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Fast-paced Soul with a Beat to Dance the Night away: A Brief History of Northern Soul

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Deptford Northern Soul Club in London

“The Music was Motown. The Passion is British.’ – Elaine Constantine’s Northern Soul Film, 2014

Origins of Northern soul date back to the late 1960s’ underground rhythm and soul scene. Thousands of teenagers in the North of England danced to the same syncopated beat, revolting against the charts. The music and dance movement combined American soul and Motown music with distinctive dance styles. The phrase was first used by London Soul City record store owner Dave Godin around the time of 1970, after noticing young Northerners weren’t interested in American chart music but were buying energetic, up tempo soul from small labels. It carried a spirit that was to precede a passion for independent labels of punk and new wave to come.

Northern soul emerged from the mod scene in Northern clubs such as the Wigan Casino, The Torch in Stoke on Trent, Catacombs in Wolverhampton, Manchester’s Twisted Wheel, and Blackpool Mecca. Ballrooms and halls hosted the underground club nights in the late 60s and 70s. These packed clubs would play records from past eras of sped-up tempos and soulful vocals on mid-1960s Motown records, with DJs introducing audiences to the rarest American vinyl. Stomping, floating, shuffling and floor shaking: the dance moves provided joy and catharsis to elated teenagers.

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Wigan Casino in the 1970s

Northern Soul’s fashion was characterised by wide flares, circle skirts, trim fit shirts, nipped-in knit tanks, appliqued patches and smart brogues. It started out similar to mod style but became its own style when clubs got bigger and fuller statement of belonging as well as practicality. Different venues and local scenes created their own sew-on patches, which were key to belonging. Taking the clenched fist from the Black Power movement in the USA a decade earlier, the logo celebrates cultural assimilation.

Wigan Casino was one of the birthplaces of Northern Soul

The subculture’s fashion has returned in the 21st century from Topman catwalks with patches, perhaps triggered by Elaine Constantine’s 2014 Northern Soul film showing the danger and exhilaration of the scene. The genre was also the reference for the Glen Luchford produced Gucci Aw 2017 campaign. Northern Soul was all about absorbing different cultures to create something new, with Motown music but a British passion for the culture. It was all about youth culture, as the clothes served as a function for non-stop adrenaline dancing.

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Northern Soul patches. A badge of honour.

As Northern Soul was a cultural movement rather than a genre, the music varied, yet had core songs. Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You’ has been credited as the most famous Northern Soul record of all-time. Gloria Jones’ ‘Tainted Love’ was also a staple of Northern soul nights in UK clubs in early 70s, with its frantic rhythm and relentless beat that adolescents would go mad for. Made popular by Wigan Casino, the song later gained immense popularity when Soft Cell covered it taking it to the top of the charts in 1981, but it has its roots in the subculture.

Some of the most popular artists played in Northern Soul dance halls included Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Edwin Starr, Marvin Gaye, Tobi Legend, Jimmy Radcliffe and Dean Parrish. The songs shared the rigorous beat, soulful vocals and often used brass instruments adding to the optimistic and buoyant nature. All that mattered to the teenager was a record far from the charts with a heavy beat to dance to all night long. The most prized records by enthusiasts of the genre were lesser-known artists, often releasing recordings in limited numbers such as American labels Vee Jay Records, Chess Records and Brunswick Records. The B Sides of these singles were often even more sought after and acclaimed.

As the favoured heavy beat and fast tempo became even more frantic in the early 1970s, the dancing became more athletic. Sharing similarities of later styles of breakdancing or disco, the moves were often inspired by American soul acts such as Jackie Wilson and Little Anthony and the Imperials.

The music was a release from difficult economic circumstances for many, riots, a recession, unemployment, mine closures, the rise of the far-right, football hooligans making up the rather grey England of the early 1970s. This idea of escapism had become more necessary than ever as they took to the dancefloor.

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Northern Soul dancers, mid-1970s

Moreover, Northern Soul has been credited as the precursor of the modern dance club scene with its cool youth fashion, often together with illegal stimulants for the all-nighter.

Having emerged in Northern England in the late 1960s, it defined a music and dance revolution. Today it is celebrated through a resurgence of popularity, with events such as the Deptford Northern Soul Club who aim to bring the subculture’s music back into the conversation of modern dance music. The event became so popular that it emerged as a monthly recurring event hosting at Manchester venue YES.

Follow Deptford Northern Soul Club on Facebook here

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Deptford Northern Soul Club

Northern Soul is increasingly cropping up at events across the UK often alongside other nightclub favourite genres. South London’s Soul Train was taking over all four floors twice a month at the hipster hub Bussey Buildings in Peckham with Soul, Funk, Disco and Motown. The event is extremely popular with advance tickets notoriously sold out. To avoid disappointment and keep up to date with their comeback in due course check their website here

For those that live closer to the origins of Northern Soul, Jools Metcalfe’s Monthy Motown and Soul show is your best for ‘a night of dancing, not anoraks’. Keep up to date on their website here

All things Northern Soul. All things Deptford
All things Northern Soul. All things Deptford
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