Styles & Forms | Northern Soul | Soul & R&B

This enduring British cult dance scene takes its name from the post-mod discos in the north-west of England where it developed, rather than the geographical location of the music-makers. Legendary disco venues like Manchester’s Twisted Wheel, Blackpool’s Mecca and The Wigan Casino, are still spoken about in reverential tones by soul and dance connoisseurs.

The reason northern soul exists is because of the extraordinary amount of quality soul produced – and often initially ignored – in the Motown- and Stax-dominated 1960s soul Golden Age.

From Levi’s Genes

The immediately recognizable northern soul sound derives directly from Motown, and specifically from one key record: The Four Tops’ 1965 hit ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’. With its circular piano/guitar riff, pounding rhythm, dramatic orchestral arrangement, and masochistic, lovelorn lyric howled like a sermon by lead vocalist Levi Stubbs, this track saw Motown composer/producers Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier taking jazz and classical complexity and making it into totally accessible dancefloor R&B, with hooklines to match. As one of Motown’s defining peak moments, it had an immediate influence on fledgling soul artists and small labels all over America. But, with Motown so commercially dominant, the majority of these more modest and derivative soul recordings failed to get radio airplay and slipped into obscurity.

No-Hit Wonders

Meanwhile, England’s loyal late-1960s mods, who had made Motown and melodic soul their dance music of choice, were demanding something more from DJs than the familiar big hits. Those DJs began to take more chances on obscure US imports, and the competition to find the most upfront, unheard new tunes took off, particularly around the north-west of England, in and around Manchester. But by 1968, soul was changing, taking on influences from funk, the blues & roots revival, and psychedelic rock, as typified by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s productions for The Temptations including ‘Cloud Nine’ and ‘Just My Imagination’. As they entered the 1970s the serious Twisted Wheel and Mecca dancers, who were now developing a post-mod dress code of longer hair, tight T-shirts or sweaters, and voluminous ‘Oxford Bag’ pants, wanted their DJs to stick with light, uptempo grooves despite their increasing rarity. DJs like future Hi-NRG pioneer Ian Levine began to make trips to the US, often tracking down entire warehouses full of mid- to late-1960s soul singles that no one had bought. Played in the northern clubs, they sent the dancers wild and began a self-contained scene based not around artists or albums, but particular singles. This also meant that northern soul discovered a non-dancefloor foundation built around collecting rare records, with ‘failed’ singles often fetching hundreds of pounds on the collectors’ market.

The Fad That Wouldn’t Die

The northern soul cult spread throughout Britain, to Scotland, the Midlands, and eventually London, reaching its peak in 1975 when two novelty groups, Ovation and Chosen Few, both from Wigan, reached the UK singles chart with records...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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