Is this the final Northern Soul revival?

by Ian Thompson
  • When something makes its way into a Shredded Wheat advert, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s part of the mainstream. I mean, would you take the risk of going through the process of creating an ad and buying expensive broadcast time for something that could only make sense to a tiny minority?

    In January of this year, McCann London’s ad for Shredded Wheat aired, featuring a father and son dancing together at a local Northern Soul venue. It seemed to fit perfectly with the ‘look after your heart’ positioning of the product.

    This followed the release of Elaine Constantine’s ‘Northern Soul’ film in October of the previous year and a BBC documentary ‘Living for the weekend’ aired around the same time. Since all of these events, Fred Perry and Pretty Green have both released Northern Soul clothing and accessory ranges, featuring their own branded versions of the famous ‘fist’ logo (inspired by the black power salute, first seen around the world when athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave it during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics Games in Mexico City).

    It may seem an odd time to be blogging about this, so late after all these events but, in November an episode of ‘Emmerdale’ will be aired which is all set in a Northern Soul club. I know this, because one of the clubs I go to, The North Leeds Northern Soul Club at Moortown Social Club, is where it was shot a couple of weeks ago and all the local Soulies were asked to turn up to provide a bit of authenticity. Before you ask, I didn’t go, but I’m pretty sure the producer will have been a bit disappointed by the age of most of the people who did.

    I’ve been wondering for a short while whether this flurry of events might mean a bit of a resurgence of Northern Soul culture, but my guess is that this most recent airing might be the death knell of a brief affair with another enigmatic cultural movement from the past. I’m not sure whether this is a shame or not.

    I can’t claim to be one of the originals by any means, but my age (57) would suggest that I should be and it’s certainly an advantage in the clubs. My real induction into Northern Soul started only a couple of years ago when, after I’d spent about a year learning to dance French Jive with my missus, I announced that what I really wanted to learn was Northern Soul dancing. She booked us both on a knackering 5 hour workshop and we’ve since done another 5 of these with Fiona Smith and her partner James Whitehead (the World Champion apparently, although how much of the actual world is involved in these championships I can’t be sure. Not that I would want to diminish his achievements – he’s really good).

    Check ‘em both out here:

  • We discovered very quickly that, if you’re gonna do it, you need to commit to it fully. Luckily, my wife Kath is an ‘all in’ kind of person, so the discipline of going to a club at least once a week (and sometimes 3 times a week) has all come from Kath. It doesn’t take long to discover that there are no sanitised, hipster versions of Northern Soul dance culture anywhere. It’s the real thing or nothing. The only thing you might call a ‘scene’ is the one that’s always been there, and as you might imagine, the die-hard fans are not all that keen on the media dabbling in and exploiting their well-kept secret.

    It’s quite intimidating wandering as a stranger into a world that has remained largely intact and unchanged since the early 70s. Getting out on the floor for the first time feels like a baptism of fire, although nobody stares or sneers – it’s not that kind of thing, people are really very welcoming. The age that the Twisted Wheel and early Wigan originals are now is around 60 and they’re still there doing it – vigorously.

    Of all the things I’ve seen about Northern Soul recently, the Shredded Wheat ad is actually pretty close to the reality of how things are now. The guy in the advert is called Dave Stubbs and he’s from Shrewsbury. His son does indeed go out with him to the clubs and this is mirrored across the Northern Soul scene. There aren’t that many young people going to the clubs but, invariably they are the children of the real fanatics. It interests me that they are happy to go out with their mums and dads. Neither looks uncool though – both generations usually dressed to the nines.

    There’s a very lively scene at the moment. I don’t think this is specifically about the recent publicity. To me, it looks more like the original generation have had kids who have grown up and left, leaving their parents with a social time gap to fill. Many have gone back to doing what they did before – Northern Soul and the clubs.

    It takes a bit of getting used to. I’ve toured some of the none too salubrious Social Clubs of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Two of the best nights are at Drax and Eggborough Power Stations respectively, which is about as Northern and industrial as you can get. But I can’t see it lasting forever. The whole movement is unique in that it has remained almost unchanged since it started in the late 60s. This is for two reasons; firstly, because the music supply is finite. There are no bands creating a new supply of music, it is by its nature nostalgic with much of the first wave of records already old and undiscovered when the whole thing started. Secondly; the original generation are still incredibly passionate about it but perhaps understandably many of them want to keep it to themselves ‘til they pop their clogs. But, it is weird and also a bit wonderful to see so many older people dancing very vigorously into the night, this time without the use of amphetamines.

    Here are the old ’uns at work:

  • There are a few pockets of younger activity. Wigan Young Souls meet at the Highfield Cricket Club in Wigan every month and the amazing Levanna McLean is all over YouTube with her dance exploits, usually filmed by her mum. Levanna danced on the ‘Happy’ video for Pharrell Williams and appeared with him onstage for the Brits. However, as one of the Northern Soul regulars said to me, ‘If you gather together all of the younger people in the country interested enough to dance regularly, you’d struggle to fill 2 nights a month in a single club. It may look like a revival, but it’ll probably disappear as quickly as it arrived’.

  • Now, I can’t tell if this is just a protective position from one of the old guard or a genuine observation. However, from what I’ve experienced, it doesn’t appear to be far from the truth. The reality is, younger people can, and I think probably should be building their own thing. I’ve got an excuse I suppose. I was always interested, but Punk and other things always took a front seat for me and because my age always put me slightly behind the curve (unbelievably) it always seemed to be for the next generation up. However, cos I’m an old bloke now, I’m allowed to revisit stuff I didn’t get round to the first time.

    I love watching the young crowd dance though. They’ve got the energy, lack of waistline and un-calcified bones to do it right and they are at least as good as the first wave as far as I can see. I’ve consigned myself to backdrop-free shuffling in the interests of preserving my knees and spine.

    To my mind, the scene is still owned by the original generation as they have the commitment, time and a vested interest in sustaining it. My guess is that, although it may appear again in the future, this is the last time it’ll be revived to the extent that there will be anywhere to go to actually DO it. So my advice is, if you’re fancying having a go and don’t mind learning a few steps, get on a workshop and get out there while it lasts. It’s a genuinely fascinating and exhilarating experience to be amongst the cooling towers of a power station at a mad, noisy party well past the time most of the people there should be in bed – several times a month.

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