The Northern Soul Project – Some Background (post #2)

To recap: I stumbled across the term “Northern Soul” a week ago while trying to see if the Dusty Springfield part of the Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done to Deserve This,” was actually one of her old songs.  In case you’re not familiar with this song, I found both the official music video and the one below, which I prefer, recorded at the 1988 BRIT Awards, on YouTube.

As I wrote in my last post (read it here), I suddenly had a vague, instinctive hunch that “Northern Soul” might be related to the sound I’ve always liked so much in early-to-mid-Sixties and 1980s British music.  Realizing this was a subject I wanted to learn more about, I also recognized an opportunity to sustain a series of posts about “lifelong learning,” a topic I’ve always intended to blog about in more depth than I have.

Suppose I embarked on a self-education project of my own?  I could start from the very beginning of my introduction to the topic but at the same time, and in parallel with my real-time acquisition of knowledge, talk about my own learning process.

That might be interesting.

To me, anyway.  And maybe to someone else?  At least the Northern Soul part 🙂

So after encountering the term and looking it up on Wikipedia, I decided to see if there was a hashtag for “Northern Soul” on Twitter.  (I actually poked around a little first and found a cool song on YouTube to listen to.  More on that in another post.  For today, let’s pretend I went straight to Twitter 🙂 )  I’m no Twitter expert, but I have at least figured out that hashtag conversations can be a good place to troll along to catch interesting bits of info that surface.

I found some good things on #NorthernSoul right away.  Most important as a starting point for my self-education project, I found multiple references to a BBC4 documentary that had aired recently, like at the end of July, titled “Northern Soul: Living for the Weekend.”  The Face: Mod Radio (@TheFaceRadioBK) posted a video link to the hour-long film, which I watched last night.

Some immediate thoughts, connections, reactions:

1. Rock/pop/soul /blues/ jazz music was once very hard to find in Great Britain.  According to the documentary, the only place to hear American rock/soul/jazz songs in the early 1960s was on “pirate” radio stations that operated literally from boats off the coast of England.

This piece of info reminded me of reading Keith Richards’ memoir, Life, a few years ago.  Richards’ mother was “a master twiddler of the [radio] knobs” and expert at locating good music all over the dial, not only Mozart and Bach but especially also Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, etc.  “My ears would have gone there anyway,” says Richards in his book, “but my mum trained them to go to the black side of town without her even knowing it.”  As a teen Richards would listen to Radio Luxembourg, the only place he could find the music he wanted to hear.

[The song] that really turned me on, like an explosion one night, listening to Radio Luxembourg on my little radio when I was supposed to be in bed and asleep, was “Heartbreak Hotel.”  That was the stunner.  I’d never heard it before, or anything like it.  I’d never heard of Elvis before.  It was almost as if I’d been waiting for it to happen.  When I woke up the next day I was a different guy.  Suddenly I was getting overwhelmed: Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Fats.  Radio Luxembourg was notoriously difficult to keep on station.  I had a little aerial and walked round the room, holding the radio up to my ear and twisting the aerial.  Trying to keep it down because I’d wake Mum and Dad up.  If I could get the signal right, I could take the radio under the blankets on the bed and keep the aerial outside and twist it there.

The BBC4 documentary also mentions Chess Records as a source of music that the Mods and later Northern Soul listeners prized.  Returning to my reading of Keith Richards’ Life, I recalled that the first time Richards met Mick Jagger (they’d been in primary school together but hadn’t really known each other) was at the Dartford train station in December 1961.  Richards was a huge fan of Chuck Berry, thought he was the “the only fan for miles.”  He was holding a Chuck Berry record there at the station, in fact, when Jagger approached him.  Turned out Jagger and his friends had “every record Chuck Berry ever made” and were all rhythm and blues fans, “real R&B I mean (not this Dinah Shore, Brook Benton crap) Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Chuck, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker all the Chicago bluesmen real lowdown stuff, marvelous.”

Did we hit it off?  You get in a carriage with a guy that’s got Rockin’ at the Hops by Chuck Berry on Chess Records, and The Best of Muddy Waters also under his arm, you are gonna hit it off.  He’s got Henry Morgan’s treasure.  It’s the real shit.  I had no idea how to get hold of that. . . .

“Where the hell did you get this?” . . .

And he said, “Well I got this address.”  He was already writing off to Chicago, and funnily enough to Marshall Chess, who had a summer job with his dad in the mail room there, and who later became the president of Rolling Stones Records.  It was a mail-order thing, like Sears, Roebuck.  He’d seen this catalogue, which I had never seen. . . .

Mick and I must have spent a year, while the Stones were coming together and before, record hunting.  There were others like us, trawling far and wide, and meeting one another in record shops.  If you didn’t have money you would just hang and talk.  But Mick had these blues contacts.  There were a few record collectors, guys that somehow had a channel through to America before anybody else.

2. Northern Soul was (is) more about audience experience than musicians’ creative expression.  That is, Northern Soul is really a genre created by the listeners/dancers themselves, not the performing artists whose music characterizes the genre.

During London’s Mod era in the early-to-mid 1960s, the American R&B / Motown sound ruled.  It was great dance music, with a fast 4/4 (four quarter-note beats to the bar) time signature and often a rich, loud “Wall of Sound” production.  This was the period during which Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were collecting rare blues records.

Time moved on.  In the United States, changes in the political scene led to changes in American black music.  James Brown and the slower, more free-form yet deliberate musical style known as “funk” were replacing Motown’s tight harmonies and snare-drumbeat synchrony.

You may recall “good beat, easy to dance to” as the generic high praise for new records on the old American Bandstand television show.  That pretty much sums up Northern Soul’s appeal: a fast, loud Motown-style beat that was easy to dance to.  Club dancers liked what they liked; and they resisted being dragged along the new trails blazed by contemporary R&B artists.

If you have seen the film Saturday Night Fever, then you understand the basic concept underlying Northern Soul.  The industrial north of England had lots of young people working dead-end factory jobs who lived for the weekends and dancing at clubs.  A huge favorite was a club called The Twisted Wheel in Manchester, which operated from 1963 till 1971.  It held all-night dance parties lasting from 11:00 p.m. Saturday till 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning.   Young people came to Manchester weekly from all over England, mostly by train, for the dance music that had become nearly extinct outside the Twisted Wheel and a handful of similar clubs.

In fact, the very term “Northern Soul” was coined in 1968 by Dave Godin, a London record dealer and music columnist, who had noticed that people coming into his Soul City shop from Northern cities didn’t want the new soul records but always asked for older music.  From the Wikipedia entry on Northern Soul:

I had started to notice that northern football [soccer] fans who were in London to follow their team were coming into the store to buy records, but they weren’t interested in the latest developments in the black American chart.  I devised the name as a shorthand sales term.  It was just to say “If you’ve got customers from the north, don’t waste time playing them records currently in the U.S. black chart, just play them what they like—’Northern Soul.'”

Frozen in time and isolated within this specific culture, the 1960s Motown sound grew into a genre uniquely suited to the young people who adopted it as their own.

3. Northern Soul survived and developed its distinctive identity primarily due to the actions of a few passionate individuals.  I’ll talk about this more in a future post.  The Twisted Wheel was shut down in 1971 through political machinations of Manchester politicians targeting the mainstay of Northern Soul, the “all-nighter” dance clubs.  That closing might have marked an end to the nascent music genre . . . except for two enterprising individuals who scooped up the fallen banner and carried it forward (to use an overly dramatic metaphor 🙂 )

A DJ named Russ Winstanley and Mike Walker, manager of Wigan Casino, a property situated in Wigan, part of the metropolitan Manchester area, saw potential for all-nighters in their club.  Their venue had a huge ballroom, and (if my impressions from the BBC4 documentary are correct) a balcony/mezzanine overlook so that people who weren’t dancing could observe the theatrical performances of others below.  Additionally, Wigan Casino was even easier to reach by train than the Twisted Wheel had been, and Manchester’s central location in England’s North made it easy for people to travel to and from the all-night dances by train.

Although the Wigan Casino, like the Twisted Wheel before it, had some live performances by soul performers like Jackie Wilson and Junior Walker, by the mid-1970s musicians like them were no longer on the current tour circuit.  The key to the dance clubs’ success was the classic Motown-type single 45 rpm record, or as they seem to call it England, the 7″ vinyl (and probably, given the age of some of these recordings, even some “shellac,” which is the material the older, more brittle 78s and 45s were made of).

Because “Northern Soul”purists” prized that classic Motown sound and wanted nothing to do with new music, club DJs went to extraordinary lengths to find old records.  The BBC4 documentary tells of one young DJ who visited Miami, Florida, with his parents on vacation and instead of spending time on the beaches scoured Goodwill for old 45s.   His find of 4,000 obscure 45rpm recordings secured his DJ career and earned him a spot in the Northern Soul pantheon.  You see, DJ’s owned their record collections.  If a DJ had rare and desirable recordings that nobody else did, then the club that hired this DJ would be the club everyone wanted to dance at.  Which meant DJs were the true rock stars of Northern Soul, as it were.

Well, my WordPress counter tells me I’m nearing 1700 words in this post.  That’s quite enough for one day, so I’ll stop here and pick up the thread again soon.  Meanwhile, I hope you have a chance to view the BBC documentary.  Truly fascinating!

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
This entry was posted in History, Learning, Life, Movies and film, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Northern Soul Project – Some Background (post #2)

  1. Pingback: The Northern Soul Project – Sociology of an Underground Music Culture (post #3) | Katherine Wikoff

  2. Pingback: The Northern Soul Project – Streaming 24/7 Northern Soul Radio (Post #4) | Katherine Wikoff

  3. Pingback: The Northern Soul Project – The Father-Son Shredded Wheat Commercial (Post #5) | Katherine Wikoff

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