One of the many beauties of northern soul is its sheer unknowability. Since it first emerged in the dancehalls of northern England in the late 60s, it has existed in direct opposition to the very concept of greatest hits. Northern soul is a culture based on chance finds, crate-digging and word-of-mouth recommendations. In Dobie Gray, a versatile old pro who was equally as comfortable singing country as cabaret, recorded a celebration of nocturnal kicks whose lyrics seemed to uncannily anticipate the northern soul scene. Even the fairy-dust twinkle of its piano topline evokes the heart-racing amphetamine thrills of the all-nighter. The perfect anthem for the movement. Many of the feather-cut kids in their three-star tops, flare-flapping Oxford bags and slippery Solatio shoes would have known this as the James Bond song.
For years, mystery surrounded the identity of the band, thought to be named after slave rebellion drama Tamango. A standout track on the Wigan Casino Story compilation, itself as good a northern soul primer as any.
By the early 70s, northern soul had the power to turn little-known oldies into hit singles. Despite that impressive pedigree, it made little impact at the time.
However, its euphoric woo-oos and concise gone-inseconds punch made it a floor-filler on the scene. It was opportunistically re-released by Polydor subsidiary Mojo inpropelling it into the UK Top 40 and prompting the Fascinations, who had disbanded two years earlier, to briefly reform for live performances.
Northern soul was christened by London-based Blues and Soul writer Dave Godin after a visit to the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, but many of its most popular tunes were not soul at all. The scene was spectacularly omnivorous and utility-focused: as long as you could dance to it, nobody cared where a track came from.
After one of these biennial humiliations, however, something extraordinary happened.
The inspirational, life-affirming message of his single Ordinary Joe was a perfect choice for the occasion. Its exquisitely gentle, sophisticated arrangement also makes it perfect for the first - or last - section of any soul all-nighter.
In many senses, the subculture anticipated the rave movement by two decades.
The typical all-nighter was fuelled by popping pills rather than swigging pints, facilitating hour upon hour of non-stop dancing. As dawn broke over the Wigan Casino, and the time approached for dancers to grab their bowling bags, change out of their perspiration-drenched gear into fresh clothes, and think about bunking onto the milk train back to normality, the same three songs would herald the end of the all-nighter.
The famous Three Before Eight, which charted when released together as a commemorative EP, shared a common theme of the ebbing sands of time.
Written by Englishman John Rhys Eddins of Saxmundham, Suffolk and later covered by Kylie Minogue, this single was an elegant and poetic memento mori to live fully in the moment and be cognisant of the fleeting nature of existence. Anything with a suitably emotional vocal or a suitably driving backbeat was ripe for plundering, no matter who the singer was.
Under My Thumb is a perfect instance of accidental soul. It got lost in the noise of the 60s beat boom, and flopped.
Almost a decade later, it finally hit the charts when northern soul DJs discovered that its heartfelt delivery and insistent drum beat were perfect for the floor, and an opportunistic re-release from Pye Disco Demand pushed it into the Top 20 in The single enjoyed a third life in the early 80s, when the Soul Supply label reissued it at a crucial moment.
The Wigan Casino had closed inand despite regular meets in Rotherham and Stafford for the staunchest keepers of the faith, there was a sense that the original movement had entered a decade-long slump. However, a new generation, too young to have frequented the Casino themselves, were curious to find out about the scene that had inspired 80s pop heroes like Soft CellDexys Midnight Runners and the Style Council.
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He coaxed long-retired soul singers into re-recording their biggest tunes over cheap backing tracks for compilations on his Motor City label, then lip-synched even cheaper videos, shot in a hotel lobby, for a DVD. However, there can be no disputing his importance to the development of northern soul.
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One of his finest finds was Love Factory by Eloise Laws. The most exciting northern soul tune is always the next one you discover.
How to dance to northern soul
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