There’s a funny chapter in Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel Juliet, Naked, where two U.K. Northern Soul enthusiasts try to explain the music that they’re so devoted to. For the faithful, it’s simply assumed that Major Lance and Barbara Mason take precedence over Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, Dobie Gray’s “Out On The Floor” rules, and that while on the surface — to the uninitiated — Northern Soul might resemble Tamla-Motown pop-R&B, there’s a crucial difference. “Most Tamla’s too famous, see?…Not rare enough. It’s got to be rare.” Annie, who’s listened to this explanation, concludes that these Northern Soul guys are like her boyfriend, who’s obsessed with a reclusive American singer-songwriter. “There was the same need for obscurity,” she thinks, “the same suspicion that if a piece of music had reached a large number of people, it had somehow been drained of its worth.” Among certain record collectors of any stripe — connoisseurs of doo-wop or punk or be-bop or garage rock — that’s an article of faith: popularity is suspect.
Watching the movie Northern Soul — the title makes it seem like another music documentary, like Muscle Shoals or The Wrecking Crew, but it’s not — I kept holding Shazam up to the TV screen to find out what was playing. The music keeps jumping at you, vibrant, upbeat singles that drive the film along, like “Just Say You’re Wanted (And Needed)” by Gwen Owens, “Suspicion” by The Originals, “Stick By Me Baby” by The Salvadores. There is some Motown, but not the Motown most people might recognize: Edwin Starr’s “Time” on Gordy, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons’ “The Night” on Mowest, “This Love Starved Heart of Mine” by Marvin Gaye. It’s an insular world, defined by who can find a record no one else knows about, spin it at an all-nighter, and get the crowd moving. DJ’s would tape white labels over 45’s so no one else could seek out the record and play it at a competing club. That was the point, exclusivity, becoming a part of a secret society, and Elaine Constantine’s film captures the thrill of not only the music itself (you might want to jump over to Amazon right now and grab the expanded soundtrack album, 54 tracks you probably don’t already own for $8.99) but being connected to other people who share this peculiar madness.
For these working-class kids in small town England, Northern Soul gives them purpose. In most films like this, they’d want to form bands, like The Commitments, but all they want to do is dig out rare 45’s from America and play them for other people to dance to. It’s like if the boys in Saturday Night Fever wanted to be become DJ’s, or remixers. In Saturday Night Fever, which takes place only a few years after Northern Soul, no one talks about the music itself, the artists, the labels, what the songs are saying (mostly what they’re saying is “You should be dancing”). There’s a lot of dancing in this movie also, and it provides the same kind of release, but it feels more emotional, more joyful, even though the songs are almost all about pain: “If This Is Love (I’d Rather be Lonely),” “Tear Stained Face,” “I Gotta Find Me Somebody,” “Crying Over You.” The records themselves matter to these kids. You see a lot of 45’s in the film, on the correct labels, and the soundtrack album makes a point of saying these are 7” mixes. It wasn’t clear whether Tony Manero owned a record player, or even knew who The Bee Gees were. He and his friends showed zero curiosity about the music Monti Rock was playing for them.
I really can’t explain Northern Soul, the genre, with any more precision than the characters in Juliet, Naked, even though I’ve bought quite a few compilations of records that were played at clubs like Wigan Casino and The Twisted Wheel. It includes some Cameo-Parkway (again, not the obvious hits), some pop artists like Len Barry and Paul Anka (but only one or two tracks); I’ve seen some Ramsey Lewis turn up, but he could be considered Mod Jazz also, and sometimes there seems to be a slight overlap between Northern Soul and Belgian Popcorn, and R&B Beach Music from the U.S. You might also run into Lada Edmunds Jr. or Joey Heatherton on a NS CD, rubbing shoulders with Shirley Ellis (“Soul Time,” not “The Name Game”) and Reparata & The Delrons.
When you’re young, taste defines you, and this movie gets at how that all works: one kid initiates another, a tribe forms, you want to go where the music’s playing. It helps, in this case, that the music is so upbeat and, yeah, mostly so unfamiliar. It’s like you’ve been dropped into an alternate world where “Soul Time,” a record that crept into the lower half of the top 100 in early 1967, is as much of an anthem as “Dancing In The Street,” where Luther Ingram’s “Exus Trek” is a classic dance record. I’d never heard of Lou Pride before, or his 1972 song “I’m Com’un Home In The Morn’un,” or the Suemi label the 45 was released on, and now that it’s in my music library, it might not be that cool anymore, but too bad. You can’t paste a mysterious white label over everything and keep it your secret.