We are witnessing something of a revival of the subculture that Dick Hebdige and the Birmingham School oversaw in their studies of the 1970s English subcultures: Northern Soul. In Northern English cities like Stoke, Manchester, Wigan and Blackpool a dedicated culture emerged through the 1970s around rare soul and athletic dancing to it. In our retro context it is remarkable that the subculture was formed around the interest for 1960s soul in opposition to the contemporary music scene of the 1970s, be it rock in general or even the contemporary black funk-tinged soul music and its afro and bell bottom look. So the current Northern Soul revival is interestingly enough, in some way a revival of a revival.
The term “Northern Soul” was coined in 1970 by the music journalist Dave Godin after a visit a soul event in Blackpool. It does not refer to the origins of the music but to its role in Northern England. “Rare soul” also figured as a term, contrary to funk, contemporary soul or the usual ‘oldies’ or classic soul. The interest in up-tempo American black music in British youth culture has its roots in the mod movement of the 1960s and Northern Soul can indeed be seen as a development of this, moving from Carnaby Street and Swinging London to less colorful Wigan and the North and the bleak Manchester of “Life on Mars” (where even Manchester United did not win the championship through the entire decade!). The first venue was probably Manchester’s Twisted Wheel club starting to play up-tempo soul in the late 1960s, followed by other arenas like The Golden Torch in Stoke, the Blackpool Mecca and the most famous venue The Wigan Casino.
At these places (often reached in one weekend or night!) two activites characterized the movement. One was the music and the rarity cult of the records. As Simon Reynolds suggest, there must have been an overproduction of soul music in America in the 1960s, leaving lots of more or less decent recordings that did not make it to fame and fortune. These failures allmost miraculously resurrected as anthems for a huge and dedicated crowd far away! This lead to a collector mania where singles were traded for a week’s pay and dj’s covered the labels of their discoveries to keep the exclusivity of them.
The other was of course the dancing. It is my feeling that the common experience of going to dancing school as a youth and the more formal role of dancing back then has something to say here. (Another clue is the role of dancing in/as youth culture displayed in the film “Looking for Eric” by Ken Loach (2009) where the protagonist memorize dancing in the 1960s Manchester). The Northern Soul dancing was energic, ecstatic and athletic, mainly performed by males. For a closer account on the dancing, look at the article “Out on the floor: The politics of dancing on the Northern Soul scene” by Tim Wall (http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=1&fid=470648&jid=PMU&volumeId=25&issueId=03&aid=470647)
This was followed by a visual culture of emblems, clothes, gloves, and “soul bags” for records.
After this wonderful combination of black America and pale Northern England faded away in the end of the 1970s, it has gained a revival in recent years with many events every month in England, happening in a meeting between a young crowd and original “survivors”. I had the pleasure to experience one such, not in the North but in London this October. Apart from the events, a whole memory culture is developing around memorials from “the people who were there”, reissues and merchandise. Two recent movie productions are also dedicated to Northern Soul: “Soul Boy” of 2010 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_6NS_lLgis) and the forthcoming and more cult-heading “Northern Soul – the Film” by Elaine Constantine (http://www.northernsoulthefilm.com/).
Northern Soul is also kept alive by the dj behind the Wigan Casino, Russ Winstansley that since 2008 has been running a weekly radio show at BBC Lancashire, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p001d7br)
This dj legend and the Northern Soul experience reached Copenhagen recently at a special event at Stengade, arranged by Backstreet Soul Club of Copenhagen. It was indeed a buzz of reenacted history to dance to “Time Will Pass You By” (by Tobi Legend) put on the turntable by Winstansley with talc on the floor. A combination of presence and historicism that is the goal and attraction of dedicated revival culture.