'I stared down at the faces on the dancefloor, white mainly, chemically driven with the frenzy of beasts. All dancing to our beat. The soul beat. Those horns, those rhythms, those sweet, sweet vocals and their steps. Like nothing id ever seen. Doing their freaky Bruce Lee thing but getting it you know. Breaking down a barrier that just wasn't possible at home. I was shocked. I was mesmerized. It was crazy,'
The above quote was delivered by Soul legend Edwin Starr. The legendary vocalist shedded no little perspiration and garnered definite inspiration from staring down at the dancing masses at the Wigan casino. To him it must have been an acceptance to an art form that just wasn't possible back home. The Motown production line churning out vocals and back beats like a metal yard. Hiring and firing with all the sympathy of a churlish dog in heat.
England had sure got it though. That strange island on the flip side of the world had embraced the music with a fever that people like Edwin and Jackie Wilson just couldn't believe. Those crazy English kids, in their hundreds, their thousands - holding the mantle. Passing the word of soul music from person to person, place to place. The blow up was assured Edwin must have thought. The struggle. The beat down. Things would never be a hardship again.
Fast forward to the present though and the soul world is fractured, replaced in part by sneering, fish whispers hissed out from behind Ben Sherman collars. Mean spirited, middle aged men venting spleen from behind keyboards, they leave a steady slug trail of bitterness as the ooze onto the screen:
'If you don't collect you're not worthy.'
'A white label is the only label'
'Fuck the overlap class. They don't belong here.'
All hail the great Northern soul clique. It's certainly ironic that a music born out of the poor working classes and the need for free expression should be taken up by those who think sophistication and art form lie in the price of a Japanese wing tipped Fred Perry and an obscure soul side 7 inch record imported from a Detroit record store. There's elitism everywhere of course, but none of it ever seems as bad as the Northern Soul clique. Those sneering rangers that stand on dance floors at nights up and down the country, ticking imaginary boxes to the icy Coda's of fashion and taste. All in the hope that someone might compliment them on their own version of what is hip and what is crank.
Such an inverted snobbery is a betrayal to soul music. It doesn't belong to the glorious abandon of the black groove, because within that groove lies not so much a struggle as a joy, a freedom of expression to loosen your limbs whatever your synchronicity. The Northern Soul clique on the other hand is the stark opposite, a well trained drill of fashionable dance steps born out of a need of acceptance and authenticity.
Like soul supremacists trying to weed out the ordinary public and the casual observer at every opportunity.
So what has went wrong? I posted a series of questions to leading Northern Soul promoter and DJ Kev Roberts, over the accusations and motives behind the modern Northern Soul movement.
CC: There seems to be a distinct difference between what was happening at Wigan and what's happening now. Is there an over reliance on fashion and musical knowledge or was it always like that?
KR: At Wigan we were all of similar age. Uniform was typically flares and Baggie related. Musically we weren't as aware of the bigger picture as we are today.
CC: That bigger picture seems to full of snobbery. Is that fair?
KR: Yes, I think so. It is the worlds biggest underground scene after all. However in recent times phrases such as 'keep the faith' get bandied about so loosely it detracts from the scene.
CC: So what constitutes a Northern Soul record. Is it a label thing? A music thing?
KR: The dancers define them. The beat, melody, emotion. Feeling. I don't dance to them. I just play them.
CC: If it's just a feeling, isn't that John Newman record ('Love You More') partly a Northern Soul record then? It carries certain attributes
KR: No. No. He's just a modern day Rick Astley
CC: haha. I thought you might say that, but why is the music so serious. these days? Isn't soul music basically a party music?
KR: I agree. I came into Northern Soul wanting to keep the scene as popular as possible for as long as possible. They were my beliefs then and still are. The dark corners of playing it only if it's very rare are on their way out. People want to go out and have a good time and hear good songs whether they're rare or not. That's my job and I'm sticking to it.
CC: Isn't the job of only playing old records a bit restricting though? Northern Soul seems to be the only scene completely stuck in the past. Other subcultures evolve. Who are the new Northern Soul acts.
KR: I don't think there are any future Northern Soul acts. Fans want to hear the sounds. They don't really want to hear live acts, even though there are some great ones. I'm current listening to the Al Sonic and the teenagers album. Fantastic stuff.
CC: But what chance do they stand on a scene where you hear slogans like 'If you don't collect you're not worthy'. Is that stuff for real or is it tongue in cheek?
KR: Generally promoted by DJ's who can't get major gigs and a drug fuelled elite who want it that way. I have no problem with that and people wanting to keep it real, but people shouldn't be intimidated by dark jargon they read on message boards. Everyone has a view on it. That's just the way it is.
Maybe that's true. For every scene and subculture there are always intense looking and obsessive individuals trying to keep an imaginary flame for themselves. Northern Soul suffers more than most at the hands of these stamp collectors and fashion horses holding a scene back when perhaps it should be bigger. It was the precursor for both the rave and house music revolutions in the British isles after all, a movement that laid the foundations that every weekender with a taste for hedonism and black underground music now two-steps over.
if only they could kick out that clique.