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Some points about the UK Northern Soul scene and US soul music. December 19, 2006

Posted by wallofsound in Northern Soul.

This is a post I wrote in 2006. Over the next year it caused quite a bit of controversy with people on the Northern scene. It’s taken me quite a bit of time to understand why, but for a variety of reasons I don’t think I got my point across. Many readers seemed to think that I agree with the views of other writers I presented, when in fact I was arguing against them. I think it’s important to leave the original post up here, but I’ve done a slightly longer draft which I hope will be clearer. I’d recommend reading that one. It’s here.

However if you’re interested in what difference a few added lines can make do read this one and do a comparison. The old post starts here:

Joanne Hollows and Katie Milestone (1998) have produced a thoughtful mapping of the cultural geographic meanings of the relationship of the UK Northern Soul scene with the northern cities of the USA where the music was recorded. The authors note that by using imported records participants in the scene could produce a culture independent of London, and negotiate the competing meanings of ‘North America’ in English culture to produce a relationship with an ‘imagined’ African American culture structured through an interpretative community which extends from the US cities in which the music was produced, through the dancefloors of the Northern scene, and to the pop sensibilities of other consumers of soul records (87- 94).

However, the relationship between the UK Northern Soul and the black culture of Northern cities of the US is even more complex than Hollows and Milestone suggest. As a number of other scholars have demonstrated, there is a richness to the politics of culture, identity and music generated in African American communities in the 1960s and 70s, which requires sophisticated analysis (George 1986; George 1988; Early 1995; Ward 1998; Smith 1999). Drawing on these readings of African American culture in the 1960s and 70s, we can see that the music played in Northern clubs is selectively, and meaningfully, drawn from the historical moment in which the aspirations among black Americans for integration gave way to aspirations for a self-defined equality. Specifically, Northern soul DJs most often play records from the earlier period, and exclude those with strong musical elements associated with the ‘funkier’ music which followed.

This point will become clearer, perhaps, if we turn to Dobie Gray’s recording of ‘Out on the Floor’. Lyrically and musically, the song is an interesting mid-point between the integrationist agenda in black politics and the civil rights movement; between Ward’s cultural poles of Motown and James Brown (1998, p. 123-169). The early operation and music of Motown Records in Detroit exemplifies the internationalist cultural and political ambitions (Smith 1999) – and it is no coincidence that Motown’s early records are often presented as key to the Northern sound – while Brown’s late 1960s and early 1970s music embodies both the move to a more conscious celebration of the distinctive qualities of black culture and the contradictions of trying to operate in a white dominated society and music industry (1988, 388 – 415).

On the one hand the lyrics ‘Out on the Floor’ deal with hedonism and dancing drawing upon a repertoire of black entertainment, and reference points from the broader sixties American youth culture which were apparent in much of the black pop produced by Motown and other independent record labels that were established after the success of Rock and Roll (Gillett 1971). Gray sings them in a style mid way between the dominating influences of Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson; two of black pop’s biggest contemporary stars who worked in Los Angeles where Gray also recorded. The production reflects many of the pop experiments undertaken by Phil Spectre at the time.

On the other hand the recording also features hints of the new developing music of Soul and Funk. Unusually for black pop the lyrics feature the sorts of African American phraseology increasingly apparent in the music of James Brown at this time (see Wall 2003, p. 138-141). As such, it is an example of what Brackett argues is the articulation of a new black ‘soul’ culture (Brackett 2000) While his vocals do not feature the high key style which gives James Brown’s singing its distinctive feel, he does use Sam Cooke’s characteristic glissandi and the urgency of Jackie Wilson’s blues gospel style with increasing prominence as the song progresses. Nevertheless the song structure is characterised by the same sorts of developments found in Brown’s music, where verses and choruses are increasingly dissolved into continually movement and delayed harmonic releases. The mid section of increasingly emotionally-expressive sung one-liners of black vernacular speech are very similar to the sorts of developments in Brown’s repertoire of the time, particularly the ground-breaking ‘Papa’s got a Brand New Bag’ from 1965.

The interpretation of the musical and cultural characteristics of Gray’s record in the Northern scene are instructive. It is not incidental to the popularity of the that – along with another Gray success ‘The In-crowd’ – the lyrics seem to celebrate the world of dance culture that gave them a new life beyond the deletion racks. More interestingly perhaps, even the lyrics which draw on sixties black vernacular speech are, I would argue, transformed in the scene to articulate its own communality (rather than its connection to liberation politics). This can be understood in the wider use in the scene of the African American-derived terms ‘right on’, ‘keep the faith’, and ‘brothers and sisters’ . This lyrical content is understood to stand for, and articulate, the scene as a whole and many dancers sing these key lines as they dance. The sense of identity with Northern Soul is the product of a complex set of layered relationships: the musical structure of a record like ‘Out on the floor’; then performed as dance within a common set of competencies of dancers and shared techniques. That is not to deny that there is a sense of identification with African American culture, just that it is much more conditional, and relates more to the cultural possibilities it offers for an English alternative identity, rather than any consistent support for the liberation struggle taking place in the US at the time.

Brackett, D. 2000. ‘James Brown’s ‘Superbad’ and the double-voiced utterance’, in Reading Pop, ed. R. Middleton. (Oxford): 122-39
Early, G. 1995. One nation under a groove: Motown and American culture. (New Jersey)
George, N. 1986. Where did our love go? : the rise & fall of the Motown sound. (London)
George, N. 1988. The death of rhythm & blues. (London)
Gillett, C. 1971. The sound of the city : the rise of rock and roll. (London)
Hollows, J. and K. Milestone 1998. ‘Welcome to dreamsville: a history and geography of northern soul’, in The place of music, ed. A. Leyshon, D. Matless and G. Revill. (New York ; London).
Smith, S. E. 1999. Dancing in the street : Motown and the cultural politics of Detroit. (Cambridge, Mass. ; London)
Ward, B. 1998. Just my soul responding : rhythm and blues, black consciousness and race relations. (London)
Wall, T. 2003. Studying popular music culture. (London)

Extract from ‘Out on the Floor: The Politics of Dancing on the Northern Soul Scene’ in Popular Music 25/3



1. John Knight - December 10, 2007

Northern Soul sprang out of the roots of the Mod movement in the mid to late 60’s. The Mod movement was all about exclusivity. Exclusivity in fashion, attitude, hedonism and music. Simply put it was about being a different kind of teenager. Dobie Gray’s ‘In crowd’ was an anthem to that exclusivity and about being different which was the key to the relation with the music and the dancing. To a Sixties teenager Soul Music was a sophisticated sound with lyrics that reflected the angst of falling in and out of love, something all teenagers experienced. However, the love of the music and the dancing was intrinsic to the exclusivity since dance also reflected that difference. Knowing the dance steps was as important as the clothes you wore. If you didn’t know the dance steps you were not part of the ‘in crowd’. As Soul music gained greater prominence in the public perception so the greater rarity of the music became more important as it guarded that exclusivity. As the mods grew older they were replaced by younger brothers and sisters who evolved the scene in the early Seventies. The Mod ethos became replaced by an ethos more purely dedicated to the music and the dancing with dress relegated to a less important aspect of being a Seventies Northern Soul follower. Yet it was still about exclusivity. For many working class teenagers in the depressing landscape of Northern England it was the great escape from the daily grind of boring and often low paid repetitive work. In that sense there might be a connection with the poverty experienced by Black counterparts in the USA. However, the adoption of slogans such as ‘Keep the Faith’ and so forth was a kind of ‘copied’ localized image making that had little to do with the struggles of Black Americans for most English teenagers. If anything, Northern Soul was entirely about emphasizing the perceived differences between the wealthy South and the poor, industrialized North. The vast majority of teens involved in the Northern Soul scene had a vague interest, at the very best of times, of the struggle of Black Americans. Much of what they perceived was less from the informative newspapers of the day and more from movies such as ‘Shaft’ and ‘Superfly’. From the Fifties onwards Britain saw the development of what perhaps can be best described as teenage tribalism commencing with the ‘Skiffle’ and ‘Teddy Boy’ cultures of the Rock & Roll era counterpointed by the Bohemians and Jazz Followers. The Mods and the ‘Rockers’ evolved in the Sixties, with the short lived ‘Hippies’ turning into the progressive rock sub-culture. Later on into the Seventies the Punk movement appeared. Once again more about teens affiliating to a tribal grouping rather than some overtly politcal movement. And so it has gone on with each subsequent generation of teens having their ‘own’ scene like the Goths, the Moshers, the Skaters and so so on. Teen ‘tribes’ always reflect their time. What makes the Northern Soul phenomena far more interesting is that it has endured. The basis for this has not been about fashion but about friendships forged in common love of a musical mystique. Friendships that have endured over a lifetime in many cases. If Northern Soul is about anything it is simply about that. To hard-core followers it is about the black plastic vinyl and its rarity. Interest in the artists themselves is secondary. At the venues it is all about what’s on the turntable with the dj officiating as some kind of priest or priestesses of the rare sounds. So is there more of a relationship with relgion? As a closure I fully expect to see the current Ibiza Clubbers reaching their mid forties and bringing about a summer of love ’89 revival! Especially when their children have grown up and their mortgages are paid off. And yes, before you ask, I was young Mod into Soul music in 1966 and experienced the works, Twisted Wheel, record collecting, riding scooters, wearing the sharp suits, even dj-ing in my home town. As a young teacher I spoke with pupils who ‘kept the faith’ by going to the Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca. Later in life I returned to the Northern scene and know many people from the different eras of Northern Soul.

2. foster - April 25, 2013


3. soulfulshoes - October 1, 2014

Absolutely spot on, all the rubbish i read previously was total bollocks & obviously written by someone who was not there… ever! and has read it all from a badly written book. If you didn`t live it, didn`t feel it, then please don `t try to explain it. The feelings we feel when we hear a particular sound can not be explained away by some over complex babble, its just a feeling nothing more, the music we grew up with will hopefully outlive all of us, i just prey it will be for the right reasons…. because of the music, nothing else…. please dont try to over complicate things it always has & always will be about the music!

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