Back for a Taste

5 Aug

This is the story of Northern Soul. It is also the story of my first, serious, adult infatuation with music. Five years ago, I stumbled over several blogs that introduced me to exactly the sound I wanted to hear. The Northern beat won me with its oldies-affected innocence, call-and-response vocals, great “swag” (intricate horn arrangements), and forward-leaning disco grooves. I’ve been pursuing this sound almost relentlessly since then.

In terms of song-craft, there are three criteria that I identify pretty consistently in my top Northern picks : humor, narrative, and insinuation. Generally speaking, these songs tread heavily through predictable romantic scenarios–in love’s first flush or its final rupture–but more than that, Northern Soul usually shows surprising plasticity in capturing the transition from one romantic mood to another. Songs like “Nothing Can Stop Me” and “How Could It Be?” have the feel of a sexual triumph that runs contrary the lyrics’ evident rejection. It isn’t uncommon for a Northern tune (henceforth “chune”) to move move through multiple emotional states. Loneliness can easily give way to recognition, conquest, and renewed contentment. These songs summon a world in which–despite the platitudes that would convince us otherwise–nobody really suffers permanently from a broken love affair. It is this implicit hope, awareness, and honesty that draws me back for repeat listens.

Such artistic self-consciousness tends to lend itself readily to humor. And sure, I’ve provided a few examples with retro-sexual views on gender roles (“Look And You’ll See”) that have an unintended comedic effect. But for the most part, the humor in this mix was wholly deliberate among the represented artists themselves. The Four Mints commit themselves to a genteel arrangement of the “I’ve got the ship if you’ve got the harbor” pick-up line in their song, “Row My Boat”. The Exciters take things a step further when they claim that the sensation of new love “is almost like eating beans by the pound / and then wrapping up in adhesive tape from the waist down.” It’s blowing up my mind!

If The Exciters intended to convey something “explosive” about their emotional stability, their aim fits well within the precepts of the given genre. Northern Soul was made for dancing. But what exactly are the distinctions that set it apart from other rare soul movements?

Northern Soul is probably the only genre of music that has nothing to do with the origins, air-play, or production standards of the music itself. It has everything to do with the 60s and 70s DJs who introduced these records to an amphetamine-chomping dance crowd throughout Northern England, the Midlands, and Greater Manchester. Northern Soul was the first club culture in which music disseminated not from record labels but star DJs. At venues like Wigan Casino, Golden Torch, and Blackpool Mecca, where young people swarmed for “all-nighter” dance parties, the most consistent DJs generated a fiercely loyal following that built up around the perceived rarity of the records they unearthed. These guys were the first crate-diggers. They culled their collections from the discarded remnants of Motown and other small regional American labels. You might even say that Northern Soul made its rise on the beat of a thousand commercial failures.

Given a second life, the biggest Northern chunes (known as “stompers” or “monsters”) had an enduring influence on pop music in the UK. We wouldn’t have Soft Cell without Gloria Jones. There were multiple New Wave successes that germinated in the mid-70s Northern scene. However, it’s also worth noting the ways in which the prevailing musical culture left a mark. We might identify its legacy in the drug use and distribution model at The Hacienda, where house DJs inspired a similarly devoted following. In the 90s, Northern Soul became an integral part of Chicano lowrider culture–with its emphasis on clearly delineated, conservative gender roles. And most recently, it has fueled the reemergence of white-boy soul enthusiasts like Mayer Hawthorne and myself.

The music has a way of clinging to you. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Track List:
1. The Fascinations – Girls Are Out to Get You
2. The Flirtations – Nothing But A Heartache
3. Tomorrow’s Men – Who’s That Lady?
4. Exciters – Blowing Up My Mind
5. Mark Putney – Today’s Man
6. Penny & The Quarters – You and Me
7. Frankie Karl – Don’t Be Afraid
8. Yvonne Prenosilova – When My Baby Cries
9. Little Gregory & The Concepts – Look and You’ll See
10. Don Gardner – Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy
11. Kool Blues – I Want to Be Ready
12. Lee Williams & The Cymbals – A Girl From A Country Town
13. Clay Brown – Walk With A Groove
14. Willie Tee – Bring On The Heartaches
15. The Esquires – How Could It Be?
16. Gwen Stacy – Ain’t Gonna Cry No More
17. The Four Mints – Row My Boat
18. The Caesars – Once In A Lifetime
19. Roz Ryan – You’re My Only Temptation
20. The T.S.U. Toronados – Nothing Can Stop Me
21. Brand New Faces – Brand New Faces
22. Willie & The Magnificents – Take My Love
23. Brenton Wood – I’m The One Who Really Knows
24. Roosevelt Matthews – You Got Me Diggin’ You

One Response to “Back for a Taste”

  1. news June 6, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    extremely beneficial stuff, all round I imagine this is worthy of a book mark, thanks

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