Monday, 31 December 2012

Northern Soul: The Story

Northern Soul is a music and dance movement that emerged in the 1960s and reached the peak of its popularity in the mid to late 1970s. The expression was first used publicly by journalist Dave Godin in an article for Blues & Soul magazine in 1971. Godin ran a record shop in London's Covent Garden and apparently coined the phrase in 1968 to help his staff to differentiate between the modern, funkier sounds that were emerging at the time, and the earlier Mowtown-sounding, fast-tempo dance music which still remained popular with soul-fans in the north of England.

The Northern Soul movement, which grew out of the mod subculture, eschewed mainstream music and popular artists in favour of rare recordings by relatively unknown performers. Playlists at clubs were updated by the discovery of previously overlooked tracks produced by small, regional record companies in the United States such as Ric-Tic and Golden Records (Detroit), Mirwood (Los Angeles) and Shout and Okeh (New York/Chicago). The up-tempo beat of the music, together with the influence of stage performances by 1960s American soul acts such as Jackie Wilson, led to the development of a unique dance style incorporating kicks and spins; by the mid-1970s, acrobatic flips and backdrops were added to routines.

Jackie Wilson - "You Better Know It"

Extraordinary dance moves were no the only peculiarity of Northern Soul devotees; they also introduced a fashion of comparable extreme - created with equal measure of form and function. The earlier mod-style of Sta-Prest trousers, Ben Sherman shirts and multi-buttoned blazers gave way to skinny-fitting vests, shirts and tank tops worn over high-waisted, wide-legged Oxford bags - the latter of which not only offered ventilation and freedom of movement, but also cut a dramatic dash mid-pirouette.

Sports vests were often adorned with sew-on patches, representing affiliation to the movement and/or membership of various soul clubs. The design of these badges was often formed around the image of a clenched black fist (a symbol associated with the Black Power salute given by African-American athletes at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City .... and on the soul circuit - a reference to the origin of the music genre).

The Twisted Wheel nightclub in Manchester is widely regarded as being the birthplace of Northern Soul. It opened as a music venue in 1963 and soon developed a reputation for being the place to listen and dance to Rhythm and Blues tunes imported from the United States. It also became a regular scene of drug raids by the police as the club began promoting all-night parties frequented by amphetamine-fuelled dancers ... this became a contributing factor in the clubs closure by the authorities in 1971, and the scene moved on to other locations.

Whilst a number of Northern Soul clubs began to emerge across the North of England and the Midlands throughout the 1970s, the most important venues were the Golden Torch in Stoke, Blackpool Mecca, and the fabled Wigan Casino (which remains the spiritual home of the movement). Wigan began its weekly all-nighters in 1973. It had a much larger capacity than the other clubs on the scene, and by 1976 it had amassed 100,000 members. The club's highest accolade arrived two years later, when Billboard magazine in the US declared Wigan Casino the "Best Disco in the World" - high praise indeed given that New York's Studio 54 had opened it's doors the same year. However, to many of the original crowd, Billboard's commendation was the death knell for the club and the turning point in the life-cycle of what had been an extraordinary subculture. The Casino closed in 1981, and whilst crowds continued to attend other venues around the country, the club's closure marked the end of an era.


At the turn of the century, Northern Soul experienced a quiet revival. In 2002, the reborn Twisted Wheel began to host soul nostalgia nights, and the same year, Sheffield based pop-duo Moloko released the single "Familiar Feeling" accompanied by a soul-styled video directed by long-time Northern Soul enthusiast, Elaine Constantine. Subsequent music videos produced for Duffy's 1998 song "Mercy" and Plan B's "Stay Too Long" in 2010 also featured Northern Soul dancers.

Moloko - "Familiar Feeling"

In 2012, Elaine Constantine realised a lifetime ambition by directing her first feature-length film entitled "Northern Soul" which, set in 1975, tells the story of how the lives of two young men are changed forever when they discover American soul music. Nutters of Savile Row were delighted to have been invited to help with the wardrobe for the production together with designer Paul Smith and British menswear brand Peter Werth. The film is scheduled for release in Spring 2013. 

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