The Story of Northern Soul in the UK

The Story of Northern Soul in the UK

Across Northern England and the Midlands in the late 60s and early 70s, specialist dancehalls were filled with sweating teenagers, dancing in a way unseen on average dancefloors before.

This is because this wasn’t an average dancefloor.

This was Northern Soul, where the dancing was erratic, filled with kicks, stomps, twists and jumps. Music from throughout the 1960s in America was blasted out in nightclubs such as the Twisted Wheel in Manchester and the famous Wigan Casino.

The music was fast, and amphetamines were rife among the followers of the scene who partied throughout the night, completely lost in the music and the passion of the crowd that was enjoying it.

So how did this scene come to England, and just what does Northern Soul mean?

When someone thinks of soul music, many names spring to mind. Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Aretha Franklin are amongst a crowd of musicians who are synonymous with the genre. One name that doesn’t spring to the mind of many is Dave Godin. The man who the Guardian described in their obituary of him as ‘Britain’s most effective propagandist on behalf of soul music’ had an influence on the British soul scene that cannot be understated.

Amongst many other things, he is said to have introduced Mick Jagger to the soul music that would so shape the music of the Rolling Stones. He was a journalist, a director, and most importantly in the history of Northern Soul, a record shop owner. Through Soul City, his record shop and future record label, he bought music from America and showcased it to an eagerly waiting English crowd.

Through his journalism, he spread the love of the music, as well as coining the term ‘Northern Soul’. Without Dave Godin, Motown may not have been such a hit in the UK. He used to end every article with the famous phrase ‘Keep the faith – Right on now’ and as he kept promoting the music of Motown and American soul, the ‘faith’ he spoke about, was beginning to rise.

As the end of the 60s approached, Northern Soul nights were beginning to increase in popularity. The Twisted Wheel in Manchester is often seen as the origin of such a night. Armed with famous soul DJ Robert Eagle, the all-night sessions began to attract attention from a wider audience as the 60s turned into the 70s. 

With the desire to keep dancing all night, came the taste for amphetamines. Soon
commonplace on the dancefloor of the Twisted Wheel, the party ended in 1971 as the police put an end to the drug-fueled nights the club had become famous for.

By this point, people were coming from all over the land to dance the night away to the famous soul tunes that Robert Eagle was playing. When the Twisted Wheel shut, plenty more venues were ready to keep the faith going strong. 

There was a gap in the Northern Soul scene, and it was quickly filled. ‘The Eagle’ in Birmingham and ‘The Golden Torch’ in Stoke held all-nighters, the former even playing host to many famous soul singers such as Steve Winwood. But Northern Soul was growing. The queues of youngsters waiting to get on the dancefloor hours before the club doors opened were getting longer, and the need for something bigger was clear to see.

It was in 1973 when it arrived. Wigan Casino was the home of another DJ famous on the scene, Russ Winstanley, and in its 8-year tenure, he only ever missed one all-nighter. Soul at Casino amassed over 100,000 members and turned tracks into classics. There’s still a section of adults who can’t listen to ‘I’m on my way’ by Dean Parish without being taken back to the end of the night. This song was always the final one, and on the final night, before Wigan Casino closed in 1981, it was played to a crowd of teary-eyed kids, bereft that the place they felt at home was coming to an end.

Alongside Blackpool Mecca, which held a long-term rivalry with the Casino, these venues cemented the place of Northern Soul in the heart of the British youth, and also solidified the culture that surrounded it.

There are three aspects of Northern Soul culture that every follower was deeply passionate about. First and foremost, the songs they danced to. The soul music of the 60s in America, fueled by the behemoth that was Motown, produced many of the songs that grew to be Northern Soul classics. ‘Tainted Love’ by Gloria Jones, ‘The Snake’ by Al Wilson and ‘Sweet Soul Music’ by Arthur Conley were all popular among the dancefloors of Birmingham, Manchester and beyond.

Alongside them were songs from soul legends such as Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, The Drifters and Frankie Valli.

These were big hitters in the clubs and also in the charts. Some tracks were not so easy to come by though. ‘Do I love you (indeed I do)’ was sung by Frank Wilson and was only released on an initial 250. If you were one of the all-nighter DJs who had this in your collection, you were sure to be a hit.

So, what made this music so fashionable?

Well, it was fast-paced, often reaching tempos of over 100bpm. It was frenetic music that was made to be danced to, but the vocals didn’t play second fiddle to the music.

Some of the greatest voices in the world belted out songs over the beats. Al Green, Diana Ross and many more legends of music could be heard across Northern Soul all-nighters.

So, when it comes to the question of why did people love the music? The answer is well, there was nothing not to love. 

Just as important as the music, was the fashion. The mods had always been fans of soul music and in the 70s, just as the first wave of mod culture was beginning to fade, a section of this culture opted not to go down the skinhead route and instead chose Northern Soul. Brogues, flared jeans, polo shirts, Doc Martens, bowling shirts, braces, short-sleeved checked shirts, Ben Sherman and Fred Perry. The mod style found a new home during the 70s, and that was on the dancefloors of Northern Soul all-nighters.

With the need for flexibility due to the frenetic nature of the dancing, clothes got baggy, and Oxford bag trousers were the legwear of choice. It makes it pretty hard to nail the high kicks when wearing tight jeans!

Many of these items contained the stitched-on emblem of Northern Soul. Linked to the black power movement, the badge contains a clenched fist containing the word Northern on top, and Soul on the bottom.

The final piece of the jigsaw was the dancing.

There was no set rule for how to dance. Northern Soul was inclusive of the way anyone wanted to move, but there were common moves that became famous for their link to the scene. 

Shuffling and gliding across the floor, dancers often added high-kicks, spins, backdrops and twists to their plethora of movements that were shaped by the music they were hearing.

It was joyful, energetic, and a way for youngsters to be free for a night. As sweat dripped from the ceiling, there was no stopping the dancers from enjoying their night in places such as Wigan Casino as they kicked, shuffled and stepped the night away.

When the home of Northern Soul, Wigan Casino, closed down, it was a turning point for the culture. But just like the kids at the all-nighters, the party wasn’t over yet. Even today, Northern Soul events are still popular across the country.

Through Wales, England and Scotland, the fashion, music and dancing still live on as people relive the glory days of the 70s. Most of the songs have lingered in the collections of not just Northern Soul fans, but most music lovers.

The Northern Soul era is now seen as a legendary time and is documented and honoured in many books, music videos and films, including the 2014 film ‘Northern Soul’.  From the early drug-fueled all-nighters at Twisted Wheel to the meet-ups in the modern-day, Northern Soul has staked its claim as a historic time in music, and a favourite time for many of the mods.

And there’s only one way to finish the blog, in the famous words of Dave Godin.
Keep the faith – Right on now!

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