I’ve never been to Wigan, I first heard Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You’ on a KFC advert and I don’t even have a record turntable. When challenged by any of those guys with the round patches on their jacket I would have to concede that my relationship to ‘Northern Soul’ is, at best, tenuous. Yet, whenever I listen to any of the tracks included in this genre, gleaned second-hand and at a distance from Kev Roberts ‘Northern Soul Top 500’, then, horror of horrors, downloaded as MP3s, a strange affection arises. I say ‘strange’ because there is no personal or emotional reason for me to feel this way – the vast majority of my interactions with Northern Soul have occurred with media in between.
And this is hugely ironic, considering the socialising of the all-nighters with other fans, the huge values placed on the actual vinyl records or even the admiration for those who can dance really well, show, more than any other genre, that Northern Soul is a real world, physical, cultural beacon, around which people gather.
It is beyond me why Northern Soul kindles this affection; yes, the reasons listed above certainly can account for some of it, but there is something more. For example, the fact that most of the records were not commercial hits, even though they were released by major labels with major clout, only to be cherished – saved? – by Northerners down for the football in London and taken back up North on the train, which is, famously, the reason the music came by its name, is hugely appealing. Appealing because the music industry failed, but the music survived.
The other strand of my affection for Northern Soul lies in the fact that it took place away from the media glare of the London, in such places as Wigan or Southport, developing almost like a well kept secret, not in a showy, ‘puffed’ way but true to itself – not like a ‘scene’ trying to be a ‘scene’, and as such it was a solid, vibrant thing. Ordinary people went to these places to dance, listen to the music. It really is – or was – a living thing. ‘Northern Soul’ is an apposite name in more ways than one.
And this is where my affection is tainted by wistful sadness. A teenager in the Highlands would never have been able to gain access to ‘Northern Soul’, to get an idea of what it is about without the media, be it the internet or T.V detective dramas set in the Sixties. The media allowed m to become a fan. However, almost like a Trojan Horse, the very means by which I could become a fan, in some inexpressible way takes away from Northern Soul because I have never actually experienced it in any other way than being at the end of some sort of long line of communication and if I physically went to an all nighter it would be a different experience to if I had attended having heard a record at a friend’s house and then went with a group of pals. Having experienced Northern Soul first through the media, I would be similar to a tourist visiting a museum. I don’t know, perhaps this is overstating the case, but I feel if I went along to one of these events I might, in a small way dilute it and contribute to making it something other than it is in some sort of reflexive, vicious circle.
Paranoid as it is, I see this sort of thing happening already in, you’ve guessed it, the media. John Newman’s latest single, ‘Love Me Again’ set in a dance hall, mimicking the faster tempo of the ‘Northern’ records clearly aims to grab on to some of the goodwill that the scene provokes. Yet if you look at the models, all stylishly made out, all good looking, all dancing perfectly, the spirit isn’t there. Where are the ordinary people who love music? Were they knocked back at the door?
The music, and the fans will still exist, and flourish, after this current vogue for ‘vintage’ looks, I have no doubt about that, yet I think I will look on from the side, trying to keep the faith in my mind’s eye.