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