Young Soul Rebels

Readers of this blog from Scotland will likely know Stuart Cosgrove as one half of the team behind BBC Radio Scotland’s weekly football chat programme Off the Ball, which advertises itself as ‘petty and ill-informed’ and sets out to have a laugh rather than to forensically analyse topics like zonal marking that will forever remain unfathomable to me. I occasionally listen in myself even though I couldn’t name a single current St Johnstone or Motherwell player.

His previous book Detroit 67 was one of my favourite reads of last year and he’s just published another, Young Soul Rebels: A Personal History of Northern Soul.

Ever since youthful nights spent dancing at the Perth City Soul Club, Stuart Cosgrove has remained a Northern Soul fanatic – the word fan wouldn’t do his passion justice. He’s a purist too, unlike your reviewer here, who it would have to be admitted is definitely more of a tourist.

Like Detroit 67, there’s a cover that will surely catch the eye of any soulie (and many non soulies) featuring award winning dancer Steve Cootes, a painter and decorator from Penicuik. Unlike Detroit 67, this time round Stuart doesn’t start with a description of the weather (Elmore Leonard would be pleased). Instead he begins: ‘Nothing will ever compare to the amphetamine rush of my young life and the night I was nearly buggered by my girlfriend’s uncle in the Potteries.’

Throughout the book’s 279 pages, Cosgrove traces the history of the movement, exploring the world of tailor made cash-ins and cover-ups; stompers and dobbers and even Do-Dos and blueys but I like his writing best when he describes his own journey from the golden age of Wigan Casino and the Blackpool Mecca (a venue that he dubs ‘the Harvard of Northern Soul), through to the era of Cleethorpes, Stafford and Allanton all-nighters and beyond – yes, cataloguing the country’s top soul clubs across the decades can read like a list of Britain’s least fashionable towns.

Originally issued on the OKeh label, this is a favourite of Stuart’s, Sandi Sheldon with the sublime You’re Gonna Make Me Love You:

Unlike many books focussing on the subject, Cosgrove connects contemporary issues with the sounds, so as well as discussions on labels such as Okeh and Ric-Tic and DJs like Ian Levine and Richard Searling we get his thoughts on subjects such as amphetamine abuse, the Yorkshire Ripper murders and the miner’s strike, the villians of the piece being God’s cop James Anderton, Peter Sutcliffe and Margaret Thatcher.

He’s particularly good on Anderton, a Christian zealot in charge of the policing of Greater Manchester (an area that included Wigan) who embarked on a mission to stop the sanctity of the Sabbath being disturbed by young dance-goers attending all-nighters with the intention of having a good time. Interestingly, his teenage daughter was a rare soul fan but one who was obviously banned from going to all-nighters.

Again, unlike much writing on Northern Soul, Cosgrove doesn’t sanitise the scene. Here he is on Mr M’s, a club within a club at Wigan Casino: ‘It was ferociously hot, like a colonial jail, and was accessed by a small corridor about which many had anxieties. Like the men’s toilets downstairs, it was an intimidating place where rip-off merchants and drug gangs operated.’

Cosgrove peppers his tale with snippets of information that I probably should have known already: one of the reasons behind the Casino’s popularity was the fact that the town possessed two railway stations which made it accessible within a couple of hours from Motherwell to the north and from Rugby in the south; he also explains the reason why soul fans usually found a warmer welcome in seaside resorts than in cities. The rise in package holidays and subsequent economic downturn in coastal towns, in case you’re wondering.

There’s some fantastic photos here too. It’s amazing just how ordinary or even dingy these legendary venues looked – the Golden Torch was a former fleapit cinema in Tunstall, its facade lacking any vague hint of glamour or excitement. There’s also dozens of flyers and posters reproduced and plenty of pictures of records, performers and punters.

Here’s a 1973 track ‘of such earthy modernity it forced a change in dancing styles and brought about the shuffling modern northern era’. This is The Carstairs with It Really Hurts Me Girl:

Throughout the book, I was reminded why I would never have lasted long on the scene before falling foul of some soul Ayatollah or other. My musical loves are simply too wide-ranging and there’s as much chance of Stuart’s beloved St Johnstone swooping to sign Christiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale during the Euros as me ever being able to commit exclusively to one genre (or subgenre) of music for life.

‘Eclectic tastes were rarely tolerated on the northern soul scene, which by the mid seventies was hardening into a zealous sect with its own strict rules.’

When he later dared to join the staff of NME, his pal Keb Darge advised him: ‘Make sure you don’t wank yourself to death listening to the Smiths.’ This was apparently said in jest but it’s easy to imagine some degree of disapproval in the quip too. ‘Fuck off and write about Bono,’ he was later told at a 100 Club soul do.

Young Soul Rebels can be very funny, Stuart and others fuming at a Perth soul DJ for including some David Bowie in his set struck me as absurdly comical, yet there’s tragedy too, such as when he gets stuck on the London Underground for an hour on the way to a soul night. The next day he discovered the reason for the irritating delay – an IRA bomb had ripped through Harrods. And among the dead was one of his cousins.

Stuart clearly possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject matter  – he even chose to study at Washington D.C.’s Howard University due to it having recently awarded an honorary doctorate to Stevie Wonder and its previous alumni including several soul stars (together with the superb crate digging opportunities the city offered) – but he does get punk slightly wrong. The Sex Pistols did often venture out of London in their early days, visiting the likes of Northallerton, Scarborough, Leeds, Middlesborough, Sheffield and even Dundee, and Sniffin’ Glue is generally accepted as the first British punk fanzine rather than Anarchy in the UK.

Young Soul Rebels concludes by bringing us up to date with films like Soul Boy and Northern Soul, Paul Mason’s Culture Show documentary, Northern sets on Mixcloud and YouTube sensation Levanna McLean, before Cosgrove meets up again with some old pals at a Perth City Soul Club reunion, where afterwards he is ‘unable to fully rationalise why a scene that should have died years before was in such rude and uncompromising health.’

Hopefully, this state of affairs continues.

To state the obvious, anybody with a love of Northern Soul should buy a copy of Young Soul Rebels (and tourists too). And it’s safe to say it will very likely be making its way on to my Best of the Year book list in around six month’s time.

Stuart is on Twitter as @Detroit67Book. He’ll be signing copies at Love Vinyl in London on Wednesday 22 June between 6-8pm, where he’ll also be spinning some tracks featured in the book. He’s also just announced an appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Friday 26 August.

For more on the book click here.