SPINNING, kicking, shuffling. Dropping, diving, whirling. Sweating, stripping, dancing.
Half-naked male bodies kung-fu kicking for space on the dance floor as girls in ankle-length dirndle skirts swept their legs into the air along with the talcum spread on the floor to make their movements seamless.
And all to an insistent, hypnotic, euphoric soul sound, a vinyl soundtrack of little-known black American music - the rarer the disc the better.
This was – is – Northern Soul. A music scene which gripped a generation of white working class kids in the 1970s, from Wigan to Aberdeen, Southport to Edinburgh – and which still has many of them in its clutches despite their advancing years.
It’s also now attracting a whole new generation, whose numbers could be further swelled after the new movie – simply titled Northern Soul, which is said to capture the spirit and emotion of the early days of the scene – hit cinemas.
It is made by photographer Elaine Constantine, who fell in love with the sounds and the dance moves in 1976. The film is set two years earlier and traces the story of two boys whose horizons are widened by the discovery of soul music and their aim to become the best DJs on the scene, but rivalry, violence and drug abuse tests their friendship to the limit.
It might well spark a whole new interest in Northern Soul, but as Edinburgh DJ and organiser of SSW (Scottish Soulful Weekender), Yogi Haughton, says, the “scene” has never gone away.
“It never disappeared,” he says. “It was never mainstream in the first place, which could be why it’s managed to just keep going, but I can’t think of any other scene which was so big that is still around. The loyalty among fans means there will always be a demand for clubs or all-nighters so people can hear the music and dance. It’s an enduring thing.”
He says the reason is simple – “it’s the music”. “It’s an incredible form of music which crosses all age barriers. Right now it’s huge with young people in Japan and Germany,” he adds. “And there is always new music being discovered and new records released, so it’s not just about music which has been around for 50 years.
“The whole scene has thrived on people going to the States and finding old tapes, reel to reels, tracking down artists, and finding stuff that was never released. And there are current musicians, like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and The Soul Investigators who have a very authentic soul sound. People still want to hear new music, that drives it too.”
One of last year’s biggest chart hits, Happy by Pharrell Williams, also seemed to tap into the Northern Soul vibe. But Yogi says: “That was only because of Northern Soul Girl’s YouTube video of herself dancing to it which also included Velvet Hammer’s Happy, which was a different song, a real Northern Soul song. And then of course she appeared with him at the Brits.”
Yogi, who also runs Soul Satisfaction at The Cask and Still on Leith Walk, which focuses on Northern Soul and Motown every second Saturday, adds: “I was DJing in Manchester last year and was amazed at how many young people were on the scene. They’ve found it and they bring a new energy. In Edinburgh, it’s all a bit more fragmented but there are weekenders in Peebles and the Gilmerton Soul Club is one of the most authentic Northern Soul nights in Edinburgh. There’s a vibe about it that really reminds me of the old days in Wigan, Blackpool, Morecambe. I went to them all and made a lot of friends. There are a lot of friendships around the country because of Northern Soul.”
The man who co-runs Gilmerton Soul Club – and the newly-created Edinburgh City Northern Soul Club at the BMC in Gorgie (last Friday every month) – is Zander Murray. The 53-year-old was a teenager when he first discovered the music, and its grip on him has never waned.
“I was at Gracemount High and would go the Mansion, a youth club, which had a disco on a Sunday night and older guys who went were into Northern Soul and would play the music and dance. It was brilliant to watch and then, of course, I wanted to do it too.
“I would go to Clouds in Tollcross which would hold big Northern Soul all-nighters or up to Aberdeen to the Music Hall and out to Fauldhouse. Eventually I did get to Wigan Casino, the mecca of Northern Soul, probably in the late 70s when I was in my late teens. I’d go once a month but a lot of people from Edinburgh would go every week.
“To be honest there’s not a massive demand in Edinburgh, but we get a few hundred through the doors. This weekend we’ve taken over the whole Minto Hotel and we’ve got a lot of people travelling up from England and elsewhere to come, so we’ll have 100 to 150 per night. It’s much bigger down south.”
He adds: “The draw of course is the music. It gets in your blood. And the friendship. There’s never any trouble at Northern Soul nights, not like some places where you have to watch your back.”
One of the dance stars of the original scene was Fran Franklin, from Muirhouse, who died earlier this year. She had been involved in training the dancers in Constantine’s film, and also appeared in the recent BBC documentary Northern Soul: Keeping the Faith, presented by soul boy and Channel 4 economics editor Paul Mason.
In Elaine’s book, Northern Soul: An Illustrated History, Fran, whose dad was American and mum Irish, is quoted as saying: “My dad, being a black servicemen, brought lots of his music over and his friends or family when they came to visit would bring over great music. We always danced, so as we grew up there was always soul music.”
She was 14 when she first heard Northern Soul records from some older boys and at local discos watched as they would perform high kicks. “I thought I can do that, so I just copied them.”
Then her mum let her go to Wigan. “We all jumped in the back of this car and went off to this strange place. You can never forget the smell of Wigan Casino – cigarettes, sweat, damp and mould, deodorant, shoes, a mountain of wet T-shirts and socks. I was blown away by the fact that everybody loved the music.”
Another who is keeping the faith is Shirley Graham, who remembers Fran from the days when Clouds – as Zander said – was the biggest Northern Soul venue in town. Although she now lives in Spain, the 52-year-old grandmother, is planning to attend a soul night in Bathgate in December.
“I first got into to Northern Soul when I was 16. I lived in Corstorphine and used to go to the local disco and I loved Motown, which my mum used to play in the house, so it had a big influence on me,” she says.
“I can’t describe how I feel when I hear a Northern track. It always makes me feel happy and want to dance. So many great memories. . . we used to wear a dirndle skirt, basically a full circle skirt that would go up when you did a spin. The guys would wear baggy trousers and we’d collect commemorative patches as a kind of proof you’d been at Wigan and other places. They were sewn on my skirt and they guys would have them on their trousers.”
Shirley and her soul sisters and brothers would meet at the Grosvenor Bar in Shandwick Place to get the bus to Wigan Casino. “There would be a minibus going then as the scene grew in Edinburgh we went in a 52-seater. They were great times.
“People who are into Northern Soul are so friendly and you never got any fights, it was like one big family. Buses would travel from Bathgate and Whitburn, Dundee and Aberdeen, and when we got to Wigan Casino all the Scottish crowd would go to the right hand side of the dance floor which then became Scots Corner.
“I can’t describe the atmosphere when you first walked into Wigan. It was electric. People were so excited as they had been looking forward to it. People lived for the weekend and if we didn’t travel to Wigan we would go to other all-nighters throughout the country.
“In Edinburgh it was Clouds and the night would start at midnight until 8am. The dance floor was amazing. It had a sprung dance floor and a lot of people would used talcum on the floor to make them glide.”
At the end of the night the same three songs were always played – the 3 before 8 – Time Will Pass You By, Long After Tonight Is Over and I’m On My Way. “You knew then it was over for another week,” says Shirley. “People talk about the drugs on the scene, and there were some, but I never took them, I got high on the atmosphere. I still love Northern Soul and when Mark and I come home for Christmas we’re going to the Soul Night at Bathgate Golf Club. I can’t wait and I’ve ordered my copy of the new film already. I can’t wait to see it.
“I just wish I was going to the Cameo so as I could watch it with all my friends and have a dance.”
Movement that avoided the mainstream
NORTHERN Soul is a music and dance movement which emerged in northern England, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales in the late 1960s growing out of the Mod scene.
However the focus was more on the music, black American soul, than on clothes. It avoided more mainstream Motown records to concentrate on rare, limited edition releases.
The dancing was athletic – some said it was based on many of Bruce Lee’s kung-fu moves – as it incorporated flips, spins, backdrops and kicks. In between all that, there was the shuffle.
It reached the peak of its popularity in the mid- to late-70s, and the three most important venues were the Golden Torth in Stoke, Blackpool Mecca and Wigan Casino – which at one time had a membership of 100,000.
Occasionally a Northern Soul record would become more mainstream, such as The Night by Frankie Valli, pictured.