About six months ago I was sitting on a plane somewhere over Michigan when it struck me that I should be listening to the Supremes when I spotted Detroit for the first time. As the plane approached Metropolitan Wayne County Airport I stared out the window, not wanting to miss a single detail. There she was, the Motor City. It was everything I could do to keep myself from crying.
Although they’re not my favourite group, the Supremes were the only possible option for this moment. Ten years earlier I had met this really amazing girl, somehow I had convinced her it was a good idea to come over to my apartment to hear some records. As we sat there and made small talk and started to get acquainted I put on my copy of the Supremes’ A’ Go-Go. We must have listened to it all the way through three times as we sat there talking.
A few years later we got married, we just got home from our oldest daughter’s first Girl Scout meeting. My daughter will be six on her next birthday, but she prefers Shirley Ellis or the Flirtations to the Supremes. Both of my daughters really know their Northern Soul.
When I first started getting into the Northern Soul it was hard to find a place to start. I live in a part of the world where very few people have even heard the term. References to the genre kept popping up in various music magazines I read; I had no idea what Northern Soul was, but I wanted to learn. Sadly, the magazines were never much help, I was only able to gather that it was similar to Motown, but it wasn’t Motown. Somehow, Northern Soul was supposed to be cooler. It was called “northern” even though some of the groups were from the southern United States. It didn’t make sense. Eventually I bought a compilation of Northern Soul tunes so I could see what all the fuss was about. There was this girl on the album, Cindy Scott, and she had this track called I Love You Baby.
“Wow,” I thought, “how had I not heard this before?” I’ve been obsessed with 60s music since I was a kid, but had no idea what any of this was. How had I missed all of this?
There’s a scene in Elaine Constantine’s film, Northern Soul, where John Clark is given some pills and a cassette, he stays up all night long having his mind blown by the tracks it contains. That’s my favorite scene in the movie, that’s what it was like when I heard Northern Soul for the first time. The next day when Clark met up with the cool guy from the youth club and tried to describe the way the music and the lyrics electrified him, I completely get that, the same thing happened to me. I had never heard of an “all-nighter”, I had never heard of Wigan Casino, but in spite of that, the music triggered an emotional response in me that has never happened before and has never happened since.
There are a number of people who take issue with certain aspects of the film, but as a guy sitting on the other side of the globe I was amazed I got to see the film, amazed that the film exists, that Soul Boy exists, or that I’m writing this essay on Northern Soul right now. Fifty years ago people in my country chose to ignore these records, my countrymen were distracted by the Beatles and other hit makers from England. Luckily, soul fans in the U.K. decided to rescue Northern Soul from American indifference. Because of all their efforts, all of these things exist; it’s phenomenal.
I’ve been DJing soul music off and on for more than a decade now and Northern Soul has been the soundtrack to all of my favourite memories. My girls and I regularly have Northern Soul dance parties in the living room, watching my 20-month-old daughter try to kick her little legs up in the air is a sight to behold. When I visited Detroit, I made sure I went to the house where Golden World Records started. I stood outside the building that was the studio for Sidra Records. It was an amazing experience.
Thanks to social media, I can read stories about what the music scene was like when it began, I get to see photos of Wigan when the scene was young. I’ve watched Paul Mason’s culture show episode at least 20 times and I love the Northern Soul Shredded Wheat commercial. I just can’t get enough.
So, to all of you who packed the floors in the big halls or the small clubs to dance to these records, I say thank you. I could never express my gratitude enough. If you’re one of the people who made the Northern Soul scene what it is today, thank you. Even if you weren’t one of the marquis DJs, just loving and buying the records helped save them from obscurity. Thank you, my life is better because I have this music.
I’m going to go listen to J.J. Barnes now.