Northern Soul - A Life Time Obsession
Imagine there's "Who wants to become a millionair" on the German TV. And the final One-Million-Euro-question is: "Who sang lead in the famous US Soul group The Impressions?" The studio gets painfully quiet! The candidate pales, steers around full of uncertaincy and then takes to the audience joker as the last relief. Which won't help him a great deal anyway since a poll amongst the audience would have revealed that only 3% of those in the hall actually had ever heard of that group. Therefore the turn-out is characteristic but not helpful: 39% guess James Brown, 36% point out Aretha Franklin (the famous showmaster rolling eyes in his typical way as a sign of slight irritation), another 23% go for Otis Redding – after a break for commercials and then some irrelevant mutter the candidate gives up, saying the risk to lose everything on such a difficult question being too high for him…
Well, that sounds very much a fantasy, doesn't it? Of course it is one – since who in Germany would come up with a question like that? In England, on the contrary, some estimated eight out of ten housewifes very likely would have earned themselves some little extra pocket money without winking an eye.
It's far easier to put up this question than to answer it in brief, therefore we try this way: Soul was the prevailing musical genre of the Sixties in the US setting the foundation for styles-to-come like Funk, Disco, Hip Hop and even House. Several ten-thousand songs are estimated to have been recorded in those years. Obviously, just a few could make it into the charts which in those days were still segregated between the Billboard (Pop) Charts and the R&B Charts. Black music had been labelled "Race music" for a long time…
When I'm looking around attentively in my tiny town I get the impression that the term "Soul" is almost omnipresent (there seems to exist a strong positive connotation with that term "Soul" in Germany which makes it cool to use as an abstract formula for almost any advertising purpose) but not many of those who attach the "Soul" brand to their events would go beyond thinking that Soul is basically the hits of Marvin, Aretha, J.B. etc. I'd bet the Leipzig-based band that said on their website they played "the originals by the Blues Brothers and The Commitments" meant it serious. Well, em…
As I've already said: the clock strikes a little bit different in England. In the beginning it was the subculture of the Mods which paved the ground for a cult following to Rare Soul by favouring "swinging" Jazz and groovy Rhythm & Blues (that's what the term "R&B" originally stood for, not what is labelled identically today). In the North of England since the mid-sixties, a club scene built around lesser known Soul tunes from the US which were predominantly fast, very danceable but hardly known to the general public. This phenomenon was finally dubbed "Northern Soul", the credits for coining that phrase go to famous music enthusiast and journalist Dave Godin (R.I.P.). The "In-Crowd" of knowledgable devotees would prefer a type of more original or authentic, unadapted, rawer recordings by smaller independent labels to the Charts sound (of e.g. Motown) which was watered-down for the taste of the white middle class. The majority of these small labels were based in the big cities like: Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles. Life's rhythm in the industrial centres was obviously different from that in the still ruraly dominated states more to the South. That's why "Big City Soul" or "Urban Soul" (a term which is in use again today) sounds different from many of the commercially more successful "standard" ATLANTIC or STAX productions which have pre-formed and narrowed the listening expectations of many occasional costumers over here.
The Northern Soul scene in England over all the years has had its ups and downs. Today, musicwise it's more interesting than ever before and certainly it's no longer an underground scene – while in Germany it still is. To finish with a misperception: Northern Soul doesn't mean at all not to play songs by famous artists or any Motown productions, but the interest clearly focuses on the rarer titels which often failed commercially in the first place instead of playing those few overplayed hit tunes all the time. Just one example: in British Soul clubs, the pre-release promotional copies of Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul music" were played by the DJs several times during the night – after the track had rocketed straight to the top of the charts and became familiar to every blockhead no self-respecting Northern DJ touched it again for a long time… The song, of course, was (and is) still great, but now that it had become part of the mainstream it was irrelevant by Northern Soul terms. There were (and are) still too many other great songs waiting to be discovered and played by DJs and adored by true fans.
This preference shown by Northern Soul fans for the tracks which didn't straight make it occasionally may seem to be an absurd or élitist attitude, but it has rescued many real gems from their "Sleeping beauty" status or from getting dumped irreversibly. So many good tracks remained unissued by the record companies for whatever reason or totally failed saileswise, even if that doesn't seem to make sense from a today's point of view. But the potential of gifted black singers and musicians in the USA in the sixties was so huge that many good productions by smaller local labels which just didn't have the money to finance extensive promotion or to run their own distribution simply went down in the fierce competition.
I confess frankly: there are some very acclaimed songs which I personally started appreciating only after I had listened to them several times. But if you undertake this effort and listen carefully, you'll get a rich and long-lasting reward when you finally recognise such a song's beauty! Moreover, there are so many great songs which would instantly cast a spell on you and draw you to the dancefloor (provided there's one). If you're in a dancing mood and open-minded when it comes to songs you haven't heard before, even as a newcomer to that scene you'll easily get your more than fair share of fun and sweat at a good Norther Soul Night. In contrast to the early days (or today's nights of "classic" Northern) when the preferred songs were so called "stompers" (very fast tracks with a very strict and punctuated beat), at today's more "upfront" venues different sounds are accepted and played by DJs who would demonstrate an incredible taste and still come up with fantastic rare gems: at a good Soul Allnighter now you would hear also mid-tempo songs as well as R&B movers, strong-voiced Beat Ballads, Sixties "Newies" which means "late" or "recent" discoveries or even some awfully soulful "modern" Soul tracks (Modern Soul in this context basically means all good danceable Soul tracks since the early 70s, their sound being remarkably different from the more raw and unpolished typical 60s sound and finally leading into the more popular and trivial Disco beat.)
Once you've got bitten by the Soul Bug, (fortunately!) you won't get rid of that passion ever again because this music always brings up new and thrilling facettes. Despite their geografical or social background, Rare Soul fans share a heart-felt obsession for "their" music which often results into a deep interest only comparable to that of a music archaeologist. Behind every song there is a story to discover: where the artist comes from, where and how the song was recorded, how and why this song almost made it or – in so many more cases – why it failed. Of course you don't need this sort of encyclopedic knowledge (also known as "anorakism") to be enthusiastic about Soul music – it's also quite simply fantastic music to dance to and it delivers a lot of positive energy which can help to cope with the (in our ridiculously soft scale) not always easy every day living.
Maybe this article and/or some of the other features at SOUL-MAGIC.DE can stir your interest and let you feel some of the Magic this music definitely owns. You're welcome!
Oh well, I still owe you the solution of that € 1 000 000.00 question in the imaginary TV show: of course it was the fourth and last option I didn't mention above: a certain Curtis Mayfield…