Will Northern Soul the movie spark a cultural revival?
It’s a week to go until Northern Soul, the movie about the 1970s British dance craze, hits the cinemas – and something unusual is happening.
There is a mass social media based “thing” going on. Having started out planning to show the movie at a few selected cinemas, and for a short run, cinemas have been deluged with requests – indeed campaigns – to show it all over Britain.
As things stand, when it comes out next Friday, the film will, say its backers, be the “widest-ever short-window feature film release”. Some 125 cinemas are set to screen the film – including one where the entire cinema has been booked out by a single person, and the tickets simply distributed among his friends. More are being added through “ourscreen” – crowd-funded showings organised by cinema goers themselves.
To declare an interest, I was a northern soul-boy myself, and made a documentary last year about the surviving underground scene, which used excerpts from an early edit of the film.
But what’s happening is less to do with old blokes in baggy trousers and a lot to do, I think, with young people’s desire for something real.
Anecdotally, according to movie industry sources, a lot of the bookings and social media interest in the film are coming from young people, and above all men aged 16-24.
Today close to a million people go to dance clubs each weekend. The northern soul scene, which boomed between 1972 and 1981, was the original precursor to this modern all-night dance scene, and the stimulant drug culture surrounding it.
But by the mid-1980s – especially after the summer of love – northern soul looked uncool. Because its music was drawn from the pre-funk soul era (roughly 1963 to 1972) it was already an “old music” scene, even when it was new.
I left it because it didn’t develop, either musically, or in terms of attitude. Also, by the early 1980s, baggy trousers worn with leather brogues looked ludicrous.
Fast forward to now, and it’s the dance club scene that feels samey, stuck in a rut and commercialised. Most dance clubs – even edgy and headbangy ones – feel to me a lot like “discos” did in the 1970s. And northern soul was above all a rebellion against the chart music and disco culture of the mid-1970s.
Today, because of social media – especially YouTube, where most of the best northern soul records can be heard for free – the music has built a quiet following in parallel to the “out” northern soulies who go to revival nights and wear the retro clothing.
Because the Northern Soul movie was an independent production, and took many months to find a distributor (Munro in cinemas and Universal on DVD etc), there’s actually been a buzz around it for about a year now. Or in economics speak, “pent up demand”.
Since I made my documentary, I’ve often had people come up to me in the street and say they were “into” northern soul but turned off by the actual revival scene that is associated. I even discovered a work colleague whose husband was secretly having lessons in northern soul dancing.
So something’s going on. It might be a flash in the pan or a genuine Quadrophenia-style cultural revival (Quadrophenia single handedly revived the mod look).
Not for the first time, young people are using social media and free content to build a cultural buzz around something that mainstream music and movie companies struggled to get their heads around.
We, the original northern soul kids, were probably the first generation of “curators”: today curating is a thing everybody does – we make our own music collections; musicians montage existing sounds and tracks to make something new; entire festivals or music events are “curated” by celebs, so we can share the exquisite moment when they go on the DJ decks and play their favourite vinyl.
On the original northern soul scene we were “curating” the music of failed wannabee black musicians of the previous decade – whose failure was often because their music was too good, too earthy and too fast for Berry Gordy’s sugar-sweet commercialised Motown brand.
And we knew we were doing something symbolic: we, the mainly white descendants of the early cotton factory workforce, were playing the music of people descended from the slaves who had picked the cotton 150 years before.
I can’t review the movie yet, as the review embargo is upcoming, but I can say there a clear theme of rebellion and resistance in it – and that mirrors what I thought I was doing with the music at the time.
Above all, the movie shows young men dancing with an athletic freedom you rarely see in any dance club genre today. And the subculture they are part of creates near anarchy in the stilted, brown-wallpapered society around them.
I don’t know if northern soul still has the power to create anarchy – we’ll see.
But if you can’t wait for the film, here’s 21 tracks to practise your spins, handstands and backdrops with (but remember, kids, these are forbidden in the movie theatres of today).
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