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Northern Sounds

Can you imagine a thousand kids gyrating wildly all night on a packed dance floor to the sounds of obscure sixties' soul oldies you — and in many cases most of them — have never heard of?

If it all sounds a little unbelievable then you obviously haven't caught up on the "Northern Sounds" soul scene — the most rapidly burgeoning underground teen cult in the country at the moment.

The term "Northern" doesn't refer to the source of the records — discs from the deep south vie with those from Northern cities like New York, and Detroit nor, any longer, to the location of the current audience, for the Northern Sounds cult has now reached as far south as Southampton, eastwards to Norwich and west to Wales.

But the heart of it all has always been South Lancashire and the North Midlands area of the Potteries.

The roots go back to the mod era of the mid-sixties. While the advent of flower power and psychedelia swept all this way in London and the rest of the country, the Manchester mods clung to their life-style, their clothes' styles and their music which was always soul, the more obscure the better.

The Twisted Wheel in Manchester was THE place then, a packed disco where it was always 100 per cent soul, all night and into the dawn.

When the place was finally closed down in the late sixties after numerous drugs' raids — the "all-nighters" breeding a nasty drugs situation as kids popped pills in an effort to stay awake and on their feet. A new home from home for these soul freaks was soon found with the opening of the Torch Club in Stoke-on-Trent.

By '73 or so, the "Northern Sounds" scene was well under way and while the Torch, like the Twisted Wheel, was eventually busted, other venues sprang up, along with a host of promoters, some in it for the music, others for the money.

One who has received his share of slating but did a lot to get the whole scene off the ground was Chris Burton who ran his International Soul Club from Stoke, promoting at numerous venues and making a handsome profit out of badges, stickers, pennants, record imports and the like.

The Northern Soul Club, the West Midlands Soul Club, North Wales Soul Club and later the Inter-City Soul Club and other organisations followed suit promoting in towns like Littlechurch, Oldham, Leicester, Derby, York and Stafford, while a host of disc-jockeys made names for themselves by catering for this peculiar yet vibrant trend.

Their job was to discover and air the right sounds — not pop-soul, or records happening in the States but the real rarities, the more obscure, the better.

The pre-requisite was a stomping beat and something near to the early Motown sound (funk being one thing) — though Motown itself, with a few exceptions was regarded as too well known already.

One of the early circuits was for Motown's rival Detroit labels Roc-Tic and Golden World but these went out of favour as they became too well-known for the rarity-seeking Northern Sounds' addicts.

Artists like J.J. Barnes and Major Lance (who recorded a dire but successful-on-the-scene live album at the Torch) were resurrected over for tours.

The search for obscure records soon created a market in rare imports or old British pressings which began to change hands for vast sums — anything up to £75! This in turn lead to certain characters making dubs off old records and pressing up hundreds of counterfeits, earning themselves handsome profits without having to pay any artist royalties.

One character even took old tapes, wiped off the vocals and put them out as instrumentals under new names.

Those disc jockeys and importers who could afford American trips were soon able to re-coup their investment, returning with cases full of rare items.

Ian Levine, emerged at the very top of the pile and established his Blackpool Mecca venue as THE veritable Mecca of the scene, attracting a couple of thousand kids to each of his big nights there as he played the obscurities he had unearthed on his American trips.

Down at Wigan Casino, record importer/D.J. Russ Winstanley and his collaborator Richard Searling have provided a strong challenge and the Northern Sounds' scene has indeed split into two camps each venue having its own dedicated following which berates the other places just as football fans slate each others' sides.

Just as the world's resources of oil are running down, so the availability of obscure soul ideas has become greatly reduced, most of the suitable stuff having now been exploited — and on the Northern Sounds' scene the playing life of a record is generally less than that on the wider soul-disco scene, because of this constant search for something different.

All this has now lead to an easing of previous criteria. Records by white artists — even Paul Anka would you believe? — broke in, provided that they had that requisite stomp-stomp beat to fit the highly athletic 100 mile-per-hour dance styles.

Now more recent, even new material is also being exposed on the Northern scene. Never slow to sense out a new market, the record industry, besides making generally available through U.K. release the oldie items that can be picked up on, is also recording new material with the Northern Sounds audience particularly in mind. And the scene has furnished its share of eventual pop-chart hits.

Tammi Lyn's "I'm Gonna RunAway From You" was the first, a couple of years back, but the big break-through came when Pye decided to launch its specially tailored Disco Demand label at close of '74.

The first few releases all narrowly missed the pop charts but then "Under My Thumb", a record by white British singer Wayne Gibson but a Northern Sound none-the-less, made the real big time as did the also white, also British Nosmo King and the Javells with "Goodbye, Nothing To Say."

Then came the controversial "Footsee" by Wigan's Chosen Few, originally an instrumental out-take to which Pye dubbed car horns and other gimmicks after a certain Simon Soussain had shipped over hundreds of pressings which he's made in the States with similar gimmicks dubbed on.

This record perhaps sums up the dangerous excesses the whole scene has now got itself into. It is, in honesty, one of the most crassly amateurish records ever to grace (or should that be disgrace?) the charts and shows that rarity and novelty seem far more important on this particular scene than quality.

Nor are the kids themselves really soul fans per-se. It would be more accurate to describe them as dance addicts (for what real soul fan would ever rave over Paul Anka?) and if a record's got that driving beat then how many of them care if it's got soul and was cut by four black guys in Chicago or it's meaningless drivel recorded by four postmen in Halifax?

Indeed the music itself is only a part of the Northern Sounds scene, so — though they'd have us believe otherwise — are the big name disc jockeys who seem so intent on personal ego tripping as they slag each other off and try to build their own image.

Visiting a Northern Sounds club for the first time — and there are now a hundred or so dotted around the country, with audiences ranging from a mere couple of dozen to a thousand or more — you might feel you've stepped into a time warp.

The dress styles, the hair cuts, even the dance fashions, but most of all the sense of camaraderie all bring the mod era back to mind.

Most of the fans are aged between 14 and 22, they tend to roam in packs and "pulling" seems to be the last thing on their mind. You might see the girls and boys chatting together but the talk is of records and music not of love.

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Retiring Fripp

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Dave Simms

International Musician & Recording World - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


International Musician - Jun 1975

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


Previous article in this issue:

> Retiring Fripp

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> Dave Simms

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