Let’s rewind once again to the now hazy days of 1977 when millions of viewers tuned into a peak time documentary strand from Granada TV called This England
, on this occasion for an episode titled Wigan Casino
, which examined the most popular club on the Northern Soul scene, famous for its all–nighters where DJs like Russ Winstanley and Richard Searling would spin American soul rarities from the 1960s issued on labels like Okeh, Ric Tic and Mirwood.
There was some amazingly energetic and acrobatic dancing on display and what is equally amazing in the age of ‘reality’ TV and wannabes desperately craving media attention is the fact that many young Casino regulars didn’t want their private passion publicised and director Tony Palmer was under strict orders not to film those who didn’t want the exposure.
The documentary was undoubtedly a fascinating insight into a subculture I knew little about at the time, albeit I do think Palmer devoted too much time to local social history with old–timers reminiscing about the deprivation of their younger days accompanied by English folk tunes but the soul music was generally terrific, my own favourite being Turnin’ My Heartbeat Up, although the Charity Brown and Rain single Out of My Mind does sound more Eurovision than Detroit to my ears.
As a youngster I’d always enjoyed tracks like Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me, The Night, There’s a Ghost in My House and even (I’m whispering this) Footsie by Wigan’s Chosen Few but, by 1977, the idea of people making their way to Wigan, Blackpool, Stoke–on–Trent or anywhere else for a night of soul music struck me as outdated when they could probably venture out to a more local venue and see The Clash, Ramones or Stranglers perform live.
Likewise, why pay some crate digger over the top prices for some obscurity from a decade before when you could easily buy the latest blistering single by The Damned or Sex Pistols for under a quid?
And those tent–like flares and silly vests? No thanks.
Okay. Fast forward about twenty five years.
I’m half of a team that have just been shortlisted to make a Scottish based documentary and the proposal that is under consideration is on the subject of Northern Soul.
The plan is to shoot some footage at a few venues that put on Northern nights – Caley Soul at the Woodside Club in Glasgow and the Bonnyrigg Soul Club being two possibilities – and also interview some hardcore fans, the ideal candidates including a DJ and collector, Kenny Burrell, who at the time owned the most expensive single in the world after splashing out £15,000 for one of only two known copies of Frank Wilson’s Do I love You, and Stuart Cosgrove, author, broadcaster and former media editor of NME, who is also a well known soul fanatic and one time Wigan frequenter (he later coincidentally campaigned to keep the Wilson 45 in Scotland when Burrell put the record up for auction in 2009 – it went on to fetch over £25,000, another world record price and was sold to an anonymous buyer).
Obviously the story behind Do I Love You was be told in the doc along with the recollections of some Scots who made the long trip down to clubs like the Casino in the 1970s but we also intended to devote a fair bit of time examining the contemporary scene around the country and talk to some of the soul fraternity who were still keeping the faith.
There were definitely some serious devotees of the genre around at this point. One time at a special Hogmanay do held at Strawberry Fields in Glasgow that I attended, many of the punters weren’t very pleased when the DJ interrupted the music in order to count down the bells and wish everybody a happy New Year. Some even began booing the poor guy and demanding he get the soul music back on pronto. Believe me, that kind of thing is just about unheard of in Scotland on the most widely celebrated night of the year.
Sadly we weren’t selected to receive the funding to help make the film. Maybe the competing proposals were more professionally packaged and imaginative although I reckon we missed out because the idea of making a short film about a subject that, even in its heyday decades before, had only ever flirted with the mainstream was probably considered to have just too little general appeal. Maybe just a few years later our idea would have fell on more receptive ears.
Even ten years ago Northern Soul didn’t quite possess the hip cachet that it does now and few non aficionados could have predicted just how much interest would exist today on the subject; there’s certainly been a glut of documentaries in the last decade, including two made fairly recently by the BBC, as well as two feature films: 2010’s Soulboy starring Martin Compston and the forthcoming Northern Soul directed by Elaine Constantine, which will be screened in certain cinemas from the seventeenth of this month with the DVD and Blu–ray out just days afterwards.
You might just be wondering what happened between 1977, when I judged Northern Soul backward looking, and the middle part of the noughties when I was attending Northern nights and planning documentaries about the music?
Actually as far back as the last third of 1978, I had begun to reassess my thoughts on Northern Soul, after a visit to Blackpool in the last weekend in September, a local holiday in the West of Scotland. Down with a bunch of pals, we entered a mostly deserted bar early one evening, where a couple of guys were up dancing in an area to the side of the bar, shuffling across the floorboards and performing effortless spins and expert backflips. What looked impressive in snatches during This England looked absolutely incredible fifteen feet away from me in the flesh.
I’m guessing that this was the prelude to them making a pilgrimage to the nearby Blackpool Mecca, which at the time was the big rival to the Casino.
Being a group of sixteen and seventeen year old boys out for a good time we were soon on the move to somewhere busier and there was little chance of us heading to anywhere like the Mecca; the idea of paying into a club where we were unlikely to know any of the music being played and where guys and girls danced alone, wouldn’t have held much appeal at a time when our teenage hormones were busily erupting. And we would likely have been laughed at anyway if we’d dared to actually take to the dancefloor ourselves.
Instead we ended up in a disco dive called Diamond Lil’s on the Pleasure Beach where we proceeded to get blootered on watered down lager and Pernod n’ blackcurrants. Classy weren’t we?
I did though make a mental note to try and learn more once our weekend bender ended and we returned home but this wasn’t easy in the days before the advent of CDs and the internet. Northern Soul was back underground and local record shops weren’t exactly heavily stocked with soul stompers; radio stations weren’t playing the music and music papers like NME and Sounds only very occasionally even mentioned it.
Three or so weeks later I went to the Glasgow Apollo to see a double bill featuring two of my very favourite punk bands, Subway Sect and Buzzcocks,
Round about this time Vic Godard of Subway Sect was starting to immerse himself in Northern Soul after Sect bassist Paul Meyers had lent him a bunch of singles he’d got from a pal called Jacko, who was a regular at all–nighters. These proved to be a revelation to Vic.
Before the year was out and with their second single Ambition just released on Rough Trade, Vic was explaining in an interview in Sounds how he was already searching for a new sound and the music that this required sound came closest to was Northern Soul.
This next phase of Subway Sect would be relatively short and also largely undocumented. Early in 1980, at a support slot to Siouxsie and The Banshees at the Music Machine on Camden High Street though, Postcard Records boss Alan Horne, who was there with Steven Daly of Orange Juice, bootlegged the show on his ghetto blaster.
Almost immediately Orange Juice began covering one of the songs showcased that night called Holiday Hymn, and they later included a version of it in their John Peel session of August 1981, by which point Vic had already moved on, dipping a musical toe into jazz, swing and the world of crooning (by this time too, a radical reinterpretation by Soft Cell of the Casino classic Tainted Love was on its way to becoming Britain’s bestselling song of the year).
Since 1981, the careers of Edwyn Collins and Vic Godard have often intertwined, Edwyn, for example, produced Vic’s ‘comeback’ album of 1993, The End of the Surrey People and a couple of years later, Vic helped out with some backing vocals for Edwyn’s international hit single A Girl Like You, to name only two of their collaborations.
Now, along with Seb Lewsley, Collins has recorded and produced the latest Subway Sect project, 1979 NOW!, an album wrapped in some wonderfully intriguing artwork designed by Andrew Paul Shaw, that recreates what has become known as the Sects’ ‘Northern Soul period’.
Sandwiched between a pair of instrumentals that both echo their debut single Nobody’s Scared but which also introduce an entirely new funky guitar feel and cool, modish keyboards, the album really is an enjoyable listen, packed with tunes like Caught In Midstream and the aforementioned Holiday Hymn that won’t just get your toes tapping but make you pine for an opportunity to get out on the dancefloor and enjoy them properly.
What The Subway Sect have did here is no attempt to recreate an exact facsimile of the Northern sound; for a start Vic makes no attempt to imitate the yearning vocal delivery of a Jimmy Radcliffe or Edwin Starr but remains happily West London throughout. The record lacks too the lush orchestration of some of the most popular records that would have been played in the Mecca or Casino but the footstomping 4/4 beat of Northern is utilised for inspiration on many of the tracks, some of which Vic fans might already know and love from previous albums and more recent live shows.
Okay, I do sometimes go into hyperbole overdrive when I’m talking about Godard but really if one of the Motown Hit Factory’s ace songwriting teams had presented Born to be a Rebel to Berry Gordy on a Friday afternoon in 1965, then I think the label boss would have been a very happy man over the weekend; the song also features a baritone sax solo worthy of Motown at its best, courtesy of Jim Knight.
Reviews so far have been very positive with Mojo calling the songs ‘strange, sibylline and gorgeous’, Uncut describing the album as ‘a brilliant hybrid’ and Louder Than War declaring: ‘The band sound organic and totally on-it throughout. There isn’t a weak track’.
I wouldn’t argue with any of that. Another triumph for Mr. Godard.
Filmed in Birmingham just a few days ago by Lee McFadden, this is another song from the album Get That Girl:
And here are a couple of Northern gems that Vic told me this week he’d been listening to back in the late 1970s, firstly Jay and The Techniques with Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie, a big hit in the States in 1967, which only really became popular on this side of the Atlantic some years later on the Northern scene:
And this is Michael, a 1965 single by The C.O.D.’s, later covered by Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band and referenced in Geno, Dexys Midnight Runners’ tribute to Washington; ‘You were Michael the lover, the fighter that won’.
Vic will be performing in Scotland next month with dates on November 14th in Glasgow’s Stereo and the following night at the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh. Support on both nights being provided by The Sexual Objects.
For more on Vic Godard & Subway Sect
For more on AED Records click here.
For more on the current Northern Soul scene in Scotland click here.
And to read my interview with Vic Godard click here.