the Northern Soul movement, the artists having long since faded into obscurity, had they ever left it.

In the intervening years Northern Soul has itself somewhat disappeared, but now it seems to be coming back, giving us a revival of what was also originally a revivalist movement. Instead of events taking place in the original venues, which have long since moved on to other things, they now occur in working men's clubs and similar halls across Britain. There are even events down in London, making Northern Soul no longer quite so northern. The attendees seem to have lost their insatiable desire for rarity, with many events featuring DJs who were major players in the old scene now advertising as "Northern and Crossover" soul, and playing more well known records. They finish much earlier too, with all-dayers now far more common than the previous all-nighters.

I recently paid a visit to one of these nights, at a Labour Club in The Black Country, not `quite sure what to expect. Initially I was greeted with a largely empty hall, and an even emptier dancefloor. It was an odd sight; most attendees were well into their fifties at least, and were sat dotted around the room which looked more like a church hall decked out for a poorly attended OAP’s club. The cobs wrapped in foil on sale next to the bar hardly helped, and neither did the faux hand pumps from which the "real" ales were served at the bar. Little more than an hour later, however, and the dance floor was almost full, and covered in the talcum powder traditionally used by dancers to facilitate exuberant sliding moves across the room. The vigorous dancing had long since given way to arthritic joints and were more shuffling than the acrobatic shapes that would have been on show over three decades ago, but those on the floor seemed not to care, just happy to be back moving to the music of their youth with like-minded people. It was fantastic to have seen men and women dancing and enjoying themselves without pretence, not looking around to see who has their eye on them, and "keeping the faith". Perhaps this is something that some of the clubbers of today could learn from.