Northern soul is a type of mid-tempo and uptempo heavy-beat soul music (of mainly African American origin) that was popularized in Northern England from the mid 1960s onwards. The term also refers to the associated dance styles and fashions that emanated from the Twisted Wheel club in Manchester and spread to other dancehalls and nightclubs, such as the Golden Torch (in Stoke-upon-Trent), the Highland Rooms at the Blackpool Mecca and the Wigan Casino. Northern soul dancing was usually athletic, resembling the later dance styles of disco and break dancing. Featuring spins, flips, and backdrops, the northern soul dancing style was inspired by the stage performances of visiting American soul acts such as Little Anthony & The Imperials and Jackie Wilson.
The music that has become known as northern soul mainly consists of American soul recordings of a particular style and tempo that were recorded from the mid-1960s onwards. These recordings were based on the Tamla Motown sound and released only in limited numbers within the United States. Whilst this includes lesser known songs and artists from the Motown and Stax labels, releases from more obscure labels such as Okeh Records, Ric Tic, Cameo-Parkway and Roulette were prized more highly. Viewed retrospectively, the earliest recording that can be considered to be the 'true' northern soul sound is "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" by The Four Tops (1965, Tamla Motown).
The phrase northern soul was coined by journalist Dave Godin and first publicly used in his weekly column in Blues and Soul magazine in June 1970. In a 2002 interview with Chris Hunt of Mojo magazine, Godin explained that he had first come up with the term in 1968, to help employees at his record shop, Soul City, in Covent Garden, London to differentiate the more modern funkier sounds from the smoother, Motown-influenced soul of a few years earlier:
I had 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 developments in the black American chart. I devised the name as a shorthand sales term. It was just to say 'if you've got customers from the north, don't waste time playing them records currently in the U.S. black chart, just play them what they like - 'Northern Soul'.
A large proportion of northern soul's original audience came from within the mod movement. In the late 1960s, some mods started to embrace freakbeat and psychedelic rock, but other mods - especially those in northern England - stuck to the original mod soundtrack of soul and blue beat. From the latter category, two strands emerged. Some mods transformed into what eventually became the skinheads, and others formed the basis of the northern soul scene. Early northern soul fashion included strong elements of the classic mod style such as button-down Ben Sherman shirts, blazers with centre vents and unusual numbers of buttons, Trickers and brogue shoes and shrink-to-fit Levi's jeans. Some non-mod items such as bowling shirts were also popular. Later on, northern soul dancers started to wear light and loose-fitting clothing for reasons of practicality. This included high-waisted, baggy Oxford trousers and sports vests. These were often covered with badges representing soul club memberships.
The first nightclub that effectively defined the northern soul sound was Manchester's Twisted Wheel Club and its resident DJ Roger Eagle. The club opened in 1963 and finally closed in 1971. Other early clubs were King Mojo in Sheffield, The Catacombs in Wolverhampton, Golden Torch in Stoke, Room at the Top in Wigan, the Wigan Casino (1973 to 1981), the Blackpool Mecca and Va Va's in Bolton. The music reached its peak of popularity in the mid to late 1970s. In 1978, Wigan Casino was voted the world's number one discotheque by the American magazine Billboard. This was during the heyday of the world famous Studio 54 nightclub in New York City, and only a year before the city's equally renowned Paradise Garage was awarded the same accolade.
When Wigan Casino closed in 1981, many believed the northern soul scene was on the verge of disintegrating. However, the 1970s mod revival, the thriving scooterboy subculture and the later Acid Jazz movement produced a new wave of fans. The popularity of the music was further bolstered in the 1980s by a wave of reissues and compilation albums from small British independent record labels such as Kent Records, Goldmine and Soul Supply. Many of these labels were set up by DJs and collectors who had been part of the original scene.
The 1980s — often dismissed as a low period for the northern soul scene by those who had left in the 1970s — featured almost 100 new venues in places as diverse as Bradford, London, Peterborough, Leighton Buzzard, Whitchurch, Coventry and Leicester. Pre-eminent among the 1980s venues were Stafford's Top of the World and London's 100 Club.
The northern soul movement is cited by many as being a significant step towards the creation of contemporary club culture and the development of the superstar DJ culture of the 2000s. Amongst the most popular and well known DJs from the original northern soul era are: Roger Eagle and Les Cokell (Twisted Wheel), Russ Winstanley and Richard Searling (Wigan Casino), Ian Levine and Colin Curtis (Blackpool Mecca) and Chris Burton (The Golden Torch, Stoke On Trent). As in modern club culture, northern soul DJs built up a following based on satisfying the crowd's desires for music that 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.
Another technique employed by northern soul DJs in common with their later counterparts was the sequencing of records to create euphoric highs and lows for the crowd. Many argue that northern soul was instrumental in creating a network of clubs, DJs, record collectors and dealers in the UK, and was the first music scene to provide the British charts with records that sold entirely on the strength of club play.
Many of the DJ personalities and their followers involved in the original northern soul movement went on to become important figures in the later UK house and dance music scenes. Notable among these are Mike Pickering, who subsequently introduced house music to the club goers at The Hacienda nightclub in Manchester in the early 1980s, and the dance record producers Pete Waterman and Ian Levine.
Original US first issue northern soul records are among the most expensive of any vinyl recordings to collect. Their equivalent UK-released discs often sell for much lower prices. Many 7" singles have broken the £1,000 (c. $1,460) barrier; a US-pressed copy of Frank Wilson's "Do I Love You" sold several years ago for £15,000 (c. $21,900). The value of many discs has appreciated, due to their rarity, the quality of the beat, melody, and lyrics of the songs (often expressing heartache, pain or joy related to romantic love), and the sentimentality attached to record collecting itself.
Many soul artists attempted stardom without all of the necessary ingredients in place. Low-budget independent labels couldn't deliver the necessary promotion and radio play. Many artists had to go back to their day jobs, thinking themselves failures, with their records sinking into obscurity, until they were revived in the northern soul circuit. Songs by Tami Lynn, The Fascinations and The Velvelettes that were originally released in the 1960s became top 40 UK hits in 1971. Tami Lynn got to #4 with "I'm Gonna Run Away From You", The Fascinations made #30 with "Girls Are Out to Get you" and the Velvelettes managed #35 with "These Things Will Keep Me Loving You." The same year, The Tams reached #1 with their 1964 recording "Hey Girl Don't Bother Me", due in no small part to the song's popularity on the northern soul scene.
Many other songs became surprise hits years after they were recorded. Among them were "Loves Gone Bad" and "I Want to Go Back There Again" by Chris Clark, "Just Loving You" and "Helpless" by Kim Weston, "Every Little Bit Hurts" by Brenda Holloway and "Heartbeat" by Gloria Jones.
A number of pop musicians from the 1980s to the present day have cited the influence of the northern soul sound and culture on their work: