Saturday 18 October 2014

Troubled Soul, or In Search of the Perfect Spin: Revisiting Northern Soul

Thanks to the film of the same name, Northern Soul is everywhere. Not to be left out, I’ve exhumed  a piece I contributed to a small magazine (‘Saturday Night Fervour’, The Buzz, July 1996), given a slight make-over here. The idea was to get movers and shakers to choose the ultimate Northern Soul record, and I then filled in with a bit of social detail and personal bias. At this distance, 1996, the date of publication, falls midway between the actual phenomenon and Elaine Constantine’s cinematic celebration. It’s long enough ago to evoke a bitter-sweet feeling itself. Of the contributors, Dave Godin died in 2004. Ace Records’ four-CD series, Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures (the first one appeared in 1997), is his legacy. Steve Parry, whose chaotic lifestyle outstripped anything seen in the film (it’s hinted at in the text), finally got in too deep and ended it all by throwing himself into the North Sea. So let’s dedicate this blog to the memory of Steve Parry, who was a True Believer and a great lad. 

The Four Tops’ ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ provided a blueprint: a sincere, heartfelt statement delivered by a histrionic singer to a frenetic dance beat. Back in the sixties, countless small US labels poured out thousands of 45s in an attempt to emulate the glories (and profits) of Tamla Motown. These records barely dented public consciousness and met, at best, with some limited regional success. By a strange quirk of fate, foremost among these regions was the North of England. 

In 1967, Dave Godin was the proprietor of Soul City, a specialist record shop on Deptford High Street. He noticed how visitors from the North, invariably in town for football matches, stuck loyally to Chicago/Detroit-based sounds. Godin coined the term Northern Soul to distinguish this music from JB-styled funk, its streamlined successor. 

So the term applies to English geography, and not to its country of origin, the USA, notwithstanding the fact that the biggest record-producing centres – Detroit, Chicago, New York – are North American cities. In fact, Northern Soul can come from anywhere. Benny Spellman’s ‘Fortune Teller’, a great club favourite, is pure New Orleans. It can also, on occasion, skip racial boundaries. Country singer Ronnie Milsap’s ‘Ain’t No Soul (In These Old Shoes)’ was a firm favourite at Wigan Casino, and, for a while at least, his ethnicity was a closely guarded secret. 

‘Southern Soul’, on the other hand, exclusively refers to Afro-American music made in the Southern states of the USA, which tends to be slow, stripped back and searching and tortured in feeling. There was some crossover. ‘Get Out of My Heart’ and ‘My Elusive Dreams’ by Moses and Joshua Dillard and ‘Any Day Now’ by Chuck Jackson, exemplars of Southern Soul, could be frequently heard at The Twisted Wheel. Generally, the North/South divide in soul music is a thorny, textual matter, and best side-stepped altogether by dropping ‘Southern Soul’ and adopting ‘Deep Soul’, another Dave Godin coinage. 

But let me throw open the floor to assorted back-flippers and spinners. A random cross-sample of movers and shakers were each asked to nominate a disc that embodied Northern Soul. This was the response.  

Tim Brown, Goldmine/Outta Sight: – 

Darrell Banks, ‘Open the Door to Your Heart’ 

The perfect combination of Detroit groove and Southern emotion. ‘Open the Door’ has a good melody, and great words. It has everything. The flip, ‘Our Love (Is in the Pocket)’, is very strong too. It qualifies as the best Northern double-header. It’s a Twisted Wheel record, really. It was far too slow for the Wigan Casino.

Tim Brown, in 1996, co-owned Goldmine, and these days is involved in another reissue label, Outta Sight. He is author of The Wigan Casino Years, a study of the Golden Age of Northern  Soul (1973-1981). ‘Open the Door to Your Heart’ can be found on the CD, The Twisted Wheel Story (Goldmine Soul Supply).   

PC Mark Bridges, first generation North Soul fan and a community policeman with a beat in the Manchester Gay Village: –    

The Salvadores, ‘Stick By Me Baby’ 

This was a massive club anthem and monstrous at the Casino. I think Richard Searling discovered it. You heard it and you just had to dance, it grabbed at your heart, and pulled you down the stairwell to the dance floor.

Bridges is enlightening on the accessories and favourite shops of True Believers. The t-shirts (two or three were needed over the course of an all-nighter), Fred Perry bags made to measure at Harvey and Ruperts on Brown Street and, the heaviest item of all, Church’s brogues made by Jones’ in Bolton. “They cost £50 even in those days,” says Bridges, with undiminished incredulity. 

Steve Parry, Middlesbrough-based DJ (Soul Survivors): –


Dena Barnes, ‘If You Ever Walk Out of My Life’ 

Way back in the halcyon days before House and Garage, Disco Music was in its infancy. A band of fanatical followers of sixties soul music with a passion for frantic dancing and collecting obscure American Soul 7” records gathered each weekend in such exotic locations as Wigan, Wakefield, Sheffield and Warrington to engage in their passions, not unlike the trainspotter anorak we know and love. I was not a teenage werewolf, I was a Teenage Northern Soul Boy. My friends and family couldn’t understand my passion for travelling hundreds of miles every Saturday evening to listen and dance to records like Richard ‘Popcorn’ Wylie’s ‘Rosemary What Happened to Your Baby’ or Dana Valerie’s ‘You Don’t Know’. What they didn’t know was that the whole Northern Soul scene was more of a religion or a cult in the real sense of the word. The unbelievers were to be either scorned or converted to the ‘faith’ by the Chosen Few. As I write this I still believe we were just as fanatical as the followers of Charles Manson or David Koresh.

Ominous words. His wife, when I rang on a Wednesday tea-time, said she hadn’t seen Steve since 6am on the previous Monday. Her scorn suggested that this state of affairs wasn’t entirely novel. If You Ever Walk Out of My Life, indeed. 

Dave Godin’s experience at Soul City suggested the link between football and Northern Soul. Harry Pearson alludes to the subject in an excellent book, The Far Corner (subtitled A Mazy Dribble Through North East Football). In this description of Darlington on a typical mid-seventies Saturday afternoon, Pearson’s describes a shabbier Soul Boy than PC Bridges’ paragon. 

“And then there were the Northern Soul Boys in their star-patterned tank-tops, flapping about the place in Oxford bags with the button-shut pockets running from hip to ankle. Once, in a record shop in Darlington, I heard one say to another, ‘Well how many spins can you get off a push then, kidder?’ It was the only time I’ve heard one man threatening another with dance steps.” 

Raymond ‘Ginger’ Taylor, DJ, Todmorden Ukie Club, Burnley Rose Room, Cleethorpes Catacombs, Wigan Casino etc: – 

Ruben, ‘You’ve Been Away’ 

Within a month of surfacing in the States, ‘You’ve Been Away’ was bootlegged under the name Eddie Parker. The singer sounded like Eddie Parker, who was a real singer, and had a monstrous record in Torch days with ‘Love You Baby’. I located a copy of the original, on the Kapp label, down in Texas on a record-hunting tour of the USA. It’s certainly worth £100. 

The Roman Empire provides a precedent. Signs of decadence and decline are clear at the moment of its greatest height. The mid-seventies zenith of Northern Soul was marked by rampant piracy, inflated prices and self-absorbed collectors who prized obscurity above all else. DJs would routinely scratch off the artist’s name from the labels of 45s, to guard the source of the groove from rivals. Bogus Northern Soul records were manufactured by record producer Ian Levine under the name Wigan’s Ovation. A bad end was nigh. Steve Parry’s screed, quoted above, continues: 

As time progressed and the word spread the inevitable happened: the cracks began to appear, the hierarchy or high priests (DJs) sold out and the Northern Soul phenomenon became the subject of newspaper articles, TV documentaries and eventually a victim of pop chart success. 

“I became disillusioned with the whole affair as did many of my fellow devotees and we hung up our dancing shoes for the very last time. Or so we thought. In the mid-eighties we travelled to a Soul Weekender at Southport to see what all the fuss was about. The fire was rekindled as soon as I heard my all-time favourite Northern Soul track: Dena Darnes, ‘If You Ever Walk Out of My Life. I was reborn as a devoted follower of Soul Music but this time embracing the whole Black Music spectrum, and not just the Northern Soul sect. In time I became one of the high priests myself, as I now run the highly successful Soul Survivors, providing quality DJs at soul venues all over the country. 

Dave Godin, founder of Soul City record shop and label, compiler of Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures, commentator and soul lexicographer: –

From a fax dated 14 May 1996: 

Dear Mike, 

Many thanks for your letter which I got this morning. As your deadline is looming so threateningly, I thought I’d fax this small contribution. 

The problem is when you ask me to choose a record which “defines Northern Soul”… There were so many subtle, and almost imperceptible changes in the sounds this term was applied to from when I first coined the term, but right at this precise moment in time (next week it’d probably be a different one!) I think I’d nominate: 

Jimmy Robins, ‘I Can’t Please You’, Jerhart 2016 

A thunderous and almost ominous beat which is startlingly defined, matches Jimmy’s superb vocal which is soulful, impassioned and declamatory. In many ways this record brings together so many different threads and influences from Blackamerican music, and, like all Soul records, it’s all about the difficulties we all have from time to time with affairs of the heart. Mean and yet apologetic; angry and conciliatory; indifferent and yet still besotted; these contradictory elements (so true to life itself) produce what all great creativity should contain: tension! And, it is in the relating to the lyrics, and the ability to work along with the tension through dance, that makes ALL Soul records such a powerful weapon in our fight against what Reich termed the emotional plague of mankind. We ignore the important need for ritual in our psyches at our peril, and records like this, whether they realise it or not, help induct young people into the world of “adult” knowledge; when we are kids we think that when we are “grown-up” everything will then “be alright”. Records like this teach us that this was a very serious error of judgement on our part! This may sound a bit pseudo, but by god, the therapy of the music works as well for us as it has for any Blackamerican over the years. Just ask any Soul fan!! 

As an added bonus, I also consider this single the best double-sider EVER, since on the flip, Jimmy Robins has one of the greatest Deep Soul outings of all time too [‘I Made It Over’]… but that’s another story! 

Hope the above is of help. Please ring if you need to. 

With best regards, 

Dave Godin 

Plainly, Godin’s analysis goes deeper than most Soul Boys would permit. In his urge to link social (and emotional) reality with the music, Godin is akin comparable to writers like Amiri Baraka or Valerie Wilmer. But neither does Godin over-intellectualise. His commentary, like his taste, rides on pure emotion. As he says, “I need to talk about what the grooves are saying.”  

Mike Butler, the present author (why not?): –

For me, soul music is the best pop music there is, and delivers on the promise of the best pop: uncomplicated pleasure, excitement and romance. I didn't insist on up-tempo beats and manic high energy, or even obscurity (I mean, Aretha Franklin is alright by me), so I was content to watch Northern Soul from the sidelines, and it was many years before I visited Wigan, and then not the Casino, only the town, and I was sorely disappointed.

But Northern Soul is great because it comes up from below; that's the music, the musicians, and the fans.

My sole Northern Soul intervention happened in 1975, when I still at school, and held down a Saturday job selling singles on a stall outside Alan Fearnley Records on Linthorpe Road, Middlesbrough (I might add, the legendary Alan Fearnley Records…). I was at my post when a large consignment of USA cut-out 45s arrived from the States. Stylistically diverse, the 45s were mostly old; all had been previously mouldering away in one of those mythical warehouses that could be found in the USA in 1975 and are virtually extinct today. I was told to mark the records with the price Al Fearnley thought appropriate - variously 5p, 15p and 28p – and he gave me a thick marker pen to carry out the task. The word spread, and soon Northern Soul collectors descended from all points to pick through this treasure trove. I still have conversations with ageing Soul Boys who say things like, "with hindsight, the 5p's were probably better than the 28p's," before chastising me for scrawling on the labels of their most treasured 45s with an ungainly hand. (Lofty, I mean you.) 

My choice of Soul 45 came from the 15p box. 

Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson, Picking Wild Mountain Berries b/w Pure Love and Pleasure, SSS International  

It’s Deep Soul rather than Northern Soul, but I don’t care, and though the A-side with it’s propulsive backbeat and breezy sexiness is the obvious floor-filler, I’m nominating it for the B-side, which is an explosion of raw emotion that has rapture bouncing off the walls as Peggy and Jo Jo commit in wild, tuneful screams. Note, the instrumentation is as stripped back as it’s possible to get – just bass, piano and drums – and it’s as far from Wigan as heaven is from hell.

Jon Vipond, DJ, rig-worker, chef: –

There was one other contribution to the piece which didn’t get included at the time (whether because it missed the deadline, or was omitted for reasons of space, I can’t remember): a letter from Jon Vipond in Middlesbrough. I came across it in a folder with the other materials for the article. I include it here, in the awareness that Jon Vipond was another wild and doomed working-class lad. It seems that ‘Troubled’ and ‘Northern’ are interchangeable as a prefix for ‘Soul’. (Or would any charting of random working-class lives from a distance of three decades produce as many tragic stories?) 

Dear Mike, 

Regarding my favourite record at Wigan Casino. Although this record was better known at the Blackpool Mecca, I first heard it at Wigan Casino in about the Summer of 1977. The record is... 

Eloise Laws, ‘Love Factory’ 

History: (Holland/Dozier/Holland). Time: 3.24. Gold Forever Prod. Holland Dozier Wylie. Licensed from: Demon Records Ltd in association with the Holland Bros 1973. When first hearing this record, if most definitely sent shivers down my spine and pointed me in the direction of the soul music that I still listen to today. The record had more of a Southern Soul feel with a mid-tempo beat which was quite unique, as most of the records played at Wigan were very up-tempo. Even now it is still one of my favourite records and when I DJ I still play it regularly. 

I hope this information is helpful to you. 


Jon Vipond 

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