Do you need a flat sole for Northern Soul? - Rowan Chernin finds out
Back in the seventies while glam rock camped-up the charts a subcult in the north of England thrived on sentimental old soul songs and knocked-off speed. The scene and the music was given the name northern soul in a - - edition of Blues and Soul Magazine. The journalist, Dave Godin, labelled a specific sound of music made by countless failed American artists who had attempted to make the fast stomping sixites pop hits of Detroit's Motown label. These imported seven inch records, worthless in America, could sometimes be worth more than a months wages and were worshipped on dancefloors in places like Wigan, Cleethorpes, Blackpool and Manchester from the end of the sixties to the scene's heyday in the mid seventies.
Ian Dewhirst, aka 'Frank', has been northern soul DJ since 1970 (started when he was 15). In the DJ bible, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life - The History Of The Disc Jockey, he gave the following account:
"The northern soul scene, to me, was like an eighth wonder of the world. You're looking at the depressed north of England, where there wasn't a great deal there apart from steelworks and coalmines. You had people doing this boring repetitive work during the week; and hard work, too. And when they went out on a weekend, they really wanted to go out. Going out until 11 o'clock to the local pub just wasn't going to be good enough.
'When the whole rave thing went ballistic it felt like northern soul twenty years on. Lots of people getting off their heads, dancing to fast music and this love attitude. House is this generations version of northern soul. But what was so revolutionary about northern soul was there was no antecedent for it."
When scene was at its height no chemist was safe from the polymorphous taste these dancers had for prescription amphetamines. Dressed in basic clothes and flat sole shoes. These working class youths escaped via northern soul with an unhinged acrobatic style of dancing. It was an entirely club based scene with no charts or new artists and a lot of sweat. Northern soul existed without the need of PR, bottom-line media objectives or any merciless dictatorship direction from the music industry. It was a seven inch wide world where the grandfathers of today's dance music trainspotter utilised their male obsessive gene/disorder and reverted back to hunter-gatherer for the furtherance of both their record collections and the scene. Often flying to Detroit and sifting around in the thrift shops in an attempt to unearth a forgotten classic. A new discovery which would ultimately make them a lot of money and more importantly send the dancefloors of clubs like the Wigan Casino or Pier at Cleethorpes into a whirling ring of mentalism.
Travelling across the country to all night events was standard practice. Different events, venues and record labels had a series of collectable patches sewn onto your Oxford bag. Inside, possibly another pair of flat sole Ravel shoes, a spare vest or sleeve-less T-shirt, deoderant, chewing gum, a towel, a Ben Sherman (still a mod element leftover from the '60s) for the train home and if you serious enough about your dancing, a great big pair of high waisted flares with 16 buttons on the waist probably as many buttons for cutting a dash out on the floor.
Back in 2002 the ballroom of The Rocket on Holloway Road is host to the opening night of Metropolitan Soul, the biggest northern event of its kind in the south. Beneath is grandiose Victorian arches, glitterball spears of sapphire blue light ignite the spinning dancers lost to the stomping beats. A man in his mid '40s, in baggy beige slacks, a black short sleeve shirt, with his hair worn away by time, rubs a block of wax on the sole of his black loafers. He shuffles his feet and moves out onto the floor, breaking into a kind of crazed, twitchy ice-skating dance. The age range starts from a hand full of modish fresh faces right-up to the majority of forty something males, as hard as cobbles. And, although dancing individually, they spin and clap in unison at certain times during particular records. For the majority here tonight, the empathy of this soul cult has been with them since they first started shaving. A teenage love affair turned addiction.
The edges of their forearm tattoos have faded out, the kids have grown-up and their passionate obsession with northern soul has all but re-consumed their ageing world.
"I've waited twenty years for this event," shouts DJ Ian Levine over huge sound system. Each record is introduced before the rush of strings, sentimental lyrics, blasts of trumpets and a thrilling fairground hit of ringing crescendos ride over the stomping beat. "This scene is as vibrant as it has ever been and it will never be over for me," cries Levine out to the crowd. The crowd look on and wait. The beat kicks in and around they go.
I get chatting to a soul fan from - - - - called Camus who has backflipped (a popular move out on the floor) and spun his way through the last three decades. He couldn't talk any faster if he tried: "I've done Wigan Casino, Blackpool Mecca, Morecombe Pier, Stafford, Warrington, The 100 Club, Even the Ritzy in Manchester in recent years. Tonight compares favourably to all of them. It's a monster, monster do. Great tunes, oldies, newies, undiscovereds and some tunes which are a bit more controversial than others. It's fantastic. Northern soul is all about this. This main hall bears resemblance to all the great venues. Its even got a presence like Morecombe Pier."
Near the front of the stage is one of the original DJs, Ian 'Frank' Dewhirst. He's 6'4 dressed in a black V-neck, black jeans and black sued loafers. Eyes closed, lost in the music. I wait for the introduction of the next record and interupt his mediditation in an attempt to find some kind of historical boundary line for where the creation of northern soul sound stops.
"Late 1969 to early 1970 was the begining of end of artists making the northern sound although there will be those who disagree and there are always exceptions to the rule where someone may have released a dated one off track in the early '70s," explains Dewhirst. "Around that time The Temptations went from 'Get Ready' a typical stomping Motown sound to 'Ball Of Confusion' which had the progressive funk sound of early 1970. Stevie Wonder, who had one of all time Northern Soul sounding records, "Nothings Too Good For My Baby' went onto make a music like 'Superstitsion'. The producer of these records, Norman Whitfield was the new blood following on from Holland, Dozier, Holland. He was incredibly brilliant and redefined the Motown sound from a stomping 4 to the floor beat to a much more progressive funk sound."
Back in the day, DJ names would appear on posters and flyers with their rarest records listed beside them. Tonights record stalls display how deep into these fans pockets this love affair goes. 'PLEASE KEEP THE RECORDS IN THE SAME ORDER' reads a sign, stuck firmly in place by perfectly neat lines of thick cut sellotape. The sevens range £60 upwards. In 1998 a collector in Scotland paid £15,000 for Frank Wilson's 'Do I Love You'. It is believed that only two copies exist in the world. Wilson was a producer at Motown who was persuaded by Berry Gordy to give up on the idea of being a popstar and stick to producing and consequently nearly all the stock of his chart-dream was destroyed. Although in 1980, due to its popularity on the UK dancefloors, it was reissue by Motown and is now worth around £40. Men obsessed by this rare soul, whether it is merely an escape from the wife or reality, would not be satisfied by merely spending £40 on a reissue. The cognitive dissonance, the technical term for the pain of spending too much money, and the joy of owning such a rare treasure, being the number one collector in the UK will no doubt keep this man in and out of reality for an entire lifetime.
Surprisingly despite the 1200 fans in attendance at The Rocket this is not the biggest soul event in the country. On New Years eve The Queens Hotel in Leeds boasted 2000 people. "It was dynamite," remembers Dewhirst. "The interesting things was the crowd who were young, 18-25, and I played mainly a '60s set and Geno Washington And The Ram Jam Band got an an incredibe response. It was one of best gigs of my life."
But why are so many 40 and 50 year olds still out dancing to this music? Surely nostalgia is better than the real thing?
"The first thing to consider is that northern soul was always a very underground elitest scene. You had to be really passionate to be involved. I lived in Leeds would travel hundreds of miles from one event to another. It was the only thing in world at that time like it. Phenomenal. Why would a scene develop which involved uptempo rare soul from the 1960s? You had no choice but to travell to be able to hear the records (no radio play). This particular breed person with such a passion has stayed with it all their lives. I'm 47 and still really enjoy this. I'm into all types of music but there always a place in my heat for northern soul. We were brought up with it and its a major part of our formative years."
Are there enough new records still being discovered to keep the scene alive?
"There are. The only difference is the price of them is just incredible. One of things about tonight is the new discoveries they're playing are breath taking. I don't know how they've remained undiscovered for so long. About five years ago a single by Dennis Edwards, the lead singer with original Temptations on International Soulville, was a discovered and fetched £1500 which is not unusual. The records which come through now are deeply rare, it is really is against the odds to find something. 45s are getting less and less and less as the plastic gets melted down. It's a mini-business in its self with the average starting price amongst the innercircle of dealers starts at around £100 to £150. It's not unusual for £1000s to change hands which is one of reason why got out of it. When I was one of the top 3 DJs in the country I couldn't get cheap records. If some one sold one to me for £10 and I started playing it, the value could instantly go up to £300. The record dealers got nervous and I couldn't buy any unknowns for less than £50 a time. DJs didn't get pat that much then, it was more for love. Around 1975 I would have been paid £50 for an alnighter but more often than not £20 to £25 for an hour slot."
Is it fare to say that some of these people here tonight wouldn't mind if they actually died right here on the dancefloor?
"Yes. I've seen somebody die on the dancefloor. He was doing aeroplane spins for almost 2 hours, he'd had so much speed. I put on a particularly fast record and he spun himself to death. Blood came out of eyes, ears, and nose. It was not usual for people to die of an overdose or end up vegetables. Northern soul drove people to excess. They'd set off on Friday night and not get back home until Wednesday travelling all around the country doing every drug known to man. I was fuelled by the music but speed made people want to dance like a fucking mad men. The north of Engalnd was very unglamorous. There was not a lot to look forward to slogging in a Sheffield steel foundary or slogging down a pit in Doncaster. You'd want to be million miles from that in a nirvana fantasy world of northern soul. The dancers were unbelievable. Guys would spin on their heads and one them, Franky Booper was known for his gymnastic ability to run up a wall and somersault into a back flip. After eight hours dancing steam would be coming out of doors at Wigan. Then at 8am they'd go to the local baths for a swim. Then off to an all dayer. These guys were seriously wired."
Things change with age and tonight these diehards have got until 7 AM to dance it off before bath time. In the morning reality will be glowing back through the rainy morning streets and the love songs fantasies will fade back to their alphabetical racks sacred of plastic. There's no more all dayers and there's work on Monday morning and judging by some of the moves, a bad back or two. Was it worth it? In the words of one dancer, "It is like a mini Wigan
I haven't felt like this, buzzing, since Cleethorpes Pier." He is soaked through head to toe. His reference point dates back to 1976. He opens his sports bag, puts a sodden T-shirt in with the other two he's already soaked and spins back onto the dancefloor in white vest. He's old enough to be my dad and there's still another two hours to go. But this is a love affair only these grown men understand. And in the £650 a piece hallowed words which make up Frank Wilson's legendary £15,000 worth of vinyl; "Do I Love You? Indeed I do