Northern soul’s non-stop revival
A new movie about northern soul provides more confirmation that this is one scene which never goes out of fashion
There are some scenes which never seem to fade away. I’m fairly sure that we’ve seen northern soul back in the frame every year for the last few decades or, at least, that’s how it seems. It could be the inclusion of a classic stomper from the all-nighter soundtrack in an advert, a nod to northern soul’s threads in a fashion spread, an indirect reference in an exhibition like Matt Stokes’ Lost in the Rhythm or, in this case, a movie. It’s clear that the scene’s focus on obscure records and the simple tenet of having a good time never go out of fashion.
Elaine Constantine’s Northern Soul, which goes on release later this month, is the latest pop culture moment which seeks to relive halycon days of old. The film features two kids who find new horizons when they start to dig out those rare American soul tracks from the 1960s and 1970s, the tracks which provided many clubs in the north of England with their distinctive soundtrack. The kids in the film, like so many, go all in: it’s the clothes, the clubs, the dancing, the drugs, the fever, the passion. Anyone who has ever been in thrall to any all-encompassing culture will recognise the symptoms of their devotion.
Northern soul’s many revivals firmly fix its place in the narrative. A predominantly working-class scene, northern soul was about kids usually in the north of England spending a few hours travelling to obscure places to dance to music no-one else cared or knew about. That these kids were connecting with a bunch of records which had failed to make the commercial grade on their release years earlier in the US is one of those sociological quirks which no amount of theories or yarns can adequately explain. History repeated itself in many ways a few decades later when rave culture came along: kids heading to obscure places to dance to music no-one cared or knew too much about which was produced in an alternative universe across the oceans.
Leave aside the scene’s stimulants and social networks, northern soul’s true lasting impact came dow to the records. Those greatest hits and floor-fillers were built for speed, in every sense of the word. Heart-attack Motown-style beat, soaring brass and strings, dramatic, soulful black vocals: put them together and you had your escape from the factory floor. Put enough of them together and you had a Saturday night set for the Wigan Casino or the Twisted Wheel in Manchester or The Torch in Stoke.
These were tracks which quite simply just worked. They swept you up in a wave of euphoria and endorphins and left you breathless. Gloria Jones’s “Tainted Love”, Shirley Ellis “Soul Time”, R. Dean Taylor’s “There’s A Ghost in My House”, Earl Van Dyke’s “Six By Six”, Linda Carr’s “Highwire”, Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You?”, Don Thomas “Come On Train”, Frankie Valli “The Night”, Edwin Starr “Time”, The Flirtations’ “Northing But A Heartache”: anyone who has ever had a dalliance with northern soul has their own lists, their own favourites, their own go-to tunes.
In the long-term, northern soul’s influence has been bigger and much more lasting than anyone could have seen coming. From that fetishism of obscure records to Take That (leading northern soul jock Ian Levine went on to produce singles for them) to films and other documentation of what the scene was and what it represented, northern soul has exerted a significant sway on the state of pop. It’s the scene you’re glad to see yet again.