Northern Soul was vibrant youth movement that emerged in northern England in the late 1960s. It was sustained by a current of black American soul music based on the 1960s sound of Tamla Motown with its heavy beat and fast tempo. Growing out of the British mod scene, Northern Soul became a fully-fledged subculture, with its own music, fashion, dance styles, drugs and geography. This was called Northern soul, not because it originated from the northern states of America, but because this particular style of soul music was celebrated in northern English towns and cities like Manchester, Wigan and Blackpool. Northern Soul was perhaps unique among music genres in that its indentity was determined, not by the musicians and producers who created it, but by the audience that consumed it and their specific collecting habits.
The most-prized records were rare releases from lesser-known artists. Many had been released in limited numbers by small labels like Roulette, Cameo-Parkway and Okeh. The movement was guided by prominent DJs who discovered these rare records and playing them at key venues such as the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, the Golden Torch in Stoke-on-Trent, Blackpool Mecca and Wigan Casino. These clubs became the centres of the Northern Soul movement. Within these venues emerged a new athletic dance style that resembled the later styles of disco and break dancing. The Northern Soul style was inspired by the stage performances of American soul acts like Jackie Wilson and Little Anthony & The Imperials.
The phrase northern soul was coined by journalist Dave Godin in his weekly column in Blues and Soul magazine in June 1970. Godin came up with the term to help employees at his record shop (Soul City in Covent Garden) to differentiate the modern funky 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'.
Northern soul reached the peak of its popularity in the mid to late 1970s. At this time, there were soul clubs in virtually every major town in the midlands and the north of England. The key venues included:
The venue associated with the early development of the scene was the Twisted Wheel club in Manchester. In 1963, the premises were leased by two Manchester businessmen, Ivor and Phil Abadi, and turned into a music venue. The Abadi brothers promoted all-night parties on Saturday nights, with a mixture of live and recorded music. The DJ Roger Eagle was booked around this time, and played selections from his extensive collection of imported American soul records. The club's reputation as a place to hear and dance to the latest American soul began to grow.
The Twisted Wheel became the centre of Manchester’s mod scene. The music policy shifted to fast-paced soul, in response to the demands of the growing crowds of amphetamine-fuelled dancers who flocked to the all-nighters. After attending one of these in 1971, Godin wrote: ‘It is without doubt the highest and finest I have seen outside of the USA . . . never thought I'd live to see the day where people could so relate the rhythmic content of Soul music to bodily movement to such a skilled degree!’
A sew-on patch worn by Twisted Wheel regulars
Soul all-nighters began at the Golden Torch in late 1970. Chris Burton, the owner, has stated that, in 1972, the club had a membership of 12,500 and 62,000 separate customer visits. Despite its popularity, the club closed down due to licensing problems in March, 1972 and attention switched to soul nights at Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room.
A sew-on patch worn by Golden Torch fans
Wigan Casino began its weekly soul all-nighters in September 1973 – these events lasted from 2am until 8am. By 1976, the club boasted a membership of 100,000 people, and in 1978, was voted the world's number one discotheque by the American magazine Billboard. However, Wigan Casino came under heavy criticism from many soul fans. Contemporary black American soul music was changing with the advent of funk, disco and jazz-funk, and the supply of recordings with the fast-paced northern soul sound began to dwindle. As a result, Wigan Casino DJs resorted to playing any kind of record that matched the correct tempo. Also, the club was subjected to heavy media coverage and began to attract many people of whom the soul purists did not approve.
Blackpool Mecca was popular throughout the 1970s, although the venue never hosted soul all-nighters. Saturday night events began at 8pm and finished at 2am, and many soul fans would begin their evenings at Blackpool Mecca then transfer to Wigan Casino. The music policy diverged from Wigan Casino’s, with regular DJs attempting including newly released US soul music. The tempo was similar to the earlier Motown-style recordings, but this shift heralded a slightly different style of northern soul dancing at Blackpool Mecca and created a schism in the northern soul movement.
Neil Rushton (2009). Northern Soul Stories: Angst and Acetates. Soulvation.
Mike Ritson and Stuart Russell (1999). The In Crowd: The Story of the Northern & Rare Soul Scene, Volume 1. Bee Cool.
David Nowell (2001). Too Darn Soulful: The Story of Northern Soul. Robson Books.
Andy Wilson (2007). Northern Soul: Music, Drugs and Subcultural Identity. Willan Publishing.
Keith Rylatt and Phil Scott (2001). CENtral 1179: The Story of Manchester's Twisted Wheel Club. Bee Cool.
Russ Winstanley and David Nowell (1996). Soul Survivors: The Wigan Casino Story. Robson Books.