It's Okeh up north!

Party Freaks from modernists Miami

Trouble Man Marvin Gaye (1939 - 1984)

The Ice Man Jerry Butler

Edwin Starr (1942 - 2003)

Melba Moore

The eponymous Dansette record player

It's in the bag!

A Record Spider


Imagine this if you will; It is 1979. What could one do on an average Friday and Saturday evening? If under the age of adulthood, one could stay indoors and watch television series such as Sale Of The Century, The Muppet Show and The Professionals, or even venture outside and frequent one of the many underage discos and youth clubs that existed back then. A decade or so earlier, and the options were even more limited. But those of adult years had much more choice at their disposal as there were pubs, nightclubs and dancehalls on offer to them, especially in the north of England.

Many of these venues were built in the 1920s and ‘30s, and played host to their patrons who rotated themselves in their dinner jackets and evening dresses, to the fashionable music and dances of the time. In Britain throughout the war years and beyond, these places often served as a catalyst for relationships between American GIs, West Indian immigrants, and English girls. In the 1960s, if you couldn’t afford a night out you could always stay indoors with a Dansette record player, and a few friends for company. In these early days of modern nightclubbing, it would not be strange to see one of these decks in a pub or club. And eventually, spinning records on a pair of Garrard turntables lashed together, in order to facilitate continuous dancing, would be a familiar sight too. By the 1970s, most of the dancehalls were bought up by chains and had transformed into lacklustre bingo halls and cinemas. But others remained independent and primary locations for the enjoyment of dancing and music. Most notably Northern Soul. These venues did not always have the most sophisticated interior design, because often this was not of the greatest importance to patrons. Dancing certainly was, and once the lights had been dimmed, who would care about anything besides the music? Some of the dancers incorporated karate kicks and punches into their moves, inspired by hit films of the time such as Enter The Dragon and Big Boss, which literally kick-started a martial arts craze in England during the early 1970s.

Much like the jazz-funk scene which was to follow it within just a few years, Northern Soul’s ethos centred around highly collectible and obscure records from America. Some of the most highly sought after releases, appeared on the Okeh label which went through various designs and incarnations during it’s existence. Doris Troy, Melba Moore, Edwin Starr, and Jerry Butler, were among a number of artists on various labels that were highly revered. Vee Jay, Atlantic, Stax, and the Tamla Motown labels were also good sources. But who coined it’s name in the first place? This at least is no mystery as the late Dave Godin, a respected music journo and record dealer, is credited with being the first person to use the term Northern Soul. But why? Many conjectured, that because its most loyal fans were situated in the uppermost region of England’s map, that this was it’s origin. However another credible reason, is that the music which so dominated the scene often came from the northern cities of America, such as Chicago and Detroit. So what had endeared the English to this music created mainly by black Americans? Perhaps they felt an affinity with the working class ideals of the singers and songwriters, who would recount their tales of factory life, unrequited love, and abandonment. But the northern soul scene which emerged as the 1960s ended, was a predominantly white working class one. And sometimes, those of a different hue that also wanted to experience northern nights of pleasure, were not always welcome. This was indeed ironic.

As with anything which is held in legendary regard, there are fantastic tales of unbelievable events; Apparently during the 1960s, thousands of unsold 7 inch records which were considered to be worthless at the time, were being used as ballast (a weight distributor) inside the many cargo vessels which arrived and departed from cities such as Liverpool and Manchester at the height of British shipyards’ industrial years. Once in the country, these singles were sold off very cheaply in what were called Soul Packs. Canny purchasers were said to have snapped-up singles which would later become priceless in value. This may indeed have been the case for the few, but often true fans of soul and rhythm & blues music who wished to collect the latest popular imported records, had to make sacrifices in order to afford such items from specialist record stores. Very soon obscure releases became even more sought after, and buying this music was not an easy affair. Serious collectors and DJs, were prepared to travel anywhere to purchase certain records, and trips to the USA were not uncommon.

As the scene progressed, three sub-genres emerged: Cross-Over. Proper Northern. And Modern were all different types of Northern Soul music. The term Cross-Over, unlike it’s meaning in the rap music idiom, described records which had a mid tempo feel, were released at the end of the 1960s, but were still popular in the 1970s. Proper Northern described the singles which had an archetypal ‘60s sound, and also a feel-good factor for good measure. Tracks described as Modern, were usually released during and after the 1970s, and purists on the scene would certainly not approve of a DJ playing them during a set. Often, DJs were encouraged by the label who supplied them, to play the Push Side or Plug Side of a record. That being, the side that was considered most likely to become a hit.

Of course, there was a fashion etiquette to which many adhered to strictly: Loose clothing was essential, if one were to maintain an energetic night of swallow-dives and more. Perspiration was not too far behind, and talcum powder was sometimes used to ease spins on the dancefloor, not just to keep the body dry. Those that thought ahead, would take with them a change of clothes in PVC sportsbags that were standard equipment for any schoolchild or athlete of the time. This was the dawn of the well groomed man, who was encouraged via television commercials with the likes of George Best to take care of his appearance; T-shirts, vests, and Fred Perry polo shirts adorned the torso, while flat-soled bowling shoes or plimsolls were preferable to unsuitable platforms. Flared trousers were fashionable with some anyway, and were ideal attire for both sexes. The more pockets the better. Sport and music had now fused, and this was to become familiar territory. And besides alcohol, other substances were consumed during nights out as often, there were not only record dealers in attendance. Later on, as the commercial aspect of the scene increased, venues and promoters sold badges and fabric patches which patrons could sew onto their clothing and embellish their look further. Often, a clenched fist inspired by black athletes protesting for civil rights at the 1968 Olympic Games, was a commonly used symbol. These could be attached to tracksuit tops and jackets used to keep the winter chill at bay, once patrons decided to venture home, after bidding their friends a fond farewell by telling them to Have a gorilla. Along with fliers and posters of the period, these serve as stunning exhibits for those that still have them as souvenirs.

Now is a good point in this article to namedrop: The Manchester Ritz. The Blackpool Mecca. The Wigan Casino. The Mexican Bar in Blackpool near Squire’s Gate. The Locarno in Birmingham. The Winter Gardens in Cleethorpes. The Rafters. The Central in Leeds. The Nottingham Palais. The Twiseted Wheel in Manchester. The Torch. The Highland Room. These were some of the literal meccas to which people would congregate at northern soul’s height of popularity. There were also the classic All Dayers & Weekenders such as Prestatyn to frequent too. But to whom would they worship? Yet more names will now clatter to the ground: Les Cokell. Tony Jebb. From it’s early days, Pete Waterman was to learn much from audience reactions to records about the music industry. Future funk pioneer Colin Curtis, and DJ turned producer Ian Levine worked together at the Blackpool Mecca. Russ Winstanley was the promoter, DJ and lynchpin of the eponymous Casino in Wigan, while Kev Roberts was yet another of it's many jocks. Richard Searling, another stalwart of the DJ booth, would become a familiar voice on radio in the north. Ian Dewhurst, a rabid collector of the music, took his place at the turntables as a youngster. And Greg Wilson, yet another gamekeeper-turned-poacher, who started his DJing career at fourteen years of age. These were but a few of the many jocks who supported the scene.

Exponents scoffed at the very idea, that whatever was occurring elsewhere in the country was of any worth. Surely the southern soul scene was not a patch (pun intended) on what we experienced here, they conjectured. But those who dared to travel down south, and witness the jazz-dancing spatz-wearing clubbers in London's East and West End nightspots, were impressed by what they saw. And it is amazing to think, that teenagers of the period would commute via train or even hitch-hike from the south for a night of northern clubbing, such was it’s notoriety and draw. This phenomenon was to advance further during the late 1980s, as youngsters drove their vehicles to isolated farmyards and warehouses, in order to enjoy the north’s electronic dance and rave scene.

But alas, northern soul’s days were numbered as musical tastes changed, disco took hold, and synthesised dance music was just around the corner. These new genres were not welcome within the confines of northern soul’s walls, and many of the new breed of DJs who cut their teeth on the scene, faced hostility whenever they even tried to integrate funk records into their sets. As a result, a specialist scene emerged comprising of jazz-funk and fusion records which pre-dated their popularity, much like the 7 inches from the 1960s dominated the northern soul scene. This mirrored what had occured in the south, trailing behind by just a handful of years. And as the 1970s ended, a number of funk DJs were unmissable attractions to these relatively new club nights. Among them were Pete Haig, Greg Wilson, Colin Curtis, Cleveland Anderson, and Simon Walsh.

The north would be at the forefront of new dance music genres yet again, thanks to the DJs who risked their reputations by supporting them: Hi Energy, a form of electronic disco favoured by the gay community, was created by Ian Levine. While boogie, rap, hip hop, and electro music filled the dancefloors of the early 1980s, and revived the flagging fortunes of certain venues. But this new era arrived too late for some. The world famous Wigan Casino was eventually demolished by property developers in 1981, and this marked the beginning of a temporary end to northern soul, as other venues faced a similar fate. But today northern soul is still appreciated by young and old fans alike, as it seems to have experienced a rebirth of sorts, and returned underground from whence it came.

*Updated 14 September 2017


Dave Godin (1936 - 2004)

Pete Waterman

Richard Searling

Colin Curtis

Ian Levine

Pete Haig

Greg Wilson

Russ Winstanley

The late great Winter Gardens, Cleethorpes

Plimsolls. Made for dancing?

A badge of honour, reproduced.