‘A Change is Gonna Come’
– Sam Cooke
The Northern Soul movement started in the late 1960s / early 1970s, in the north of England.
It was a working class scene of the northern industrial towns – Manchester, Blackburn, Wigan, Stoke, Bolton, Blackpool and Bolton.
It was basically started by young men who travelled down to London for football matches. Whilst in London, they would visit a shop called Soul City in Covent Garden. They were looking for obscure soul records. They loved the pace, energy and romantic lyricism of Motown. The sound and speed of the Four Tops being especially popular. But they wanted less commercial tracks, less mainstream songs.
The shop was run by the soul music collector Dave Godin. Godin coined the phrase in his weekly column in Blues & Soul in June 1970. He says, “I started to notice that northern football fans who were in London to follow their team were coming into the store to buy records, but they weren’t interested in the latest hits. I devised the name as a shorthand sales term. You’ve got customers from the north, don’t waste time playing them records in the U.S. charts, just play them what they like – Northern Soul.”
The stories and lyrics of the ‘back streets’ of Detroit depicted in the songs found strong resonance and affinity with the working class experience of northern England.
They played the records in their dance clubs back home – venues such as the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, the Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca – and this developed into a distinctive, high-octane, high-energy dance craze. Some of these moves made their way into break-dancing and Hip-hop.
Some of the key songs of Northern Soul scene were Tainted Love by Gloria Jones, Wade in the Water by Marlena Shaw and Heatwave by Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. The talismanic template, however, was I Can’t Help Myself by the Four Tops, which was a four beat, ultra-fast stomper, with the aching vocals of legendary lead singer Levi Stubbs, and a snare on every drumbeat.
A large proportion of Northern Soul’s original audience came from the 1960s mod subculture. Two sub-strands emerged: skinheads and the northern soul scene.
Early Northern Soul fashion included strong elements of the classic mod style, such as button-down Fred Perry and Ben Sherman shirts and polo-shirts, brogue shoes and shrink-to-fit Levi’s jeans. Later, Northern Soul dancers started to wear light and loose-fitting clothing for reasons of practicality.
The clenched raised fist symbol that became associated with the Northern Soul movement emanates from the 1960s Black Power movement in the United States. Many dancers wore black gloves, and in between records one would hear the occasional cry of ‘right on now!’
Another development that we can trace from that era to the modern day, is the central figure of the DJ. Some key DJ’s at the time within this scene were Pete Waterman and Peter Stringfellow, who went on to respectively become kings of pop and London nightclubs.
Like the superstar DJ’s of today, the Northern Soul DJs built up a following based on satisfying the crowd’s desire for music 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, record collectors and dealers in the UK. It was the first music scene to provide the British charts with records that sold entirely on the strength of club play.