Northern Soul: An Oral History
Drawing from the DJ History archives, we present an oral history of the beloved genre from the DJs that soundtracked it
Between the blossoming of the hippy movement in the late ’60s and the decimation of British industrial heartlands in the ’70s, the underground club culture of London’s Mod scene snaked its way “Up North” to a generation who were too tough for flower power, but still craved respite from the daily grind.
In defiance of the chart music and the popular press of the day, a radical (and often elitist) youth subculture called Northern Soul saw white working class kids travel hundreds of miles across the United Kingdom to squeeze into specialist club nights, clapping, stomping and high-kicking to a sound that’s since become embedded in the British cultural consciousness and praised as the older brother of the early rave scene.
Although nearly everything about Northern Soul was niche, it was also transformative. Bodies writhed inside amphetamine-fuelled takeovers of the dancehalls and basements of their parents’ Saturday night “turns.” Synchronised huddles replaced tender twosomes: super-fit, super-high peacocked men displayed their Bruce Lee-meets-Soul Train moves to sharp-dressed girls; equally sharp time signatures of imported and obscure black American soul music, epitomised by early Tamla Motown, boomed across the halls of inner cities and docks of seaside towns.
Drug taking was endemic and fashion was post-Mod with a wink and a middle finger, but it was the music that remained the driving force. The elements were few but essential. Soulful R&B 45s that were flops in the United States became British stompers, with their lush orchestration and uplifting chords, tough snare on every beat of the rockin’ 4/4, and yearning for loves won, lost and perhaps won again. And while competition between DJs to break obscure records made careers and eventually splintered crowds, the message that endured was that the soul of black America touched those who were searching for something else. Defiance, like all worthwhile youthful endeavours, was Northern Soul’s lifeblood.
To pay tribute to the legacy of Northern Soul and its role in the birth of British club culture, we’ve compiled an oral history through the eyes of some of the scenes key figures and DJs – Ian Levine, Kev Roberts, ‘Farmer’ Carl Dene, Ian Dewhirst, Keb Darge, Jonathan Woodliffe and Guy Hennigan – from Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster’s DJHistory.com archive, to celebrate this unique movement.
I was born in Blackpool in 1953, started collecting Motown records at 13 years old, and had decided at 14 years old that I wanted to own every Motown record ever released. The guy who claims that he was the UK’s first rare record dealer, Gary Wilde, had a cigarette kiosk in Blackpool town centre: selling cigarettes and rare records on Victoria Street, where all the Mods would congregate.
This was in 1967-68. By setting out to collect every single Motown record, it meant that some of them were very hard to find and people like Wilde were taking advantage of the demand and charging £4 or £5 per record. By the time I was 15 years old, I was going with my parents on holiday to America and finding very rare Detroit records in the record shops.
‘Farmer’ Carl Dene
In 1964 and ’65, there was almost no one importing black American soul records to the UK. In my mind, records started coming in around 1966, when Dave Godin [journalist who coined the term northern soul] started to import them to a shop in Manchester and a shop in London. I went to the Diskery in Birmingham and most of the DJs would go there because if you went elsewhere and asked for the Impressions, they would say, “What are you talking about?”
In the mid-to-late ’60s you couldn’t go to a club to dance to black music up north. The London dance scene of the same period, around the Mods, was so far away. No one in London ever went north of Watford then and in places up north – the Wigans, the Leighs, the Warringtons – there’s no way those crowds were going to get off on James Brown songs. It was just too urban. If that person’s a factory worker in a northern town, chances are that the local entertainment is going revolve around the pub.
My sister was a Mod in the ’60s, and when she played me Motown records I loved them. Then she got into all that hippy stuff and I didn’t, because I was only 12 or 13 years old and I didn’t want to hear folk whining about Vietnam. Nowadays, you’ve got all these ways to escape. “I’m going to be a musician, I’m going to be an artist…” “No, you’re going to work in a factory, you’re going to stay there, and in 20 years you might get the key to the executive toilet” – and that was what you saw as your future.
If this is it, and I’m trapped, then I’m going to escape for a wee while. The alternative scene was all about urban discos, or you could bite the heads off chickens and piss your jeans – be a Hells Angel, or a hippy – but there was nothing about those scenes that was club-orientated. My sister’s escape was heroin, and mine’s was trying to chase tunes across the dance floor. Northern soul didn’t exist in the world unless you were into it.
Going out to the working men’s club till midnight just wasn’t going to be good enough for us anymore.
Well, we were dealing with a depressed landscape. There wasn’t a great deal there apart from steelworks and coal mines. You had people doing this boring, repetitive, hard work during the week. When they went out on a weekend they really wanted to go out, and going out to the working men’s club till midnight just wasn’t going to be good enough for us anymore.
The first hint that I got that there was anywhere for me was when I met some Mods when I was 16 years old, in around 1970-71. I probably had about 1,000-1,500 soul records by the time and I’d gone to a Motown night at a pub in Cleckheaton, where I saw these blokes in blazers with this symbol on. It was of the Torch. “What’s this thing for?” I asked. “It’s a soul club, mate. They have an all-nighter every Saturday.” “Well, I’m into that stuff, too.” “No, you won’t know this stuff. This is northern soul.”
It was even more underground than a “movement.” When I went to the Torch, it felt like I had entered a secret world. The Mods that became the northern soul lads seemed to carry themselves with air of superiority to the average beer-swilling factory guys. There was a certain prestige to being on the scene – a purposeful elitism. The lads had up-to-the-minute fashions like mohair suits and the girls looked better than your average girl: well dressed, slinky and way ahead of the rest.
The Golden Torch was only open for one year [1972, in Stoke-on-Trent]. It was an R&B and beat club that only played American music (and was very well-known in the mid-’60s, especially if you wanted to go see the Graham Bond Organization, or the Beatstalkers), and the residents were Alan Day, Colin Curtis, Keith Minshull, Tony Jebb and Martin Ellis. I thought it was terrific, because it was the first place that I went dancing that had an abundance of black American soul 45s.
Outside, the Torch looked like a social club in the middle of a terraced street. It was on Hove Street in Tunstall, and Tunstall felt like the end of the world. There was no railway station there. You had to go to Longport, which was on the Stoke to Crewe train line, and then walk a mile up a great big bank to get to it. Inside, it was an oblong room laid out like a ranch. You had to walk upstairs to the DJ, where there was a stage where you could dance and a really old DJ booth. When it was packed, the dance floor held about 1-1,200 people.
The songwriting element was very important to the sound of the Torch. The record had to have some substance to it and they were all fast and furious: great girl vocal groups on odd U.S. labels, obscurities on the Okeh label; I’d only ever seen that label with Major Lance, and suddenly I was hearing songs like Sandi Sheldon’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Love You.”
The rarity of this scene meant that small clubs that did play these records were very closely related in the beginning. The Twisted Wheel [Manchester, 1963-71] had a lot of credibility because it was playing really black records by singers like Bobby Bland, but it was the DJ at a tiny club in Wolverhampton called the Catacombs [1967-74], ‘Farmer’ Carl Dene, who everyone considered god-like because he discovered the records that were taken up to the Wheel.
Dene found Richard Temple’s “That Beating Rhythm,” on Mirwood Records, and nobody believed that it existed because you had to go to the Catacombs to hear it. He could find the records, but he wasn’t in the position to break them at the Catacombs because it closed at midnight. The Wheel, on the other hand, stayed open later, and so became more prominent and able to break these rarities to a bigger audience. As a DJ, your ability to break a rare record was absolutely vital.
Marc Almond used to be the cloakroom boy in the Warehouse [Leeds], where I was a resident. We booked The Q-Tips [all-male soul revival vocal group] to play on a Tuesday and Wednesday night. I thought, “Great, I’ll pull some soul stuff out.” I brought the more accessible northern soul records with me so that I could play it as people came in, and when I put “Tainted Love” on this guy who I’d conspicuously avoided for nine months – because he was always getting in fights or something – came rushing up.
“What’s this record? I’ve got to know what this record is!” “It’s Gloria Jones’s ‘Tainted Love,’” I said. “I’ve got to have a tape of it!” He ended up coming round my house, and I put on Gloria Jones and a load of other northern soul records for him. [Almond went onto cover Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love,” which became the biggest selling 45 single in 1981 and made stars of Soft Cell].
Rare soul records were treated like prizes. Cover-ups were also a quirky thing that started because DJs were so protective of their finds. It was great when they were playing Freddy Jones’ “My Heart’s Wide Open” for about six months, and it turned out to be by the Coasters, on Atco. I wasn’t really a fan of it, though. I don’t ever remember covering up records myself, but people took it seriously.
The first record to get covered up was by Rob Bellars at the Wheel: Bobby Paterson’s “What a Wonderful Night for Love,” which Jetstar released in the UK. It was technically a new release, so he didn’t want anyone to know it wasn’t an “oldie,” like it was supposed to be then. Of course, it was Benny Harper’s “What A Wonderful Night.” That was in 1970: the year I first when to the Wheel, when I was 17 years old.
DJs had to unearth very obscure singles, sure, but they also had to be bloomin’ good singles to sing, dance and do backflips to, too. The Sweet Things’ “A World Of Trouble,” The Glories’ “I Worship You Baby,” JJ Barnes’s “Our Love Is In The Pocket” – they all had such incredible, Motown-type choruses that it still surprises me that they couldn’t get major airplay in the States at the time. Yet, here we were: playing 50 or 60 new discoveries at English all-nighters every weekend.
When we say “new,” it was very much a ’60s thing: “new” as in “undiscovered,” rather than “modern.” By the early 1970s America was obsessed with early funk music by the likes of James Brown and Lyn Collins. The Motown beat had gone out of fashion in America so instead of looking for new records as they had in the past, we had to hunt for records that were four or five years old. That hunt led to an obsession with rare records. Then when the Wheel closed and the police raided smaller all-nighters [mainly due to the widely reported drug use], the scene got even more compacted. Everything became focused on the Blackpool Mecca and Wigan Casino because they became the only big places in the country that played this kind of music.
Once we got sophisticated [with travelling from venue to venue throughout the weekend] we used to get down to the Blackpool Mecca at about 3:30 or 4 AM, spend three or four hours there, and then it’d be about a 45-50 minute drive to Wigan Casino. The great thing about Wigan Casino was that, as you drew up, there was this tangible excitement in the air because you knew you were going to be walking into a cauldron of energy – and you had to have membership to get in, so it had that sense of community, too.
The entrance to the Wigan Casino was tatty and if it were really busy, there would be steam coming out of the entrance. I’ve seen that happen to cellar clubs a lot, but for a building that big… As soon as you walked, this whole thing hits you: there’s a really fast record playing, clouds of condensation hit you in the face, and then you hear the synchronised handclaps – like thunder. When I’d get to places like Cleethorpes’s Pier at 4 AM, all you’d hear was this “Stomp! Stomp! Stomp!” – and it was from the dancing. It was surreal: there’s this ballroom jutting out to sea, and all you can hear is the pounding of feet and the clapping of hands from over a mile away.
You could bet your life that a chemist en route would be broken into and done over for whatever uppers they could get.
The difference between Wigan Casino [helmed by Russ Winstanley and Richard Searling] and the Blackpool Mecca [helmed by Ian Levine and Colin Curtis] was that Wigan Casino had the fastest tempo of any all-nighter and the tempo was absolutely critical, because it was a massive ballroom full of 2,000 kids and 95% of them were on amphetamines. Some of the big lads must’ve figured out all of the different ways into Wigan and checked out all of the chemists that looked like they didn’t have the greatest security. They used to drive down in crews from all over the country and whichever way they came, you could bet your life that a chemist en route would be broken into and done over for whatever uppers they could get.
The drugs then utterly took hold of the dancers and came to dictate the tempo of the dance floor. If a person is swallowing by midnight and speeding by 3 AM, then you’d best be ready with something damn fast to play. It meant that there was no such thing as blowing a spot at Wigan Casino. You can imagine the collective downer if two records on a row bombed out. The atmosphere would palpably slump and all of sudden it would be a drag, so Wigan Casino was less adventurous in terms of breaking records. It was not the environment to be playing nice, sweet, Philly Sound things.
The other, peculiar thing was a lot of the records that took off had drug references in them: “Blowing My Mind to Pieces,” “Blowing My Mind,” “Cracking Up,” “Ten Miles High.” Then there was the Invitations – “Gotta get my gear out, ready for winter’s near!” When I’d be going to these places, they’d be as high as kites and those were the parts of the records they’d sing: “Gotta get my gear out!” It was the song itself that was getting me off, but they were getting off to someone else...
I mean, to explain just how crazy it would get: the legendary dancer from the Torch has been a guy called Frankie. Everyone would get out of his way, and he knew it. He was one of those guys who had a strong physique – one of the guys who would run up to the wall and do backflips off it. He’d do things with such astounding athleticism. I did notice in the Wigan period that you’d always get the ones doing aeroplane spins. They twirl round faster than the eye can see. In fact, I saw a guy die once doing an aeroplane spin. I once saw a guy at Cleethorpes Pier get locked into doing one and when he came to a standstill, blood was coming from his eyes, his nose, his mouth and his ears. He – blew up. It was upsetting because it was right in front of the DJ, too.
In tandem with the drugs and how they dictated the tempo at different clubs, one of the other key things that defined northern soul was the gradual division of the crowds, and their allegiances to the styles that were played by certain DJs – and the main division came with the rivalry between Russ Winstanley and Ian Levine. As Winstanley grew in stature with Wigan Casino, the Casino developed its own crowd – which was very different to the Blackpool Mecca, so Levine was king of his castle and Winstanley was king of his.
By the time the Torch closed in 1973, I had become a “big name” on the northern soul scene. I could look at the producer, arranger or singer, and tell straight away whether it was going to be a ballad or a northern soul record.
But I wasn’t very happy about all of it. The truth is that we burnt it out too quick. By 1975 there were plenty of stomping ’60s records still to discover, but they just weren’t as good as the ones we were playing in the golden years of 1973-74, when we turned everything up: from Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and even Virginia. The overall standard was going down so it meant that when we found something we liked, we needed it.
A perfect example of this is when I went to Miami in the summer of 1973 and bought 4,000 singles from old Salvation Army places for 5¢ each. While I was there, I heard a record on the radio by the Carstairs. They’d had a big record on Okeh, called “He Who Picks The Rose,” but this new record, “It Really Hurts Me Girl,” absolutely blew my mind. It had this very throaty northern soul vocal and feel to it, but a slightly more shuffling beat: not as modern as the Philly Sound, but a bit more dangerous for the scene.
I tried to buy “It Really Hurt Me Girl,” but I couldn’t find it in the shops and no one else seemed to have heard of it. I went to the radio station and they said they’d been sent a demo from the record company – Red Coach Jean Red’s label, distributed by Chess – who I phoned up myself. They’d lost their distributor and the record had been shelved. I begged the radio station, told I’d give them anything they wanted for the demo, but they refused because they liked it as well. I thought I was fucked.
Back in England, I found a dealer called John Anderson who’d moved from Scotland to Norfolk [Anderson started out selling northern soul from a payphone in Aberdeen, then ran the record distributor Soul Bowl in Kings Lynn, Norfolk] and I told him that I wanted this record. He’d just had a shipment in from America of 100,000 demos from radio stations and after Andy Hanley, Bernie Golding and I went through them all, we found three copies of it.
I would’ve heard this record in 1973, when it was supposedly released, but not obtained it until 1974, and when we went back to Blackpool Mecca and played it – well, it changed the whole scene. After the Carstairs came this new wave of shuffling, hypnotic rhythms, as opposed to the stompiness of the ’60s stuff: Marvin Holmes’s “You Better Keep Her,” Bobby Franklin’s “The Ladies Choice,” Don Thomas’s “Come On Train” and Jay Armstead’s “I’ve Got The Vibes.” Blackpool Mecca suddenly became the home of this new northern soul sound.
It was wonderful for while – the Wigan Casino crowd hated it and carried on playing the ’60s stompers, but when things like the Carstairs got played, the floor was much busier than when some of the stompers were played. But what happened soon after was that the bootleggers began to kill the exclusivity off for us. Every rare record that we found – Eddie Foster’s “I Never Knew,” the Glories’ “I Worship You Baby,” the Sweet Things’ “I’m in a World of Trouble” – would be bootlegged four or five weeks after it started to break in the clubs.
Our rule at Blackpool Mecca was that as soon as a record was bootlegged we’d drop it like a hot potato. If three or four bootlegs were coming in every week, which they were at that time, three or four records would get dropped from the playlist and three or four had to be found to replace them. That meant that the quality of the sounds started to deteriorate. One of the biggest culprits of this – or entrepreneur of, depending on how you look at it – was Simon Soussan, especially with what happened to Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You?”
Simon Soussan is a French-Moroccan character that came to England in the ’60s, went to the Wheel and loved northern soul. He was a tailor for Burton’s, at their head office in Leeds: an incredibly intelligent guy, but slippery, too. He was the first guy to really go to the U.S., find records and put lists out for people in the UK to buy from him. Some people got the records, some people didn’t and so he developed an “unreliable” reputation – but he found some absolutely fantastic records. A lot of the Torch hits came directly from him.
He wanted to reissue these in-demand records so he got in bed with Selectadisc, which was the biggest retailer of northern soul in the UK. It was a perfect extension to their business to have these in-demand records supplied to them. Now, Tom dePierro was an archivist employed by Motown to reactivate the Motown Yesteryears series, around the time that Motown relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles [now known as the somewhat ill-fated “Mowest” period of the mid-’70s]. On a chance meeting with Soussan in Los Angeles, dePierro lent Soussan some records and one of them was the Frank Wilson disc.
According to Frank Wilson, Motown pressed up copies of “Do I Love You?” but because he was producing for Brenda Holloway, Berry Gordy collared him backstage somewhere and said, “Hey man, do you really wanna be an artist, with all the hassles?” Frank said, “You’re right, Berry. I’m not going to be an artist.” Gordy then destroyed the copies of “Do I Love You?” but somehow two copies survived – and Soussan got one of them from dePierro.
Simon Soussan did some research after hearing “Do I Love You?” and realised that nobody had ever seen or heard it before. He subsequently covered it over, sent some acetate to England (notably to Winstanley, who was definitely the first person to play it), and he called it Eddie Foster’s “Do I Love You?” Eddie Foster incidentally, was already someone who’d had a northern soul hit, but he put this pseudonym in to make people believe that it was actually him. The record was instantly massive, so Soussan quickly pressed up thousands of copies and they sold like wildfire. Then Soussan decided to sell his record collection and a guy called Les McCutcheon, who discovered Shakatak, acquired the original disc for (reputedly) $500, which was a lot of money back then.
Every month thereafter dePierro would ask Soussan for his record back, and Soussan would say, “Oh, baby, I’ll bring it tomorrow” – not telling him that he’d sold it to Les McCutcheon. DePierro got AIDS and went to his deathbed without ever getting the record back off Soussan. The record then left his hands, and went to Jonathan Woodliffe.
I used to go to gigs and people used to ask me to get this record out of my box so they could take a photograph of it.
I collared Les one day and said, “I really want to buy that record – will you sell it?” We sat down in the office one day and a figure of £500 came up. I thought, “I must be off my trolley,” but I’d spoken to a few people and they’d all said that this is surely the only copy, and so I decided to buy. It was paid up over the course six months in 1978-79. I used to go to gigs and people used to ask me to get this record out of my box so they could take a photograph of it. £500 was the highest anyone had paid for a record at that point. I had it for about two years.
I then bought the record from Woodliffe for a load of albums and 12-inches totalling £350: an unearthly sum. I remember very clearly the minute that I bought it – in 1979-80, when the scene was dying – that quite a few people said to me: “Oh, it’s by Frank Wilson and it’s on a Tamla Motown subsidiary. You paid £350? But, there’s loads of them around!” I kept it and never thought any more about it. Slowly, throughout the ’80s, I’d get the odd call every six months: “Have you got the Frank Wilson record? Do want to sell it? I’ll give you £700 for it.” By 1987 I was being offered a grand for it.
The upshot of all of this was that I kept it till 1991 and then Tim Brown, now my partner in Goldmine, basically offered me £5,000. I sold it, but here’s the rub. Our partner in Goldmine at the time, Martin Cappell, bought a Motown collection from a guy called Ron Murphy in Detroit, and a second copy of it was unearthed in the early ’90s. That copy has just been sold to a collector in Scotland for £15,000. So, there are two original copies that I know of now. The first ever copy is with Tim Brown, and the second copy, which is in better condition, is with this guy in Scotland.
Bootlegging really started to affect the quality of the original northern soul sound. Levine’s developing personal tastes began to have a huge effect on the scene, too. Levine would go to Miami to stay with his parents (they had a casino in Blackpool called the Lemon Tree, and a house in Miami), so he was going to every warehouse in Florida to find records. There was a point where he brought back terrible records like Snoop Dee’s “Shake and Bump” and Paul Humphrey’s “Cochise,” which nobody knew was a new record and was an immediate monster – so this more modern influence drifted in.
Then he stopped going to Miami and started spending time in the underground gay discos in New York City, bringing new disco back to the north of England. The scene hadn’t yet split because of it, but what you were getting was Levine leaning more and more on the new material in the Blackpool Mecca, while Curtis was playing the stompers alongside him. What was essentially early disco (Southshore Commission’s “Free Man,” George Benson’s “Super Ship”) dovetailed with northern soul in the mid-’70s.
I started going to disco clubs in New York in 1974-75, by which time Tom Moulton had become a superstar as far as his mixing abilities would go. I set my mind on making a perfect New York disco record, which I did in 1976: Barbara Pennington’s “24 Hours A Day.” I went over to see Moulton about mixing it and we compared notes. I was playing him all the stuff that was big on the northern soul scene, and he was playing me all these tapes of unreleased disco music, like Aldie Davidson’s “Who’s Gonna Love Me.”
The northern soul scene was a very heterosexual scene and the New York disco scene was a very gay scene, but the two had such strong musical parallels. They were both looking for a sound that wasn’t being made by everyday producers, so they had to create this sound for a starved market of people who wanted to dance all night to soulful music with lots of strings and female vocals. It was never that heavy Memphis soul sound of Otis Redding. It was always the upbeat, uptown sound: Philly Sound before there was a Philly Sound, with all this swirling orchestration.
By this point, anyone who’d been to the States and found obscure soul records could become involved. It was the perfect vehicle. Flying to the States in 1969 when the Wheel was on was quite unusual, but by the early ’70s it was different story. There were a few more package deals that weren’t so costly, then [private British airline] Laker Airways started running one-way flights for between £30-40 and everyone went nuts. I first went to New York in 1975. I found some northern soul records scouring through secondhand record stories in the yellow pages – as per usual, for someone who’d never been there before.
I was oblivious to “bad areas.” If someone said, “Hey, I know a soul shop in Spanish Harlem!” and I knew that there could be gunfire passing my nose, I couldn’t care less. All I knew was that the shop on 122nd Street and 8th Avenue had soul, and I was going. This opened my eyes to a different sound, because the Mecca was now playing what I called Modern Soul, like “Cashing In” and “Seven Day Lover.”
I always remember going to a store called Downstairs Records in New York, run by two guys called Nick and Roy, who had both originally worked at Greenline in Queens and were ’50s doo-wop collectors. They recognised that the disco scene was developing and so they opened a shop selling the new stuff alongside the “oldies.” I saw piles and piles of guys wandering in to listen at the counter: releases on Scepter, Roulette, Wand; piling 12-inch singles up and walking out with them, so I started to take a few back. Levine was very aware of the disco scene but, just for that little while, I think I was a bit up on Levine.
One record changed it all for me. I met this guy called Tony Gioe. He was the DJ at Peppermint Lounge, which ran disco nights in New York City, but he was also the A&R man for Midland International and the guy that licensed Silver Convention. (I think the reason he’s unknown is he didn’t go on to make his name like Tom Moulton did, but he’s certainly from Moulton’s time.) He played a lot of Philly music – Eloise Laws’ “Love Factory,” Bimbo Jet’s “El Bimbo” – and then he played me the O’Jays’ “I Love Music,” on test pressing.
The Ritz all-dayers had just started in Manchester and a slightly different crowd was developing from it (since the all-dayers were only northern soul until then, like the Palais in Nottingham and a few others). The Ritz had a northern soul crowd but once Levine started to play “I Love Music,” they started to take these news releases seriously. “I Love Music” made dance records more acceptable and paved the way for things like Tavares’ “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel” and Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free,” which were absolute monsters in this transitional period.
From that moment, Levine made a pact with himself that northern soul was “unofficially dead” and went completely in the disco direction. The alienated went down to Wigan Casino for the ’60s stompers and stayed there, while Levine brought in a newer, slicker and more club-oriented crowd of city people. By 1977-79, jazz funk was emerging and songs like Brass Construction’s “Movin’” kept breaking the mould for the Blackpool Mecca. It was working around a funkier groove that people north of Watford could finally get into.
That’s when the north and the south of England were coming together for the first time: when Levine and Colin Curtis brought funkier grooves to the north. Other records escalated this transition – or split, perhaps. In the middle of “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel,” “I Love Music” and “Young Hearts, Run Free” was another: “Turn the Beat Around” by Vicki Sue Robinson; a record hated by the hardcore northern soul crowd, but a monster to everyone else.
David Todd was a black guy who worked at RCA and was responsible for the first 12-inch record by Vicki Sue Robinson called Never Gonna Let You Go (The 1976 LP, which featured “Turn the Beat Around”). It was part of a marketing campaign because DJs were moaning that they couldn’t get any length out of the 7-inches. Todd decided to make a long disco mix and put it on a 12-inch. There is no doubt in my mind that Robinson’s was the very first. I would stake my house on it. Others like it were a record by Sam Cooke’s niece, Simona Cooke; the Bee Gees’ “Subway”; Brenda Russell’s “Gonna Do My Best to Love You;” another Moulton record on RCA. And even though they were like gold dust, these 12-inches were all played at Blackpool Mecca.
In my mind, credibility-wise, northern soul suffered from two big disasters. The first was that in late 1974, the record companies clocked on to what was happening [with the scene], started infiltrating northern sounds, and persuaded Russ Winstanley that this [new pop sound] was “where it was at.” Winstanley then started playing “Goodbye Nothing To Say” and extended it to the theme from “Police Story”: hideous, stupid pop records. They became popular because they were odd stompers, but they didn’t have any substance. The Ventures’ “Hawaii Five-0” was massive and that very much swayed me against the Wigan Casino – and I was still playing there in late 1975.
The floor of the Blackpool Mecca was being packed out for the more modern stuff played by Levine and Curtis, and the crowd were dictating which way it went. Wigan Casino was the complete opposite. They were looking for anything they could find with a rocking 4/4 beat, so all they could find at that time were pop records, like Gary Lewis & The Playboys’ “My Heart’s Symphony.” They were playing some good soul records, sure, but a lot of white pop that ripped off soul was getting played, like Lorraine Silver’s “Lost Summer Love” and Brian Hyland’s “The Joker Went Wild.”
This new crowd of tourists descended on Wigan Casino, and Blackpool Mecca became for the purists.
At the same time, Dave McAleer was releasing horrible novelty pop covers of northern soul tracks by Wigan’s Chosen Few on Disco Demand, a subsidiary label of Pye Records. Now that the diehards hated the pop songs and were deserting the Wigan Casino because of it, thousands were seeing these dancers on Top Of The Pops with their badges and singlets, and though, “Oh – this is the new thing then, eh? Let’s get into it!” This new crowd of tourists descended on Wigan Casino, and Blackpool Mecca became for the purists who desperately wanted to keep going.
The next big mistake came in 1978. For some unknown reason, there was an abundance of good northern soul records being played by Searling, but I think the problem was that Searling had become the new Levine. He’d got the cover-ups; the unknowns, the good sources – and Winstanley suddenly went a million miles down the road and started to find pop stompers [with him at Wigan Casino] that were even worse than the first lot. Searling was what you’d call a “good taste” DJ, whereas Winstanley would play some real pap. It was one of the things used to wind me up about him. He’s got this great club, packed to capacity with kids, and we’ve got all of this incredible music at our disposal – so why is he playing Joey Dee & The Starliters’ “Good Little You”?
The crossing over of the black soul rarities into the mainstream pop world had a huge effect. Absolutely. The first acclaimed northern soul record was the Tams’ “Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me,” which was played at the Wheel, but it wasn’t the northern soul sound. It was the earthy sound of the Wheel. The first record to break out of Blackpool Mecca was Archie Bell & The Drells’ “Here I Go Again,” which then lead to modern throwbacks with a ’60s sound breaking through: Esther Phillips’ “Catch Me I’m Falling,” the Barbara Valentine stuff. “Here I Go Again” was so big at the Blackpool Mecca that Atlantic reissued it due to the demand, and it reached No. 11 in the UK charts in October 1972.
The definitive northern soul record that was only ever released because of its popularity at the Blackpool Mecca, though, was Robert Knight’s “Love On a Mountain Top.” [No. 10 in the UK charts, November 1973] It caused a furore and there was no other excuse for it being in the Top 10 other than the northern soul scene, because it was at least five years old. Once that piqued a commercial interest in the scene Motown even issued R. Dean Taylor’s “There’s a Ghost In My House” [No. 3 in the UK chart, May 1974].
Levine was the guy who brought back R. Dean Taylor’s “There’s a Ghost In My House” from the States as a VIP single. He said, “I’ve got the greatest northern soul record ever,” but then again he would say that all of the time. “It’s a VIP, written by Holland Dozier and Holland, and it’s by a well-known singer.” I was like, “Fuck off, it can’t be that rare!” That night he played it six times and by the third time everybody thought that, “Yes, it is the greatest record ever.” It’s the most wanted record in the country overnight and the buzz is spreading: “Levine’s done it again, he’s found a killer.” So the next day everybody’s on to their contacts in the States – and everybody came up with a blank. We just couldn’t believe that it was that rare.
This went on for about six weeks. The thirst for this record was huge. Then the weirdest thing happened. Someone went into a motorway service station on the way home from Wigan Casino for the Sunday paper, there was a rack of old Music for Pleasure budget LP racks, and there was an R. Dean Taylor compilation called Indiana Wants Me in there. Track three, side two: there it was. “There’s a Ghost in My House.” It’s actually in every record shop in the country, and we all fucking missed it!
Of course, the game was up within about a week. I’d found about 50 copies and I was knocking them out at a fiver each. I’d always had a bit of a snobby attitude, though. There were a million and one fast stompers with a white vocal that seemed to lean towards the Wigan Casino, and I’d occasionally let a white one through, like a Dean Parrish or Paul Anka, but I felt that northern soul needed a black vocal.
Yes, it was yours truly that first played it, I’m afraid. That R. Dean Taylor really is a nasty, white pop record for Motown. northern soul was a slightly blacker, rougher and rarer version of the Motown sound, on obscure labels, and that song doesn’t sound black. I suppose I should be ashamed of breaking it.
The whole scene was about the Yanks and us: the music, the concept, and particularly bearing in mind that it’s from foreign shores. It was a holy grail to us. We’re all brought up in a certain manner, and to listen to a certain type of music, but it’s like anything else in life: you wanted to be the best and to want something that’s slightly out of your grasp. If you’re into the music – and this is something you’re brought up with, in a white, working class mentality – you’ll take it to the nth degree. You’ll travel to listen to it and you’ll go even further to find better and better stuff. There’s got to be crusades. You’ve got to do something.
There was only one golden era of northern soul. I think we found all the great records between 1972 and 1976, and there was only one, definitive playlist. Now, you can argue how many records were on that playlist, but really it’s no more than about 200 songs: the absolutely stonking dance floor fillers, like Tony Clark’s “Landslide” and Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love.”
Having said that, the ethos of northern soul has continued. That exclusivity is still going. When the whole rave scene in the late ’80s went ballistic, to me, it felt like northern soul 20 years on: lots of white working class people getting off their heads on uppers in basements, dancing to fast music with this intense, loving attitude. It’s less so that rave culture is this generation’s version of Northern Soul – more that Northern Soul was the UK’s original rave culture. And we can be proud of that.
Header image © Courtesy of Greg Wilson