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Just like the DJ that called   blues/country music 'Rock 'n' Roll' all those years ago, it was a DJ that labeled uptempo 60's soul music 'Northern Soul'. But that is where the similarity ends. 'Rock 'n' Roll' is now a generic term for many styles of music. 'Northern Soul' remains more specific.
Northern Soul is often compared to the 'Motown' sound of the 60's and I think it is fair to make that initial analogy. However, to the Northern devotee it goes far beyond that. 'Tamla' was/is a massive label that presented the more commercial side of soul music. It took  raw-backstreet singers and musicians 'fine tuned' their act, sold them to the world and did a bloody good job of it. Without Motown and  companies in a similar style I personally think that the music we call 'Northern Soul' would not have come about.
Eventually the commercial soul music became predictable and the true soul fan went looking for other sources other than the average record shop. I was not around when this change happened but many visitors to my Web site were. It must have been like finding a treasure chest when the first batch of raw soul music was un-earthed.
Where did they find these records and why did they never make it in the charts if they were so good? To answer this question is quite easy. Just close your eyes and imagine a small, smokey recording studio in the backstreets of Chicago, Detroit or most major American cities in the early 60's. A group of young musicians waiting nervously to cut their first track. When their turn comes they sing and play their hearts out the way Mother Nature intended, pure unadulterated soul music is what they produced. Some of these bands had local hits and a few of the very lucky ones went onto join a major label and became international stars. But the vast majority never made it and those records were resigned to collect dust on a shelf or in the store of a record shop. They did not have the 'polish' to appeal to a vast audience; but are pure gold to a Northern Soul follower. English DJ's and soul devotees went to the States to search for these records, then brought them back to the UK were they were played in clubs that catered for the rare soul scene that was later called Northern Soul.
That is the basic roots of our music; but even Northern Soul evolved (fortunately not too much). When the uptempo beat was established as the nucleus of Northern Soul (slower records are also Northern Classics) that 'beating rhythm' or 'true soul feeling' was also found in other records that were made by artists who were going through 'experimental' phases during their musical career. These sources of 'soul' music are held in the same high regard as the original bands that they so obviously emulated in the first instance. Some of the artists that spring to mind are Paul Anka, Bobby Goldsboro and Dusty Springfield. The white soul artists music is often refered to as 'blue eyed soul'. A lot of high quality Northern Soul was also discovered in the UK. These UK records didn't really take off until the mid-70's. The main reason they never made it big the first time round is because the original 60's Soulies probably considered them imitations of the 'real thing'. As the wise man said 'time is the greatest healer'. The 70's soul fan rediscovered these records and and some of them became highly collectable.
When Northern Soul was at it's commercial peak during the mid to late 70's a lot of experimenting went on to see what would keep the Soulster on the dancefloor. During this time a few sounds were 'manufactured' for the Northern scene and some were found on the 'B' side of some very unlikely records. One that springs to mind is 'Makes you blind' by the Glitter Band!! Fortunately the majority were original sounds. Some soul fans have very little to say about these 70's style records, but the fact is they did fill dancefloors and some of them were very good. A few records also made it into the charts. This may seem an obvious statement; but when you consider that the majority of these records were distributed by soul fans for soul fans and bypassed the record shops etc it is amazing. I believe it is accurate to say that the ones that did have major chart success were reproductions of the original and distributed in the same way as any chart record.
But why call it Northern Soul?
This is even easier to explain as the majority of the records were played at clubs in the North of England. Call us Northerners stubborn, old fashioned or what ever you wish. We (a large percentage of us) did not want to listen to the music that had evolved from the the 60's type of soul music. We used to call it Funk or Funky music. We wanted the raw 60's stuff and we must have got something right as our music is now followed on a truly international basis. I do get quite upset with people that call us 'old fashioned' or trying to 'hold onto our youth'. It is not like that, we just love a style of music that has been around for a long time like Classical, Jazz, Rockabilly and Ska. Some styles of music do pass the test of time and Northern Soul is one of them.
One major point I have not mentioned yet is the Club Culture that has sprung up around this music. Some clubs became internationally famous, some simply provide a meeting place for Soulies and the vast majority are somewhere in between. The thing that all these clubs have in common is the warm and friendly ambience that is almost unique to the Northern Soul scene. Imagine upto 2000  people of all age groups crowded into a building, dancing the night away and no sign of trouble? That is the way a Northern gig is. This type of atmosphere alone has converted many people to the Northern scene. I often receive mail from Northern Soul fans from the USA, Spain, Sweden, Philippines, Norway, Japan, Italy, Israel, in fact the world over. The majority of these people were not even born in the early 70's and can only guess what it was like then. They are fans of this music because they like it, as simple as that. When they establish a club it always has that same 'feel' to it. I am not a psychologist by any means; but the music must have some kind of calming effect on the spirit.
Northern soul dancing is something that must be seen to be believed. It is a combination of fast footwork and gymnastics. I know that energetic dancing is nothing new and the 'Breakdancers' of the 80's could be seen everywhere, but the Northern way of dancing preceded the other styles by almost 20 years. OK I'm 'slightly' biased, but I would put a Northern dancer against any other style for pure class. Do not think that all Soulsters are budding Fred Astairs. Most of us started by practicing in our bedrooms or at the local Youthclub. I was often shown moves by 'top' dancers, who genuinely wanted to help, that is the friendship of the scene. Not everyone can or wants to dance. These people are just as much part of the scene as anyone else. If you just want to sit there and listen to the music, do so, many do. A lot of people will attend an All-nighter (a Northern gig will usually lasts until the early hours of the morning) to buy and swap records. Some original 45's can exchange hands for a lot of money but the majority can be bought for a few quid.
That is my explanation of Northern Soul. Many others have defined the 'scene' and a few are accessible via my web site, please read them as well as they cover other topics I have not touched. If you want more information then give my web page a good 'surf' and check out the other sites I link to.
Yours in Soul and Keep the Faith...Mick

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Copyright M Fitzpatrick