‘Southern’ Northern Soul: Changing Senses of Direction, Place, Space, Identity and Time

Paul Dominic Mercieca

Abstract


Music from Another Time – One Perth Night in 2009

The following extract is taken from fieldwork notes from research into the enduring Northern Soul dance scene in Perth, Western Australia.

It’s 9.30 and I’m walking towards the Hyde Park Hotel on a warm May night. I stop to talk to Jenny, from London, who tells me about her 1970s trip to India and teenage visits to soul clubs in Soho. I enter a cavernous low-ceilinged hall, which used to be a jazz venue and will be a Dan Murphy’s bottle shop before the year ends. South West Soul organiser Tommy, wearing 34-inch baggy trousers, gives me a Northern Soul handshake, involving upturned thumbs. ‘Spread the Faith’, he says. Drinkers are lined up along the long bar to the right and I grab a glass of iced water. A few dancers are out on the wooden floor and a mirror ball rotates overhead. Pat Fisher, the main Perth scene organiser, is away working in Monaco, but the usual suspects are there: Carlisle Derek, Ivan from Cheltenham, Ron and Gracie from Derby. Danny is back from DJing in Tuscany, after a few days in Widnes with old friends. We chat briefly mouth to ear, as the swirling strings and echo-drenched vocals of the Seven Souls’ 45 record, ‘I still love you’ boom through the sound system. The drinkers at the bar hit the floor for Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move on up’ and the crowd swells to about 80. When I move onto the floor, Barbara Acklin’s ‘Am I the Same Girl?’ plays, prompting reflection on being the same, older person dancing to a record from my teenage years. On the bridge of the piano and conga driven ‘’Cause you’re mine’, by the Vibrations, everybody claps in unison, some above their heads, some behind their backs, some with an expansive, open-armed gesture. The sound is like the crack of pistol. We are all living in the moment, lost in the music, moving forward and backward, gliding sideways, and some of us spinning, dervish-like, for a few seconds, if we can still maintain our balance.

Having relocated their scene from England south to the Antipodes, most of the participants described on this night are now in their sixties. Part of the original scene myself, I was a participant observer, dancing and interviewing, and documenting and exploring scene practices over five years.

The local Perth scene, which started in 1996, is still going strong, part of a wider Australian and New Zealand scene. The global scene goes back nearly 50 years to the late 1960s. Northern Soul has now also become southern. It has also become significantly present in the USA, its place of inspiration, and in such disparate places as Medellin, in Colombia, and Kobe, in Japan.

The feeling of ‘living in the moment’ described is a common feature of dance-oriented subcultures. It enables escape from routines, stretches the present opportunity for leisure and postpones the return to other responsibilities. The music and familiar dance steps of a long-standing scene like Northern Soul also stimulate a nostalgic reverie, in which you can persuade yourself you are 18 again.

Dance steps are forward, backward and sideways and on crowded dancefloors self-expression is necessarily attenuated. These movements are repeated and varied as each bar returns to the first beat and in subcultures like Northern Soul are sufficiently stylised as to show solidarity. This solidarity is enhanced by a unison handclap, triggered by cues in some records. Northern Soul is not line-dancing. Dancers develop their own moves.

Place of Origin: Soul from the North?

For those new to Northern Soul, the northern connection may seem a little puzzling. The North of England is often still imagined as a cold, rainy wasteland of desolate moors and smoky, industrial, mostly working-class cities, but such stereotyping obscures real understanding. Social histories have also tended to focus on such phenomena as the early twentieth century Salford gang members, the “Northern Scuttlers”, with “bell-bottomed trousers … and the thick iron-shod clogs” (Roberts 123).

The 1977 Granada television documentary about the key Northern Soul club, Wigan Casino, This England, captured rare footage; but this was framed by hackneyed backdrops of mills and collieries. Yet, some elements of the northern stereotype are grounded in reality.

Engels’s portrayal of the horrors of early nineteenth century Manchester in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 was an influential exploration of the birth pains of this first industrial city, and many northern towns and cities have experienced similar traumas. Levels of social disadvantage in contemporary Britain, whilst palpable everywhere, are still particularly significant in the North, as researched by Buchan, Kontopantelis, Sperrin, Chandola and Doran in North-South Disparities in English Mortality 1965–2015: Longitudinal Population Study.

By the end of the 1960s, the relative affluence of Harold Wilson’s England began to recede and there was increased political and counter-cultural activity. Into this social climate emerged both skinheads, as described by Fowler in Skins Rule and the Northern Soul scene.

Northern Soul scene essentially developed as an extension of the 1960s ‘mod’ lifestyle, built around soul music and fashion. A mostly working-class response to urban life and routine, it also evidenced the ability of the more socially mobile young to get out and stay up late.

Although more London mods moved into psychedelia and underground music, many soul fans sought out obscure, but still prototypical Motown-like records, often from the northern American cities Detroit and Chicago. In Manchester, surplus American records were transported up the Ship Canal to Trafford Park, the port zone (Ritson and Russell 1) and became cult club hits, as described in Rylatt and Scott’s Central 1179: The Story of Manchester's Twisted Wheel.

In the early 1970s, the rare soul fans found a name for their scene.  “The Dave Godin Column” in the fanzine Blues and Soul, published in London, referred for the first time to ‘Northern Soul’ in 1971, really defining ‘Northern’ directionally, as a relative location anywhere ‘north of Watford’, not a specific place.

The scene gradually developed specific sites, clothes, dances and cultural practices, and was also popular in southern England, and actually less visible in cities such as Liverpool and Newcastle. As Nowell (199) argues, the idea that Northern Soul was regionally based is unfounded, a wider movement emerging as a result of the increased mobility made possible by railways and motorways (Ritson and Russell 14).

Clubs like the Blackpool Mecca and Wigan Casino were very close to motorway slip roads and accessible to visitors from further south. The initial scene was not self-consciously northern and many early clubs, like the ‘Golden Torch’, in Tunstall were based in the Midlands, as recounted by Wall (441).

The Time and Space of the Dancefloor

The Northern Soul scene’s growth was initially covered in fanzines like Blues and Soul, and then by Frith and Cummings (23-32). Following Cosgrove (38-41) and Chambers (142), a number of insider accounts (Soul Survivors: The Wigan Casino Story by Winstanley and Nowell; Too Darn Soulful: The Story of Northern Soul by Nowell; The In-Crowd: The Story of the Northern & Rare Soul Scene by Ritson & Russell) were followed by academic studies (Milestone 134-149; Hollows and Milestone 83-103; Wall 431-445). The scene was first explored by an American academic in Browne’s Identity Scene and Material Culture: The Place of African American Rare Soul Music on the British Northern Soul Scene.

Many clubs in earlier days were alcohol-free, though many club-goers substituted amphetamines (Wilson 1-5) as a result, but across the modern scene, drug-taking is not significant. On Northern Soul nights, dancing is the main activity and drinking is incidental. However, dance has received less subtle attention than it deserves as a key nexus between the culture of the scene and black America.

Pruter (187) referred to the earlier, pre-disco “myopia” of many music writers on the subject of dance, though its connection to leisure, pleasure, the body and “serious self-realization” (Chambers 7) has been noted. Clearly Northern Soul dancers find “evasive” pleasure (Fiske 127) and “jouissance” (Barthes v) in the merging of self into record.

Wall (440) has been more nuanced in his perceptions of the particular “physical geography” of the Northern Soul dance floor, seeing it as both responsive to the music, and a vehicle for navigating social and individual space. Dancers respond to each other, give others room to move and are also connected to those who stand and watch. Although friends often dance close, they are careful not to exclude others and dancing between couples is rare. At the end of popular records, there is often applause. Some dance all night, with a few breaks; others ‘pace’ themselves (Mercieca et al. 78).

The gymnastics of Northern Soul have attracted attention, but the forward dives, back drops and spins are now less common. Two less noticed markers of the Northern Soul dancing style, the glide and the soul clap, were highlighted by Wall (432). Cosgrove (38) also noted the sideways glide characteristic of long-time insiders and particularly well deployed by female dancers.

Significantly, friction-reducing talcum powder is almost sacramentally sprinkled on the floor, assisting dancers to glide more effectively. This fluid feature of the dancing makes the scene more attractive to those whose forms of expression are less overtly masculine.

Sprung wooden floors are preferred and drink on the floor is frowned upon, as spillage compromises gliding. The soul clap is a communal clap, usually executed at key points in a record.  Sometimes very loud, this perfectly timed unison clap is a remarkable, though mostly unselfconscious, display of group co-ordination, solidarity and resonance.

Billy from Manchester, one of the Perth regulars, and notable for his downward clapping motion, explained simply that the claps go “where the breaks are” (Mercieca et al. 71). The Northern Soul clap demonstrates key attributes of what Wunderlich (384) described as “place-temporality in urban space”, emerging from the flow of music and movement in a heightened form of synchronisation and marked by the “vivid sense of time” (385) produced by emotional and social involvement.

Crucially, as Morris noted, A Sense of Space is needed to have a sense of time and dancers may spin and return via the beat of the music to the same spot. For Northern Soul dancers, the movements forwards, backwards, sideways through objective, “geometric space” are paralleled by a traversing of existential, “conceived space”. The steps in microcosm symbolise the relentless wider movements we make through life. For Lefebvre, in The Production of Space, these “trialectics” create “lived space”.

A Sense of Place and Evolving Identity

Spaces are plastic environments, charged with emerging meanings. For Augé, they can also remain spaces or be manipulated into “Non-Places”. When the sense of space is heightened there is the potential for lived spaces to become places. The space/place distinction is a matter of contention, but, broadly, space is universal and non-relational, and place is particular and relational.

For Augé, a space can be social, but if it lacks implicit, shared cultural understandings and requires explicit signs and rules, as with an airport or supermarket, it is a non-place. It is not relational. It lacks history. Time cannot be stretched or temporarily suspended. As non-places proliferate, urban people spend more time alone in crowds, ”always, and never, at home” (109), though this anonymity can still provide the possibility of changing identity and widening experience.

Northern Soul as a culture in the abstract, is a space, but one with distinct practices which tend towards the creation of places and identities.  Perth’s Hyde Park Hotel is a place with a function space at the back. This empty hall, on the night described in the opening, temporarily became a Northern Soul Club. The dance floor was empty as the night began, but gradually became not just a space, but a place. To step onto a mostly empty dance floor early in the night, is to cross liminal space, and to take a risk that you will be conspicuous or lonely for a while, or both.

This negotiation of space is what Northern Soul, like many other club cultures has always offered, the promise and risk of excitement outside the home. Even when the floor is busy, it is still possible to feel alone in a crowd, but at some stage in the night, there is also the possibility, via some moment of resonance, that a feeling of connection with others will develop. This is a familiar teenage theme, a need to escape bonds and make new ones, to be both mobile and stable.  Northern Soul is one of the many third spaces/places (Soja 137) which can create opportunities to navigate time, space and place, and to find a new sense of direction and identity. Nicky from Cornwall, who arrived in Perth in the early 1970s, felt like “a fish out of water”, until involvement in the Northern Soul scene helped him to achieve a successful migration (Mercieca et al. 34-38). 

Figure 1: A Perth Northern Soul night in 2007. Note the talcum powder on the DJ table, for sprinkling on the dancefloor. The record playing is ‘Helpless’, by Kim Weston.

McRobbie has argued in Dance and Social Fantasy that Northern Soul provides places for women to define and express themselves, and it has appealed to more to female and LGBTQIA participants than the more masculine dominated rock, funk and hip-hop scenes. The shared appreciation of records and the possibilities for expression and sociality in dance unite participants and blur gender lines.

While the more athletic dancers have tended to be male, dancing is essentially non-contact, as in many other post-1960s ‘discotheque’ styles, yet there is little overt sexual display or flirtation involved. Male and female styles, based on foot rather than arm movements, are similar, almost ungendered, and the Soul scene has differed from more mainstream nightlife cultures focussed on finding partners, as noted in Soul Survivors: The Wigan Casino Story by Winstanley and Nowell. Whilst males, who are also involved in record buying, predominated in the early scene, women now often dominate the dance floor (Wall 441).

The Perth scene is little different, yet the changed gender balance has not produced more partner-seeking for either the older participants, who are mostly in long-term relationships and the newer, younger members, who enjoy the relative gender-blindness, and focus on communality and cultural affinity.  

Figure 2: A younger scene member, ‘Nash’, DJing in Perth in 2016. He has since headed north to Denmark and is now part of the Nordic Northern Soul scene.

In Perth, for Stan from Derby, Northern Soul linked the experiences of “poor white working class kids” with young black Americans (Mercieca et al. 97). Hollows and Milestone (87-94) mapped a cultural geographic relationship between Northern Soul and the Northern cities of the USA where the music originated. However, Wall (442) suggested that Northern Soul is drawn from the more bi-racial soul of the mid-1960s than the funky, Afro-centric 1970s and essentially deploys the content of the music to create an alternative British identity, rather than to align more closely with the American movement for self-determination. Essentially, Northern Soul shows how “the meanings of one culture can be transformed in the cultural practices of another time and place” (Wall 444).

Many contemporary Australian youth cultures are more socially and ethnically mixed than the Northern Soul scene. However, over the years, the greater participation of women, and of younger and newer members, has made its practices less exclusive, and the notion of an “in-crowd” more relaxed (Wall 439). The ‘Northern’ connection is less meaningful, as members have a more adaptable sense of cultural identity, linked to a global scene made possible by the internet and migration. In Australia, attachment seems stronger to locality rather than nation or region, to place of birth in Britain and place of residence in Perth, two places which represent ‘home’. Northern Soul appears to work well for all members because it provides both continuity and change. As Mercieca et al. suggested of the scene (71) “there is potential for new meanings to continue to emerge”.

Conclusion

The elements of expression and directional manoeuvres of Northern Soul dancing, symbolise the individual and social negotiation of direction, place, space, identity and time. The sense of time and space travelled can create a feeling of being pushed forward without control. It can also produce an emotional pull backwards, like an elastic band being stretched. For those growing older and moving far from places of birth, these dynamics can be particularly challenging. Membership of global subcultures can clearly help to create successful migrations, providing third spaces/places (Soja 137) between home and host culture identities, as evidenced by the ‘Southern’ Northern Soul scene in Australia. For these once teenagers, now grandparents in Australia, connections to time and space have been both transformed and transcended. They remain grounded in their youth, but have reduced the gravitational force of home connections, projecting themselves forward into the future by balancing aspects of both stability and mobility.   

Physical places and places and their connections with culture have been replaced by multiple and overlapping mappings, but it is important not to romanticise notions of agency, hybridity, third spaces and “deterritorialization” (Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia). In a globalised world, most people are still located geographically and labelled ideologically. The Northern Soul repurposing of the culture indicates a transilience (Richmond 328) “differentially available to those in different locations in the field of power” (Gupta and Ferguson 20). However, the way in which Northern Soul has moved south over the decade via migration, has arguably now provided a stronger possible sense of resonance with the lives of black Americans whose lives in places like Chicago and Detroit in the 1960s, and their wonderful music, are grounded in the experience of family migrations in the opposite direction from the South to the North (Mercieca et al. 11). In such a celebration of “memory, loss, and nostalgia” (Gupta and Ferguson 13), it may still be possible to move beyond the exclusion that characterises defensive identities.

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Keywords


Northern Soul, place, space, identity



Copyright (c) 2018 Paul Dominic Mercieca

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