This is a term I have heard talked about by a lot of music fans in Britain, especially those creaking into middle age, but I have just seen a documentary by economic journalist Paul Mason, on it, and a feature film is in the works. I vaguely thought it was about northern bands, but it was a movement which foreshadowed the rave movement, and many of the teenage fans are still going to all night dance sessions on weekends, not reliving their youths, but being so passionate about the music that they have never given it up.
The Northern Soul clubs were mostly held in run down dance halls in towns like Wigan that their parents and grandparents had frequented, and the clubs soon became the coolest places in Europe, though most of them have been demolished.
The fans were young working class teens who were bored by the saccharine pop of the mid 1970s, fans said, pop music ws for morons; these fans wanted something special, something different to dance to, and DJs mostly went to the states to hunt out records ignored and stored in warehouses – they were by poor black singers, often limited editions and demos, like rough versions of Motown, but their rarity and the 4/4 beat made them special. There was also a sense that these poor working class white Britons,most of whom had never met a black person, were somehow connecting with their fellow music fans across the pond. As such, there is a sort of romanticism to the movement. But there is also a strong tribalism to it. Dancing all night formed bonds which survive to this day, and a black woman from Edinburgh talks of the family she found, as a means of escaping an impoverished real family. There is a wonderful sense of cameraderie, of welcoming all comers, the only requisite being that of a shared love of the music.
Everyone was thin, because in order to survive all nighters, sometimes followed by all dayers then another all nighter, they downed industrial quantities of drugs – often diet pills, so amphetamines.
There has been a lot of debate as to where the dance styles came from, as they had never met the fans of the music in the states; it seems the dance moves came from Bruce Lee films which were so popular at the time.
In the late 1980s the scene began to splinter: some preferred to stick with the old tunes, while others moved into more contemporary black music, hence began the rave culture. But Northern Soul continues, and is finding new fans in the young generation, who do the same dance steps, wear the same clothes – Young Soul.
Mason traveled to The States and found a surprising number of fanatical followers of these rough soul classics, many of whom are black and who also lived to dance. They were from the northern cities, so he found a real bond with them. It may seem strange to find such a cross cultural bond, but it is the same two groups of people who centuries ago bonded over the abolition of the slave trade. There is something a bout being poor, northern and urban that makes them understand each other, to travel similar paths.
Seeing Mason trying to remember the old moves should have been like watching your dad dance, and yet his body still recalls the moves, 35 years on. This nostalgia should have something sad about it, but it was strangely the opposite. As he said, ‘the music takes over your body. You feel like you belong. There is an emotional truth, of what life should be like. ‘ Amen to that.