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Northern Soul

The Longest Existing Underground Music & Dance Culture

What's Northern Soul ?
Well basically, Northern soul is an underground music and dance culture that had itís humble beginnings in the early to mid 60,s in the North of England. The 60ís baby-boomer generation teenagers from the working class background of the industrial North, suddenly realised that they had money in their pockets; the job situation during the 60ís was good and there was huge economic growth throughout the country. This cornucopia established the basis for the development of the mod-culture, where style was placed in the high seat and the expression designer clothes came into vogue. Focus was on looking good and been seen; to be one of The in Crowd.

The mods were a mix-culture, music tastes were varied; the only pre-requisite was that the rhythm of the music had to be good to dance to. The Who, The Dave Clark Five and the Kinks were popular white artists amongst the mainstream of the mod culture followers. However there were some innovative clubs in the North of England; The Twisted Wheel in Manchester and The Golden Torch in Tunstall, that began to explore the sounds that were being released from the then fringe record producers in America. The music was different; heavy dance rhythms sung by predominantly black artists, and not least with lyrics that could make grown men cry. This was the sound of Soul Music. Music that was recorded on small independent record labels like Smash, Backbeat and early Motown, by hitherto unknown artist like Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, Betty Lavette and Carl Carlton to name a few.

On both sides of the Atlantic Black Music was unpopular with the Media giants of the time; which is maybe the reason that the mod Soul followers of Soul Music had to rely on the underground club scene to listen and dance to the sounds they loved. This underground music scene developed throughout the 60ís and early 70ís. Developing in style, the movement gradually changed, giving rise to new youth cultures listening to Ska, Reggae and Rock-Steady music.

The Focus on anti-racist attitudes due to the civil rights movement in the late 60ís, championed by Martin Luther King, resulted in an increased social awareness of Black culture and music in both America and in England, Soul Music began to move into the Media forefront and artist like Diana Ross, Little Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Family dominated the popular music charts on both sides of the Atlantic and became household names. However, in the industrial counties of the North of England the staunch followers of the underground Soul Scene rejected the new media-driven Soul music and moved their attention to even more obscure Soul releases in an effort to find that ultimate musical expression that characterised their passion.

It is probably at this point, in the early to mid 70ís that the Northern Soul scene truly came into its own. It wasnít a culture driven by consumer marketing; no artist could simply choose make a Northern Soul record, it was the club goíers, the dancers that decided what should be or shouldnít be played at their clubs.

As the underground scene grew, more clubs began to open, there was hard competition between the clubs DJís to find and play the best Soul dance music; and the rarer the better. Many Northern Soul classics from this period are limited pressings of records that never became hits and were produced by small local recording labels in America. The search for Rare Soul had started and the enigma of Rare Soul record collecting began to attract more and more collectors. A regular comment in the contemporary Northern Soul scene, which is partly a joke (but may also be quite true) is; ďDonít go to America to collect rare Soul 45ísÖ they donít have any left, theyíre all in EnglandĒ.

During the early 70ís it seemed as if the growth in popularity of media-driven Soul caused the Northern Soul scene to go deeper underground, whilst at the same time, paradoxically, attracting more and more followers. It seemed like wherever you went as a teenager in the North of England, you would hear the odd Northern Soul record being played; in Clubs and Youth clubs. These places were the training camps of the new Soulies as the called themselves; a place where youngsters aspiring to the high standards of dancing that characterised the scene, could perfect their moves and talk to their mates about the records they dreamed to own. The seeds were sown, the future of the underground sounds of Soul was secure and the scene witnessed an explosion in popularity throughout the mid to late 70ís. Thankfully, the independent fan-driven basis of this underground music culture survived this increased popularity and the media moguls were held at bay; although there were attempts to commercialise the Northern Soul concept they were fortunately rejected by the hard-core fans and failed.

On September 23rd 1973 a Lancashire based events promoter Mike Walker together with a DJ by the name of Russ Winstanley and club owner Brian Child opened the doors of Wigan Casino to the North of England Soul fans or Soulies. The Casino, or simply Wigan as it was to be called by the fans, was a phenomenon. The club was based in a 1930ís dance hall and had a stately atmosphere, even though the dťcor was badly in need of repair. Most importantly it had a huge sprung wooden dance floor and on a good night the floor could be packed with up to 3000 bodies sweating and dancing their hearts out to the music they loved. The club had a licence to be open all-night (hence the term All-Nighter; first associated with the Northern Soul scene), but didnít have an alcohol license. Not that it mattered, the fans werenít interested in alcohol; they came for the music and the atmosphere!
Wigan became the sanctuary for Northern Soul and its popularity as a dancers club grew along with its membership, which managed to hit 100.000 members in the mid 70ís. In 1978 the club was voted as being the best dance club in the world by Billboard Magazine beating the popular and prestigious Studio 54 in New York City.
Wigan Casino was the Northern Soul flagship, although there were many other Clubs in the North of England catering for the Soul music aficionados, each with its own team of DJís creating that club-specific soul sound; every venue finitely unique in the style of Soul Music being played, but each still a part of the huge underground Northern Soul scene.

Competition between the clubs to break new sounds was huge and throughout the 70ís this competition led to a polarising of the culture. A Blackpool based club called the Mecca, which first opened its doors during the mod-boom of the mid 60ís began expanding upon what was normally played on the scene. Driven by ex-Wigan DJ Ian Lavineís record searching trips to the US, the Mecca began introducing newer recordings to the fans. Although still obscure rarities, the sounds being played at the Mecca were modern, well produced and up-tempo with a funkier dance rhythm. It was still accepted as being Northern Soul, but became to be known as the Modern Sound. To this day, many Northern Soul Clubs have two dance floors; the oldies and the modern room.

Unfortunately Wigan was forced to close its doors in 1981, following a decision by the Wigan Council to build a shopping centre on the site of the Casino. The Casino burnt down one year after its closure and the shopping centre that was the excuse for closing the club was first built many years later. At the closing night DJ Russ Winstanley played out with the now famous 3 before 8 (the three records that marked the closing of the club every Sunday morning at 8-o-clock); Time Will Pass You By by Tobi Legend, Long After Tonight Is Over by Jimmy Radcliffe, and Iím On My Way by Dean Parrish. The fans wouldnít leave, so Russ grabbed a record at random from his box and put it on. It was the now legendary Do I Love You by Frank Wilson, the rarest and most expensive record on the Northern Soul scene.

There are many speculations as to truth behind why Wigan council wanted to close the club; suspicions of drug abuse at the club, negative publicity of the Northern Soul scene?Ö weíll never know, but it was a sad day for Northern Soul fans throughout Britain.

Many of the 70ís Soulies kept there passion for the music, and throughout the 80ís and 90ís the Northern Soul scene continued to thrive. However, during the late 90ís and the early part of the new century there has been a huge revival of the Northern Soul music scene. No longer limited to Englandís industrial north, the Northern Soul revival is worldwide with clubs in places like Spain, New Zealand, Germany, SwedenÖ oh and of course in Denmark (probably due to emigration of now middle aged 70ís Soulies from their homeland !) The newer clubs are characterised by having a wide fan basis and at gigs the dance floor will be filled with fans from all age groups; from teenagers to those who are not so young anymore and who never stopped loving their Soul music. We are talking about a new generation of Northern Soul clubs that are part of an underground music culture that has managed to survive for over 4 decades.

So, what is Northern Soul? Well thatís a question we would love to answer; itís also recently been the basis of a PhD sociology study. Maybe the answer is simply this: Northern Soul is everything: The music, the atmosphere the dancing and the friendliness of the Soul community all come together to make it so special (and for those of us lucky enough to remember the 60ís and/or 70ís itís also a nostalgic journey back in time). Unless youíve experienced it, itís hard to describe the feeling of freedom and harmony that comes whilst dancing to your favourite Soul track, with shivers running down your spine and tears welling up in your eyes as you let the rhythm of the music carry your body and soul to paradise. That, I guess is what itís all about - why not try it!
Keep the Faith,

Nick, Ken, Kasper and the team

 

In the Club (Video)

Click here to see a documentary
about the famous Wigan Casino

 

In the Club (Video)

 

The five paintings shown below are placed here courtesy of the artist David Barrow. Prints are available from David's website: www.davidbarrowart.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© 2010 Backstreet Copenhagen Northern Soul Club