I found another BBC documentary about Northern Soul. This one aired September 25, 2013, on BBC2 in the United Kingdom. It is titled “Northern Soul: Keeping the Faith” and appears to have been part of a series called “The Culture Show.”
This documentary seems related to “Living for the Weekend,” the July 2014 documentary airing on BBC4 that I posted about in my last installment, which you can read here. (Who knew there were all these separate BBC channels? I always thought BBC was just plain old BBC, period.) Some of the archival footage in today’s BBC2 documentary also ran in the BBC4 film. Plus I recognize some of the club dancers who are reminiscing about their youth and reconnecting with their decades-old dance moves. However, while the BBC4 documentary focused on the clubs, music, and DJs, the BBC2 documentary is more about the “people” aspect and sociological phenomenon of Northern Soul as an “underground” music culture. –
So again, like last time, a few thoughts in reaction to this documentary.
1. Northern Soul was/is a drug scene. First and foremost came the dancing. But people featured in the two documentaries I watched are candid about the drug use. The fact that some of the early Northern Soul clubs didn’t have liquor licenses may account for one reason people bought and sold amphetamines outside the dance halls. Beyond that, though, people didn’t want to be mellowed out by alcohol. Amphetamines gave them the “up” feeling they sought in dancing. They might not have had the stamina for the all-night dance clubs without the drugs. Yet “speed kills,” as the saying goes. The veteran dancers regretfully acknowledge friends who were lost to drugs.
2. Northern Soul was/is about community. People of all ages, young and old. One of the veteran dancers profiled in this documentary is a woman named Fran Franklin. Growing up in 1970s northern England with a black father and a white mother, Fran says she always felt like an outsider until she went to her first Northern Soul dance. There she discovered that her skin color didn’t matter, and she was welcomed into the family of dancers. She describes the experience as finding her home.
Club-goers came from all over England to the weekly all-night dance events. When they said their goodbyes Sunday morning as they returned to their normal lives, they always said, “See you next week,” to each other—because they would. You saw the same people weekend after weekend, becoming very close to one another as a result. Dancers were part of a close-knit network made up of people from many different cities, many walks of life.
The nearest thing I can think of to approximate this kind of community in America might be Harley-Davidson riders. Maybe that’s because I live in Milwaukee, home of Harley-Davidson and the scene of H-D rallies and periodic “reunions” every summer. Riders make the pilgrimage from all over the world and come from all walks of life. What they have in common is their passion for their bikes and the riding lifestyle.
3. Northern Soul was/is about the vinyl. Vendors and collectors even today apparently set up shop outside the dance halls to buy and sell rare Northern Soul records. Posters I’ve seen online for dance events often advertise the fact that “vinyl” will available for purchase.
4. Northern Soul dance attire had/has a specific “look.” Wide, flared pants and suspenders for the men, sort of mid-1970s disco era. Circle skirts for the women, very similar to the “poodle” skirts American girls wore in the 1950s (but minus the poodle appliqué). For both men and women, form seems to follow function. Men’s dancing is very athletic, basically what Americans usually think of as “breakdancing,” with James-Brown-style spins and fancy footwork on the floor reminiscent of pommel-horse moves in men’s gymnastics. Women’s dancing incorporates lots of spins, as well. Here, the circle skirts add greatly to the spinning effect, flaring completely outward. If she spins in opposite directions, a dancer’s skirt flies out, furls tight around her legs when she stops, then opens again like a blooming flower as she spins the other way.
5. Northern Soul is stuck in the musical past. Except not. This is the greatest paradox I’ve found so far. Northern Soul seems to be deeply rooted in those rare Tamla Motown and similar old blues/soul/pop 45 rpm records. Disco has a similar 4/4 beat, but, Northern Soul dancers disdainfully rejected it back in the late 1970s. Purists seem to want nothing but the real stuff.
Yet, at the same time, there’s apparently some openness to new music. I kept running into the strangest pairing in my Internet wanderings: Northern Soul and . . . Pharrell Williams. I’m not sure what the connection is yet. Is “Happy” actually an old tune from the 1960s? Or does it just have the same upbeat Tamla Motown sound.
In either case, I think you’ll enjoy watching these two videos. The first is Pharrell Williams closing out the Brit Awards television show this past February with “Happy.” Note the circle skirts/wide pants and Northern Soul dance moves.
The second video is “Northern Soul Girl” Levanna dancing to “Happy.” I don’t know who Levanna is, but she’s got a few Northern Soul dance videos up on YouTube. She seems so happy dancing that just watching her makes me happy. Look for the older gentleman around 1:39; he reminds me of the veteran dancers in the BBC documentaries. That’s one of the coolest things I’m discovering about Northern Soul. Young or old, from whatever walk of life, there’s room for everyone in this community of people who love the music and live to dance.