8 Oct 2014

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.

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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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19 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Answer: No.

    It was mediocre enough first time round.

    The only thing worse is anything out of Lahndan.

  2. martin woollsey says:

    Cool movie but thought they may have delayed for a spring release. “Quadrophenia single handedly started mod revival” think a little band called the jam may have helped!

  3. Boffy says:

    Brilliant. Glad to see you found a way to get some Northern links into a blog post. For anyone who can’t wait for the release, I’d also recommend watching “Soul Boy” filmed here in the home of Northern in Stoke. That’s not just because its filmed here in Stoke, using Stoke Town Hall which has a strong resemblance to the casino, or just because my son worked as crew on the film, and appears for about a second in it, but because its a funny film, as well as having some good tunes.

    As with everyone who was involved in Northern at the time, I’d have some criticisms – for example, why anyone from Stoke in the 1970’s would have been going to Wigan, with no mention of the Torch – but apart from that well worth watching. I could have been involved as one of the background dancers in the film, and I’m cursing myself now that I didn’t do it!

    Waiting now for the next Stoke Town Hall All Nighter. Perhaps see you there. It demonstrates the point you a re making, lots of new blood, and lots of my sons friends in the late 20’s, are coming to the music for the first time, some of them even getting into DJ’ing. Keep the Faith.

  4. Pete Robinson says:

    The music is so wonderful & enduring I hope more new people do get into it. Look at all the current artists it has inspired – it’s only a good thing.
    I’m doing a charity screening of the film on October 25th in Devon – with dancing after! All welcome!
    http://www.museumofbritishsurfing.org.uk/shop/1-ticket-northern-soul-film-devon-premiere-after-party-standard-seat/

  5. Dave Clarke says:

    The cultural revival of Northern Soul has actually been ongoing for some years now. Clubs and pubs not only in the north but all over the UK are have revived interest in the soul scene and continue to keep the faith.Oldies and newbies are generating a resurgence in the old classic floorfillers with some newer modern records. Over 8, 000 people at the last Skegness soul weekender is a testament that Northern Soul is still with us. ..and is here to stay.

  6. PhilJoMar says:

    I was too young and too far north to know anything about NS but I love soul music and the NS compilations are fantastic. What I don’t get is the style of dancing. Some of the moves Paul was doing in the documentary were fine but the other stuff, the cross between gymnastics and on-the-spot parcours, I don’t get that at all. Was it some form of male display or did it actually cross the Atlantic? To me dancing is about letting the music take over the body in a more natural way…can anyone explain what the NS variety was about?
    I am not taking the p***. I genuinely want to know.

    1. Eric Simon says:

      I do too! Would love to know/feel the feeling of dancing!

  7. Boffy says:

    Phil,

    Much of the dancing comes from across the Atlantic. One of the contributors to Paul’s documentary said she thought it came from Bruce Lee films. Not so, we were doing these moves at the Twisted Wheel and Torch in the mid to late 60’s, before Bruce Lee films became popular.

    A lot of the moves can be seen in dances like the Jitterbug and Lindy Hop, but also I’ve posted some links to Northern Youtube videos on my blog that feature the Nicholas Brothers from the 1940’s, doing back drops, splits etc. Also a lot was developed by people like Jackie Wilson in his on stage act. Mostly the athletic stuff was done by young men, but there are lots of young women who were able to do back drops and splits and so on. Although I picked up a lot of my moves from watching these old films, and people like Gene Kelly, as well as other dancers, one of my basic steps I actually picked up from a great girl dancer who worked in the cloakroom at the Torch.

    1. PhilJoMar says:

      Cheers Boffy,
      As I was writing my entry I was thinking of the Jitterbug. But FFS Gene Kelly?!! That’s some fine discrimination my friend. God I miss going to clubs…I think if I’d kept it up I wouldn’t have got fat. Can’t wait for the film.
      (Second thoughts: I often thought the thing to do would be to have a Sunday late morning-early afternoon club for NS, soul music generally, acid jazz, cool sixties stuff and maybe a little easy listening. No idea where that idea came from. I think I need to move back to the city….)

  8. Patricia Dugdale says:

    A great article, Paul, to add to your excellent documentary last year. Keep supporting Northern Soul. Your voice means a lot to us genuine fans.

  9. New Untouchables says:

    Heard nothing but praise for those lucky enough to have seen the film already.
    I have noticed pockets of youngsters getting interested at clubs and events over the last few years but this could light the touch paper for a whole new generation.
    An incredible amount of effort has been put into making the film a reality and I can’t wait to see it, guess another week won’t hurt!!
    If you wanna get on the dancefloor before the movie comes out get along to the Crossfire Allnighter in London this Saturday at the 229 ballroom, W1W 5PN

  10. Eric Simon says:

    From France. You brits surely have the secret for that kind of magmatic eruption, youth culture/music/movement. It’s not easy to describe in a few words/lines what could be “spot on pal … ” in describing the essence, the genesis, of any of the Brit initiated movements, Mods, Northern Soul, Punk, electro etc … Energy, passion, action, dedication, underground ? OOne thing sure though, is by being given the chance to know a bit Elaine Constantine, her character depicts perfectly what is to me the british spirit I tried to describe previously, and she surely printed it her Northern Soul movie.

    Should these Northern soul’s dance spins be the spark of a new “hurricane” to shake this junk “culture” we are fed our brains.

    ;) I don’t know who took Northern Soul dancing lessons M. Mason, but as I had the chance to attend Northern Soul premiere after party at Madame Jojo I can tell you improve (from your excellent broadcast Culture show) your moves/steps!

  11. Andy Edwards says:

    Since the soul scene started back in the sixties and since that famous quote by the late Dave Goddin “Northern Soul” It has been a underground scene then for a short while commercialized after the documentary by Granada TV ,But the scene has always kept going because the love of the music gets into your ” SOUL” .There are Brothers & Sisters still going to venues all over the country that have never stopped loving the music never stopped meeting new members of the Northern Soul Family from all over the country and still look forward to the weekend coming. As for the film it will show a period in history of a music scene that has become a part of the music culture of this country if not the world. I mention the world because not only are there between 50-100 venues to choose from each weekend in the UK plus a number of weekenders to choose from each month it has spread worldwide, for example there are venues in Italy, Spain ,Germany, Australia and the USA just to name a few . So i think to say on the film causing a revival I didn’t know it needed one . I will say this I think the film will be a good thing and will introduce the music to a new generation and to a scene that will give them more friends they could wish for and all with the same thing in common the love of the music. I have loved this scene for 40 years and I hope more young people watch the film and get the bug because its a great scene there are the Classic sounds of yester year and the modern sounds of today You will love some hate others but someones worst sound is someones favorite , ever sound you hear becomes a memory of someone you met or a special night on the scene. So to finish watch the film and come and join a scene that never leaves you no matter what else you do,and if you worried about the dancing don’t, just let the music do its thing and you will find your own way no one cares its about the music. Well Done to Elaine Constantine and Good luck to all involved.KTF

  12. wayne hemingway says:

    Paul , hello ..just read your article in the Observer / Guardian ….spot on ….http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/oct/11/northern-soul-rebellion-dance-floor-paul-mason

    a thoroughly enjoyable read ..more power to your elbow ..get in touch cheers wayne

  13. Soulmanq says:

    Well for some of us this never went away, just into hibernation or as the word used went under ground but to us it was always like that !.
    But for me and a lot of my friends we still turned up at these events all over the country records in our little Boxes, bowling shirts, and the shoes leather of course…
    But that was wigan 1979 I only to my shame got there twice, its a long trip up from norfolk.but it was worth it to hear some of the best sounds there that came from that time. Did not get back there again.
    But did get to P’boro,Leicester’ De Montfort hall ( 1975/6 ), Dj’s Russ,kev roberts, soul sam,pat,to name a few.
    So for me lots of Great Times!.
    And I’m still going,60 next year, so that’s 40 odd years, life time of great songs great people great Memories…KTF

  14. keith buck says:

    an original story book by Maxwell Murray called “crackin up” just sums up the “scene” as we called it at the torch.

  15. keith buck says:

    an original story book by Maxwell Murray called “crackin up” just sums up the “scene” as we called it at the torch in Stoke,the chuch of soul and the place where the term northern soul began.we were young and we hated Gary Glitter and top of the pops!and disliked ass wiggling funk too!which is what they like in London and the rest of the country ie,the divs liked it! the magazine Blues and Soul split its music coverage on these lines soul funk asswiggling dance music down south,and “northern soul” for us on the scene.At the time we cringed at the title as for us it was the only real soul!

    1. COLIN DAY says:

      Bang on! We only ever called it called it soul music – and in the very early days they were simply known as good disco records. The film is great but you had to be there. So friendly and connected.

  16. carl says:

    Some great music but the scene later became one of massive egos and elitism with occasional racist undertones.People are stating how popular it is today, but this is mostly 50 plus some-things re living their youth.

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