This book is a social history of northern soul. It examines the origins and development of this music scene, its clubs, publications and practices, by locating it in the shifting economic and social contexts of the English midlands and north in the 1970s. The popularity of northern soul emerged in a period when industrial working-class communities were beginning to be transformed by deindustrialisation and the rise of new political movements around the politics of race, gender and locality. The book makes a significant contribution to the historiography of youth culture, popular music and everyday life in post-war Britain. The authors draw on an expansive range of sources including magazines/fanzines, diaries, letters, and a comprehensive oral history project to produce a detailed, analytical and empathetic reading of an aspect of working-class culture that was created and consumed by thousands of young men and women in the 1970s. A range of voices appear throughout the book to highlight the complexity of the role of class, race and gender, locality and how such identities acted as forces for both unity and fragmentation on the dance floors of iconic clubs such as the Twisted Wheel (Manchester), the Torch (Stoke-on-Trent), the Catacombs (Wolverhampton) and the Casino (Wigan).
This book examines the relationship between popular music and everyday life. Northern soul was just one of a multiplicity of music scenes, genres and trends that were central to working-class experiences, feelings and identities. The introduction provides a critical reading of the sociological and historical literature on post-war youth culture and popular music. It argues that listening to music was a coping strategy in dealing with the rigours and exhaustions of school, work and domestic alienation as well as a soundtrack that accompanied memories of particular time periods, episodes and events. In presenting northern soul as more than just a hobby or cultural diversion for its consumers, the book is unashamedly empathetic. As the working class continue to be caricatured, marginalised and, notably, largely absent from the upper realms of academia it is important that their experiences, emotions and histories are recorded, published and disseminated.
The chapter details the transatlantic connections between black American music and its audience in Britain through the growth of interest in soul music in general and ‘rare soul’ in particular. There is an assessment of the Motown Revue Tour that traversed Britain during 1965: the soul club scene that emerged in its wake, the importance of the venues in which this music was played, and the growth of an associated culture. Central to the northern soul scene was a club culture that was linked to a number of British cities and towns that retained a distinctive working-class identity. There is an examination of the music and atmosphere of the Twisted Wheel in Manchester and the plethora of soul clubs that were satellites of this foundation club of northern soul. These spaces are explored in the context of the cultural life of the working class in Manchester and the surrounding towns that had been built on the economy of coal and cotton.
This chapter examines the locales and clubs that formed the foundation of the northern soul scene, including the Catacombs in Wolverhampton, the Torch in Stoke-on-Trent, and Blackpool Mecca. There is a detailed analysis of the social context of the emergence and success of such clubs and the authors locate them within the framework of strong local political and cultural identities. The ‘rare soul’ scene of the late 1960s formed part of a midlands and northern soundscape that was still predominantly industrial and thrived in localities in which particular class and gendered identities were relatively fixed. The chapter also situates the rare soul scene as part of tradition of dancing that had deep roots in the working-class cultures of the midlands and the industrial north-west. The transition from rare soul to northern soul is mapped through a critical reading of specialist music magazines, diaries and oral testimony.
Chapter 3 explores the origins and development of Wigan Casino. It situates the club in the longer history of the town, which had been built on coal mining and a concomitant working-class culture that remained prominent in the 1970s. There is a detailed discussion of the music, and the individuals who attended the club’s famous ‘all-nighters’. It draws on a range of primary sources to reveal both the ‘localism’ and ‘nationalism’ of Wigan Casino and how it was able to broaden its appeal to construct a particular identity in becoming an international brand. The Casino is read as a symbol of the changing nature of particular British towns and cities in a period of rising unemployment and deindustrialisation. Wigan Casino became the iconic club for later interpretations and readings of northern soul.
Chapter 4 charts the fragmentation and diversification of northern soul during the late 1970s. It illustrates the tensions and schisms that were created in the later years of northern soul’s pre-eminence. Such fragmentation is explored through a number of themes; musical preferences (‘oldies’ and ‘newies’), factionalism between DJs and fans, new genres and styles in black music, the changing aspirations and tastes of consumers, the rise of rival venues and the increasing popularity of ‘all-dayers’. At the heart of these tensions was a debate which ran to the core of what northern soul was, or had become. There is a detailed examination of the challenges posed by shifts in soul music styles such as New York disco and jazz funk. The chapter draws on a range of primary sources in making sense of the politics of the dance floor in clubs such as Wigan Casino, Blackpool Mecca and Cleethorpes Pier.
Chapter 5 assesses how northern soul was practised and experienced by its participants, focusing on the centrality of DJs to the scene, their relationship with fans and the way in which fans lived and related to northern soul, including its well-documented involvement with illegal drug abuse. It explains how northern soul’s perception of itself as ‘different’ and detached conflicted with what were viewed by many as attempts to commercialise the scene. This contributed to the emergence of cleavages and tensions and to the development of a form of ‘penny capitalism’ that was complemented by the entrepreneurial pursuit of profit through the sale of rare recordings. Such activity strengthened the transatlantic links that the scene had engendered between Britain and several North American cities and resulted in the enhancement or rehabilitation of a number of US artistic careers. However, it was specific commercial practices relating to recordings that undermined the rhetorical discourse of ‘togetherness’ apparent in northern soul. The chapter evaluates the tensions within the scene and determines the extent to which commercialisation and the scene’s association with illegal drugs led to its demise.
The very term ‘northern soul’ suggests that the scene was regionally specific. The origins of northern soul might have been located in the English north and midlands, but it had a substantial following in other parts of Britain. The first section of this chapter maps the geography of northern soul. It adds to the growing literature on the resilience of regional identities in post-war Britain and how this was imprinted on northern soul. It uncovers the complexities relating to the scene’s geographical specificity and whether this was related to a set of particular structural, cultural and political factors. Northern soul was often connected to other tropes of northernness such as coal mining, Labour politics and particular forms of working-class culture. Drawing on previously unused fanzines and oral testimony, the chapter charts the ways in which the scene became part of a mythologised north.
This chapter explores racial identities and how they were understood and reconstructed through the northern soul scene. The multiracial and anti-racist aspects of northern soul are critically assessed in order to challenge existing assumptions. Critically, the chapter notes the transatlantic aspect of northern soul and the dynamics connected with the reception and interpretation of what was perceived as an essentially black American musical genre consumed by a largely white British working-class audience. The chapter also unpicks tensions within the scene around notions of gender and sexuality. Northern soul seemingly constructed a space where young men and women shared a commitment to music and dance. In contrast to other leisure activities, women were said to have played an equal role. Moreover, many felt that the scene provided a safer environment than conventional nightclubs and discos where women were seen as sexual objects seeking heterosexual relationships. Yet this view has been somewhat romanticised and it is clear that northern soul was heavily gendered, with males often policing aspects of the scene and defining what was and what was not northern soul. The chapter concludes with some discussion of the sexuality of the scene in the period when commercial disco presented a challenge – both real and perceived – to the music policy of some of the most prominent northern soul clubs.
Chapter 8 discusses the legacy of northern soul beyond the 1970s and through to its revival in the present day. It also explores the construction and dissemination of particular myths and histories of northern soul. The chapter investigates northern soul’s propensity to look back on its own emergence and development and its need to create its own icons and symbols, both during its heyday in the 1970s and into the twenty-first century. The chapter provides details of post-Wigan venues such as the Top of the World, Stafford, and the global reach of the scene in Europe and Japan. There is a critical reading of the way in which northern soul has been characterised in fiction, autobiography and on stage and screen. The chapter describes the ways in which the scene has become part of the wider working-class soundscape of places such as Blackpool and Benidorm.