A couple of years ago, bored out of my skull on a Sunday night, I whacked a few soul tracks from the sixties on. Those timeless records—records that you can't see ever sounding bad or dated—felt like electrodes to the brain. I was hooked and wanted more. I wanted to experience them out in the wild. I wanted to go to Northern Soul clubs.
And I hate clubs. I fucking hate everything about nightclubs. I hate the sloshing of drinks on the sticky dancefloor, and the drunks drinking them, the awful soundsystems and even worse music. This critique, by the way, comes from a former gig promoter who had to spent a lot of time in them.
To get my fix I ended up at all-nighters like 6T's Rhythm and Soul at the 100 Club in London. Whilst most people think of that venue as a punk rock relic, it's actually played home to 6T's for so long that it's now the longest running Northern Soul night in the world, having been established in 1979, back when the Wigan Casino and the Blackpool Mecca were rocking every weekend. The Northern Soul all-nighter was, in many ways, the beginning of what we now think of as club culture. There were drugs and big name DJs, late finishes and underground-rarities obsessives—and communality was key.
For those of you at home in need of a very brief explanation of what Northern Soul was and is, here we go. Centred around towns and cities like Wigan, Blackpool, and Stoke, thousands of youngsters descended down to ballrooms to dance 'til the small hours to uptempo soul records that had never been heard on this side of the Atlantic before. Fast forward to the present day and the scene's still in rude health and you'll even find Northern Soul nights kicking off all the way over in Japan and Australia.
The story goes that in the late 1960s, football fans coming down south to follow their teams play away would rummage for records in shops that the owners had never heard of. London was all about trends and fashion, with funk the order of the day. Journalist Dave Godin realised that there was a market in his store for selling more up-tempo records specially catering for those that asked for them, with a section entitled 'Northern Soul'. It became a moniker that stuck.
But what is it about Northern Soul that appeals so much? Well, a little context is needed: this scene in large part was borne from economic circumstance. Three-day weeks, riots, a recession, unemployment, mines being shut down, the rise of the national front and hooliganism at football grounds all added to a dismal, grey and depressing England. It was, as they say, grim up north.
As we're seeing today, when times are hard, escapism is more necessary than ever, and most of us seek solace in music scenes and clubs. That sense of societal removal and communion that Northern Soul parties offered is, in many ways, the most direct precursor to what club culture is, and the function it serves today. Dancing can be, and often is, a means of rising above the everyday.
And what dancing it was! Performing spins, drops and splits to uptempo soul music can at times often feel more like a gruelling military assault course exercise than having fun. But if the music takes hold of a person enough, it almost doesn't matter. Northern Soul is all about passion and relating to love and heartbreak. You listen to these songs and their pain is utterly uncontrived, utterly real. Often recorded in basic studios with no overdubs and no nonsense, this was soul music in its rawest and purest form.
On that now-hallowed first night at the 100 Club, I met people who live for both the music and the scene. Tom Page was one of them. He's an 18 year-old who has soul coursing through his veins. His father Gavin was well-known DJ on the Northern circuit and between them they own thousands of 45s. Theirs truly is a house of wax.
"I grew up around a wide variety of black music in general, but mostly with soul and Motown," Tom says. "I grew up and loved girlie Motown artists—The Supremes, Gladys Knight, The Marvelettes, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Tammi Terrell and Mary Wells were all my favourites."
Tom goes on further about his love for soul: "I had my own Motown records from a young age and I think for me vinyl is the only form of media I really recognise, it's the physicality of the music I love, the way it sounds and the actual process of buying vinyl. It's the only way to play!"
But with the cost of these Soul records so notoriously expensive, how is he able to afford them? The current record for the most pricy soul record to date is Frank Wilson's "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)", which fetched £25,000 at auction in 2009.
Tom explains his record buying habits: "The cost of vinyl has never been something I could dispute—I remember a few of my friends, not into soul, a few years ago thinking I was mad paying £400 for a rare test press of Betty Lloyd – "I'm Catching On." The cost doesn't bother me, it's the price the market dictates it at and if I want it I'll have to pay it!"
So what's so special about Northern Soul? Why do people keep coming back, 40 years since Wigan Casino opened?
"Something about soul music just grabs me," Tom says. "It's such a significant part of my life, I live for the weekend and I can't see that changing any time soon! Soul has taken me on a journey, I've DJ'd across Europe and travelled endless miles to dance to records I couldn't hear anywhere else—it's fantastic!"
Here's to another 40 years of Northern Soul, the sound that catapulted UK club culture into existence.