Snap! Crackle! Pop!May 7, 2012
I look on northern soul the same way I look at the output from all those brilliant Nuggetsy 60s garage bands. While your garage bands were using the hits of The Kinks and The Who and whoever as the blueprint and building blocks for their own skewed short, sharp 2 and a half minute attempts at chart stardom, the acts who would eventually constitute what became know as the northern soul scene were aping the more well-known records coming out on Motown, Stax, Atlantic et al. Not all, to be fair, there are hundreds and thousands of perfectly original northern soul tracks. But with a borrowed riff here and a stolen melody line there, many northern soul tracks are bare facsimiles of the chart hits du jour. A half-decent lawyer could’ve had many labels shut down, but the very fact that these records languished in absolute obscurity meant this was never likely to be the case. Just as well really, for you, me and anyone else who likes their soul with a northern twist. But you knew all that already.
I’ve only once been to a northern soul club. In the wee small hours after last orders in the pub, one of our hipper friends led us through a catacomb of avenues and alleways until we arrived at the ubiquitous door round the back of the basement of some old man’s pub or other. A knock or two later and a panel slid across revealing a pair of questioning eyes that quickly turned to recognition towards the person chapping the door. Inside, £4 lighter and with the back of our hands stamped in green ink, we hit the dancefloor and never stopped. I only knew about 2 of the tracks played all night, but this was a total rush. Music made for below the waist being danced to by spasmodically uncoordinated Ayrshiremen and the odd local who appeared to know what he was doing (see pic above). This all happened in Glasgow, but it may as well have been in Greenland given the likelihood of me ever finding the place again.
I can never claim to be a northern soul aficianado. For starters I have no northern soul on vinyl (a ‘real’ northern soul fan, whatever that is, would never have their music on mp3). I have a fair selection of shop-bought compilation CDs (from that mecca of Northern Soul retail Our Price – remember them?), and the odd friend-compiled compilation on TDK cassette. To quote that oft cliched line, I don’t know about art, but I know what I like.
I like my northern soul rattlin’ out of the speakers with that tinny nuclear blast and breathless amphetamine rush that’s so synonymous with those type of records. The drum beats recorded so poorly they sound like they’re playing on the moon. The pianos and horn section barely in tune and blasting away with all the might of a baby’s first breath. Plinky-plonk percussion buried so deep in the mix it sounds like next door’s novelty doorbell. The vocals so thin and weedy they sound almost other-worldly, the whole thing sounding likes it’s playing underneath a greasy spoon frying pan sizzling up a truckers breakfast. To have been there when they were recorded of course, these records would’ve sounded gargantuan. Meaty, beaty, big and bouncy, even. But often poor production and even poorer record pressing let the dynamics of it all down. Yes, possibly the reason why none of these records were ever really hits in the crassest sense, yet also the reason why they remain so sought-after and elitist. On some of them you can practically smell the talcum powder.
Here’s 3 of this weekend’s favourites:
The Flirtations – Nothing But A Heartache
Judi & The Affections – Ain’t Gonna Hurt My Pride
The Playthings – Surrounded By A Ray Of Sunshine
In turn, a booming Supremes soundalike, a weedy-sounding knee trembler that pinches the riff from Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get A Witness and an uplifting nuclear blast of northern soul that’ll have you reaching for the ‘repeat’ button before the first verse is over. It’s finger clickin’ good, y’all!
*A genuine question for any real northern soulers reading…
I don’t know if this is an urban myth or not, but I remember reading way back in time that The Land Of Make Believe, as made popular by Bucks Fizz was originally an old northern track. I’d love to think this was true, but I can’t find anything online to suggest it’s anything other than fabrication. Perhaps I’m getting mixed up. Pete Waterman is a well-known northern soul boy. Maybe he was involved in the Bucks Fizz record and that’s where the genesis of my ‘fact’ comes from. I don’t know. Does anyone?