The Northern Soul Project – Sociology of an Underground Music Culture (post #3)

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.”

(Note, in doing maintenance to make sure links are still working in my old posts, I discovered that the YouTube video embedded above has been blocked.  Now it seems to be working again. However, in case it’s not someone has also posted the documentary on Vimeo.  Link here: )

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. (P.S. I’ve noticed since embedding this video that its original YouTube uploader has apparently monetized it, so I apologize for any ads you may see.)

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Learning, Music, Popular culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Northern Soul Project – Sociology of an Underground Music Culture (post #3)

  1. WiganCasinoimissu says:

    I enjoyed your article on Northern Soul but when you quoted “Speed kills” this has nothing to do with amphetamines (it refers to exceeding the speed limit on the roads). People dont die as a direct use of amphetamines, especially during the real Northern Soul days (nights) as the drugs were all actually obtainable on prescription & not illegably made as it is these days (with one or possibly two exceptions). That is not to say that the Northern Soulers got the pills on prescription although they were obtained from pharmacies.


    • Hi, and thanks for commenting!

      Because I’m a Midwestern American, I am definitely not an expert on Northern Soul. I’m just starting to learn, so I really appreciate your information.

      You are right about the term “speed kills” being used to refer to speed limits and driving. However, I also know that in America the use of that phrase in connection with highway driving was actually co-opted from its original appearance in a counterculture campaign to save lives.

      My understanding of the expression is that back in the hippie days of the 1960s/1970s, “speed kills” was a message from counterculture members in the know about amphetamines’ dangers to other counterculture members who didn’t. Even though psychedelic drugs were embraced by hippies, the effects of meth were frightening enough that a homegrown anti-amphetamine campaign began. People wore buttons that said “Speed Kills.” Often the phrase “Speed Kills” would be scrawled on building walls like a public service announcement message. Sort of a graffiti billboard warning left by one hippie for another out of a caring sense of concern: If you do drugs, don’t do speed.


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

  3. KeithTheFaith says:

    Dear Katherine,

    Attached are a few fond memories of my early days (1970’s) on the UK Northern Soul scene that I originally sent to the The Mix: Northern Soul Radio podcast that you have mentioned in your article . I thought they might be of interest with your life long learning project. If I can be of any further help please just shout out.


    A bit late in the day but this Christmas ( 2014) I have been enjoying your 2013 Northern soul podcast and thought you made an excellent job of it – some very nice records there, it must have involved a lot of work.

    Now aged 56 I first went to the Casino (Wigan) as a sixteen year old having been immersed in Northern since the age of thirteen at my local Soul Club in North Wales UK , and the Whitchurch (Shropshire) all-dayer , over the border in England , with DJ, Soul Sam.

    That’s just how it was for us back then, we all had our own mid- week home town satellite clubs in the North, Midlands, Scotland and Wales. During the week we listened to Northern at home and friends houses, as soul music let alone Northern, was totally ignored by BBC Radio in favour of pop and rock .

    We really did live for the weekend and trips to the major Northern clubs – The Casino, Blackpool Mecca or Cleethorpes as I was too young for the Wheel,Torch or Catacombs. Sometimes we would travel to the Mecca first and then to The Casino in the same night or an all-nighter followed by an all-dayer.

    The Casino was a truly massive club in every way with Mr M’s , a large side room off the main hall, which would go from freezing to unbearably hot within seconds of it opening at 2am. We’d then end the night at the Beachcomber, a room in the basement under the main hall; then a trip to Wigan public baths to freshen up in the morning – the scene was and still is huge – you just wouldn’t believe the amount of clubs and nights even today ( see events on Soul Source link) .

    Britain in the mid Seventies was a very bleak place ( think USSR) .The whole country shut down on a Sunday so getting back home from the Casino without a car took a full day of waiting at deserted train and bus stations to travel just sixty miles.

    I’m still involved with Rare Soul but love all aspects of our music. The British scene having fragmented into more or less collector driven interest groups for Crossover,Rare, Modern and Classic Northern ( badges and backdrops) with few across the board nights – in my view not for the better.

    It’s great to see younger people getting involved in the scene ,and at last young America waking up to your heritage and putting your own stamp on things. As you will see from the links, our club looks more like an outing for members of a retirement home for the bewildered, but try as I may, I just can’t connect to any other type of music.

    Well done again with your great effort and keep up the good work- I’ve attached a few links that might be of interest.

    All the best for 2015.!schedule/cjg9 ( Monday night Soul Train)


    • Thank you so much for sending all this first-hand information to me! I am shoveling snow at the moment (the joys of Wisconsin living 🙂 ), but when I get back inside I will comb through and gather more leads to follow up on. I truly appreciate your generosity in sharing memories and knowledge!


      • KeithTheFaith says:

        You’re very welcome Katherine.
        We’ve only had one really heavy snowfall thank goodness ! just before Christmas. It looks like my first link didn’t load but you’ll find it on youtube – 1970’s Granda TV documentary called This England – Wigan Casino ( you’ll need a translator for the Lancashire accent). I also think the forum on Soul Source will be a very helpful information point for you.
        Cheers Keith
        P.S : You also have a home grown similar movement in Carolina called Beach music . I don’t think it’s quite as raw, large or as working class the Northern scene.


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

  5. ahallerman says:

    I just found your blog with the Northern Soul posts. I discovered Northern Soul several years ago and realized (as the earlier poster says) that many of the songs are/were also hits on the “Carolina beach music” scene. Beach music tends to be more laid back but also honors the R&B and soul music of the 60s and 70s, as well as disco hits and misses. One of the best Northern Soul shows I have found is Richard Searling’s “Soul On Trent,” aired every Saturday for two hours on the BBC Local station, BBC Radio Stoke. Best of all, the broadcasts are available online for 30 days or so after the airdate.


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