By Sydney Evans
Passed on through generations, Northern Soul is a subculture that has survived the test of time due to its strong family ties.
Growing up, Motown was always in the background, a constant soundtrack to my childhood. As a teenager in a small valley town in South Wales in the 1970s, my father, Ross Evans, has carried the sound of Northern Soul with him throughout his life. Many a night has been spent in the kitchen of our family home, listening to the likes of Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and The Pips and Franki Valli, with my father recounting his time on the Northern Soul scene that gripped the North of England and parts of Wales and Scotland. “Sunday nights were the draw,” he tells me. “Leroy, the resident DJ at Tredeager’s Working Mens Club, would travel up to the valleys from Cardiff and he always had the latest releases.” As Northern Soul became more popular, spilling out across English cities and into London, places like the Wigan Casino, the Twisted Wheel in Manchester and the Blackpool Mecca became landmarks for those involved. Despite there being no coverage on TV or radio, Northern Soul also managed to travel across the valleys. “We knew some people from the next valley town who came to the Sunday nights and they were regular visitors to Wigan Casino, which was the mecca of Northern Soul all-nighters.”
At just 15, my father and his friends convinced their parents to let them take a trip to the famous Wigan Casino for an all-nighter. “Of course the all-nighters required, for some, the use of speed. The small amount I tried left a ghastly synthetic lingering taste, and for me, it was all about the music and dancing.” To this day, he remembers finally visiting the Wigan Casino after listening to stories passed around the Welsh valleys. My dad explains that “We had more fun travelling around the local valley towns” as part of a community, a family even, travelling around the different towns in hopes of finding even a half an hour stint of Northern Soul they could dance to. “There weren’t many of us into Northern Soul, but we got to know other people who enjoyed it, so when the anthems came on we would all get up and dance together.” Although Northern Soul was in many ways a reaction to a growing disillusionment with working class life, for my father and his friends, it was the excitement that came with the sound of music they’d never heard before, and ways of dancing that were new to British youth.
This sense of family has become intrinsic to Northern Soul and, according to research, is the reason it has survived for decades, while other subcultures have faded as their participants have grown up. Nicola Watchman Smith, whose PhD focuses on the subculture, found that the scene has survived for so many years because of the distinct way ageing participants have passed it onto their children. “Northern Soul isn’t a subculture as we know it traditionally: this isn’t about youth and it hasn’t burnt out quickly. It’s an ageing and familial scene in many ways,” she says.
Since starting her research into Northern Soul in 2003, Watchman has found that Northern Soul is a huge part of participants’ self-identity. “It’s very much who they are. As such, they want it to keep on keeping on, so they pass their vinyl records and dance moves onto their children, who then step onto the scene themselves.” This was the case for Lewis Henderson, one half of the DJ Duo Deptford Northern Soul. “My dad is a big collector of records. He’s from Carlise and went to some of the early Northern Soul all-nighters. So it’s always been part of my life.”
Described by Dick Hebdige, a sociologist whose work focuses on subcultures, as a ‘secret subculture of working-class youngsters dedicated to acrobatic dancing and fast American soul of the 60s’ the term Northern Soul was devised by David Godin. Owner of Covent Garden’s Soul City, which has since been replaced by the luxury skincare shop Fresh, according to an article featured in TheLong+Short, Godin once said how he ‘devised the name as a shorthand sales term’ after noticing floods of young people from the North requesting ‘old-fashioned fast tempo soul records’. For Godin, it was a way to say ‘if you’ve got customers from the North…just play them what they like. Northern Soul’.
Music was central to the scene. As the author Chris Hunt puts it, ‘The dancers were demanding and the music had to be just right or they would walk’. What was so important, however, was the connection white working-class kids in England made to Black soul music coming out of America. In the face of unemployment, poverty and crime, journalist Paul Mason writes in an article for the Guardian how, ‘we were using the Black industrial music of the late 1960s to say something about our white industrial lives in the 1970s’. For many, Northern Soul was a means of escape from small industrial towns, where jobs were scarce, and those that were on offer were in the mines or factories. Listening to the voices of Frankie Valli, Shirley Ellis, Jackie Wilson and Diana Ross singing impassioned tales of love and loss, Britain’s working class youth were enchanted. Music became a means of escape, a way to reimagine working class identity through Black soul music.
Sarah Raine, a Research Fellow at Birmingham City University, has looked extensively at the role of younger members in what she describes as a multigenerational scene. Her works include The Northern Soul Scene (2019) and she has also contributed to the collection Nocturnes: Popular Music and the Night (2019). In The Northern Soul Scene, Raine explains how the consumption of Black soul music ‘offered a unique form of patronage: celebrating Black musicians who missed out on the benefits of stardom’, many who are still largely unknown outside of Northern Soul. As the journalist Robin Murray writes in a piece for Clash Magazine, ‘Despite their music being defied by crate-diggers, very often the pioneers of Black American music are brushed out of history, rendered anonymous’. In her research, Raine explains how much of the enjoyment in listening to old soul music came from having ‘exclusive access to a true music rejected by the ignorant masses’.
Looking at Northern Soul now, while, as Raine writes, there is a ‘dominance of older, white and predominantly working-class men’ who often hold the roles of ‘DJ, record seller and event organizer’, the younger generation have carved out their own space. Raine writes that they ‘seek hidden and dark places’  where they are able to express their own interpretations of Northern Soul, where they prioritise ‘individual experience over public performance, experimentation over the polished’. These all-nighters take place up and down the country, but, Raine writes, are ‘neglected by commercial club culture’. Instead, they can still be found in old ballrooms and working-class community buildings which ‘offer a cheap bar and smooth wooden dance floor’. For the younger generation taking on Northern Soul, their dancing needs are central to keeping the faith alive.
What’s changed most about the contemporary scene, Raine writes, ‘is how much of its communal activity takes place online’. Being online is a way for new participants and the younger generations to access the scenes past and ‘to develop skills, particularly dancing’ says Raine. But even though they’re sharpening their skills by watching past generations dancing and finding out about the next big night online, it’s family members so many involved in the Northern Soul scene credit with getting them involved. Whether it be older brothers, sisters, dads, mums, aunts and uncles, Northern Soul is inherited through family.
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY
‘He’s My Soul Brother’
Algis Sveikutis, 51, was introduced to Northern Soul by his brother Michael, 67.
“My earliest memory is of my brother pulling a record box and a dansette from underneath his bed. He’s 16 years older than me and left home to get married when I was only 5. He was a big influence on me. I wanted to be like him during my childhood but as I grew into adolescence I rebelled against his musical taste. He got me my first record player and asked expectantly; ‘So what music are you going to get into then?’ He was a soul boy, and went regularly to The Golden Torch in Stoke on Trent and The Wigan Casino.”
“When I was 13, I wanted to listen to anything apart from Northern Soul because it seemed really old fashioned in 1982. The Wigan Casino had closed and the style associated with it (baggies with vests and long black leather jackets) was outdated. So I found my own music, post punk bands, like The Cult and Killing Joke, and I spiked my hair and dressed like a character from a Mad Max movie.”
“By the time I hit 16 though, I had slowly gravitated towards rhythm and blues. I started to listen to more and more soul music. At first my brother had no idea, until I finally built up the courage to admit to him that I was into soul. Initially he gave me some tapes of the new 60s soul records they were playing then. There was also a documentary on TV about Northern Soul, and it seemed like it could be a cool underground scene. I went to my first all-nighters with my own mates, but it wasn’t long before I was bumping into my brother and he and his friends took me under their wing.”
“Over the years my brother has given me loads of records, magazines and fanzines. He’d come round and we’d play records together, proud of our latest acquisitions. Sharing a mutual love of a particular kind of music has brought us together in so many ways. He’s my soul brother and actual brother. That’s something special, I guess.”
“Northern Soul was both inclusive and exclusive at the same time. You had to be in the know, especially in my era, the 1980’s and early 90’s, when the scene was at its most underground. I suppose that’s the reason there are so many with family connections in Northern Soul, it’s hard to get into, a bit alien to most, and even more so as time passes and the music and fashion becomes more archaic. The scene has always had a true family feel, with its devotees taking the roles of aunt’s and uncle’s and younger siblings.”
‘I Guess We Become Versions of Our Parents – Terrifying’
For Lewis Henderson, 26, a love of Northern Soul picked up from his dad Dave Henderson, 63, saw the formation of Deptford Northern Soul, the DJ duo delivering Northern Soul to the UK and Europe.
“It’s all dad’s fault. I don’t think I knew what Northern Soul was when I was a kid, I just thought of it as American music. My dad is a big collector of records and he was always playing music around the house when I was a kid. He’s from Carlisle and went to some of the early Northern Soul all-nighters. So it’s always been part of my life.”
“I remember going out to a soul club in Berlin when I was about 19 and dancing all night. I didn’t think you could keep people dancing all night with soul records, but I was wrong. It was one of the best nights. On a personal level, I connect with the songs as they can be quite emotional in their composition and lyrics more than with other electronic styles of dance music.”
“Growing up, dad was very busy and often in his own little world, so I found it hard to communicate with him when I was young. Music was a way to talk to him through his passions. It must’ve rubbed off on me as my head is filled with music all the time. I guess we become versions of our parents – terrifying.”
“He’s always forgetting what he has in his collection and buying the same record over and over so he gives me his ‘swaps’. I do get the odd email with a YouTube link and when I go back we sit in his office and he plays me records and CD’s he’s picked up. Dad has DJed a couple of times, opening for me and Will.”
“We get a mix of ages at our nights, but it really depends on the city. We’ve met a lot of people along the way and they all seem surprised that we have such a young turn out in places like London and Manchester. We have regulars too, some coming from the first ever event. People are so comfortable that they come by themselves. I think I’d find it very hard to go out clubbing or to a bar by myself, but I like how they come and feel welcome as an individual. That’s the perfect environment to curate when you are putting on nights.”
“It’s such a big part of the history of this country that it’s shaped how we consume music today. Northern Soul was the first movement to have all-nighters, it was the first movement in the UK where it was socially acceptable for a man to dance without a partner on the dance floor, for a lot of people it was the first time they had heard Black music or owned Black musicians records. Now things are different, but without Northern Soul would rave, house or disco been such big things in the UK? Probably not.”