A music and dance movement that emerged independently in Northern England, the English Midlands, Scotland and Wales during the late 1960s, it developed out of the British Mod scene.
The northern soul movement, however, generally eschews Motown or Motown-influenced music that has had significant mainstream commercial success. The recordings most prized by enthusiasts of the genre are usually by lesser-known artists, released only in limited numbers, often by small regional American labels such as Ric-Tic and Golden World Records (Detroit), Mirwood (Los Angeles) and Shout and Okeh (New York/Chicago).
Northern soul is associated with particular dance styles and fashions that grew out of the underground rhythm & soul scene of the late 1960s at venues such as the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. This scene and the associated dances and fashions quickly spread to other UK dancehalls and nightclubs like the Chateau Impney (Droitwich), Catacombs (Wolverhampton), the Highland Rooms at Blackpool Mecca, Golden Torch (Stoke-on-Trent) and Wigan Casino.
As the favoured beat became more uptempo and frantic, by the early 1970s, northern soul dancing became more athletic, somewhat resembling the later dance styles of Disco and break dancing. Featuring spins, flips, karate kicks and backdrops, club dancing styles were often inspired by the stage performances of touring American soul acts such as Little Anthony & The Imperials and Jackie Wilson.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, popular northern soul records generally dated from the mid-1960s. This meant that the movement was sustained (and "new" recordings added to playlists) by prominent DJs discovering rare and previously overlooked records. Later on, certain clubs and DJs began to move away from the 1960s Motown sound and began to play newer releases with a more contemporary sound.
On DJ culture
- The northern soul movement is cited by many as being a significant step towards the creation of contemporary club culture and of the superstar DJ culture of the 2000s. Two of the most notable DJs from the original northern soul era are Russ Winstanley and Ian Levine. As in contemporary club culture, northern soul DJs built up a following based on satisfying the crowd's desires for music that they could not hear anywhere else. The competitiveness between DJs to unearth 'in-demand' sounds led them to cover up the labels on their records, giving rise to the modern white label pressing. Many argue that northern soul was instrumental in creating a network of clubs, DJs, record collectors and dealers in the UK, and was the first music scene to provide the British charts with records that sold entirely on the strength of club play.
- A technique employed by northern soul DJs in common with their later counterparts was the sequencing of records to create euphoric highs and lows for the crowd. Many of the DJ personalities and their followers involved in the original northern soul movement went on to become important figures in the House and Electronic Dance Music scenes. Notable among these are Mike Pickering, who introduced House music to The Haçienda in Manchester in the 1980s, the influential DJ Colin Curtis, Neil Rushton the A&R manager of the House music record label Kool Kat Music and the dance record producers Pete Waterman, Johnathan Woodliffe, Ian Dewhirst and Ian Levine.
- Australian DJ and PBS FM radio presenter Vince Peach absorbed the Northern Soul culture at the Twisted Wheel, (where he also DJ'd), and took it to Australia in 1982, commencing a dedicated radio program Soul Time in 1984, which continues and is believed to be the longest running Soul program in the World.
- Craig Charles represents Northern Soul in The Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show on BBC's Radio 6 Music.
- Terry Christian — in his 2008 article about northern soul for The Times — wrote: "There's an instant credibility for any artist or brand associated with a scene that has always been wild, free and grassroots".
- Soft Cell had chart success in the early 1980s with covers of two popular northern soul songs, "Tainted Love" (originally recorded by Gloria Jones) and "What?" (originally recorded by Melinda Marx on VJ, 1965, Judy Street 1966 and Tina Mason 1967). Soft Cell member Dave Ball used to occasionally attend soul nights at Blackpool Mecca and Wigan Casino.
- Moloko's video for "Familiar Feeling" is set against a northern soul backdrop and was directed by Elaine Constantine, a longstanding northern soul enthusiast. The video was choreographed by DJ Keb Darge, who rose to prominence at the Stafford Top Of The World all-nighters in the 1980s.
- Fatboy Slim's 1998 big beat single "The Rockafeller Skank" samples The Just Brothers' "Sliced Tomatoes". The song reached number 6 in the UK Singles Chart and also had success in many other countries.
- The music video for Duffy's 2008 song "Mercy" features Duffy singing on a platform, accompanied by northern soul dancers performing elaborate moves.
- Plan B’s 2010 album, The Defamation Of Strickland Banks displays a significant northern soul influence. The video for "Stay Too Long" features northern soul-style dance moves such as spins, flips and backdrops. The album sleeve features northern soul-style sew-on patches.
- The video for John Newman's 'Love Me Again' also features Northern Soul Dancing as a backdrop to a Romeo and Juliet style romance.
- The video for The Courteeners 'Are You In Love With a Notion' also features Northern Soul dancing.
- The video for Above and Beyond's 'Sun and Moon' also contains Northern Soul dancing.
- Paul Stuart Davies recorded 'Northern Soul Reimagined' in 2015, with guidance from Russ Winstanley, presenting classic Northern Soul tracks in a new light.
Style and Fashion
A large proportion of northern soul's original audience came from within the 1960s Mod subculture. In the late 1960s, when some Mods started to embrace Freakbeat and Psychedelic Rock, other mods - especially those in northern England - stuck to the original Mod soundtrack of Soul and Blue Beat. From the latter category, two strands emerged: Skinheads and the Northern Soul scene.
Early northern soul fashion included strong elements of the classic Mod style, such as button-down Ben Sherman shirts, blazers with centre vents and unusual numbers of buttons, Trickers and brogue shoes and shrink-to-fit Levi's jeans. Some non-mod items, such as bowling shirts, were also popular. Later, northern soul dancers started to wear light and loose-fitting clothing for reasons of practicality. This included high-waisted, baggy Oxford trousers and sports vests. These were often covered with sew-on badges representing soul club memberships.
The clenched raised fist symbol that has become associated with the northern soul movement emanates from the 1960s Black Power movement of the United States.
On his visit to the Twisted Wheel in 1971, Dave Godin recalled that "...very many young fellows wore black" "right on now" racing gloves ... between records one would hear the occasional cry of "Right on now!" or see a clenched gloved fist rise over the tops of the heads of the dancers!"
In 2007, Andrew Wilson (lecturer in criminology at the University of Sheffield) published the extensively researched sociological study Northern Soul: Music, drugs and subcultural identity. This work details in some depth the lifestyles associated with the Northern soul scene and the extensive use of amphetamines (otherwise known as speed) by many involved. Wilson argues that, although many did not use drugs, their usage was heavily ingrained in the fast-paced culture of the northern soul scene, contributing to participants' ability to stay up all night dancing. Many clubs and events were closed down or refused licences due to the concern of local authorities that soul nights attracted drug dealers and users. Roger Eagle, DJ at the Twisted Wheel club in Manchester, cited amphetamine usage among participants as his reason for quitting the club in 1967. Of the regular attendees he said, "All they wanted was fast-tempo black dance music... [but they were] too blocked on amphetamines to articulate exactly which Jackie Wilson record they wanted me to play".