I like my soul to come in both varieties; a Stax-flavoured southern soul tear-jerker, aching with pangs of guilt and regret can fairly set me up for the weekend. You might not need to look too far to find problems of your own, but they ain’t nuthin’ compared to what James Carr is going through on The Dark End Of The Street or Laura Lee on the fantastic Dirty Man.
In contrast, a talc-dusted northern soul belter fairly blows away the cobwebs of a long week at work. Where better to get on the good foot than with this wee cracker:
Joy Lovejoy – In Orbit
In Orbit is that most trainspottery of things – a rare-ish northern soul single that very little is known about. A while spent on Google reveals next to nothing, save a whole load of northern fans speculating and second-guessing the whys and wherefores and identity of the mysterious Miss Lovejoy – cos that’s not her real name, after all.
Originally recorded as a demo at Chess Records, all and any information about the singer and the musicians seems to have been long-lost in the spinning grooves of time. Which, in that terribly elitist northern way, makes the record all the more appealing.
It‘s a terrific record, over and out in less than the magical two and a half minutes. My 7″ copy has more run-off groove than actual groove. Which is really quite something, given that it grooves like a good ‘un. It’s fairly standard northern soul really; a quick parping blast of brass on the intro, a clipped guitar holding the groove on the off-beat, a metronomic pistol-crack snare as regular and reliable as a Swiss watch and a helium-enhanced female vocal, giddy with being in love. Just when you’re getting into it, it’s over and done with. Short and sweet. Just like this post.
A couple of weeks ago I was looking for a favourite hoody that wasn’t in its usual place. Turning my wardrobe inside out I discovered, hidden behind a Paul Smith shirt that I can’t bare to part with, bought long ago BC (‘Before Children’) when disposable income was such a thing, a brand new vinyl copy of ‘Searching For The Young Soul Rebels‘ by Dexys Midnight Runners.
With Father’s Day looming, I had given a list of LPs to Mrs Pan and the kids (“D’you not need a new pair of slippers?” she’d asked in all seriousness – I do, but still…) in the hope that they’d turn up something from the list. The good news was that they had, and as a bonus they’d got the LP I secretly really wanted – I have (or rather, had) an old C90 somewhere with a home-taped version of the album when I borrowed it from Irvine Library some time in the mid 80’s, but I didn’t have the ‘real’ version. The bad news was that I’d have to wait two weeks until I could play it. And act surprised when the kids gave it to me.
So on Sunday morning, I duly acted surprised (I genuinely was, they’d bought me other stuff as well – that’s the stakes raised for next year’s Mother’s Day) and, when the time came, I listened to Dexys’ debut for the first time in many years.
It all came flooding back. As the LP spun, I was transported back to my teenage bedroom, headphones on, ignoring the shouts from downstairs that my tea was ready. The album’s opening radio static bursts of Smoke On The Water crackled into the Sex Pistols’ Holidays In The Sun which gave way to The Specials’ Rat Race, before Dexys themselves took centre stage with ‘Burn It Down‘, a re-recorded version of ‘Dance Stance‘, their debut 7″. Not that I could’ve told you that back then. What a great start to an album! Here’s a band laying their influences out for all to see before sweeping them aside – “Burn It Down!” with their own pretty unique take on brass-led soul/punk.
Every track burns bright and true, honeyhorn-coated soul anthems wringing in attitude. The elephant stomp of ‘Geno‘ thunks throughout the house, prompting insistent requests to “Turn it down!” Rather than ‘Burn It Down‘, the song as heavy yet hooky as Slade in their heyday. Closing track ‘There, There My Dear’ burns brightest and brassiest, an anthem that puts the boot into the murky mechanics of the music business – at the time of writing the album, the band were being royally ripped-off by their label to the extent that the mastertapes of the album were stolen by the band and held to ransom until better royalty rates were agreed.
The big surprise for me though was ‘Seven Days Too Long‘, opening track on side 2. Now, I must’ve heard this track a gazillion times, but never once have I equated it with the original northern soul version by Chuck Wood. Back in the day, I was an avid reader of sleeve notes and writing credits, so I must’ve spotted that the track wasn’t a Dexy’s original. In the days/weeks/months/years/decades since I last played my old Dexys tape, I’ve accumulated plenty of ‘Bluffers Guides To Northern Soul‘-type compilations, and the Chuck Wood original is a regular, welcome addition to the track list on most of them.
Chuck Wood – Seven Days Too Long
That Dexys do a version makes sense. Formed out of youth culture and tribalism and named after Dexedrine, the ‘speed’ favoured by the dance-floor fillers on the Northern scene who could keep going into the wee small hours, Dexy’s pay a respectful homage to the sax-blasting original.
Dexys Midnight Runners – Seven Days Too Long
Dexys still have it. Their One Day I’m Going To Soar LP from a couple of years ago is a masterclass in how a concept album should sound and still regularly rotates round these parts.
I’ve not heard the new one yet, though. I’ve been put off by the title, ‘Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish & Country Soul’, which smells a little too much like Too-Rye-Ay, the fiddly-dee ‘n dungarees package that gave them their best-known hit, and also by the fact esteemed music critic and Dexys’ champion Everett True has suggested it should be considered less a Dexys’ album and more as the follow-up to Kevin Rowland’s poorly-received mid 90s solo LP, you know, the one where he’s unashamedly cross-dressing on the cover. I’ll get around to it eventually. Maybe in 40 years time, as that’s just about how long it’s taken me to accept the true genius of the Searching For The Young Soul Rebels.
Siblings in soul is, as Tom Jones might say, not that unusual. The Isley Brothers weren’t so-called for nothing, ditto the Family Stone, with Sly fronting a band including his brother Freddie and sister Rose.
Erma and Aretha Franklin both developed singing careers from a church background. Their father was a travelling preacher, a pop star in his own right who’d go from town to town raising hell with his fire and brimstone sermons before his daughters raised the roof with their pure gospel. Big sister Erma would go on to have a hit with ‘Take A Little Piece Of My Heart‘, but it was Aretha who went on to far greater success. You may have heard of her.
Then you had the Jackson Sisters and, no relations, a whole hairy-headed handful of brothers in the Jackson 5, who had expired long before Michael would climb the charts all over again, duetting with little sister Janet.
There are loads more, of course, but to acknowledge them all would turn this article into a listathon, and who wants that?
One of the more interesting musical family rivalries was that of the Butler brothers. Big brother Jerry was a songwriter chiefly, but a decent crooner in his own right. Like many of his ilk, he found his voice via gospel and actually ended up being the lead vocalist in the Curtis-free first line-up of The Impressions. Mayfield certainly made the bigger, er, impression, as Jerry and his voice were soon dispatched to make way for Curtis and his distinct vocals.
Most of Jerry Butler’s tracks never get out of 2nd gear; shiny-suited and highly pompadoured mid-paced mushy love songs that were expertly delivered, easy on the ear and admired by many. To me, he’s a bit too wallpaper, ie, he’s there, but kinda in the background and unnoticed. This track from 1968’s ‘The Ice Man Cometh‘ LP though is a stone-cold classic.
Jerry Butler– Never Gonna Give You Up
Wee brother Billy on the other hand favoured up-tempo soul stompers. In an act of how-to-piss-off-your-brother-pettiness, his early material was produced by Curtis Mayfield. Loud, in your face, driving brass-led blasters were his speciality.
In the mid 60s, Billy had a hit with ‘The Right Track‘, a dazzling slice of Temptations-inspired northern soul. You can take any meaning you fancy from the lyrics – ‘I’m gonna keep on steppin’, never lookin’ back, I believe I’m on the right track‘ could be the rallying cry of a manifesto-wielding civil rights supporter, but it could also be the rallying cry of the weekend mod and his pals, pilled-up and looking for a good night out. Take yer pick.
‘The Right Track‘ has it all; clipped guitar, blasting horns, a piano riff absolutely ripe for sampling and, with Billy outta the traps like a talcum-covered whippet, all over and done with in under 2 and a half explosive minutes.
Or, There’s Always Been A Dance Element To Our Music. Post Stone Roses, everyone in 1990 had sacked their rock drummer, got themselves a loose-limbed octopus who could replicate Clyde Stubblefield‘s funkier moments from James Brown’s Greatest Hits and began making records that folk in outdated quiffs could sorta shuffle around to in a faux-druggy state. I know, because I was one of those shuffling folk with outdated quiff. Two months later and it had been fashioned into a Paul McCartney ’65 classic, but when the first strains of the Paris Angels or Northside or Flowered Up began to appear in the gaps between The Cramps and Smiths records at The Attic in Irvine, it was quiffs everywhere for as far as the eye could see. You’ll know this already, but Northside et al weren’t the first bands to shout accusingly at the drummer, “Less thunk, more funk!” There are plenty of examples of when ‘rock’ bands go ‘dance’.
Back when Joy Division were unsigned and known as Warsaw, RCA gave them some money to record a demo. Celebrated local Northern Soul DJ Richard Searling convinced the band they should record a version of Nolan Porter‘s Keep On Keepin’ On. Porter’s record was a staple of the northern soul scene, a gigantic record with a jagged, juddering riff that could’ve come straight off The Stooges first LP. It still sounds urgent, fresh and NOW!, even more so today. Jessie J and David Guetta at T In The Park?!? Fuck right off! Sorry. I digress. Warsaw, keen to impress RCA and gain a record deal went so far as to record a version of Keep On Keepin’ On, but as Bernard Sumner ruefully reflected, “they tried to make Ian Curtis sound like James Brown.” Given that this wasn’t quite the sound these intense young men were looking for, their recording was aborted, never to see the light of day. However…
Click the image for full effect!
Sumner turned the riff inside out, played it 10 times faster than Nolan Porter and presented his band with a new tune. Using the RCA money, they cut Interzone. Listen to both tunes then spot the similarities. They’re all there. Warsaw’s take on the gigantic, jagged, juddering riff is even more Stooges-like, the perfect foil for the Ian Curtis body pop. Nothing at all like the Nolan Porter record, it was unsurprising that RCA didn’t like it. Which as it turned out, was good news for Tony Wilson, Factory Records and for all of us.
Joy Divison – Interzone (Unknown Pleasures LP version)
David Bowie – Warszawa (the glacial track that in 1977 christened Ian Curtis’ band with no name)
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.
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?
I like northern soul, but beyond the obvious tracks and 3 or 4 ropey compilations in my collection, I find it a bit of a minefield. I’m certainly no expert on the subject – I’ll make that clear right now. I don’t know about art, but I know what I like and all that. I was digging through some of those ropey compilations the other day, looking for ‘new’ stuff to play in the car and I came across these two tracks of dynamite.
First up, Madeline Bell‘s ‘Picture Me Gone’. A quick bit of googlewiki (copyright Plain Or Pan?) tells me that Madeline Bell was born in America but came to the UK in the mid 60’s to make her way in the music business. Singing back-up to Dusty Springfield and, later, on early recordings by Elton John and Donna Summer no doubt paved the way. And meeting and recording a track with a pre-Led Zeppelin John Paul Jones (1968’s ‘What Am I Supposed To Do?’) wouldn’t have done her any harm. But it’s ‘Picture Me Gone’ that she’s most well known and loved for in northern soul circles.
Picture Me Gone sounds a lot like Dusty in places, which is no bad thing. Plenty of horns, clipped guitar, sweeping strings and the odd key change, it’s northern soul personified for part-time northern soulers like myself.
Also northern soul personified is Mary Love‘s ‘Lay This Burden Down’. A soul/gospel Christian evangelist, Mary Love was discovered in the mid 60’s by Sam Cooke’s manager who pointed her in the direction of Modern Records, where she started recording. These records became a big hit on the northern soul scene. I need to investigate them because if they are half as good as this track I’ll be finger-poppin all the way to the Wigan Casino. Is it still open?
(I know it’s closed). As you can see from the poster below, Mary Love still tours to this day. I need to get out more. I think I’m missing out on a whole subculture of music. If any experts out there would like to make me a decent northern soul compilation, feel free to get your CD Writer out and keep on burnin’! (ouch)