How a 1970s movement that put Wigan on the map is still making waves in 2021
In 2014, after returning from a tedious day of high school, I took my usual place on the couch, statically stretched out in front of the television. The One Show was playing out on the screen, not my usual topical chat show of choice, however today it was different. Today’s subject-specific segment was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Footage of men and women spinning at lightning-fast speed, before kicking their legs up high and dropping down into the splits. Dripping with sweat but dancing like they were gliding, faces impassioned, never missing a beat. The music, which loudly pulsed over the segment was familiar to me. As a life-long Motown and Soul fan, inherited from my mother, I recognised similarities in this new genre. The soulful vocals remained but they were rougher, and less refined than Berry Gordy’s pop factory products. My mum shortly entered and I rapidly inquired, desperate to know more about this peculiar but oddly intriguing art form that had slipped me by. ‘That’s Northern Soul dancing’, my mum explained and we sat for 40 minutes as she talked me through the ins and outs of the movement. It was a conversation that I couldn’t get out of my head, and from that point, I plunged myself head first into learning all I could about this mysterious and intriguing movement called Northern Soul. I watched every documentary and film I could get my hands on, pored over YouTube tutorials on ‘Beginners Northern Soul steps’, and nearly wore out my bedroom carpet from all my spinning. I attended my first Northern Soul and Motown night at Manchester’s Deaf Institute and spent the whole night dancing till my feet were sore and I was drenched in sweat. I was hook, line, and sinker, completely infatuated. There is something about Northern Soul music which to me feels so personal. When I discovered the movement at the age of 15 it felt like it was mine, like it was just for me. Despite being a huge Motown and soul fan, I had never heard music like this before. It was rawer and less polished. It felt real and authentic. I could feel the pain, the heartbreak, the joy, and the disappointment so deeply. Yet when paired with a deeply soulful groove and fast, heavy beat I couldn’t help but get to my feet and dance. It is nearly impossible for me to pick my favourite Northern Soul soul tracks but some that come close are, Sweet Happiness – Newby & Johnson, Happy – Velvet Hammer, Time – Edwin Starr, and Nothing But A Heartache – The Flirtations. These tracks never fail to get me up on my feet, which proves particularly difficult when I’m sat on the 42 bus. My steps aren’t particularly impressive. I can do a basic spin and simple footwork but to me, it’s not about that at all. I consider myself an extremely insecure person. I struggle with day-to-day things, sometimes as simple as walking past a group of people in the street or getting on a busy bus, as I’m constantly worried about what people think, or how I appear to others. Yet when I’m dancing, all that worry goes out the window. Ask any of my friends, once soul music starts playing I’m in another dimension. It’s just me and my Northern Soul, and for those few hours, that’s all that matters to me. I know, however, that I’m not the only one. During the lockdown, when I was trapped inside, listening to my many Northern Soul playlists on repeat, I felt inspired to write something on the movement. I wanted to accumulate stories of those who were there in the room where it happened, and how it felt to be part of something so exciting at its peak. Over the past few years, there has been a massive influx of young Northern Soul fans, like me, discovering the movement for the first time. Only this time there is social media available to share their newly learned moves, dance tutorials and underground soul record finds. After posting a call out on social media over lockdown, I have had the opportunity to chat to some amazing individuals who experienced the movement at the height of its popularity first hand, as well as the younger crowd, who, despite not even being born when the movement was at its height, are introducing Northern Soul to a brand new generation in 2021. The following interviews were done via Zoom, phone calls, emails, and social media messages. I want to offer my thanks to the brilliant participants for sharing their wonderful stories, photographs, and knowledge with me. It was so special to share our love and passion for Northern Soul music. We will continue to ‘keep the faith’ way into 2021 and beyond.
Julian Howison, known on the scene as ‘Smiler’, first got involved with Northern Soul in 1978 when he was 17 years old.
I loved the music, I loved dancing. The scene was ‘the’ cool underground scene in Poole at the time. I lived in Poole but travelled all over the UK to various Northern Soul nights and all-nighters. I attended hundreds of them. I never missed a night at Wigan Casino for 2 years (1979 – 1981). At the time Northern Soul was everything to me. My whole life revolved around it, it was all I did. All of my friends were in the scene, nothing else mattered to me. That was until Wigan Casino closed in 1981 then everything stopped. Pre-COVID I attended Northern Soul events every week or so. My partner and I were into it in 1978 and still are now, as are many of our friends.
Below: Julian and his partner Louisa in Wigan in 1979.
Richard Searling is a Northern Soul DJ, radio presenter, and music journalist. In 2019 he was awarded the BEM (British Empire Medal) in the Queen’s Honours List for services to soul music.
I first got involved in the Northern Soul scene when I was a teenager. From 1970 onwards I was collecting soul records. It wasn’t called Northern Soul in early 1970, we were just collectors and enthusiasts with a shared love of obscure soul records. I attended the all-nighters at Golden Torch in Tunstall a few times in 1972. It was so vibrant and exciting, especially as I was able to hear records that were new to me. After that, I became a DJ at a club in Bolton and then became a resident DJ at Wigan Casino from January 1974 to September 1981. My involvement in the scene has never really stopped. I regularly write for Blues and Soul magazine, present my own soul radio show and regular programs at the BBC and run the most popular Northern Soul events in the North. It is so hard to say my favourite Northern Soul record but if I pushed it would have to be, ‘I’m Gonna Love You A Long, Long Time’ by Patti and the Emblems.
Below: Richard DJing at Wigan Casino in 1975.
Barry Firth was introduced to the scene in 1977. His older friends took him to an all-nighter when he was only 16 years old.
I grew up listening to bluebeat, reggae, and soul music, however, I was first introduced to the Northern Soul scene when I was 16 by some older friends. The idea of a venue that opened when everyone else was going to bed felt very exciting to me, as well as the other fringe illegalities that came with the scene. Late 1970s Northern England was a grey, grim, desolate place for some and any deviation from the norm set you apart. I went to Wigan Casino, Unity Hall, and various other one-off events in different places. I always had a nagging problem with the scene that we were dancing to music our mothers danced to, so I quickly gravitated to the emerging funk scene which then progressed to the acid house and rave scene. I have no involvement nowadays, aside from some good memories, although I still play the music. Northern Soul was an amazing social movement that should be held in regard and documented by future generations interested in music.
Below: Dancers at an all-nighter at Wigan Casino.
Pat Shaw first encountered the Northern Soul scene aged 12 at a local youth disco in 1975.
I first came across Northern Soul in 1975. I was 12 years old and had gone to my first youth disco at a church hall. I remember the mood of the music all of a sudden changed and the girls all left the floor only to be replaced by some guy, dancing in a style that I had not seen before. I was mesmerised. The next day I went out and bought a couple of Northern Soul records with my pocket money and learned to dance in my bedroom. I started going to Wigan Casino in 1978. We would set off at about 9pm on the bus from Macclesfield to Manchester that cost about 25 pence. We’d then walk across Manchester to Victoria Station and get another bus to Wigan for 7 pence. Sometimes if we were flush we would get the train. On my first night there I remember sitting on the left side of the stage watching some very good dancers when a tune came on that I loved so I jumped down and started dancing. I’m here I thought, I can’t believe it. I was buzzing, it was incredible. From then on I started going every Saturday and after a while, I started to attend the once-a-month-oldies all-nighter on a Friday as well. I was so passionate about dancing and the music, I’d practice all week and couldn’t wait for the weekends and go to Wigan. The main reason I was drawn to the scene was that it was different from the other music being played at the time. It was raw, cool, more exciting and the dancing was far more serious. I still collect the music and go out to Northern Soul nights as often as I can. I am still as passionate about the dancing and the music as I was back then. I couldn’t name just one favourite track as there are so many amazing tunes. When I was young I was more into the fast 100 mile-an-hour tunes but as time has gone by I do like a lot of mid-tempo tunes too.
Below: Wigan Casino in the early 1970s.
Jane Philpott remembers the buzz around the Northern Soul scene in her hometown of Wigan. After first not being allowed to attend the all-nighters at the Casino, Jane eventually managed to experience the scene for herself, when she visited Blackpool Mecca.
I’m from Wigan and at the time Northern Soul was all anyone talked about. I wasn’t allowed to go at first because I was 16 but the music was everywhere. I first heard about the scene when I was in high school. I was a massive Motown fan growing up and loved to make up dance routines with my friends to our favourite tracks. This was around the time Northern Soul was starting up. The music was similar to Motown but was more specific. There was a style of dance that went hand in hand with this new music we were hearing and a few boys in my year at school would frequently go to Wigan Casino to dance. There was such a buzz in Wigan – there were people from miles around up and down the country just coming to visit the Casino. I remember seeing everybody arrive on the Saturday with their all-nighter bags, wearing flares and vest tops. On Sunday morning they would go over to Wigan Baths for breakfast because they’d been up all night. You’d see coaches from everywhere come in, even from places down south, just to attend the all-nighters at the Casino. They reckon only about 10-20% of people were from Wigan themselves. I remember eventually getting the chance to go to Blackpool Mecca when I was in the lower sixth. I went with a boyfriend, who was massively into the scene. The room was full of people who just wanted to dance, the buzz and the sound of the music was just amazing. Quite often you’d see good dancers with a circle around them as they performed drops, spins, and flips. The dancers would get changed two or three times in one night from the sweat and exertion of the dancing. The idea of it being an all-night event was really shocking to our parents. They were used to us going to a local disco that would last till 11pm, never mind an event that finished in the early hours of the morning. One of my favourite Northern Soul tracks was Marlena Shaw’s Wade In The Water, it was a song I loved dancing to.
Below: Blackpool Mecca in the 1970s.
Sally Molloy and Poppy Beresford, also known by their online name ‘Sal & Pops’ are Northern Soul dancers, musicians, and social media creators. Their Northern Soul YouTube channel has 16,000 subscribers, garnering thousands of views per video. They also have a huge following on Tik Tok, creating videos that break down Northern Soul moves as well as dancing to their favourite tracks in their much loved ‘garden videos’. Their most recent projects include a collaboration with the Northern Soul Orchestra on their song, ‘What If’, as well as their new single, ‘I Surrender’. They aim to ‘spread the faith, not just keep the faith’ and are responsible for introducing the Northern Soul scene to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.
Sal: I was brought up on all types of music, Northern Soul being one of them but I didn’t really delve into it till I was about 19. I was living away from home and all that was packed into my suitcase was a load of CDs from my mum and a Northern Soul DVD. I was working away from home as a blue coat at Pontins, in accommodation that was like a shed with no Wifi. I had a TV with a DVD input which I could play CDs on so would play my Mum’s Northern Soul CDs constantly. That’s all that I had for entertainment. For me, the music came at a time when I was struggling. I just thought the music was so captivating, real, and raw and it just hit me. It had no airs and graces with it. I decided I wanted to do something involving the music of the Northern Soul scene. I said to Pops, have a listen to this music, you’ll love it. She got hooked on it straight away and loved it like I did. We both knew from that moment we’d found something really special and different. We began going to all-nighters together. We watched the film, Northern Soul and various YouTube videos but for us, it was just about going to the events and throwing ourselves into the atmosphere, without any inhibitions. It was quite overwhelming at first, especially at the bigger events like Kings Hall but a lot of times we went to the smaller events at local social clubs with Poppy’s uncle. We picked up so much music from the all-nighter events and we got talking to so many different types of people. My favourite Northern Soul track definitely depends on my mood, every day is different. I’m always finding new tracks, one is my favourite, then another is, then another is. I’ve tried to pick a favourite but I genuinely can’t, although I find different artists very captivating. I always lean towards the feminine side of Northern Soul, like Esther Phillips and The Flirtations. To me, it is all about the music. You can jazz it up with the dance, with the fashion, and with the history of the scene but the bottom line is that music. Dancing isn’t about steps, it’s not about counts, it’s about connecting with the music and making your body the instrument.
Pops: I always wanted to do something unique and different and find something nobody else was doing. I was at university studying musical theatre and every year I was convinced I wanted to drop out. When I first listened to Northern Soul music I was like, ‘Where the hell has this music been hidden?’, it was so intriguing. I got obsessed with it and researched into it like Sally did. By my third year of university, I felt so much more confident in myself as I knew I had something outside of uni that I could get involved with. I found out that my uncle was into the music and he passed on this DVD by a lady called Fiona Smith, who would break down the moves for you to learn. I started trying to master the steps. In 2017 Sal and I started going to the all-nighters together and for me it was more about going there, feeling the music, looking at what everybody else is doing, and picking up steps that they do. We are both trained dancers so are able to add our own flair to the dance, mixing in other styles of dance that we have studied. When I walked into the all-nighter, a huge wave of music just hit me. The atmosphere in the massive grand hall made my tummy go over and I felt like I needed to breathe. The loudness of the music just takes over your body. I felt nervous about getting up for the first time because you’re surrounded by people who know exactly what they are doing but as soon as you get up and start dancing, it just takes you over. You’re there for hours just in a completely different zone, the time goes by so quickly. Since first discovering the scene we have taken to social media, creating a Facebook page, YouTube channel, and Instagram and Tik Tok pages. We also started a soul band and have recently recorded two songs with the Northern Soul Orchestra. One of our favourite Northern Soul tracks to dance to together is So Is The Sun by World Column, because we just love letting loose to it. I also love Come On Train by Don Thomas. It was one of the first tracks I ever heard and it just captivated me. Something about the way he just goes for it vocally, you can tell it was done in the first or second take. It’s real, it’s expressing yourself there and then, all out there in one fell swoop.
Below: Sal & Pops
Lewis Henderson and Will Foot are the founders of Deptford Northern Soul Club, which they describe as events for the next generation of soul lovers. The pair DJ at various clubs and festivals up and down the country, most notably Glastonbury in 2017, at which they were listed in the top 20 attractions at the festival. Inspired by their parents’ record collections and life-long love of soul music, Will and Lewis aim to bring Northern Soul back into the fold of dance music for a new generation.
Lewis: I have been listening to Northern Soul from a very early age, although at that time I only knew it as American music. My Dad used to play records constantly and Northern Soul was just one of the genres of music that me and my sister were exposed to when we were younger. I remember at Christmas rolling back the rug and sliding around on the wooden floor in my socks to Ella Fitzgerald and Edwin Starr. At the time I wasn’t sure what was going on other than that they were exciting songs that seemed to have sad lyrics but upbeat rhythms – something must have stuck as I’m still listening to this music 20 years on! When we were growing up it had taken a backseat to other musical developments and was definitely an underground ‘scene’ that seemed to be populated by a much older crowd that in some ways seemed a bit elitist and impenetrable to someone without an in. I think we only got into the ‘scene’ through setting up our own night and booking and being booked by people we met and befriended. In London, when we were starting out we met a group of young, enthusiastic, and like-minded people who were moving away from the ‘traditional’ scene that existed primarily as a nostalgic entity. We think that this is really our scene as we see them as our peers who like us are looking back at the past through the lens of the present. I remember going to Berlin when I was 19 and ending up at a night playing soul music. I didn’t speak a word of German at the time, yet by the end of the night, I felt deeply connected to everyone in that room. When I moved to London I always looked for that feeling of connection with others but was unable to connect in the same way. Sometimes I’d think back to that night in Berlin and think to myself how brilliant it was. It took going to a festival with Will and drunkenly talking about it to him after seeing a terrible set by a budding soul DJ. I think the conversation went something like “this is awful but people still love these songs, we could do it better” “ok then, let’s do it”. I think I can safely speak for both of us when I say this; “we love the music above all else”, so if you were to reduce it to something it’d have to be that, although it’d seem wrong to not contextualize that statement with reference of both my father and past youthful clubbing experience. I think a week after returning from the before mentioned festival I set up a meeting with the late Anne Bocking of Bunker club in Deptford and the rest is history! We wanted to put on our debut night and thought it’d be best to keep the costs down. So we stepped up to the decks and haven’t looked back since. For me, it has to be the ability to travel and have and make friends in cities across the UK and Europe. For example, every time we go to Belfast we have the best time, I feel almost like I’m coming home when we play over there. That’s got to be something really special. My favourite Northern Soul record is always changing but right now I’ll say it is Sebastian Williams – Get Your Point Over.
Will: I’ve been going round to Lewis’ house since I was 2. His Dad’s jukebox had loads of amazing music on but Lewis and I were always drawn to the soul music when we got a bit older. We learned a lot later it was actually Northern Soul. I think we’ve always been drawn to the music more than to any scene. Anne Bocking gave us the confidence to go for it. We were desperate for it to succeed. We never considered ourselves as DJs until maybe a year of throwing parties. We were always promoters who did a bit of DJing; I’d been DJing for years at uni and some other parties so I sort of knew how to DJ although I’d never played any Northern Soul before. Glastonbury is always special for us. We’ve been going together since we were 13. Playing to 3000 people there in 2019 was pretty special. Since we started Deptford Northern Soul Club Records we have just been able to appreciate just how much amazing soul music was recorded over the years. We are still coming across music that is new to us from the 1960’s and 70’s, it’s amazing! Some of our releases for Deptford Northern Soul Club Records have taken over two years to release from first choosing the track to release date. Releasing Garnett Mimms’ – As Long As I Have You after two years of work was a great feeling. If I had to choose my favourite Northern Soul track (currently) it would be Irene And The Scotts – I’m Stuck On My Baby.
Below: Will and Lewis of Deptford Northern Soul Club.
Many thanks to:
- Julian Howison
- Richard Searling
- Barry Firth
- Pat Shaw
- Jane Philpot
- Sally Molloy and Poppy Beresford
- Lewis Henderson and Will Foot