Words by Ian Hough
Illustration by Kelly Angood
This is a companion piece to Vinyls & Lionels
There’s a good chance you’re a bit of a lad if you’re reading about northern soul because, let’s face it, soul boys were rum as fuck. Maybe you’re even a drug fiend, or a snapper who’s dead sound as long as no-one winds you up. It’s possible you might know the difference between BC and AC: Before Carstairs and After Carstairs, Northern’s single largest discontinuity, much more important than the later distinctions between Disco and House, and Acid House and Techno. Soul is of the soil and in the blood. I know; I grew up in a tight-knit family whose elders were streetwise Salfordians. Regaled with detailed descriptions of exactly how a full drape teddy boy jacket should be cut, or the relative virtues of diagonal versus straight pockets, I learnt early on the importance of having things bang on. There was no talk of Elvis, it was all The Platters, Sam Cooke, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. 1950s rock ‘n’ roll had its own unique protocols, but nothing prepared me for the peculiar moves and contradictions of 1970s northern soul.
Soul boys were an enigma. The platform shoes, three-star jumpers, and Birmingham bags with side-pockets were as much a football hooligan uniform as a musical identity. Wild rumours surrounded the soulies who hung around my area; they injected gin into their arms, fought battles with Hells Angels and took speed until they went mental. Older lads convinced me that without their protection the Hells Angels would cut my bollocks off using coconut shells. That was enough for me. We young ’uns also wanted to take speed until we went mental, and in time we did. It was expected of us. The toilet walls in school were hammered with graffiti about shooting speed, sex and Wigan Casino. Not to mention a weird rhyme some of the fifth years used to recite at school when I was a first year: "Do you believe in rock n roll? No, I believe in cock and soul...” By the 80s, many of the local drug dealers were veterans of Wigan Casino so a steady supply of rough-cut whiz was guaranteed no matter what.
But let’s get back to those early-70s. The glam-rock look represented danger, a jarring contrast to the beautiful falsetto Stylistics songs these characters loved. The mod element seemed completely unrelated to the rest, but there were hardened brawlers in goon collars riding scooters as well as lads in Italian suits. The true northern tunes sounded like the slum-bound relative of mainstream Motown, its purveyors relegated to some gritty place in the commercial aural hierarchy. That this reflected the soul boys’ circumstances on their dilapidated council estates seemed more than just coincidence.
The Rave era happened five minutes ago, but for lads of a certain age the introduction to energised dance music happened decades earlier. It wasn’t unusual for people to hitchhike hundreds of miles in all weathers just to be at a gathering. Dance sessions began around midnight and went on until the sun was blazing. The techstasy daze of the late-80s was nothing new; before techno there was house, and before house there was disco, and before disco there was soul, and soul emerged from the tangled tentacles of gospel, R&B, jazz and Delta blues. The aural thread runs through Louisiana, Mississippi, to Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago.
How it washed up on the doorstep of Ivor Abadi’s Twisted Wheel is a whole other PowerPoint presentation. The Wheel opened in 1963, in an era where dancing was more important than posing, though fashion was all-important. This 50s cultural holdover ensured the Twisted Wheel would never lose its core values, which were above all those of northern working-class families: loyalty, integrity, faith.
The spores from the Detroit-Philadelphia axis bloomed like mutant algae in Northern England. The “All-Niter” was the way to go via “pep pills” and, later, nostrils rammed with the aforementioned caustic remedy, amphetamine sulphate. But it was the end product of all this chemical dabbling that mattered most: music and dancing. And how. Anyone who’s seen proper northern soul dancing is instantly taken by its distinctive stomping nature, complete with figure-skater spins, Kung Fu high kicks and break-dancing type hand-to-floor work.
It is often said that when a full club of dancing, spinning soul freaks hits that certain climax in the middle of that certain song, there’s a form of collective consciousness, everyone proud to share the same identity for that moment. Cult hits like Epitome of Sound’s “You Don't Love Me”, “The Snake” by Al Wilson, and one of my faves, Turley Richards’ “I Feel Alright” were among those perfectly suited for the shimmying, shuffling and spinning at places like Wigan Casino and the Highland Room in Blackpool Mecca.
It was at the latter venue in 1973 where the Carstairs parted the Motown sea and led dancers on an exodus to a new land. The song was “It Really Hurts Me Girl”. It’s now revered as a soul classic, but it divided clubgoers violently at the time, many of whom left the dance-floor in protest. The tune contained elements of new Philly soul and tantalising glimpses of disco. The Carstairs were an enigma – nobody even knew who they were – and this bridging masterpiece was surely the work of the Illuminati, right? Right? Hmm… no, but it was an amazing song and it lit up the road less travelled. The record was introduced by Highland Room DJ Ian Levine – who would pioneer Hi-NRG (“high energy”) disco a year or two later.
It was 1975-ish, a time of glam and glitter, but the dance remained the same. When David Bowie made himself over as a “soul boy” for 1975’s Young Americans, he murdered his glam rock alter-ego forever. Recorded at Philadelphia’s much-respected Sigma Sound Studios (home of hit-makers Gamble and Huff) and New York’s Electric Lady Studios with the help of John Lennon, Luther Vandross and David Sanborn, Young Americans was a fair crack at the new urbane sound that was coming in. It mightn’t have been Wigan Casino soul, but the sight of David in a suit with the customary “flick” haircut was a template whose power would be realised in Manchester’s Pips Disco. The “Roxy Room” look was born, complete with dyed red hair, sharp cut threads and the carrying of blades for self-defence. Within two years the proto-casuals of Liverpool and Manchester would take this look onto the football terraces, as their predecessors had with northern soul’s original glam.
The renaming of soul boys in Manchester as “Perry boys” or “Bowie boys” signalled a shift every bit as vital as that induced by the Carstairs single, but this was sartorial, not musical. Collars shrank, seams changed, acrylic and wool were replaced by cotton, and designer footwear evolved. The younger element was suddenly cooler than big brother.
The stage was set for disco to prevail, tricked-out with new electronic instruments fused to talented vocals. Giorgio Moroder teamed up with Donna Summer and produced the orgasmic “Love to Love You, Baby”. I well recall Moroder and Summer’s “I Feel Love” pumping from the jukebox at Salford’s Rialto skateboard park circa 1977, riding the half-pipe on lime green Kryptonics, as the Bury New Road traffic trundled obliviously by outside.
It was the dawn of popular analogue synth music, as pioneered by Jean Michel Jarre on his Oxygène and Équinoxe albums. Équinoxe wouldn’t have sounded out of place at a 90’s rave, not bad for a record that came out in the dark days of 1978.
This progression probably only means something if you’ve trod the Soul Sherpa’s path up Speed Mountain. From sulphate foothills to pinnacles of ecstasy, the decades-long trek that defined two underground generations of dance music and drugs, slowly cultivated into a manicured commercial trail. There are now northern soul souvenir hunters, just as there are football tourists besieging English Premier League grounds.
Are you too hip for disco? Should I go on? And if so, where to? The only way is up, baby, for you and me, now…
Have you ever felt MDMA’s reptoid talons wringing your brain’s hemispheres antagonistically, the vault of your mouth grinding in euphoric spastic dementia, the tingle of 50 billion stinging nettle hairs erect and wavering in unknown winds pulsing from the galactic centre? Your hot skull embracing neurotransmitters flowing in parallel refractions bent around infinite grooves? Electrolyte tides cascading from axons in your swede to your fingertips and toes in ripples that dampen one’s socks and leave greasy evaporating fingerprints on pint pots like temporary hurricanes across the convex surface of a glazed world gone mad? If so, this article probably isn’t for you; you’re much too cool. I have no hope of impressing you with the spoiled fruits of my bedraggled labours. And my skateboard was shite anyway. Lime green Kryptonics indeed…