Politics of Music

Northern Soul

How 60s American soul shaped 70s Working Class Britain 

In an interview with Mojo Magazine in 2012, DJ, anarchist, former Motown rep and record shop owner Dave Godin explained how he coined the term ‘Northern Soul’.  In the interview  he mentioned how he first mentioned it in his column in Blues and Soul in 1970, he told how;

“I had started to notice that northern football fans who were in London to follow their team were coming into the store to buy records, but they weren’t interested in the latest developments in the black American chart. I devised the name as a shorthand sales term. It was just to say ‘if you’ve got customers from the north, don’t waste time playing them records currently in the U.S. black chart, just play them what they like”

Northern Soul

The change and the splits within Mods in the late 60’s into the ‘Hard Mods’ (who later became skinheads which is a story in itself) and the more psychedelic strains of the Mod world that embraced as more hippy culture could only mean one thing; change. The more flower power stylings that came out of Mod, found, unsurprisingly, little echo in the grim northern industrial towns of cities. They still wanted the speed fuelled dance culture that had started in the Mod clubs of London. As Dave Godin mentioned when Northern lads and lasses came home from London, after football, work and visits, bringing the music they heard in the south. The world was just about to change for thousands of young working class men and women.

 From that moment in June 1970 the musical phenomenon that was sweeping clubs and dance halls in working class northern towns had a name, though those who loved the music and scene referred to it as ‘rare soul;. For hundreds and thousands of working class, men and women, steelworkers, miners, truck drivers, shop workers, engineers, machinists and office workers the lesser known songs sung by lesser known black soul singers from 60’s America was the perfect antidote to the grim  realities of their all too often hum drum working class lives. For many the televisions they watched were still black and white but the colour was provided by the uplifting tunes of Detroit and American soul music. Records from singers such as Tommy Hunt, Erma Franklin ( Aretha’s sister), Darrell Banks Gene Chandler, Nolan Porter and Frances Nero, none of whom were big names on the US soul scene, were being lapped up by an overwhelmingly white working class audience. 

 Not for them the well produced and glittery sounds of the charts, not for them the over produced singers and bands on Top of the Pops. Not for them the old habits of a night out in the working mens club with a musical turn, a comedian, and the same faces you went to school with and your parents went to school with. These working class kids wanted something of their own, not their parents.

  For them it was the often tragic lyrics sung over an uplifting 4/4 soul beat that carried the pain of loss to an almost joyous crescendo. Never before had heartache, sadness and relationships ending sounded so good and loved. Long before the techno/acid house generation were revelling in their illegal and legal all night raves – which they mistakenly believed they started the northern soul all nighter, which itself was the child of the modernist drug fuelled nights of the 60’s. The unknown and near lost voices of urban, mainly black, America was being championed by overwhelmingly white working class kids and their mates. Gone was the self-conscious blokes dancing and feeling they had to dance with their wife/partner. The sheer joy of the records gave those men the confidence and desire to dance, peacocks  with their clothes as sharp as they could pay for they dancing like no one was watching, with a little extra exhilaration provided by illicit drugs whether slimming pills or uppers, ie amphetamine, procured legally or illegally from a chemist.

 Within a few years clubs such as the Golden Torch in Stoke-on-Trent, The Blackpool Mecca, Manchesters Twisted Wheel (which my family had a small interest in) and then latterly world famous Wigan Casino were making their mark on the lives of working class of the UK. In fact by 1976 Wigan Casino had 100,000 members, and 2 years later it was voted the worlds best disco by Billboard magazine, Not bad for a weekly all nighter in a club in the industrial northern town of Wigan, but it as the music that made it. Soul music, is as someone once said ‘The rhythm of the working class’ and it was amongst a section of the working-class that the music took off. 

 For many is was the best bit of the weekend, for many the music sung by some of the lesser known motown and soul artists of 60’s America was the perfect way to be lifted up and out of the grit and grime of Industrial 1970s small town England (and Scotland and Wales). Very soon such was the growth of Northern Soul that TV started to take an interest This England, a TV documentary about the Wigan Casino, was filmed in 1977, apparently had 20 million viewers and is still worth a watch: . In 2014  when the documentary Living for the weekend was aired the northern soul scene was not only still breathing but high kicking and screaming back like a speed fuelled echo of the past. The music that gripped working class kids in the early 70s was as loud and as loved as it always was and hopefully always will be. And gets miserable old 50 somethings like me on the dance floor in a way no other music has ever got me. Do I love you? Indeed I do…..

This England 1977


Living for the weekend 2014 (part one) 


Living for the weekend 2014 (part two)


By Mairtin Gardner, 50 something ex skinhead, northern soul and reggae fan, with a soft spot for Celtic.

You can read more Ungagged Writing here or hear a range of left views on our podcast

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