Some points about the UK Northern Soul scene and US soul music remade. December 12, 2007Posted by wallofsound in Northern Soul, Soul.
This post is based upon a post I made about a year ago. In the year since I put it up it caused quite a bit of controversy with people on the Northern scene. I’ve rewritten it a bit to try and get my point across more clearly. If you want to compare this with the original post, it’s here. If you are at all interested in a few reflections on academic writing I made when I made the changes, they’re here.
This is a short extract from a much longer paper on dancing on the Northern Soul scene that was published in Popular music, and I posted the original extract as a contribution to a debate with other popular music academics about the link between white Britons and black music. So, I’m not trying to explain the Northern Soul scene here, just take issue with what’s been written by other academics about the link between the scene and black American culture.
Hopefully here’s a clearer discussion about that relationship between the UK Northern Soul scene and US soul music:
When writing about the Northern Soul scene in Britain many academics try and make some strong points about the link between the scene and US soul music and the African American culture in which the music developed. Based on my own involvement in the scene, and my own reflections as a popular music academic I’m not convinced the other academic analyses are correct.
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. Many of the points they make are accurate. The authors note that by using imported records participants in the scene could produce a culture independent of London. They further suggest that people on the scene in the 1970s 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).
That is an overstatement of the case. 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. The greater complexity can be grasped by attention to the practices in African American music culture during the 1960s, and the British Northern Soul scene in the 1970s and beyond.
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). 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 a desire for a self-defined equality. Specifically, Northern soul DJs most often play records from the earlier black pop pro-integrationist period, and exclude those with strong musical elements associated with the ‘funkier’ music associated with the African pride and black power initiatives which followed.
This point will become clearer, perhaps, if we turn to Dobie Gray’s recording of ‘Out on the Floor’. I’ve used this record elsewhere to explain Northern Soul dancing, and within the scene this is how it is meaningful. However, in the context of the development of black music in the USA the lyrics and music place the song in an interesting mid-point between the integrationist agenda in black politics and the civil rights movement and a greater emphasis on separatism.
Brian Ward has allied these cultural poles to the move from the Motown black pop of the early sixties to the black power funk of late sixties 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 the lyrics 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 Gray’s 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.
However, in my experience on the scene these very important factors in African American music are not significant in the way the record is interpreted on the Northern scene. It is not incidental to the popularity of the record on Northern dancefloors – along with another Gray success ‘The In-crowd’ – that the lyrics seem to celebrate the world of dance culture that gave them a new life beyond the deletion racks. Further, the song’s lyrics of sixties black vernacular speech are transformed in the scene to articulate the scene itself, and its strong sense of communality (rather than its connection to liberation politics). This is also true of the use in the scene of the African American-derived terms ‘right on’, ‘keep the faith’, and ‘brothers and sisters’. The ‘faith’ is no longer one of liberation and a better future, but of a commitment to a community, its records and dancing.
The lyrical content of the record 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 some sense of identification with African American culture. My own interest in black music, and my development of an academic career around that interest, was fired by my love of soul records. However, the relationship between the scene’s participants and African American culture is not direct, is much more conditional. African American music on record relates more to the cultural possibilities it offers for a British alternative identity, than to 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)
This is an extract from ‘Out on the Floor: The Politics of Dancing on the Northern Soul Scene’ in Popular Music 25/3