As enduring musical sub-genres go, Northern Soul must be one of the most curious. As a young teenager on holidays, I recall passing the Mecca in Blackpool (en route back to my Auntie May's from seeing The Sweet in the Winter Gardens, if you must know) and wondering just why these edgy, jittery types were queuing up to get in to a venue at that time of night, to be informed that they were about to head in for an all-nighter of Northern Soul. They're going to dance all night? Where on earth do they get the energy from?
Well, as a new movie Northern Soul and tonight's BBC4 documentary makes quite clear the aul amphetamines were fierce popular in order to enable punters to throw shapes and dance themselves silly. An offshoot from the Mod scene in the North of England, Northern Soul took the elitism and drug-fuelled hedonism of Mod and stretched it even further.
It was the classic working class ethos of 'live for the weekend' taken to the max, with added snobbery when it came to music lobbed in as a bonus.
Most of the tunes you'll hear on NS compilations sound like offcuts from classic Motown sessions but aficionadoes wouldn't be caught dead listening to anything as crass as something that had been an actual hit. Oh no, what they wanted were songs which sounded like they'd been hits but had never bothered an actual chart - anywhere.
To this end, the top DJs on the scene - and the comparisons to rave culture in the late-80s become even more apparent here - would regularly travel to America to scour record warehouses, buying up pallet-loads of obscure 45s from long-vanished Soul labels in the hope of finding several gems which could then become the fabled 'cover-up'. Such a nugget would have its label covered with white paper so rival DJs (or their spies) wouldn't be able to tell who the artist was and source it themselves. Really, you have to admire that kind of obsessive elitism.
Naturally, when the record companies figured out what was going in the game was pretty much up. Crowd favourites such as The Night by Frankie Valli (left) and the Four Seasons and a host of other songs were re-released and became actual hits while a cover of the fabulous Tainted Love by Gloria Jones (watch out for co-ordinated crowd handclaps in the documentary) gave Soft Cell a worldwide hit.
Elaine Constantine's movie may be flawed but it does capture the excitement and freedom of being caught in a musical moment and, naturally, the music is absolutely fantastic.
- george byrne