Writing about Northern Soul as a genre defies some of the easy shorthand that a part time music critic and admitted hack like myself might otherwise reach for. And by that I mean that, despite its name, it is a musical movement defined not by how and where the music was created and played — as opposed to, for instance, “Philly Soul”, or “Delta Blues” — but by how and where it was consumed and curated. In my case, learning that it was, in fact, a British musical movement based around overlooked American soul records — and hence an antecedent to contemporary DJ and “crate digger” culture — was one of those “a-ha” moments that sees something perceived only dimly from the periphery of experience suddenly come sharply into focus. Aiding that focus was Charly Records’ just released double disc Up All Night!: 56 Northern Soul Classics, which not only provides an expansive musical overview of the scene, but also stands as a testament to its enduring appeal. The set combines two seminal Northern Soul compilations first released by Charly on vinyl in the early 90s and again on disc a few years later. In the reissue process, the label this time around also saw fit to include a brief but informative set of liner notes from veteran music journalist Bob Fisher and a generous helping of bonus tracks that include some of the best tunes on the comp overall.
To trace the origins of Northern Soul, one has to go back to Britain’s Mod subculture of the early to mid sixties, a subculture that drew heavily upon American soul records in the classic Motown vein for its chosen soundtrack. By the late sixties, however, not even Motown could truly be called purveyors of what’s now considered the “Motown Sound”, the legendary label instead moving along with the rest of mainstream black music in the more lucrative direction of funk and disco. The Mods largely moved on, as well, but there remained a hard core of fans, located primarily in the North of England, who maintained an allegiance to the old sound. The problem for DJs catering to that crowd, then, was in finding “new” examples of that sound at a time when none were being created. The answer was for them to dig deeper, going beyond the known hits and delving into that alternate musical history comprised of the has-beens, also-rans and never-weres.
And these DJs were indeed tireless in their digging, not only seeking out the typical white elephants and obscure label releases, but also one-off test pressings, original acetates, and demo recordings. The result was that, in some cases, a DJ might end up in possession of one of the only — if not the only — copies of a particular record, which in turn lead to intense competition between disc spinners, with some going so far as to white label their discoveries to prevent them from being identified. It also created, for the audience, a climate wherein a record’s rarity factored alongside its purely musical virtues in providing its appeal — something enhanced by the fact that, in order to hear that record, one would often have to go to the particular club that employed the DJ who had it.
This pursuit of the ever more obscure lead to the occasional floor filler that was of entirely mysterious provenance, one example being the chimerical “Peanut Duck” (not here, but included on Rhino’s Girl Group Sounds box), about which the only thing known is the name of the studio at which it was recorded. It also accounts for the likelihood that the only songs on Up All Night! likely to be recognized by casual listeners are those that have been successfully covered in the succeeding years. These include Betty Everett’s “Getting Might Crowded”, covered by Elvis Costello and the Attractions on Get Happy!, and Jamo Thomas’ “I Spy (For the FBI)”, which provided an alt rock radio hit for The Untouchables in 1985. Yet notorious by its absence is probably the most famously covered of all Northern Soul tracks, Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love”, which Soft Cell would come to all but own in the 1980s.
The Northern Soul scene was driven by all night dance parties held at a series of halls and clubs throughout the North, with those venues’ DJs each contributing to the shaping of the sound in their own way. Given that these were typically large rooms patronized by a restless young crowd not infrequently hopped up to their eyeballs on methamphetamines, one of the primary requirements for play was that a record have a powerful, driving beat. As such, the ideal Northern Soul groove would probably be the insistent, four/four snare wallop of The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”, heard on Up All Night! on tracks like Maurice Williams’ “Being Without You” (because that Four Tops hit itself would be far too mainstream for the discriminating tastes of the soul kids).
Of these clubs, it was Manchester’s Twisted Wheel that was primarily responsible for defining the Northern Soul sound during the early days of the scene in the late 60s, and The Wigan Casino, also in Manchester, that expanded that sound during the 70s. This expansion seems to have occurred more out of necessity than anything else, in the face of the dwindling supply of undiscovered cuts with the classic Northern sound, but nonetheless alienated purists by allowing funk, disco and tracks by non-black artists to crash the gates. This sea change is represented on the compilation by the inclusion of The Van McCoy Strings’ “Sweet and Easy” and the hard afro-funk of The Skullsnaps’ “I’m Your Pimp”, among others. It also likely accounts for the presence of oddball novelty items like Willie Harper’s “But I Couldn’t”.
On the other hand, the need for records whose intensity would match the passion of their hotfooted young audience is reflected in the inclusion of some recordings of striking rawness. Fred Hughes’ “I keep Trying”, while hitting all the right notes to qualify as a soul record, otherwise has all the guitar driven drive and fury of punk. Elsewhere the punch is more emotional, as with Little Johhny Blair’s “Momma’s Gone”, a tune that starts out as a downbeat story song in the mold of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, but enters harrowing territory with some particularly strangulated vamping over the outro. A similarly naked lament, Don Thomas’ “Come On Train”, gains a disconcerting intimacy through the unadorned, “after midnight” quality of the recording itself.
The emphasis on non hits on Up All Night! offers a fascinating snapshot of the Motown era’s B team and wing haunters. Alongside the shoulda-been hits (Noland Chance’s “Just Like the Weather”, Sidney Barnes’ “You’ll Always Be In Style”), the near misses (The Ad Libs’ “Nothing Worse Than Being Alone” is a joyously infectious track with a buzzkill lyrical premise), and the sound-alikes (actually less than you’d think), there are, as one would expect in such a set, a fair share of outliers and intriguing failures. I’d say the aforementioned “But I Couldn’t” and the ferocious “I Keep Trying” fit into this category, sitting uneasily alongside the WTF camp bombast of Blanch Carter’s 70s variety show-ready “Halos Are For Angels”. Still, the emphasis on oddities is never enough to derail the album as a whole, instead providing some interesting detours from what is overall a consistently listenable collection.
Personally, I enjoyed Up All Night!, not only as someone who loves great pop music, but also as someone who appreciates the special aura that rarity can bestow upon a humble piece of pop entertainment. Many have been the times that my opinion of a subpar film has been colored positively by the difficulty I experienced in tracking it down, and many have been the friends who grant my recommendations much less credence as a result. I also love any endeavor that tries to give us a look behind the curtain of official pop history, at all those worthy, hardworking artists who were making exciting product within the obscuring shadow of those lucky few who came to inhabit the canon. There is also the manner in which Up All Night!, if only briefly, makes almost tangible the gritty glamour of all those stylish, amped up soul kids dancing until the rueful dawn at the Twisted Wheel and Wigan Casino all those years ago. As any great retrospective should, it provides a window into another world, while also providing a soundtrack to that world that can’t be beat.