Criticizing Confucius

Given that this is no time for blind kowtowing before authority—anywhere:

Just as Tang poetry isn’t immune from doggerel, maybe we might unfurl a new, more decorous campaign to debunk the uncritical veneration of Confucius (cf. Alan Bennett).

Noting that “Confucius He Say” 子曰 might be rendered as “So the kid goes…” (“I’m like, whatever”; see also OMG), one could regard the Analects an early pilot for Kids say the cutest things 子曰乖事, or an anthology of pithy bumper-stickers (cf. Gary Larson’s cartoon Confucius at the office—”Looks like we’re in for some rain”).

Here’s one gnomic maxim that does rather appeal to me:

君子不器
The gentleman is not a vessel.

Typically, it’s been subjected to a vast apparatus of scholarly exegesis; I like to take it as a critique of reification, one of the banes of studying music (see musicking), religion (see “doing religion“), and indeed Life… Indeed, maybe the qi 器 there is even verbal: “The gentleman doesn’t reify”? * I would like the quote even more if he had said that women weren’t vessels either—but despite recent defences of Confucian sexism, he didn’t (surprise surprise).

As Confucius said when his disciple Yan Hui ** told him he was taking up stamp collecting,

Philately will get you nowhere

(an old joke that goes back at least to Jennings).

As ever, The life of Brian has salient critiques. Here’s one of the Boring Prophets:

There shall, in that time, be rumors of things going astray, erm, and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things wi- with the sort of … raffia-work base that has an attachment. At this time, a friend shall lose his friend’s hammer and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers, that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o’clock.

And indeed the rebuke to exegesis in the Sermon on the Mount scene that opens the film:

I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
Ahh, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

See also Alan Bennett’s classic sermon on “My brother Esau is an hairy man…”

 

* Cf. “Gentlemen lift the seat”—as Jonathan Miller observed in Beyond the fringe, “What exactly does this mean? Is it a sociological description—a definition of a gentleman which I can either take or leave? Or perhaps it’s a Loyal Toast? It could be a blunt military order, or an invitation to upper-class larceny.”

** My penchant for Yan Hui derives from the ritual shengguan suite Qi Yan Hui 泣颜回,  a title that alludes to Confucius bewailing his early death (for a gongche score, see here, under West An’gezhuang).

Meredith Monk

MM

Pursuing my New York theme, another great female composer on the splendid T-shirt is Meredith Monk (b.1942).

Donald Macleod’s ever-engaging coverage on BBC Radio 3’s Composers of the week makes a useful introduction; see also this appreciation from Tom Service. Here’s an extensive playlist:

Some tracks I like:

Porch (1970):

Songs of ascension (2008):

Hocket (1990) (cf. here):

Here’s a playlist for her opera Atlas (1991):

Monk’s sound world has affinities not only with minimalism (cf. here, and here) but with folk and early music. Apart from music, theatre, and dance, her work in film is also striking. Here’s an excerpt from Book of days (1988):

And to complement my Halloween post, here’s Scared song (1986):

I love the way New York (and indeed London) has room for this kind of thing alongside Blondie, Madonnapunk, and so on—genre-bending, always dissolving boundaries.

Some remarkable female vocalists feature prominently in my Playlist of songs, such as Nina Hagen, Barbara Hannigan and Enza Pagliara.

 

 

The Masque of the Red Death

Poe—Caplet—Corman

 

Caplet

Here’s some seasonal macabre.

The Conte fantastique after Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death by the gifted André Caplet (1878–1925), for harp and string quartet, deserves to rank alongside the better-known works with harp by his contemporaries Debussy and Ravel.

Given that today’s date (#DieInADitchDay) has been constantly on the lips of sinister, mendacious Tory toffs desperate to pull up the drawbridge and feast on the bendy bananas so long denied them, the plot has a topical ring:

The prince and his nobles have taken refuge to escape the Red Death, indifferent to the sufferings of the population, sealing the doors shut and awaiting the end of the plague in luxury behind the walls.

Caplet

Prix de Rome 1901: far right, Ravel; 3rd from right, Caplet. Source: http://www.musimem.com/prix-rome-1900-1909.htm

Here’s Caplet’s Conte fantastique with the great Lily Laskine (1893–1988):

film

Caplet’s sonic treatment is just as dramatic, and its dénouement just as scary, as Roger Corman’s 1964 film The Masque of the Red Death, starring Vincent Price. Here’s a trailer:

 

French slang

Spiral

A worthy competitor with the various classy Scandi noirs that enrich Saturday nights on BBC4 is the French Spiral, whose seventh series has just started. If you’re new to it, it’s worth starting from the beginning—in which case, let’s talk again sometime next year.

The French title Engrenages doesn’t translate easily, referring to interlocking gears—by extension, an inescapable series of events, almost a vicious circle: “Enmeshed”, perhaps?

As with the Scandi noir series, the Grauniad recaps—and their BTL comments—are most enlightening. This led me to Alison Crutchley’s article on the language of the series, “Pute de merde de con! The linguistics of Spiral slang“—again to be read with important BTL comments. As you may imagine from A French letter (a drôle resumé of my Li Manshan film), my schoolboy French is utterly unable to keep up with such dialogue as it flies past; but the article makes fascinating reading.

Thus I learn of loan words like bagnole (from Occitan), “car” (also caisse); and clebs, “mutt”, from Arabic. And

Spiral’s cool kids use Verlan, a type of back slang. Karen calls her girl friends les meufs, Verlan for femmes; Zach texts keufs to his accomplice, to warn him of les flics (“police”).

What’s more, keuf (from keufli) has been re-verlaned, with further resonance, to feuk! And occurring along with the Chinese underworld theme of series 7 is noich (or noichi), for chinois.

anvers

Further topics (also continued in the BTL) include the minefield of using tu and vous (cf. Italian, and this splendid Chinese story); gender; and the subtleties of swearing (cf. French taunting), with arcane variants and combinations of putemerde, and con. It’s amusant to learn that the French for fisting is le fist-fucking, although le fisting apparently serves too—either way, let’s consider it another English export in which we can take patriotic pride.

But just when we thought we were world leaders at punning, it turns out that French is exceptionally rich in puns too. Is rien sacré?

Surely this is the way to inspire kids to learn foreign languages. Surely Quelle bande de branleurs! (“What a bunch of wankers!”) is more attractive and practical than La plume de ma tante. I did indeed relish languages at school, but for some reason the ones that I (like the board of the LA Phil) favoured were all dead (cf. Revolution and laowai). So now I regret that it took me so long to realize that languages could be not so much an elegant yet gratuitous abstraction, or a sadistic ordeal of irregular verbs, but rather, a pathway to understanding fascinating cultures and communicating with real living people (“Like, hello?”).

Conversely, in this case I’m relieved that I can enjoy the script’s linguistic niceties from the comfort of my sofa without having to negotiate them in the gritty milieu that the drama depicts—as has been aptly observed, it’s hardly a promo from the Paris Tourist Board. Spiral really puts the noir into noir.

Meanwhile in Glasgow, Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting is helpfully provided with a glossary… For English word games, see here; for the evolving Chinese language, here. And don’t miss this post on how not to learn Japanese!

A career highlight for Alan Bennett

FG AB

Since both Family Guy and Alan Bennett take star turns on this blog, how wonderful to learn that they actually came together. I’ve already noted their mutual taste for Jesus jokes, but now I learn (Keeping on keeping on, Diaries, 2012):

25 April. At five a car comes to take me down to Silk Sound studios on Berwick Street to record a voiceover (in my own voice) for an episode of Family Guy, the story being that Brian, the dog, has written a play, premiering at Quahog, which “all the playwrights” (i.e. Yasmina Reza, David Mamet, and me) duly go and see—and rubbish. They had first of all asked if they could use me as a cartoon character[,] to which I graciously agreed (not saying that I felt it was the highlight of my career). It was then they asked if I would voice myself. Yasmina and David had apparently not been tempted but I went for this too. […]

His voice has long been a boon for impresssionists. Like the apocryphal story of Einstein winning second prize in an Einstein Lookalike Competition, I’m not sure AB [as he’s known in Love, Nina] makes the most convincing impersonator—but hey. (For an audition, see comment here.)

The episode (tenth in the 11th season) has been considered one of the most profound in the whole epic; the nuanced plot is far more cogent and condensed that of a Handel opera. Brian and Stewie are magnificent as ever—echoes here of Amadeus

It’s great to see AB finally getting the recognition he deserves (cf. “Do you think this award will kick-start your career?”). And I love to see stellar conjunctions of my heroes—like Bach and Li ManshanAOC and Greta Thunberg, or Kristin Scott Thomas and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

 

 

 

 

Smiling in China

jingtang

Relaxing in the scripture hall between rituals, Yanggao. From my film.

A brief introduction to the origins and history of smiling by Antony Manstead leads me to ponder China. As even a glance at wiki tells us, it turns out to be just as complicated as all others kinds of human behaviour. Here are some preliminary, random notes, awaiting a more thorough study.

Manstead concludes:

Turning points in social practices over time, such as the emergence of dentistry in 18th-century France, the rise of the advertising industry in 20th-century America, changes in social norms regarding the appropriateness of emotional displays and changes in immigration have all contributed to observable differences in how and when we smile.

Another report comments:

One common Russian proverb translates as “smiling with no reason is a sign of stupidity”, while a government leaflet on working in Norway warns that you’ve been in the country too long if you assume smiling strangers are drunk, insane, or American.

Smiles have been classified under many headings, such as fearful, miserable, dampened, embarrassed, qualified, compliance, coordination response, listener response, contempt, angry-enjoyment, fake, flirtatious, and the famous Duchenne smile.

Laughter may seem like a more spontaneous reaction, but it too may be classified under a variety of headings (etiquette, nervous, cruel, and so on). Laughing from amusement is not the same as smiling as a habitual social lubricant, a sign of good will.

Bill Bryson notes how humour is basic to social interaction in Britain. In a passage of Notes from a small island from which I’ve already cited, he observes:

Watch any two Britons in conversation and see how long it is before they smile or laugh over some joke or pleasantry. I once shared a railway compartment between Dunkirk and Brussels with two French-speaking businessmen who were obviously old friends or colleagues. They talked genially the whole journey, but not once in over two hours did I see either of them raise a flicker of a smile. You could imagine the same thing with Germans or Swiss or Spaniards or even Italians, but with Britons—never.

This may be a pertinent comment on the British bourgeoisie, but it will only take us a moment to realize that their habits are anything but universal. We need to unpack different contexts and moments in social interaction—degrees of acquaintance, between friends and within the family; initial greetings and sustained conversation, formal situations, propaganda, and so on.

Bryson’s typical British scenario will not only involve friendly smiles upon meeting, but the whole opening exchange too is likely to take a jocular form. However, the voluntary “social” smile—a form of social signalling—is variable across cultures. Age, class, and economics are clearly important factors: even in Britain, teenagers and poor people don’t feel such a need to express friendliness thus. Smiling is by no means a simple indicator of happiness, but in much of the world—poor societies and war zones, for instance—there’s not much to be happy about. Under state socialism, propaganda only blurs the issue; it’d be interesting to explore how the experience transformed personal interaction. For the USSR, the work of Orlando Figes provides material. None of this maps precisely onto the global happiness index…

China
Like Bryson in Britain, among friends in China I often marvel at their humour; but even observing their social life as a fly on the wall rather than in my exchanges with them, I find much less smiling as social lubricant. Still, again, this is no simple matter.

One would seek to consider diverse social groups, both urban and rural—for the latter, peasants, cadres, entrepreneurs, teachers, traders, vagrants, and so on (for some instances from my own fieldwork, see here).

So here I’m more interested in the incidence of smiling within social groups. However, while outsiders in urban contexts may be able to observe social interaction without intruding on the scene, in smaller rural communities they—whether foreign or Chinese—may not make reliable observers. The arrival of a stranger in such a setting may cause anxiety; but even long-term acquaintance doesn’t bestow insider status. I also think of this wonderful story from Liu Xin. Maybe rural insiders like Mobo Gao would have pertinent remarks.

It will be even harder to document historical change. I look forward to an erudite tome on smiling in the late Tang dynasty. Even analyzing smiles through the 1930s, 1950s, and 1990s may prove difficult, with much of the material based on images rather than ethnography. Under Maoism, as in the Soviet bloc, humour was commonly expressed in the form of bitter jokes (e.g. here, with links; many more instances under Chinese jokes).

For rural China I noted the lack of terms like hello, thankyou, please, and sorry (Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.23–4, cf. here). By contrast with the British jocular small-talk about the weather, a common rural Chinese greeting is: “Have you eaten?”—suggesting a historical anxiety about famine.

Meanwhile the sullen, automatic, negative response “Meiyou” from shop assistants, still standard in the 1980s, began to give way to more friendly exchanges by the 1990s.

As has been well documented, smiling for portraits developed only quite recently even in the West. In China, putting on your best face for the camera has rarely been perceived as requiring a happy smile; posed photos there still typically show serious, unsmiling subjects. This used to bemuse me. While I try to take informal photos, we have also taken many posed group pictures of ritual specialists (see posts under Local ritual), which rarely show anyone smiling.

Qiao family 1962

The Qiao family, Yulin city 1962, in a lull between major social traumas. Showing a range of expressions, it hardly contributes to the discussion—I just love the image.

Photos from the Maoist era (and indeed since), showing workers and peasants smiling or engaged in their work, with no hint of conflict or coercion, are clearly flawed evidence (see e.g. this chapter by Covell Myskens). Most flagrant are images of ethnic minorities singing and dancing—not least the shameful recent CCP propaganda of Uyghurs singing “If you’re happy and you know it”, worthy of Terezin.

Happy Uyghurs

More recently photographers sometimes encourage a smile with the Chinese version of “Cheese!”: “Qiezi!” (aubergine).

Since we’re discussing social interaction here, film footage should be a major database, though again the degree of intrusion of the outsider on the scene will be an element. Apart from documentary, verité feature films are worth considering, such as The blue kite, The story of Qiuju or the work of Jia Zhangke.

Besides class, we should consider gender. Rural women tend not to interact in public, still less with men. Outside the family, smiling may be perceived as indecorous, and their behaviour is highly reserved. Again, one seeks to document their daily interactions among each other. At the same time, social media and the selfie have produced new poses.

As I said, these are just a few preliminary thoughts. Anyway, we obviously have to guard against taking traits that are familiar within the narrow confines of our own society as some kind of benchmark. As I write, the All Black haka shows a distinctive form of social greeting…

 

 

 

Northern soul 北靈

YSR

Inspired by Detroit 67, I’ve been reading

  • Stuart Cosgrove, Young soul rebels: a personal history of northern soul (2016).

In all kinds of wonderful ways, this book does my head in. [1]

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.

Themes
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”:

Venues
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.

Many clubs

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).

Fran

Fran Franklin.

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.

On film
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…

 

[1] 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).