In the book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: the history of the DJ, the authors describe northern soul as "a genre built from failures", stating: "...Northern Soul was the music made by hundreds of singers and bands who were copying the Detroit sound of Motown pop. Most of the records were complete failures in their own time and place... but in northern England from the end of the 1960s through to its heyday in the middle 1970s, were exhumed and exalted."
The music style most associated with northern soul is the heavy, syncopated beat and fast tempo of mid-1960s Motown Records, which was usually combined with soulful vocals. These types of records, which suited the athletic dancing that was prevalent, became known on the scene as stompers. Notable examples include Tony Clarke’s "Landslide" (popularised by Ian Levine at Blackpool Mecca) and Gloria Jones’ "Tainted Love" (purchased by Richard Searling on a trip to the United States in 1973 and popularised at Va Va’s in Bolton, and later, Wigan Casino). According to northern soul DJ Ady Croadsell, viewed retrospectively, the earliest recording to possess this style was the 1965 single I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) by The Four Tops, although that record was never popular in the northern soul scene because it was too mainstream.
Other related music styles also gained acceptance in the northern soul scene. Slower, less-danceable soul records were often played, such as Barbara Mills' "Queen Of Fools" (popular in 1972 at the Golden Torch) and The Mob’s "I Dig Everything About You". Every all-nighter at Wigan Casino ended with the playing of three well-known northern soul songs with a particular going home theme. Commercial pop songs that matched the up-tempo beat of the stompers were also played at some venues, including The Ron Grainer Orchestra’s instrumental "Theme From Joe 90" at Wigan Casino and The Just Brothers’ surf-guitar song "Sliced Tomatoes" at Blackpool Mecca.
As the scene developed in the mid and late 1970s, the more contemporary and rhythmically sophisticated sounds of disco and Philly Soul became accepted at certain venues following its adoption at Blackpool Mecca. This style is typified musically by the O'Jays' "I Love Music" (UK #13, January 1976), which gained popularity prior to its commercial release at Blackpool Mecca in late 1975. The record that initially popularised this change is usually cited as The Carstair's "It Really Hurts Me Girl" (Red Coach), a record initially released late in 1973 on promotional copies - but quickly withdrawn due to lack of interest from American Radio stations. The hostility towards any contemporary music style from northern soul traditionalists at Wigan Casino led to the creation of the spin-off modern soul movement in the early 1980s.
As venues such as the Twisted Wheel evolved into northern soul clubs in the late 1960s and the dancers increasingly demanded newly discovered sounds, DJs began to acquire and play rare and often deleted US releases that had not gained even a release in the UK." These records were sometimes obtained through specialist importers or, in some cases, by DJs visiting the US and purchasing old warehouse stock. Some records were so rare that only a handful of copies were known to exist, so northern soul DJs and clubs became associated with particular records that were almost exclusively on their own playlists. Many of the original artists and musicians remained unaware of their new-found popularity for many years.
As the scene increased in popularity, a network of UK record dealers emerged who were able to acquire further copies of the original vinyl and supply them to fans at prices commensurate with their rarity and desirability. Later on, a number of UK record labels were able to capitalise on the booming popularity of northern soul and negotiate licenses for certain popular records from the copyright holders and reissue them as new 45s or compilation LPs. Amongst these labels were Casino Classics, PYE Disco Demand, Inferno, Kent Modern and Goldmine.
The notoriety of DJs on the northern soul scene was enhanced by the possession of rare records, but exclusivity was not enough on its own, and the records had to conform to a certain musical style and gain acceptance on the dance floor. Frank Wilson's "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" has been rated the rarest and most valuable northern soul single.
Many songs from the 1960s that were revived on the northern soul scene were reissued by their original labels and became UK top 50 hits in the 1970s. These includeThe Fascinations' 1966 single "Girls Are Out To Get You" (UK #32, 1971), The Newbeats' 1965 American hit "Run Baby Run" (UK #10, Oct 1971), Bobby Hebb's "Love Love Love" which was originally the B-side of his 1966 U.S. #1 "Sunny" (UK #32 August 1972,) Robert Knight's "Love On A Mountain Top" of 1968 (UK#10, November 1973), R. Dean Taylor’s "There’s A Ghost In My House" from 1967 (UK #3, May 1974), Al Wilson's "The Snake", Dobie Gray's "Out On The Floor" (UK #42, September 1975) and Little Anthony & The Imperials' "Better Use Your Head" (UK # 42 July 1976).
A variety of recordings were made later in the 1970s that were specifically aimed at the northern soul scene, which also went on to become UK top 40 hits. These included: The Exciters’ "Reaching For The Best" (UK #31, October 1975), L.J Johnson's "Your Magic Put A Spell On Me" (UK#27, February 1976), Tommy Hunt’s "Loving On The Losing Side" (UK #28, August 1976) and "Footsee" by Wigan’s Chosen Few (UK #9, January 1975).
"Goodbye Nothing To Say", by the white British group The Javells, was identified by Dave McAleer of Pye's Disco Demand label as having an authentic northern soul feel. McAleer gave a white label promotional copy to Russ Winstanley (a Wigan Casino DJ and promoter), and the tune became popular amongst the dancers at the venue. Disco Demand then released the song as a 45 RPM single, reaching UK #26 in November 1974. To promote the single on BBC's Top Of The Pops, the performer was accompanied by two Wigan Casino dancers.
In 2000, Wigan Casino DJ Kev Roberts compiled The Northern Soul Top 500, which was based on a survey of northern soul fans. The top ten songs were: "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" by Frank Wilson, "Out on the Floor" by Dobie Gray, "You Didn't Say a Word" by Yvonne Baker, "The Snake" by Al Wilson, "Long After Tonight is Over" by Jimmy Radcliffe, "Seven Day Lover" by James Fountain, "You Don't Love Me" by Epitome of Sound, "Looking for You" by Garnet Mimms, "If That's What You Wanted" by Frankie Beverly & the Butlers, and "Seven Days Too Long" by Chuck Wood.
A large proportion of northern soul's original audience came from within the 1960s mod subculture. In the late 1960s, when some mods started to embrace freakbeat and psychedelic rock, other mods - especially those in northern England - stuck to the original mod soundtrack of soul and Blue Beat. From the latter category, two strands emerged: skinheads and the northern soul scene.
Early northern soul fashion included strong elements of the classic mod style, such as button-down Ben Sherman shirts, blazers with centre vents and unusual numbers of buttons, Trickers and brogue shoes and shrink-to-fit Levi's jeans. Some non-mod items, such as bowling shirts, were also popular. Later, northern soul dancers started to wear light and loose-fitting clothing for reasons of practicality. This included high-waisted, baggy Oxford trousers and sports vests. These were often covered with sew-on badges representing soul club memberships.
The clenched fist symbol that has become associated with the northern soul movement (frequently depicted on sew-on patches) emanates from the Black Power civil rights movement of the 1960s in the United States. The symbol is related to the salute given by African-American athletes at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City. On his visit to the Twisted Wheel in 1971, Dave Godin recalled that "...very many young fellows wore black "right on now" racing gloves ... between records one would hear the occasional cry of "Right on now!" or see a clenched gloved fist rise over the tops of the heads of the dancers!"
The northern soul movement is cited by many as being a significant step towards the creation of contemporary club culture and of the superstar DJ culture of the 2000s. Two of the most notable DJs from the original northern soul era are Russ Winstanley and Ian Levine. As in contemporary club culture, northern soul DJs built up a following based on satisfying the crowd's desires for music that they could not hear anywhere else. The competitiveness between DJs to unearth 'in-demand' sounds led them to cover up the labels on their records, giving rise to the modern white label pressing. Many argue that northern soul was instrumental in creating a network of clubs, DJs, record collectors and dealers in the UK, and was the first music scene to provide the British charts with records that sold entirely on the strength of club play.
A technique employed by northern soul DJs in common with their later counterparts was the sequencing of records to create euphoric highs and lows for the crowd. Many of the DJ personalities and their followers involved in the original northern soul movement went on to become important figures in the house and dance music scenes. Notable among these are Mike Pickering, who introduced house music to The Haçienda in Manchester in the early 1980s, and the dance record producers Pete Waterman and Ian Levine.
Northern soul has influenced several notable musicians. Terry Christian — in his 2008 article about northern soul for The Times — wrote, "There's an instant credibility for any artist or brand associated with a scene that has always been wild, free and grassroots." Soft Cell had chart success with covers of two popular northern soul songs, "Tainted Love" (originally recorded by Gloria Jones) and "What?" (originally recorded by Judy Street). Soft Cell member Dave Ball used to occasionally attend soul nights at Blackpool Mecca and Wigan Casino. Moloko's video for "Familiar Feeling" is set against a northern soul backdrop and was directed by Elaine Constantine, a longstanding northern soul enthusiast. The video was choreographed by DJ Keb Darge, who rose to prominence at the Stafford Top Of The World all-nighters in the 1980s.
So there it is a story of 'Northern' Soul, a movment without whom club culture today would pherhaps not be as it is. A scene that has unearthed and brought to popularity some of the best lost soul sounds ever and some horrendous ones that should have been left well alone! But even when you go to a 'northern' night one thing is for sure that with most songs coming in at under 3 minutes long if you don’t like the one that is playing another killer tune won’t be far away and the feeling of freedom and abandonment on the dance floor will always take you higher!