Inspired by Stuart Cosgrove‘s Detroit 67 and Memphis 68, I’ve been reading his book
- Young soul rebels: a personal history of northern soul (2016).
In all kinds of wonderful ways, this book does my head in. 
Quite rightly, devotees of northern soul will be underwhelmed if I describe it as a diachronic ethnography based on participant observation—which is just what it is, like some of the great works of ethnomusicology…
Cosgrove captures the buzz of his addiction:
Saturday passed slowly as I browsed around local market stalls. The night slowly fell and we walked through the backstreets of Stoke along cobbled terraces. The army of leather feet resonated like a drum solo, building percussion in our speeding heads and raising the adrenaline of anticipation. A swell of people hung by the door of what looked like a wartime cinema, and a blackout curtain seemed to have closed across the north of England. It was virtually impossible to make out faces or detail; everything was sound. A pounding noise escaped through the doorway and the wild screeching sound of saxophones pushed through the fire escapes, desperate for air. We paid at the ticket booth, but even in the foyer, an intense heat much like an industrial oven scorched through the thick aggressive air, and the noise was so pure, so fearless and so commanding, it dragged you inwards into a scrum of lurching bodies: hot, wet, and demonic. This was in every respect the Devil’s music, and I had travelled hundreds of miles from home to sip with the deranged serpents that slithered so gracefully on the floor. There was no going back. No music later in life would ever touch its uniqueness, no rock concert could match its energy, and no rave could come close to its latent illegality. This was northern soul: the reason they invented youth.
Of all the diverse tribes of popular music, this scene is just as alien to me (and, I surmise, to Alan Bennett) as the spirit mediums of Guangxi are to a scholar trained at a Beijing conservatoire (for China, I broach the issue of insider/outsider status here, here, and here).
Ethnomusicologists like Nettl and Small highlight music as a social activity, and McClary valorizes the physical, bodily response to music as a caveat to the cerebral, disembodied, “autonomous” bias of WAM.
Basic to the northern soul experience were the all-nighters hosted by clubs throughout the north. They may evoke the “red-hot sociality” of festivals worldwide; but such club scenes also broaden our picture, in that live music is subsidiary. At the heart of northern soul was live dancing, athletic and technical—amazing dancers like car mechanic Frankie “Booper” New, at the Torch:
It was as if NASA had invented a device that could drill into the surface of the moon, and the device was a sixteen-stone guy from Widnes.
Some visiting live bands made memorable appearances, but recorded music was more common. After all, a multitude of bands, often inspired by old blues records, were being formed (not least in the north), creating all kinds of new music; but here the point was not to try and form your own soul band—the fetish for rare Motown discs was sacred. Nor did club-goers care to keep pace with the ever-changing tastes of black Americans, for whom both blues and soul were mere staging posts in a constantly evolving scene.
Thus DJing assumed a crucial role (akin to that of the conductor?), with fanatical, driven DJs like Ian Levine and Ian Dewhirst. Another basic element was the amphetamine scene. While not hesitating to depict its squalor (the Wigan toilets “resembling a war zone”), Cosgrove naturally refrains from moralistic prurience. Andy Wilson, a northern soul pioneer from Harrogate who spent much of his formative years at Wigan Casino, going on to become senior lecturer in Criminology at Trent University, “is now an expert in drug subcultures. He always was”. A model of participant observation, then.
Obscurity and obsession
Alongside the sweaty hedonism of northern soul, just as important was the craving for obscurity—not just any obscurity, like seeking out early blues, but “rare soul”—rougher, less polished than the mainstream Motown sound. Even the origin of the term “northern soul” itself, commonly attributed to Dave Godin, is somewhat arcane (pp.25–6).
Cosgrove lovingly details the nerdiness of the scene: “compiling lists and recording obscure detail is part of the everyday autism of northern soul”. OCD was rife. He even provides a suitably nerdy Glossary.
One of the cardinal rules of the northern soul scene is a respect for obscurity and those who die young. […] Northern soul cherishes its role as savior of the neglected—rescuing some acts from being almost wholly forgotten while plucking others from semi-obscurity and giving them the status of gods.
Ill-fated singers like Linda Jones and Darrell Banks were idolized. Cosgrove also pays tribute to some of the casualties within northern soul itself.
He notes, and shares, the jihad mentality, “the Hezbollah rituals that defined the scene”:
Eclectic tastes were rarely tolerated on the northern soul scene, which by the mid seventies was hardening into a zealous sect with its own strict rules. […]
One night, a DJ was brought in front of the crowd charged with playing a Bowie record; he was given a stern warning and a second chance, but there was a noisy faction on the committee who wanted him hounded through the streets in sackcloth and then burned at the stake outside H Samuel. I was among that zealous throng and I have not mellowed since.
Northern soul devotees shared a virulent aversion to the mainstream as embodied in Top of the pops; they were creating their own charts. Meanwhile in a parallel universe, Morris dancing was enjoying a revival, and my own nerdy tastes were for Boulez and Zen scriptures. The northern soul collectors remind me rather of scholars poring over the cataloguing systems of the Daoist Canon, or WAM bores who can’t help citing Köchel numbers.
At a certain remove from the quest of Oxbridge academics for neglected Renaissance church music, northern soul addicts were on a different kind of “early music” craze. Trapped in a mythical past, they were also on a constant quest for new material from that past.
Cosgrove notes the importance of rail and road networks (“You can go everywhere from Wigan train station”, as DJ Richard Searling commented), the impact of immigration, and the scene’s distinctive fashion sense. Chapter 7, elegantly titled “Soul not dole” after a Doncaster club, explores the effects of the miners’ strike, with the story of pit closures running in tandem with the high points of northern soul. There’s a cameo for Grimethorpe, whose brass band was to be immortalized in the film Brassed off. And the heyday of northern soul coincided with the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror.
Unlike punk, which was more openly anti-authoritarian, the northern soul scene has often been written about as if it “floated free” from the politics of the day, but the reverse is true. The northern soul scene was rooted in the industrial towns and cities of Britain, which across the arch of time faced unprecedented waves of deindustrialization.
The book has more on the relation with punk:
Britain’s two greatest subcultures had much in common. Both were underground and frequently misunderstood. Northern soul had grown up organically across a period of ten years since the height of the first-generation Mods and was a subculture that was more authentically the product of young people themselves, often hiding from authority, dodging the drug squad and attending self-managed clubs that were only sparsely advertised. Punk was largely contrived and skillfully managed in part by [Malcolm] McLaren, driven by his genuine love of New York garage bands and an opportunistic interest in anarchism and the Situationist movement.
He cites Paul Mason: “we were using the black industrial music of the late sixties to say something about our white industrial lives in the seventies”. I think also of the intriguing Finnish affinity for tango.
Though—like Daoist recluses—the northern soul crowd prided themselves on shunning outside attention, the scene was soon discovered by media moguls like Tony Palmer, whose 1977 film This England: Wigan Casino divided opinion:
Echoing Alan Bennett’s lament, Palmer
added smouldering furnaces, decaying coalfields and derelict canals—overwrought historical imagery that the citizens of Wigan had long since tired of.
But amidst ongoing debate over “purists not tourists”, the Casino soon became a casualty of economic recession.
Cosgrove’s passion for the music is always evident too:
If the beginning of the night was hectic, the end was emotionally more subdued: it was regretful, solemn, almost elegiac. By 1973, it had become established practice that all-nighters would finish with “3 before 8”: these were three soul songs to mark the end of the night, played as the clock reached 8am and the morning light sliced through the skylight windows in the decaying roofs of the Casino.
Discussing them in sequence, he gives pride of place to the second-to-last song in the set, Tobi Legend’s “Time will pass you by”:
The chapters describe the heydays of the legendary clubs in turn. In the early days they came up against another kind of fundamentalist, James Anderton (“God’s copper”), with his moral crusade to clean up Manchester. The Twisted Wheel there became “the template by which all subsequent northern soul clubs were judged: the intense atmosphere, the rare soul music and the extravagant dancers”. It was succeeded by the Golden Torch Ballroom, a converted cinema in the suitably obscure venue of Tunstall, near Stoke-on-Trent:
The interior of the Torch also told a story of change, not least the collapse of traditional religion and the rise of youth culture. It was a small hall with marble pillars and a balcony overlooking the wooden dance floor. It had started out as a church, before becoming a roller-skating rink and, in the immediate post-war period, morphing into the Little Regent Cinema. Local soul fan and businessman Chris Burton changed its use again and it became a Mod club, and then eventually an all-nighter whose influence stretched across the Potteries, to Lancashire in the north and the Midlands to the south.
aped the patterns of older working-class institutions—electing committees and treasurers, and holding nights in fading workers’ clubs, miners’ welfares and industrial social clubs.
Next the baton was taken by Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca, with their musical policies competing. Describing the rise and fall of seaside venues, their decline complementing the rise of foreign package holidays, Cosgrove gives an evocative portrayal of Blackpool, “a wonderland of donkey rides, kiss-me-quick hats and venereal disease”.
He sings the praises of the all-nighters at the Top of the World in Stafford, a late flourishing of the scene from 1982 to 1986, and serving as a bridge between the warring factions. By now he had moved on to a media career, joining the drift to London—a city pithily described by a friend as “just like Barnsley but with more wankers”. He continued to collect rare soul:
After a few days in Washington DC I had perfected a modus operandi that has served me well over many years in America. Written down on paper, it sounds like the machinations of a serial killer, but here goes…
In Birmingham, Alabama he has an epiphany as he discovers a rare copy of the DC Blossoms’ “Hey Boy” (Shrine, 1966) in an inauspicious-looking store minded by an inscrutable assistant:
For northern soul collectors there is nothing more visceral than a “find”. A sudden surge more emotional than meeting an old friend, more powerful than an away goal, and more satisfying than sex itself. I stared in wonder at the light blue label and the iconic burning Shrine logo. I checked for vinyl cracks and deep scratches, but whatever its wandering history, the disc was virtually pristine and had survived its orphan years with no damage. The paint that had splashed over it like semen on a truck driver’s T-shirt had stained the sleeve, but the record itself was flawless. It was a moment of sheer unadulterated joy. I had an uncontrollable urge to snatch the Kool cigarette from the woman’s hands, kiss her peachy lips, rip off her velour pants and make urgent love to her over the cash register. But sense prevailed. I calmly gave her another dollar bill and waited obediently for my fifty cents change. As she handed me the loose coins, her lips curled into a chubby smile, and she gave me the most generous grin I’d seen in three days in Alabama. It had the look of post-coital ecstasy—the look of true love.
Of course, as he notes, northern soul collectors were far from alone. Such initiatives had
a hundred-year history of collectors and black-music pioneers scouring the backwoods of America, visiting brutal prisons, outdoor chain gangs and hidden rural villages, searching for blues performers and for early recordings. […] Northern soul was not the unique leader I had imagined; it was part of a long legacy of trying to collect and catalogue the very best of the African-American heritage from jazz, to blues, and on to soul.
In 2009, just as Frank Wilson’s “Do I love you” came up for auction,
the National Gallery of Scotland had secured the £50 million it needed to prevent Titian’s 16th-century masterpiece Diana and Actaeon being sold at auction. Fearing that Kenny Burrell’s copy of Frank Wilson would also leave Scotland, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek feature for the Sunday Times arguing that northern soul was as worthy of public investment as high art: “Comparing a soul record to a masterpiece by Titian will seem ludicrous to the uninitiated. But leave aside the mores, prejudices and snob value that separate high art and popular culture, and the strange world of northern soul bears very deep similarities with art. Both are driven by collectors who are fixated by rarity, authenticity and the provenance of their collections. So far, both have also resisted the pressure of recession and the value of collections has either increased or held strong. Words like rare, original and limited edition exist in both communities. Respected dealers existed in both worlds and auctions are a familiar mode of transaction. Art and soul share a culture where fakes, bootlegs and shady attempts to replicate the look of original works are not uncommon.”
Cosgrove mentions the multitude of new underground subcultures, like warehouse parties, the Carolina beach scene, the Chicano low-rider scene, and the rare groove scene in London—where the 100 Club also played a major role.
By the millennium, there was a new and lasting schism within northern soul, the latest division in a series of civil wars: those who wanted to look back to the grand days of the past and saw northern as a revivalist and reunion scene; and those clubs that kept the torch burning and insisted on new discoveries and an upfront music policy. Each new era brought with it ever more demanding clubs. […] Many thousands of people who had drifted away from northern soul returned to swell the ranks of new faces who had discovered the music via the scooter scene and still more who had lasted the journey and never left.
The final chapter, opening with the excellent quote
Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born,
describes how social and digital technology has given the scene a new lease of life—YouTube, Facebook groups (where he notes in particular “I used to Go to Stafford All-Nighters”, a veritable popular history project), Mixcloud, and so on.
For all his fundamentalism, Cosgrove admires the new generation:
Younger and brasher than the survivors on the scene, are passionately engaged in the scene and its origins, but have a healthy disregard for its arcane rules: the chin stroking, the soul police regulations and the grumpy insistence that yesterday was always better. […]
The worldwide web has been kind to northern soul. What was once a scene restricted to cardboard boxes and wooden crates in a few obscure clubs is now a global phenomenon, and the footprint that was restricted to a few hundred miles of the industrial north of England now has worldwide reach.
Popular all-nighters now sprung up in Germany, Spain, and Japan (cf. the punk scene in Beijing).
As to gender, while many female singers from the Motown heyday were worshipped by aficionados (as long as they weren’t too well-known), there were few female DJs, and we find little portrayal of the lives of female dancers—like the young Pat Wall from Rochdale, an early denizen of the Twisted Wheel:
While swimming, she would imagine the body turn at the end of a length as part of a dance routine and would simulate the northern soul “swallow dive”. She often practised in the kitchen of her mum’s council house, mastering the smooth sliding style across uneven linoleum, and within a matter of weeks she would compete with any of the Twisted Wheel’s young men. Her dance trucks were mesmerising and her unassuming smile, whispering the lyrics as if she were praying, as if there were no greater music in the world, made her stand out in a crowd of older and brasher men.”
Another regular on the scene was none other than Jane Torvill, who described her 1984 Boléro at the 1984 Winter Olympics as “the dance of my life”—but as Cosgrove gleefully observes, “that had already happened nearly ten years earlier on the floor of Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room.”
As the obscure civil war raged, a more benign figure on the scene was Mary Chapman, who hosted events at Cleethorpes Pier—also including a 1976 appearance of the Sex Pistols as the moral panic over punk exploded. And the much-loved Fran Franklin (1961–2014) gives perceptive insights in documentary footage. More recently, female DJs have become important on the scene.
As usual, however evocatively one writes about music (or ritual), it’s still a compromise: silent immobile text can never approach the sensation of the lived experience (cf. China). Among myriad finds on YouTube, following Tony Palmer’s 1977 This England, try
- Paul Mason’s tribute Northern soul: keeping the faith (BBC, 2013):
- Northern Soul: living for the weekend (BBC, 2014; some breaks in sound):
Note also Ian Levine’s YouTube channel.
* * *
I’m rather envious that they coined the term northern soul 北靈 before I could use it for the ritual groups of Hebei and Shanxi, but ethnographies like this can inspire us (obscurely, as ever) in documenting pilgrimage networks and temple fairs in China. Echoing northern soul aficionados’ aversion to the mainstream, I essayed an arcane Strictly spinoff here.
And as I write, I also delight in the wondrous Bach orchestral suites in a live broadcast from the Proms, alternating with new compositions inspired by them. Though from an utterly different social milieu, devotees of Bach—whether amateur concert-goers or nerdy professors poring over manuscripts and watermarks—have more in common with the early music movement of the northern soul scene than one might think. Up to a point…
 Apart from numerous websites, other books on northern soul include
- David Nowell, The story of northern soul: a definitive history of the dance scene that refuses to die (1999)
- Elaine Constantine and Gareth Sweeney, Northern soul: an illustrated history (2013, complementing the former’s feature film).