Long, long ago, ships would return to Britannia’s shores laden with exotic wares from faraway countries. Spices! Tobacco! Silk!
By the 20th century, the globe had been circumnavigated zillions of times, and what was once outlandish was now commonplace.
Turmeric and whatnot were staple ingredients of the ultimate after-pub meal, which would be shovelled in to fag-stinking gobs while bums were covered in the soft, shiny, sexy material of Saturday night pulling-pants.
That’s not to say sailors were docking in Plymouth and Liverpool with no more than a few dirty shanties and the clap. In the mid-1960s they brought home something wonderful – and they didn’t even know it. Or so the story goes.
The popular version has freighters chugging from the State to the UK using box upon box of unsold seven-inch singles as ballast. Once on dry land, enterprising seamen would flog the vinyl to record shops, which recognised the wonderfulness of the music thereon: the sounds to become known as northern soul.
The name began as a pejorative term, more or less. Dave Godin coined it. He was a journalist and the owner of the Soul City record store in Covent Garden, who noticed that mods from Yorkshire and Lancashire were ignoring the new releases from black American artists and opting for the older, more obscure stuff.
So he told his staff, don’t bother trying to sell them the latest cuts, just give ‘em what they want; give ‘em the northern soul – which to this (probably oversensitive) Sheffield-born writer was a euphemism for “fackin’ ignorant northern monkeys!”. Had Godin been coarser, one of pop’s finest genres might have been called pleb soul.
Actually, why not? That’s exactly what it was: thrilling dance music for working class lads and lasses from throughout the nation. They would live for the weekend and then blow their wages on vinyl and whizz, sometimes not leaving enough dough for the train fare to Manchester’s Twisted Wheel or Wigan Casio or Blackpool Mecca.
So they’d hitchhike for bloody miles to stay up all night doing kicks and back-flips to heavy beats and high tempos (the sound evolved from Motown-like to disco-ish and Philly-esque, but was always a blast), and then they’d thumb a lift home in the early morning, their legs aching and their pupils as big as LPs.
Northern soul: heaven for the mind, hell on the body. Download a Spotify playlist here.
- Hung Up on Your Love – The Montclairs
- How Can You Tell Me? – The Flirtations
- Ain’t Nothin’ but a House Party – The Showstoppers
- There’s Nothing Else to Say – Sandra Edwards
- Touch and Go – Al Wilson
- You’ve Been Gone Too Long – Ann Sexton
- Ain’t No Soul Left in These Old Shoes – The Fantastic Four
- Come On Train – Don Thomas
- Blowin’ Up My Mind – The Exciters
- Soul Galore – Jackie Wilson
- 24 Hours a Day – Barbara Pennington
- You’re Gonna Miss a Good Thing, Baby – John Bowie
- Nothin’ Can Stop Me – Gene Chandler
- Our Love is in the Pocket – JJ Barnes
- You Hit Me Like TNT – Linda Jones
- You’re My Mellow – Edwin Starr
- Your Magic Put a Spell on Me – LJ Johnson
- Getting Might Crowded – Betty Everett
- I Hurt on the Other Side – Sidney Barnes
- Weak Spot – Evelyn Thomas
- Everything’s Gonna Be Alright – PP Arnold
- Long After the Love Has Gone – Jimmy Radcliffe
- Groovin’ at the Go-Go – The Four Larks
- Now that I Found You, Baby – The Mirettes
- We’re on the Right Track (Tom Moulton Remix) – Ultra High Frequency feat. Ben Aiken
A closer listen: Jackie Wilson
He was Mr Excitement, the womanising demon of the stage who influenced The King and survived two bullets. Jackie was one of pop music’s all-time great singers, and he should be remembered for more than that shitty animated clay figure in the video for Reet Petite.
He wasn’t always a northern soul giant. His career began in the ‘50s in R ‘n’ B, where his multi-octave range and classics like Lonely Teardrops (the last song he performed before dying in 1984) made him a superstar – and a sexy one at that.
His love of poontang was as big as his voice, and it nearly killed him: one of his many girlfriends got all jealous and shot him. For the rest of his life he had a slug lodged close to his spine.
Being full o’ lead didn’t stop him from busting the dance moves – drops, splits and shuffles – that got audiences frothing, impressed Elvis (who became solid mates with Wilson), and inspired the frugging that would be seen at speed-fuelled all-nighters in the UK.
After a brief career slump in the mid-‘60s, during which time he was an easy listening artist (but still managed to cut brilliant tracks like Doggin’ Around), Jackie hooked up with Chicago soul producer Carl Davis, who returned Mr Excitement to the limelight, where he wowed with what would become northern soul staples.
Soul Galore, Whispers (Gettin’ Louder), I’ve Lost You, (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher, I Get the Sweetest Feeling: they’re all amazing floor-fillers as well as perfect pop tunes.