http://soundcloud.com/mark-and-the-gortones/mark-track-1 – Hear a Northern Soul classic tortured and finally murdered. By me.
Round about 1970 was when I joined the in-crowd. I cut off my hair, learnt how to get my kicks out on the floor, and swore I’d just keep on keepin’ on. Northern Soul was a unique phenomenon, youngsters from Lancaster down to Stoke seeking out the best American dance music the rest of the world seemed to ignore.
I have no idea how it began, although I seem to remember the Stax label becoming a crucial part of the northern music scene in the late sixties. I grew up in Blackburn and, when I was eleven or twelve, I heard about the Stax club that had opened up there. Suddenly, and almost impossibly, ‘Blackburn’ sounded exciting, the way ‘Nashville’ and ‘Memphis’ did on the radio.
The very word Stax and names like Booker T conjured up an earthy glamour previously unknown to East Lancashire towns. Occasionally you saw older kids with Stax collections, each blue label surrounded by a white cardboard sleeve, the record’s title and artist neatly inscribed with a pen that should have been doing homework. Maybe it was this that evolved into Northern Soul, that first flowering of British rave culture, of crowd-pleasing tracks, of never-to-be-forgotten dance and dancers, all-nighters and superstar DJ’s.
You could buy records in imported bulk at a relatively low price, playing them frantically until one – just one, that’s all you asked for – revealed itself as an unknown track that could fill a dance floor. A record like this could make you Someone, and it would have real value for as long as it remained rare. Disc jockeys would show you respect and even ask to play your ‘sound’. You walked tall and danced fast.
Most of these records were about unrequited love, shattered relationships, flowing tears, helpless situations, but they were performed with such driving conviction, such soul, that their content was vividly real. You were a teenager, your heart was being broken on a regular basis, but you could put on a classic track and let the joy of it all ease the pain. Which, for teenagers, is as it should be.
I suppose sociologists could argue that northern working class kids unconsciously identified with their counterparts in cities like Detroit, that their lives and experiences growing up in Britain’s industrial heartland somehow connected with those played out in Motor City. But the reality is that, for whatever reason, young teenagers like me just wanted to be different. And one way of achieving this was to let your northern soul soar amid the best dance music you had ever heard. You never really asked where all these records came from, who they were made for, about the life stories of artists or groups. All that mattered was that they were soul records that charged every cell of your body.
You had your hair clipped dead short and saved money by trimming it regularly with a Four-In-One Comet Hair Cutter as seen on TV. And for the first time in your life it was possible to dress up – in a made to measure suit from Burton’s on King Street. A 15 inch centre vent, 14 buttons on each sleeve, 3 inch pocket flaps, a Ben Sherman shirt, highly polished brogues and trousers that ended 2 inches above them. All finished off with a pair of black driving gloves. You danced regularly at The Golden Palms in Blackburn, occasionally at Blackpool Mecca, and lied about going to The Wheel in Manchester. You had realised that you didn’t have to be like everyone else. True, you looked like some other people your age, but they were fellow members of your sect, a sect with a Big Secret. I remember the thrill of sharing the clenched fist salute with my new brothers and sisters. “Keep the faith!”
And the secret was music I never heard on the radio, never saw on TV, never read about in the papers. And the faith, as it turned out, was in my youth. And like all faiths it would turn out to be hopeful and hopeless in equal measure.
Nowadays I occasionally mourn the passing of simpler and more honest times. In 1971 I considered Edwin Starr’s “Back Street” to be the anthem of Northern Soul. The back streets were the place “where people know how to swing”, and these lines were the sum total of my politics.
So show me the back streets
Where people stick together,
One for all and all for one.
Where they don’t care how much money you got
So long as you’re having fun.
I realise now that this is not a foundation on which to build a new world order. But more than forty years ago it somehow conjured up a society where a party was the measure of all things, a way of life in which people were defined not by their functions but by the convictions they held and the goodness of their souls.
Keep the faith…