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Abstract for Symposium on Soul Music and Community in the UK June 27, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Northern Soul.
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Stomping Ground: How Northern Soul Built a Dance Community

There are a number of myths about the UK Northern Soul music culture which tend to disguise how soul fans have operated as a self-sustaining community over the last forty years. Drawing upon my own experience on the scene, and my published research, I’ll be highlighting three of these myths and examining how a networks of venues and DJs established a body of recorded music and forms of dance as the basis of the Northern Soul community. In doing so I want to ask some questions about the place of venues like Wigan Casino, the conventions of dancing at a Northern night and, perhaps most controversially, the role of class, gender and race on the Northern dance-floor.

I’ll be delivering a presentation on this theme at Symposium on Soul Music and Community in the Lord Mayor’s Parlour, Manchester Town Hall, Albert Square Manchester, M2 5DB

Details at: http://www.hssr.mmu.ac.uk/annual-research-programme/2011-12-community/northern-soul-community-memory-and-place/

The Joy of Disco March 6, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Northern Soul, Popular Dance, Soul.
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This documentary history of the music genre of disco was broadcast in 2012 on the UK digital terrestrial channel BBC4 as part of a themed night of programmes featuring disco artists and music from the late 1970s. The corporation policy documents set the station the aspiration to “be the most culturally enriching channel in UK broadcasting” and “the channel of distinction for people who love to think” (BBC, 2011: 29). Such lofty ambitions are strongly within the BBC’s tradition as a public service broadcaster. There is an interesting question to be answered about the degree to which pop history documentaries like The Joy of Disco match the ambition.
In this context, this is a programme which seeks to take a much maligned musical genre seriously. The documentary is certainly far more than a string of pop videos of well-known disco numbers. There are interviews with key musicians, singers, producers, DJs and remixers from disco’s heyday, with music journalists, black cultural commentators, and gay and feminist analysts, and with participants who give personal testimony. The programme ranges over the role of gay liberation, feminism and race identity and the shifts in urban politics, and links them strongly to what the programme presents as a hedonistic, sex-driven, drug-influenced music culture. The programme also uses a considerable amount of archive footage, much of it capturing moments in the disco culture of the time, or revealing important insights into contemporaneous politics.
Many of the older viewers, especially those who were young in the days of disco will read the programme name as a pun on a 1970s best-selling book, the Joy of Sex. Even without that direct signification, the programme title suggests that disco is about pleasure, and the politics of pleasure becomes the totalising narrative through which the story of disco is told. The narrative also conforms to the three common tropes inviting the viewer to see the musical form as an under-regarded disruption, a truly revolutionary music, developed in the gay margins of American society, with its roots in black R&B, but moving effectively into the pop mainstream. Summing the programme up the BBC publicity called it a “documentary about how disco music soundtracked gay liberation, foregrounded female desire in the age of feminism and led to the birth of modern club culture as we know it today, before taking the world by storm.” In a swift segue of ideas the programme opens by countering the derision usually applied to disco as a music with personal testament to its joys, before asserting the hyperbolic claim that in the 1970s “it changed the world”, was revolutionary music, located outside mainstream radio and the music industry, based in oppressed gay, black and Porto Rican minority culture, soundtracked by “a never-ending orgasmic music”. A further ten-minute assemblage of archive news footage and personal testimony evidences the veracity of the claim. This is certainly a very different story to the oft held view that disco is a highly commercialised unsophisticated pop music.

In order to flesh this out the programme abruptly switches to the roles of individual party hosts, venues and DJs who are presented at the originators of disco as a culture. It is at this point that the logic of the story starts to spiral out of control, and so the rhetorical devices of the filmmaker are required to anchor the programme materials to the totalising narrative. Although the documentary’s emphasis on a few New York loft party characters is reflected in some of the key studies of the development of post-1970s US dance music culture (for instance Brewster & Broughton, 1999; Lawrence, 2003), these latter studies cover a vast range of examples of DJ-based entertainment. In fact, the Joy of Disco itself later spends nearly five minutes looking at the British Northern Soul subculture, which predates the New York events and did not involve gay or black liberation, but the fact that the section makes no sense within the totalising story is simply ignored. Instead the programmes use documentary clichés – a Brass Band version of Dvorak’s Largo to signal the North of England and jazz to introduce ‘70s down-at-heel New York – to engage us in the narrative, even though the story it tells makes little sense. Much of the material is fascinating. For instance the insight into the technique of one of the key soul drummers, Earl Young, is really informative, but as none of the music that is played from that point onwards uses Young’s approach, it does not really explain anything.

At about half way, The Joy of Disco introduces its second theme. By juxtaposing Donna Summer with a feminist culture critic, the programme proposes that disco was also about female sexual desire. The alternative reading, supported by a later flick through record cover art, that it such music was misogynistic porn chic is ignored. It is the first reading which is emphasised through a montage of interviews and performances from Labelle. When we are offered a nuanced reading of former porn star Andrea True, and the engineer’s unlikely claim that he would not have remixed the record if he knew it had sexual meaning, these points just hang there until anchored by an incomprehensible voiceover about womens’ sexuality, male dominance and 12 inch singles. These are complex political issues, but the programme closes them down, rather than opens them up.

Overall, the music we here hear, the things we see, and the points the interviewees make in the documentary all show that there is actually no coherent thing called disco music. At the simplest level it is just music that is played in a disco, and the issue that really needs answering is about why and how this assortment of dance music, dancers and musical artists was organised into a coherent whole. The answer is there in the sidelines of the documentary, of course. Record companies learnt that records played in discos led to sales, and that music could be effectively targeted at dancers. The last third of the documentary does deal with celebrity disco glamour and the chart success of records now marketed as disco. However, European dance music and Saturday Night Fever appear from nowhere in The Joy of Disco story, even though both have important and comprehensible stories of their own and the power to offer at least a partial explanation to the central question of disco. Instead the programme presents disco as simply the introduction of out gay culture into mainstream culture, even though all their examples were of disco joining other instances of out gay culture in mainstream culture.
If it is true that disco has not been taken seriously for 35 years, there is an interesting bigger question to be asked about the degree to which The Joy of Disco actually takes it seriously. The programme impressively connects the rise of the disco and DJ-based dance music to important liberation struggles, and in doing so challenges the clichés. It is easy to argue, though, that in seeking a simple and accessible story such documentaries about the history of popular music close down thinking about the importance of popular music in our culture and in doing so make culture less rich and less nuanced. Particularly in a programme on a public service station, we could expect a documentary which explores long-held assumptions about disco, rather than replacing them with another set of assumptions.

BBC. (2011). BBC Statements of Programme Policy. London: BBC.
Brewster, B., & Broughton, F. (1999). Last night a DJ saved my life : the history of a Disc Jockey. London: Headline.
Lawrence, T. (2003). Love saves the day : a history of American dance music culture, 1970-1979. Durham, N.C. ; London: Duke University Press.

Dancing, Northern Soul Style December 20, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in Northern Soul, Popular Dance.
19 comments

Here’s some more of my writing on Northern Soul. This time I am posting an extract from some work analysing dance styles on the Northern Soul dancefloor.

Style refers to the manner of expression; it is the particular way certain actions are performed. In his semiotic investigation of style, Dick Hebdige (1979) suggests that style is the active use of available materials, in which each use is interconnected with other uses, to produce a meaningful whole. As such I want to explore dance style as a process of meaning-construction, distinct in its usage of available moves, and linked to other practices that make it meaningful. It is, therefore, far more important to understand how and in what context dancers dance than simply what they dance or how it feels.

I start by identifying a central set of practices which were established in the early 1970s, and (mainly because of the continuity of many of the participants) have remained the predominant way in which dance is organised within the scene. These aspects of style constitute a narrow definition of how music can be danced to, expressed by the scene’s participants as a shared set of competencies or dance techniques and an associated notion of competence.

Competence and dance technique

Ben Malbon, in his analysis of post-House club culture, argues that part of the sociability of dance is the ability of the dancer to demonstrate a number of competencies which, drawing on Goffman (1959), he suggests aim to ‘successfully negotiating the trials of ‘impression management’’ (p. 97). That is to say, it matters what you look like when you move, and it matters what spatial relationships you produce in relation to other dancers. In fact, as I will show, on the Northern scene the idea of competence orders the spacing of dancers and variation in style in a way that it does not seem to in the post-House club culture Malbon investigates.

We will not find an understanding of dance within the scene if we concentrate on the ‘gymnastics’ of back drops, spins and dives that impress the on-looker at a Northern night. They are the most obviously distinctive features, and certainly they give a heroic appellation to the exponents, and a sense of the extraordinary to these dance floors. However, even when (30 years ago) we were younger, fitter and more practiced, only a minority of dancers used these moves, and only at set places in certain records. Today it tends to be the older male dancers who execute them, rather than the large number of younger dancers. I would suggest that it is through this relationship that a sense of the heroic has been established.

Cosgrove tried to put his finger on Northern style by noting that the dancer ‘glides from side to side’ and ‘predict almost every beat and soul clap’ (1982, 38). The predominant ‘glide’ style is achieved through some core characteristics of posture and movement: rigid upper torso, eyes up and looking forward; weight back and pushing down through the hips on to the heels; moving mostly with feet, with fairly straight legs, to propel oneself across the floor (almost always sideways); arms and hands tend to follow the shifting weight of the dancer, or push against it for expressive counter-point. It is this core competency that signals you as an insider, and not a dance tourist. Many – and at an increasing number of Northern nights, most – dancers limit their dance to these core postures and movements. There are some who do not adopt this predominant style, and I will return to them later in this section.

There are also a series of elaborations to the core style that are available to the competent dancer. The most common are to do with the dance steps. The standard steps of the side-to-side dance movement count out the four beats of each bar of the music as a basic repetition: four beats to the right, four beats to the left. This seems to be the easiest way to interpret the steady, even, lightly syncopated beat of the up-town sixties Soul records that characterises the music played at Northern venues. This beat is the main drive of the dancing style because it determines the even time marking which underlies Northern dance style. However, by shifting weight across two beats from the heel to the toe the dancer can momentarily keep their balance on one foot. This allows dancers to undertake steps characteristic of a more practiced participant. Primarily it allows a heavy use of the ankle, rather than leg, to propel the dancer, and to use their other foot for an action that does not require carrying their weight. It is this movement, which makes the dancer seem to glide, while at the same time as allowing leg, and foot movements that counter-point the main beat. This puts considerable stress on the ankles and this is the reason Northern dancefloors are lubricated with talcum powder by the dancers.

It is from these pieces of footstep improvisation and elaboration that the other bodily movements are built. They mostly cover a range of small shifts which within the scene have significance. These would include changes of direction, the interspersing of short and longer sideways strides, twisting the body in a counter direction to the movement of the feet, and shifting the weight around the centre of the hips. These moves are paralleled by hand and arm gestures which play with other aspects of the song, or emphasise them, most notably with the soul clap – an exaggerated wide armed communally-executed clap – which marks out certain beats usually in the bridge of the record. These relatively simple moves are then sometimes built up into more dramatic moves that produce the acrobatic activities of spinning, falling backwards, or diving forwards. At its most elaborated these would be combined so that, for instance, a spin ends in a backdrop, which merges into a kick from the prone position, and a return the vertical ends with a spin to hit the first beat of a new stanza of the music.

However physically demanding such elaborated moves are they are not in themselves valued. There are dancers who can do the gymnastic techniques, but do not dance with competency. Along with all movements, the judgement of competency is applied to the way they are executed. While dancers are allowed quite a degree of variation in the moves that are executed – in fact it is greatly valued – the times when they can be executed is strongly delineated. These structures of what is possible when are related to the musical and performance structure of the recordings themselves. Knowledge of the structure of individual records is therefore central, and thus unites two forms of competence: the ability to do the moves; and the knowledge of when, in a particular record, certain types of moves can be executed.

Competency and scene knowledge

Records have been, and are, valued on the scene because they provide opportunities for the competencies of style to be enacted. Dobie Gray’s ‘Out on the Floor’ is a classic for analysing how musical and dancing competence relate. In many ways it is a basic song form, but not one strong on lyrical content. The introduction is based on a transposition of the lyrical and musical material of the song’s chorus cut down to four three-bar stanzas. ‘Hey, hey, hey’, sing the backing vocalists twice; ‘yeah! yeah! yeah!, everything is out of sight!’ replies Dobie, as we are called to the floor. This is followed by the first verse (four eight bar stanzas), then the chorus (one eight-bar stanzas), the second verse, chorus again (this time two eight-bar stanzas), an extended bridge section built on multiple phrases of eight bars. Moving to the fade out the verse and one stanza chorus are repeated and then the lines of the extended bridge are used with new lyrics.

Dancers use the core techniques described above during the verse, a flourish of extended techniques in the chorus, and quite developed versions of the extended techniques in the elongated bridge. We can start to understand the popularity of the record with dancers for over three decades by relating the playfulness of the musicians and singers with the song structure, with the possibilities for competence they provide. Most of the song is taken at a very brisk tempo, and at key points the tempo is intensified by the drums dramatically increasing the time over the basic beat. The tempo of the backing track contrasts with the generally unhurried nature of the lead singing, which on occasions uses melisima to spread a note over one or two bars. At other times, especially at the start of a verse, Gray is singing ahead of the beat. Even given the overall structure no two stanzas are organised in the same way. Most significant in these variations are the instrumental roles of drums and acoustic piano. The drums (with the other rhythm instruments) keep steady time in the verse, and then break into double time for the last two bars of the final stanza, while the vocal holds one word, pushing us into the chorus. The piano is used for a short motif, which constitutes the song’s secondary hook and is played towards the end of each stanza of verse, usually in the last bar. In the first three lines the motif is played softly and with some improvisation against the vocal. It is not used in the chorus. At other points, notably the answer section of the extended bridge, the motif is played with full attack on the keys. This all creates shifting textures, a playfulness with time, and shifts of emotional intensity in which dancers demonstrate their simultaneous competencies of dance technique as style, knowledge of the recorded music, and the rules of the scene.

If competency in the Northern scene can be understood as relating to stylised movement and knowledge of particular records and how they can be danced to, it is played out in the space of the dance floor. Dance is more than a combination of posture and steps, it obviously also involves moving in a space used by other dancers and marked out for different activities. This constitutes Malbon’s second ‘situation’ of dance: the physical geography, ambience and spacing and orientation of dancers. Given what has preceded it will come as no surprise to learn that the scene has a strong set of rules about how one moves in this space.

Moving in space

The dance spaces of the Northern Soul scene are not the mainstream clubs of youth nightlife, and they have never been so. They are a mixture of old ballrooms, pub function rooms, halls, and social clubs in communities which were increasingly marginalised by the shifting economics of post-war wealth creation. Many early venues did not even have a licenced bar. The most important element was a large wooden dance floor, and contemporary Northern nights are in venues dominated by the dance floor. Bar and sitting areas usually surround the dance space on two or more sides and there is usually a space set aside for selling records and memorabilia, as watching the dancers and buying records and CDs are important secondary activities at Northern nights. The DJ desk is usually raised on a stage at the other end of the room, and all these activities are orientated to the dance floor and the dancers.

Few present day venues have the scale of attendance of Wigan Casino or Blackpool Mecca in the 1970s, and usually will be in the low hundreds, with less than a hundred on the dancefloor at any one time. Even so, so many enthusiastic dancers in a confined space demands some form of regulation. An etiquette of the dancefloor has developed to try and deal with the danger of clashing with another dancer. While some dancers will operate in an area as large as one or two square meters, this space will overlap with other dancers who seek to negotiate the use of the space through some sort of order to their dancing and a high degree of control over their techniques. Dancers with a developed technique and a high degree of competence hardly ever come into contact, and such incidents are usually followed by fulsome apologies. The sorts of orientations apparent in Malbon’s account of ‘post-House club cultures’ are not present on Northern dance floors. Dancers do not face the DJ, or any other common part of the space. Dancers on the outer edges of the floor almost always face inwards, but on the inside of the dance space different dancers face different ways. Although friends often dance in a broadly similar part of the floor, they do not normally form a distinctive group, and dancing between couples is very unusual (and often a subject of comment by on-lookers).

There is a continual churning of dancers, usually based upon preferences for certain records over others. A particularly popular record will quickly fill the floor, but the relatively short length of the records means that there is a change in those dancing every three minutes or so. Dancing is therefore an activity defined not just by the physical relationship to the music, but to the other dancers, and to the wider space through which the dancers shift their activity from dancing, sitting, watching and offering comment. I estimate that dancers today spend far less time on the dance floor than they would have in the 1970s – probably the product of our increasing age – and the composition and operation of the floor has shifted far more than the basic dance itself.

The most notable change is the role that women occupy. Once a minority of dancers, they now constitute a majority. Although one must be careful as the 1970s published photographic records of dancers tend to focus on the acrobatic dancing performed by men, the distribution of the dancing crowd supports the claim that it was men who predominate in numbers, in occupancy of space, and in the spectacle of dance. At a number of present day venues I visited a high proportion of the men occupying the floor kept to the outer edge, and women out numbered men in the centre. Although men tended to be the ones who used the acrobatic elements in their dances, some women included spins, and elaborated dance steps. Secondly, there is far less cohesion to the dancefloor than there used to be. This is most obvious in the division between dancers in their twenties – who construct their dance identities around a revival of the dress and dance of the late 1960 Mod scene – and those in their late thirties, forties (and sometimes fifties) who link themselves much more to the Northern Scene of the late 1970s. The relative proportion of these groups varies from venue to venue, but there was not a venue I visited where the younger group were in the majority. For this reason the dominant meanings of the scene are still derived from the three decades of Northern Soul. There has been some antagonism to Mod-revivalists in the Northern scene since the early 1980s because it is perceived to lack authenticity, and to be a youth fad (see St. Pierre dnk; Winstanley dnk) but this seems to have dissipated if my research is generalisable. Although there is some overlap in which records are danced to, the neo-Mods tend to dominate when certain records are played, and these are usually played within a themed set of early 1960s R&B, rather than the uptown Soul style associated with Detroit or Los Angelis labels. During these sets there are not major differences between dancers as the Northern dancers curtail the more distinctive features of their style. At other times, though, the differences between styles often leads to bodily contact as it is harder to predict the patterns of different, (Northern dancers would say) less disciplined styles.

There is another sense in which the Northern scene has expanded outside its former cultural territory of exclusion, and this has expanded the backgrounds of people at Northern venues. The rare Soul records which were collected and exchanged by DJs and dancers are now widely available on compilation CDs, and they have a wider circulation in radio programmes and on the sound tracks to adverts and TV programmes. Further, the greater prominence of women dancers, and of dancers who do not share the traditions and history of the Northern soul scene, have made the discursive practices of the scene less excluding, and the notions of the in-crowd less pronounced.

My main point here is that Northern Soul dancers are not just involving themselves in a physically pleasurable activity. Ethnographic observation and participation reveals dancing as a physically and psychologically pleasure activity, and the sweat and physical flow of dance, the relationship to music, and physical communality are major reasons dancers dance. However, they cannot explain the distinctiveness of why dance to these records in this way.

Some points about the UK Northern Soul scene and US soul music remade. December 12, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in Northern Soul, Soul.
7 comments

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

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

Posted by wallofsound in Northern Soul.
3 comments

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