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  • Author Simon Lucas
  • Published July 22, 2014

Why you should listen to… Northern Soul

“A genre built on failures” is as good a way as any to describe it. What came to be called ‘Northern soul’ came, fundamentally, from artistes and record companies who saw how the dance-floors of the mid-60s were in thrall to the soul/rhythm’n’blues of the USA. They fancied a piece of the action.


“A genre built on failures” is as good a way as any to describe it. What came to be called ‘Northern soul’ came, fundamentally, from literally hundreds of artistes and record companies who saw the way the dance-floors of the mid-60s were in thrall to the soul/rhythm’n’blues sounds of the USA generally and to Detroit’s Motown Records in particular. They saw the sales, the exposure and the money, and they heard the tunes. And they fancied a piece of the action.


Imitation, of course, is the runty relative of inspiration, and the majority of these (initially Motown-aping) recordings suffered from various terminal ailments. Iffy production and recording values. Workmanlike compositions. Under-rehearsed, short-of-studio-time performances. Poor distribution. Zero visibility. And so, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the records failed. Disappeared, almost without trace.


Tribalism to the rescue
Oddly, the traces were picked up in the North and Midlands of England just a few years later. Numerous towns, with clubs that picked up on the music and developed an accompanying ‘look’ (as well as numerous highly athletic dance moves) to make a Big Night Out as tribal as possible, granted reverence to records that were barely a notch above landfill beforehand.


Just add an enthusiastic, engaged audience, an all-night license and as much cheap amphetamine as you can smuggle into the venue, and voila: you’ve a movement. A scene. Some of the venues (The Twisted Wheel in Manchester, Wigan Casino, Blackpool Mecca and Stoke-on-Trent’s The Torch to name just four) became absolutely ubiquitous.


It’s in the nature of ‘popular culture’ scenes to be exclusive and elitist, of course, and the Northern Soul movement was no different. Obscurity, of performer and, ideally, of record label, was every bit as important as the beat or the tempo of the record. And, as I say, the hit-and-miss approach of the creative processes involved considerably more misses than hits. So, just as in any ‘pop’ music sub-genre, it’s important to be judicious. Or rather, for me to be judicious on your behalf. So roll back the carpet, get a layer of talc down and get ready to let your backbone slip.


Simon Lucas’ top Northern Soul picks…
Four Tops – I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) (1965) 
Those deep in the know will tell you this Holland/Dozier/Holland composition is the template for the Northern Soul sound: heavy, syncopated beat, soul/gospel-inflected vocal, and a tempo suited to the rigour and one-upmanship of the dance-floor. Of course, those deep in the know will also tell you this is far too mainstream, far too polished and far too popular to ever have any Northern Soul credibility.



Gloria Jones – Tainted Love (1965) 
Originally a ‘b’-side, Gloria Jones’ ‘Tainted Love’ wasn’t picked up by the Northern Soul scene until the turn of the 70s and remained a happy secret until Soft Cell’s enormo-cover in 1981* (since when it’s been teased in any number of directions, most notably by Marilyn Manson). In fact, Jones was for a long time rather better known for writing Gonzalez’ 1977 hit ‘I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet’ and for being Marc Bolan’s girlfriend (and for being at the wheel of the Mini in which he died).
*Soft Cell are no strangers to the Northern Soul wig-out: their 1982 version of Judy Street’s 1968 version of ‘What!’ sold by the bucket-load. Street’s is a cover of Melinda Marx’s 1965 reading, itself a recording so perfect for the Northern Soul scene it’s impossible to buy, let alone stream.



Jimmy Radcliffe – Long After Tonight Is All Over (1965) 
Wigan Casino played its famous ‘3 before 8’ tunes at the end of every Northern Soul all-nighter, and one of them was Jimmy Radcliffe’s chunky reading of this Bacharach & David tune (Burt’n’Hal favourite Dusty Springfield had a pass at it on her second LP). Radcliffe was a songwriter of some distinction and his ‘I’m Gonna Find A Cave’ found favour with the Mod and Northern Soul movements – Miki Dallon and no lesser lights than The Banana Splits were among the acts to cover it.



Frank Wilson – Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) (1965) 
Probably the rarest and most sought-after Northern Soul 45 of the lot, ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ was Frank Wilson’s only Motown release. 250 demos were pressed, but all but (at most) five were destroyed – Mr Motown Berry Gordy wasn’t convinced. Gordy retained a copy and somehow one of the other survivors found its way to Wigan Casino.



The Flirtations – Nothing But A Heartache (1968) 
The Flirtations had already done the decent Northern Soul thing and released some well-regarded stompers to absolutely no acclaim whatsoever by the time they elected to decamp in England in 1968. Support slots with Tom Jones followed, and signing with Deram Records resulted in the dynamic, brilliantly arranged and mostly in-tune ‘Nothing But A Heartache’. It reached number 51 on the charts and Northern Soul Legend status was assured.



The Just Brothers – Sliced Tomatoes (1972) 
By the time the 60s tipped into the 70s, the Northern Soul scene was just about prepared to accept a smattering of commercial pop into the fold provided, of course, it a) was of a suitable tempo and b) was suitably obscure. The Just Brothers’ surf/pop/soul instrumental Sliced Tomatoes hit the spot and after receiving the Blackpool Mecca seal of approval became a part of the vernacular. So much so that Norman Cook liberally helped himself to it 25 years later.



Simon Lucas is the editor of What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine.


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